Exhibitions: A capital idea for the regions

The new year brings `Art Treasures of England' to the Royal Academy, and Pierre Bonnard to the Tate
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The Independent Culture
Nineteen Ninety-Eight will be a good year for art exhibitions, but the most significant show will call attention to the merits - and the plight - of permanent collections in our regional museums. This is the Royal Academy's "The Art Treasures of England", which opens on 22 January. Someone at the RA is to be congratulated on the simple, excellent idea of an anthology of works taken from public collections from across the country. There will be 450 exhibits from more than 100 museums outside London. I'm sure that most of us won't know many of the items on display, and even professional art buffs will be surprised.

Here is an exhibition revealing an immense and diverse heritage. We will also be reminded that provincial museums are under-financed, unapplauded, and often poorly managed. So it looks as if the RA will begin a debate on such matters. Here are a couple of questions to begin with: people complain about Whitehall when museums are in difficulties, but what kind of commitment to culture do we find in local government? Why can't we revitalise regional museums, perhaps using methods that have been so successful in France? In recent years there has been a huge interest in the visual arts generally and, thank God, the disappearance of prejudice against modern art. Why don't we have new fine-art museums in places like Milton Keynes, Ipswich, or Brighton?

The one museum that's expanding all the time is the Tate, where we will see three significant exhibitions this year. The first - a collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art in New York - is a full account of the art of Pierre Bonnard (opening on 12 February). We know him to be a delectable painter, but did he ever have a thought in his head? An artist/intellectual, Patrick Heron, is honoured by a Tate retrospective in June. In October, the Tate will invite us to consider John Singer Sargent and his career. Sargent has a reputation for being worldly, clever in the wrong sort of way, successful because of his fashionable friendships and not a true friend of art. Just what some critics say about the new Tate! Let's hope that this show proves them wrong.

One of the events of the year will be the reopening of the Serpentine Gallery after building work. The first exhibition (in February) is devoted to the 1960s Italian conceptualist Piero Manzoni. In March Birmingham's Ikon Gallery will also reopen after its move to Oozells Street, a name that cannot be properly pronounced unless you have a Birmingham accent. Georgina Starr and Nancy Spero will be the first exhibitors. Oozells Street is quite near to the grandeur and heart-throbbing excitement of Villa Park, a fact I mention to show that I know there are other things in life besides art.

The "gap between art and life", to use Robert Rauschenberg's famous phrase, is mainly filled by photography. This year is to be the Arts Council's "Year of Photography and the Electronic Image". Expect to see a lot of serious camerawork in bus shelters, car parks and billboards. More conventional exhibitions will be devoted to Lee Miller (at the Cooper Gallery, Barnsley, October), while the Ferens Gallery in Kingston-upon- Hull will reassess Frank Meadow Sutcliffe in April and the late Helen Chadwick in November.

We are promised a stately photography exhibition in "Henri Cartier-Bresson" at the Hayward Gallery in February. In a neat piece of programming, his show doubles up with the Hayward's Francis Bacon retrospective. So the critical question of the year will be this: which of the two, Bacon or Patrick Heron, is the more complete, accomplished and humane artist? But perhaps they cannot be compared. They represented opposite ends of the art world. I can no more imagine Bacon in a St Ives garden than I can Heron in a Soho drinking club. The Hayward Gallery programme continues with solo shows by the Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor (May) and the American multimedia artist Bruce Nauman (July). Both are somewhat dated leaders of the avant garde, and I grieve that none of the big galleries are taking a risk this year with the best of new art. A problem with sponsorship has probably brought this about. At the Whitechapel Gallery, however, there's a chance to see recent work in quantity in April. The "Whitechapel Open" always brings excitement about contemporary developments. Why, though, was there no painter on this year's selection panel? Most people who send in to the Open are painters.

What an age ago it was when the Edinburgh Festival made a feature of avant-garde art. At the 1998 festival the thousands and thousands of visitors (increasingly in the younger age brackets, surveys tell us) will be offered "Roman Baroque Sculpture and Design in the Age of Bernini" at the Scottish National Gallery of Art, a sound academic subject, but not at all festive; while the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art has a less than fully- powered show by the "body artist" Mona Hatoum.

For a full list of things that are happening in museums and galleries, I recommend A Calendar of Art Exhibitions (Lund Humphries, pounds 6.99). The trouble with this useful guide is that the commercial galleries often haven't finalised their programmes, so they don't say what they are going to show. Unlike some commentators, I prefer private dealers to museum administrators. They have more belief in the things they show and are usually better connoisseurs. My hope is that next year will be good for the art trade generally. The more money it receives, the more likely that deserving artists will get some of the rewards.

I don't see any super new artists in the Lund Humphries calendar, but they will turn up. They always do. England is full of good young artists, just as it is filled with lovely treasures in crumbling Victorian museums. The RA exhibition is just a token of things we might find. I'm interested in the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford, which will present "Australian Art in English Collections" in March. Most Australian paintings came to this country in the late 1950s. It stands up well to Bacon, who was an influence. And look at the Castle Museum, Norwich, which has a special exhibition (until December): "From Munnings to Magritte: Modern Movements in British and European Art", selected entirely from the museum's own holdings, while it is also sending five other works to the "Art Treasures of England" at the Royal Academy.