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.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?