Mary Dejevsky: Do art galleries really need so much space?


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The arts world is agog to learn who will be chosen to design the grand new entrance and underground exhibition complex for London's venerable Victoria & Albert Museum. The shortlist, which includes many luminaries of the global architecture scene, was finalised in January, and the winner is to be announced in the coming week. After a more ambitious project – Daniel Libeskind's contentious Spiral – was aborted seven years ago, it's probably fair to say that whichever design is chosen it will err on the side of classical and discreet. My concern is different. I just wonder who really needs the extra 1,500m2 – except the space- and-status-hungry museum itself?

It may be that in retrospect the 20 years from 1995 will be regarded as a golden age for British galleries, what with the reworking of the Great Court of the British Museum and its planned extension; the new building approved for Tate Modern; a host of new galleries at the V&A; the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum across the road, and oh so very many more. All this activity must be a tribute to the National Lottery and the much-maligned charitable instincts of corporate Britain, not to mention the contributions of the British public.

Yet I return to the question. Who needs that much more space? Is it really an adornment, or is it becoming a liability? Think of the visitor!

One of our earliest marital spats saw the pair of us sitting pretty much back to back in a bright white space at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and glowering. A cartoon rendition would have had his speech bubble saying: "It's just too big and too much. I've had enough masterpieces for one day", and mine would have said: "But this may be the only time in my life that I'm here and I want to see absolutely everything."

Since then, we've been through several mini-replays of that scene, albeit with rather more give and take on either side. He contentedly agrees to sit and wait; I – with equal contentment – agree to let him. Our paths diverged most recently last autumn at the splendid National Germanic Museum in Nuremberg. Elegantly and fastidiously refurbished as only the Germans know how, the museum is a glory. But on the size question, I found myself starting to sympathise with my other half.

On my way to the rather modest suite of galleries dealing with inter-war period I got lost and passed several times through a gallery of stringed instruments occupying the space of about three football pitches. I'm not completely uninterested in stringed instruments – I'm actually saving up for a clavichord – but there did seem an enormous number of them.

For the true cognoscenti, each one doubtless justifies its space, but I can't help asking whether more rigorous editing might also be in order. At least some of the new space in London museums is for educational purposes – as though this needs (often very generous) accommodation separate from the collections. The British Museum extension is intended, as I understand, to house temporary "blockbuster" exhibitions. Other new spaces are used to expand the proportion of the museum's holdings that are on display.

Speaking for the visitor, though, there comes a time when your feet are sore, you've seen your fill of treasures, and you want to trust the specialists to display the best of the best. I'm not among those who turn up their noses at the big galleries, swearing instead by the Wallace Collection or the Frick, but even the diligent can have too much self-improvement. Quality and acreage are not the same thing.

Plane politics won't help our economy take off

I'm as appreciative of adroit political "spin" as the next person. You became a bit of an expert if you lived through the Blair/Campbell years. But the present Chancellor deserves the award of the Westminster Whip and Top (first class) for this one.

Among the morsels tossed to the Sunday papers was the news that the Air Passenger Tax would be frozen. This, we were told, was a concession to "hard-working families" or the "squeezed middle" or whatever the desired demographic is supposed to be. So what a few months before had been a lament about "family" holidays going up by a "whopping" £150 or so – which actually only applied if four people were travelling to another continent, rather contradicting the notion of a squeezed middle – became a family-friendly sigh of relief. Then yesterday, oh bliss, it was disclosed that the Chancellor would explore ways of taxing flights on private jets. As a populist blow for social justice against tax-exiles, bankers and the otherwise super-rich, it was a stroke of genius. I do wonder, though, just how much money it will bring in.

An Aussie who knows sport and politics don't mix

At the ripe old age of 34, Mark Webber has become a bit of an international pin-up. But it's less his looks that have impressed me than the streak of independent thought the Australian driver has evinced recently.

When the first political protests erupted in Bahrain, a matter of weeks before the scheduled Bahrain Grand Prix, Webber was the first in the world of racing, driver or executive, to argue that the event should be called off. While Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One CEO, said that the decision rested with the Crown Prince, Webber said this: "When you hear of people losing their lives, this is a tragedy... It's probably not the best time to go there for a sporting event. They have bigger things, bigger priorities." Indeed.

He's right about something else as well. While Ecclestone and others have proposed artificial weather to liven up proceedings on the track, Webber has ridiculed the idea of sprinklers and hoses; admitting to being "a purist", he said "absolutely not". With the postponement of the Bahrain race earlier this month, Sunday's Australian Grand Prix opens the season. Let's wish the Red Bull driver clement weather – and may all the rain in Melbourne be natural.

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