Visual Arts: Last of the great showstoppers?

Moments That Made The Year: It was a good year for Degas, but a bad show all round when the V&A started charging admission. By Andrew Graham-Dixon
This past year will largely be remembered for a number of remarkable exhibitions, especially, perhaps, Richard Kendall's brilliant "Late Degas" at the National Gallery, and (at the same institution) Christopher Brown's exhilarating show "Rubens's Landscapes". The Sainsbury Wing's basement galleries can sometimes seem depressingly sepulchral, but on these two occasions they seemed intimate instead - appropriate for works like Degas's late pastels or Rubens's landscapes, which are fascinating partly because they are works evidently charged with so much personal meaning for the artists who created them. The exhibitions were, of course, totally different from one another, but nevertheless the sense of having stumbled into some private chamber of a great artist's imagination was overpoweringly strong in each case.

This type of relatively small but highly focused exhibition has prospered in recent years, especially at the National Gallery - although the credit for establishing it in this country as a credible alternative to the blockbuster should perhaps go to the Tate Gallery's director, Nicholas Serota, who put on a number of smaller shows (eg "Max Beckmann's Triptychs", "Late Leger" and others) during his time at the Whitechapel Gallery in the 1980s.

Leaving aside the Tate's own enormous and inevitably popular Cezanne exhibition, it has not been a great year for the huge crowd-pulling exhibition. "Picasso and Portraiture", at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Grand Palais in Paris, was symptomatic - this was a somewhat disappointing and opportunistic event, a nakedly biographical exhibition that turned out to be considerably less revealing than the second volume in John Richardson's ongoing biography of the artist, which was clearly the inspiration for it.

The late 20th century's fascination with Picasso seems to be short-circuiting on a circular argument: his art is fascinating because it reveals him to have been a fascinating man; because he was a fascinating man, his art is fascinating. There is something fatally wrong with both these propositions. Besides, in the wake of such recent large and well-attended exhibitions as "Late Picasso", "Picasso and Things", "Picasso: Painter/Sculptor" and "Picasso and the Mediterranean", it is perhaps time for curators to stop treating his work, like that of the Impressionists, as an inexhaustible natural resource - and an easy way for them to meet their attendance quotas.

Perhaps the most ill-omened event of the year occurred on 1 October, when the Victoria & Albert Museum finally gave up politely inviting visitors to make a contribution and instead introduced a compulsory pounds 5 admission charge. Dr Alan Borg, the director of the museum, was cast in certain quarters as the villain of the piece, but in reality he had little choice in the matter. His government grant of pounds 30m, to meet annual costs of pounds 38m, has been cut by pounds 1m this year, with a further cut of pounds 1m earmarked for 1997-8. There is little prospect, it is said, of a Labour government raising the grant.

A few weeks after the V&A had introduced charges, the future of free museums in Britain was further called into question by the publication of a report commissioned by the Trustees of the British Museum. Its author, a retired deputy secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Edwards, recommended that the British Museum also bring in compulsory charges to help combat its crippling deficit. His other recommendations were that the museum should market itself more aggressively (ie make its displays less scholarly and more "popular") and that it should shed staff.

The museums in question will probably survive the introduction of charges more or less intact. There are grounds, too, to believe Dr Borg when he says that charging does not deprive the poor of the experience of museums: those who have done research in this area tell us that hardly any poor people go to museums, free or not, anyway. But that is no reason not to fight those who would seek to erode the principle of free admission. The founding fathers of the British Museum, full of grand Augustan self-confidence, declared that its primary function was to serve as a collection of national treasures "for the use and benefit of the public, who may have free access to view and peruse the same"; likewise, the eminent Victorians who founded the V&A were adamant that it should be a free national resource. The gap that separates us from them is, it seems, a large one. There is a long and commendable tradition in Britain of ensuring free public access to literature, art, and other materials of self-education and self-enlightenment - the public library system and the BBC are equally embattled manifestations of the philanthropic social principles that underlie that tradition. But our thin-lipped, mean-spirited politicians and civil servants would seem to regard philanthropy as a dirty word and social principles as tokens to be traded for votes. The introduction of charges at the V&A might not seem momentous to everyone. But it is yet another symbol of Britain's transition from a relatively generous and large-spirited society to a mean and small-minded one. The notion that all institutions should be run as if they were businesses is the madness of our time.