National Gallery facilities `disgrace'

THE CHAIRMAN of the National Gallery confessed he was "ashamed" of the gallery's overcrowded facilities and said the state of the public toilets was something he would rather not dwell on.

Speaking during the launch of the National Gallery's annual report yesterday, Philip Hughes, chairman and also founder of the computer technology firm Logica, said he was proud of the gallery's exhibitions, "but ashamed of its facilities."

The need to rebuild the entrance and other areas of the gallery in Trafalgar Square will be discussed at a board meeting of the gallery's trustees today. Jeremy Dixon, the architect who redeveloped the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is to be engaged as a planning consultant to help on rebuilding and improving the public facilities.

Mr Hughes said yesterday: "We are ashamed of the facilities we offer the public. We probably have the most crowded entrance area of any major museum in the world. And the facilities down below [toilets and restaurant area] I wouldn't want to dwell on."

He said that the success of the gallery's exhibitions meant it was now getting 5 million visitors a year, while the facilities were designed to cope with less than a million.

Mr Hughes reiterated the board's plea that Trafalgar Square be pedestrianised, a plan yet to win full support from the Government and Westminster Council. He told the meeting said: "The front is ghastly. You have to fight your way through the traffic. It's of staggering importance to the gallery and the nation to recapture this part of London. Domes can be built and earth centres; but still the traffic goes past the National Gallery."

The trustees are likely to approve a plan for using some of the inner courtyards of the gallery - currently used to store air-conditioning plants, cycle racks and Nissan huts - creating extra space for the public and the collection. Mr Hughes said: "The collection is a remarkably dense experience. There's no room for pausing."

But the gallery is unlikely to receive an allocation for rebuilding work through National Lottery funding as the purse strings have been tightened on major building projects, particularly in London.

The gallery's director, Neil MacGregor, said the building would now be open until 10pm on Wednesday in response to the summer throngs attracted to the current Rembrandt exhibition. Mr MacGregor said the gallery may eventually be open every night, but not in the near future.

One of the National Gallery's big exhibitions next year will involve contemporary artists re-interpreting key paintings from the collection in their own mediums. The American video artist Bill Viola will make a film inspired by Bosch's crucifixion painting, The Mocking of Christ. Balthus and Louise Bourgeois will be among the other painters and sculptors making new works for the exhibition.

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