Mary Dejevsky's Notebook: Neglect, tacky fads, and how Tate Britain has lost its way

What my local gallery has got wrong; and the real problem for News Corp's lobbyist

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The venerable Burlington Magazine has caused quite a flutter in the great artistic dovecote by suggesting that Tate Britain has lost its way. That the editorial appeared on the day this year's Turner Prize shortlist was announced, along with the detail that the show would be back at Tate Britain, after last year's excursion to Gateshead, added a certain extra piquancy to that view.

I love having Tate Britain, which I still can't help retrogressively calling the Tate, as my local gallery, the sunken main entrance being only a five-minute walk from my front door. But, while I'm totally unqualified to pronounce on the merits of The Burlington Magazine's artistic critique – which challenged its hanging policy, the near-exclusion of Constable, a bias to the modern, an exodus of curators – as a member of the viewing public, I found myself agreeing with every word, and jadedly adding some of my own.

Tate Britain is a glorious building beside the Thames. But it's hard not to regard the opening of the Clore wing to house the Turner collection 25 years ago as marking its heyday in recent times. It may only be my imagination, but Tate Britain today has the air of being a bit neglected, a bit unloved, of having lost some of its very established order and purpose. The solidity it once shared with, say, the National Gallery, seems to be slipping away, leaving a tacky faddishness behind.

The central charge made by The Burlington Magazine is more elevated: that Tate Britain is failing in its duty as guardian of the British school. But it skirts all too delicately around the reason why. "Most of the problems," it says, "stem from Tate Britain's invention in 2000 and the reorganisation that preceded it." What it does not say is that the "invention" was necessitated by the opening in the same year of Tate Modern. And Tate Modern's spectacular success (in drawing the crowds) has drained some of the lifeblood from the original Tate.

Of course, Tate Britain looks for crowd-pleasers; of course, it's developed a bias towards the modern; of course, it veers away from traditionalism, because it is Tate Modern – a glitzy project 20 years in gestation – that sets the standard for what is now less of an art gallery than a "brand". The decision to plant outposts around the country – Tate St Ives, and now Tate Liverpool – was conceived as part of the same process and cannot but dilute the heritage further. If, as The Burlington Magazine claims, Tate Britain has begun to treat the gallery's collection "as its own private plaything", that's because the ties that bind it have been weakened, and it's feeling like a poor relation. Maybe it's time to declare independence?

Fréd Michel's real problem?

You know where you are with Fred, don't you? A good, solid, English name. Even when it belongs to "Fred the Shred", you know what you're getting. But Fréd? As in Fréd Michel, News Corp's PR man, who exchanged all those emails with the Culture Secretary's special adviser?

Well, that acute accent – punctiliously included almost everywhere – said it all about the propensity of foreign names to raise doubts. There's an exotic and memorable element to a foreign first name – would Alain de Botton enjoy such success as plain Alan?

A former UK ambassador to the US was the ostensibly straightforward Sir John Kerr. His second name, Olav, cast him in a slightly different light. And then there's Boris. Enough said.