Storm over 'visual rape' at the V&A

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It began with "visual rape". But then it got serious. The effect was like "a heavy metal band playing at top volume during a performance of Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame".

It began with "visual rape". But then it got serious. The effect was like "a heavy metal band playing at top volume during a performance of Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame".

The writer is Richard Dorment, art critic of the Daily Telegraph, describing the "scandalous" exhibition of modern furniture at the Victoria and Albert Museum by the Israeli designer Ron Arad. According to Mr Dorment, Arad's "disruption of the [permanent] collection could not have been more complete had the museum's director, Alan Borg, taken a bulldozer to it ... what the V&A has done is an abomination".

But another critic, another dollar. Take Rowan Moore of the London Evening Standard: "[Arad's] exhibition is a blast of energy from the moment you enter the museum, with the creations of his fecund mind jostling on a long silvery plinth like models on a catwalk ... it is precisely this energy that upsets the exhibition's critics, roaring as it does past the refined work of medieval metalsmiths ... [this] is something the V&A positively ought to do."

Whatever the arguments, the problems of the V&A are inescapable: lack of space for a kaleidoscopic collection that now extends back nearly 150 years; lack of funds to increase that space; lack of any fixed sense of what the museum - founded as a showcase for contemporary design - is supposed to do; and, finally, lack of a director to follow the present incumbent, Alan Borg.

Mr Borg, who made his name at the expanded and newly glamorised Imperial War Museum, has presided over the V&A during a period when it has seemed ready at times to burst out of its walls. Its celebrated British Galleries have been under restoration for the past two years and closed to the public. At the same time, plans for a massive extension - the Spiral - have had to be put on hold while the necessary funds are amassed.

But for Mr Borg, soon the war will be over. After five years in the firing line, he concludes his lonely, lack-of-space odyssey no later than the end of 2001.

The trustees, aided by headhunters, hope to announce a successor sooner rather than later, not least to keep up momentum on the Spiral project. But whoever emerges faces a daunting task.

Charles Saumarez-Smith, director of the hugely popular National Portrait Gallery, is reckoned to be the industry insiders' choice, but others include Christopher Frayling, a present trustee and rector of the Royal College of Art, and Gwyn Miles, head of the V&A's major projects department.

Among the outsiders are design guru Stephen Bayley; Paul Thompson, director of the Design Museum; and Simon Thurley, the young and thrusting director of the Museum of London.

Mr Bayley dismisses the current board of trustees as "a second-rate bunch of uneducated political placemen and women." He believes that the V&A is becoming close to unmanageable.

"The burden of administering and curating this extraordinary inheritance is more than anyone can cope with." The radical course, he says, would be to break up the collection into its component parts. The alternative would be to appoint a political director, to "schmooze the politicians and fix the roof", and a creative director to impose visionary order. "But I wouldn't expect either option to be taken up."

Paul Thompson, now at the Design Museum (which Mr Frayling thinks might usefully be linked to the V&A), says he would love to have a go at the South Ken job, but clearly fears for the heart and sanity of the chosen one.

"The idea of the museum as the national attic doesn't work in the 21st century. Everyone's going to Tate Modern because they know what they expect to see. At the V&A, the brand is not clear. It is too diffuse. It is contaminated. Visitors are confused when they see an enormous wine rack by Arad next to a medieval reliquary. They are not clear what the museum is trying to say."

Attendance has fallen alarmingly. In 1999, fewer than one million visitors were prepared to pay £5 for the privilege of viewing examples of design that have long since gone out of style and, some might say, belong in a museum.

On the positive side, the dowager of South Ken is celebrated round the world as what Bayley calls "the most marvellous collection of beautiful objects in the world, by a country mile." Not even the Metropolitan Museum in New York can compete with it in its many, disparate fields of expertise. Its examples of Pugin, William Morris and Art Nouveau are superb; its current exhibition of Art Nouveau - ending this week - has been its most successful crowd-puller for years.

When the British Galleries re-open next year, at a cost of £30m, interest will be considerable. There is already talk of an Art Deco exhibition in two years' time, and should the Spiral, as planned, be built by 2005, the sky could be the limit.

An audacious construction by Daniel Libeskind, rather like the Guggenheim in Bilbao turned on its side and then beaten senseless with a hammer, the Spiral will be the most radical piece of institutional architecture in London since the Lloyds building. As well as being a crowd-pleaser in its own right, it will add substantially to the V&A's display space and permit a logical division into historical and contemporary arts and design.

Mr Borg has made a start by raising £31m from private donors. But a further £50m is needed if the project is not to be stillborn amid rising debt. The trick - perhaps made easier by last week's budgetary explosion in 11 Downing Street - will be to convert public enthusiasm into support via the Arts Council and the National Heritage Fund.

But while plans are hatched, eggs continue to be laid. Is the Arad exhibition a turkey or a swan? Marcus Field, the Independent on Sunday's culture editor, says it is right to show the work of Ron Arad alongside the treasures of the past. "But the biggest challenge facing any incoming director is how to communicate what the museum does to the public. And that can't be done just by talking. Both the building and the collection need reorganising and an extension is not necessarily the answer."

Also entering the fray is the sculptor Antony Gormley, whose gigantic Angel of the North is among the most excoriated, and celebrated, art works to come out of Britain in recent years. He is convinced that Arad's intervention through the "heavy skirts of the V&A" is an impulse full of energy and vitality. Getting out from beneath those skirts while not appearing to cut itself off from its Victorian past may be the greatest challenge ahead.

Comments