Exhibitions: Carving up a fortune: Henry Moore's foundation has been spending again on a new pounds 5m sculpture gallery in Leeds. But is the money being used wisely?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE HENRY MOORE Foundation is a charitable body that spends money on sculpture. Though its activities aren't much advertised, last week's opening of the new Henry Moore Institute in Leeds draws attention to the foundation's work and the large sums of money involved. Seriously large sums: the foundation is still expanding, and already it is giving away more than pounds 1m a year in grants, quite apart from the monies that are used to maintain Moore's old home at Much Hadham in Hertfordshire or to establish such new premises as this pounds 5m development in the centre of Leeds.

The foundation's origins lie in Moore's tax problems during the last years of his life. It was established in 1977, with a remit 'to advance the education of the public by the promotion of their appreciation of the fine arts and in particular the works of Henry Moore'. One recognises that this charter was drawn up by accountants and lawyers. But the business has been remarkably successful since Moore's death in 1986. The foundation has funded many exhibitions, certainly not all consisting of Moore's own work and including shows by contemporary artists he might not have immediately liked. Public galleries have been refurbished; museums have been helped with acquisitions and conservation programmes; there are bursaries for sculptors and art historians.

In such ways the foundation does nothing but good. At the same time - as perhaps with all modern trusts of this sort - there are oddities and perhaps contradictions in its ethos. Some people say that the foundation is more generous than it is inventive. Future plans are not quite clear. The original trustees were all friends of Moore himself. The director today is Sir Alan Bowness, former director of the Tate Gallery. The chairman is Lord Goodman. The most influential trustee is Joanna Drew, former director of art at the Arts Council.

Indeed the management of the Henry Moore Foundation is a direct descendant of the Arts Council before Thatcherism, both in personnel and ethos, since Goodman was the ACGB chairman and Bowness its art panel chairman in the late 1960s and 1970s. Crucial to the foundation will be the choice of Bowness's successor when he leaves his post.

Among the front runners are proteges of Drew and Bowness such as Andrew Dempsey (now at the Hayward), Catherine Lampert (director of the Whitechapel Gallery) and Richard Francis (freelance curator, formerly director of the Liverpool Tate). Competition will be stiff. Every arts administrator in the country, exhausted from carrying begging bowls from sponsor to sponsor, longs for a job with such a budget, and a salary to match.

Meanwhile, the foundation shows off its new pounds 5m sculpture gallery in Leeds. It incorporates offices and a study centre and has been converted from three Victorian wool merchants' houses in Cookridge Street, next door to the Leeds City Art Gallery. The architects are Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones, who have produced an adroit and functional building. The black marble facade is less than welcoming, but inside are exhibition galleries - designed with sculpture in mind - that are of a high standard. They will be used for temporary exhibitions, and it's hard to think of any sculpture that would not look well in such spaces.

A neat bridge links the new institute with the old City Art Gallery, where there are already sculpture galleries donated by Moore himself. At present there's a show there of his Stonehenge lithographs, numerous of his sculptures and the Eric Gill retrospective from the Barbican. The bridge seems almost symbolic. You step from the old museum to the new, or vice versa, and the pivot is always Henry Moore. This is like the man, who genuinely believed that all previous sculpture, primitive, Renaissance or whatever, was summarised in his work. Moore's feelings about the future of art are not clear. His relations with younger artists were not especially warm, though he was kindly to his apprentices. But now that so much Moore money is being lavished, one gets the feeling that all sculpture passes through his hands, eternally. Needless to say, this is an untenable position.

Hence the important dullness of the Henry Moore Institute's first exhibition, 'Romanesque - Stone Sculpture from Medieval England'. We are told one significant reason for exhibiting such works: Moore was impressed as a child by the sight of 12th-century carvings in a church near his home at Castleford. Romanesque sculpture therefore has a double aura of sanctity. Besides its own merits, it was loved by the miner's son, the boy who would become the most celebrated sculptor in all the history of England. In addition there is a good charitable reason for the show. The foundation has helped to pay for the renovation and display of such medieval sculpture, in particular the figures from St Mary's Abbey, York, that are now in the Yorkshire Museum.

At the centre of the Leeds show are closely related figures, statues that were originally on the front of York Minster. They were stored in the crypt in the Sixties but have now been rescued and restored. One must of course applaud such an enterprise. Doubtless the figures are important, and York Minster is a beautiful building. But the sad fact is that the restoration programme came too late. We are not given sculpture in which one discerns a previous aesthetic force. These are ghosts and ruins, sculptures too far gone to have a life in art.

So it is with many archaeological museums that we dutifully visit, all around the world, peering at shards of pottery, broken statuary, quarters of cornices. The present display is a degree grander, but still not substantial enough to satisfy the eye. Ben Heywood has done splendid research in putting this show together and there is a fine catalogue. Alas, the show isn't splendid at all, though probably it would have looked worse in any other gallery. Next on the Leeds programme is that over-exhibited warhorse of minimal art a quarter of a century ago, Sol Le Witt. The foundation is admirable, but it lacks vision.

Exhibition continues at the Henry Moore Institute (0532-467467) to 18 June.

(Photograph omitted)