Galleries miss out on blockbuster shows: Senior figures in the art world warn that Britain may no longer be able to attract internationally important exhibitions

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The Independent Online
THE National Gallery yesterday announced a series of new exhibitions as leading figures in the art world bemoaned the fact that Britain had missed out on the international blockbuster shows.

British art aficionados have had to travel to Paris to see the three biggest exhibitions of the year - Matisse, the Barnes Collection of impressionists, and the 100-work exhibition of Titian.

A number of senior figures in the art world are advocating that Britain adopt the French system of 'stacking up national credits'.

The galleries band together so that if one national museum lends pictures to another country then another national museum is able to use this to its advantage in borrowing from that country in future years.

The National Gallery has lent a number of Velasquez works abroad; but no other institution has been able to capitalise on that.

According to Karen Wright, editor of the journal Modern Painters, there are two main reasons why we are missing out on the blockbusters. We do not have the paintings to exchange in the quid pro quo arrangements that prevail in arranging exhibitions; and we do not have a single outstanding temporary space in which to show masterpiece paintings.

She says: 'We don't have a great temporary exhibition space anywhere in or near London. The new exhibition space in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery is not very prepossessing. Basement rooms are basement rooms and they look it.

'There's going to be fewer and fewer major exhibitions as sponsorship dries up. The cost of mounting shows and moving exhibitions around is going out of control. For example, when the Hayward Gallery brought over Toulouse-Lautrec from New York, it had to bring a number on separate planes for insurance reasons.'

Probably the most suitable space for visiting exhibitions is the Royal Academy, in Piccadilly; but it is hampered by having no paintings it can lend, and no public funding. It hoped to show the Barnes Collection, 80 largely unseen paintings by Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and Modigliani, which has never before left Philadelphia in the 70 years it has been there. Tokyo is paying pounds 3m for the loan and Paris pounds 2m.

The academy's exhibitions secretary, Norman Rosenthal, who was desperate to put on the show, said: 'If we had outbid Paris, London would have been the unique European venue, and we would certainly have recouped our costs.'

He had approached financial institutions, patrons of the arts like Lords Rothschild, Palumbo and Sainsbury and government ministers. 'Everyone made nice noises, but when it comes to the crunch, the British Establishment won't support the arts. So, tragically we have lost the chance to show the finest single group of works by Cezanne and Matisse in private hands.'

It is a situation that is causing concern for the national art galleries. The Tate managed to get the blockbuster Hockney exhibition a few years ago; but this was partly due to sentiment by Hockney himself.

Neil MacGregor, director of the National Gallery, commented: 'The exhibition space here is a certain size, and the size of exhibitions we put on is limited. Exhibitions also have to relate to our permanent collection. We pursue a pro-active exhibition programme and try to select our own subjects.'

Mr MacGregor announced yesterday that the National Gallery would be mounting early next year an exhibition of paintings by Claude, borrowed mainly from private and public collections in Britain.

This will be followed by Friedrich to Hodler: A Romantic Tradition, featuring 19th century paintings and drawings from the Oskar Reinhart Foundation - 80 paintings and drawings of German, Austrian and Swiss art.

(Photograph omitted)