Leading Article: Splitting the Tate

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE Tate Gallery in London (there has been a branch in Liverpool since 1988) was opened in 1897, initially as a gallery for purely British art. It was subordinate to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, which decided in 1915 that the Tate should also become responsible for modern foreign painting and sculpture. Only in 1955 was the poor cousin on Millbank granted full independence by an Act of Parliament. Now, as we reported yesterday, its director, Nicholas Serota, is considering separating its collection of British painting from the modern collection. The main Tate building might thus revert to its original function. Modern foreign art would be housed on an adjacent site, probably in an existing building. The main aim would be to create the extra space needed to show a much higher proportion of the Tate's vast but infrequently displayed holdings.

Since the British collection includes works from the 16th century onwards, it has always sat somewhat uneasily next to the works of Picasso, Matisse and American abstract painting - let alone the more bizarre creations of conceptual art. The rehanging and revamping of the Tate's rooms, and the addition of the Turner wing, have helped to narrow the gulf. But the world of Hogarth, Stubbs and Gainsborough remains far removed from that of Rothko and Pollock.

The creation of a separate museum or wing for purely British art would, in international terms, be unusual. Its quality would suffer from the richness of other museums with fine holdings of British painting, notably the National Gallery itself, the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert (strong on Constable and Samuel Palmer). It is hard to think of a comparable country that has taken such a step - though French painting up to the 19th century is now hung together at the Louvre. Yet it is equally hard to think of a great museum in Spain, Italy or the Netherlands that is not dominated by national painting or art derived from a former empire (like all that Flemish painting at the Prado).

The trickiest decision involved in separating British from modern foreign art would be where to put the modern British output: with the British or with the modern? Quite possibly the Tate has enough for it to be represented in both. Even so, it would have to make some invidious decisions about what belonged where. Stanley Spencer, for example, might be classified as an utterly English phenomenon. But what about those dreary Bloomsbury painters, so very English in the amateurishness of their sub-Frenchness? And what of the Impressionists and post-Impressionists themselves, for whom the Tate and National Gallery compete? A gallery of modern art should surely begin with Picasso, Matisse and Kandinsky, not with Manet and Monet.

One beneficial effect of a split would be to bring the strengths and weaknesses of each part into clearer focus. The Tate has always been underfunded, even in the distant era when modern art was relatively cheap. By American standards, its holdings of major non-British modern artists are still relatively modest. In a separate home, the gaps and deficiencies would be more easily spotted. That could act as a stimulus - as would a spanking new building. A better time to commission a keenly priced new home for a museum of modern art it would be hard to imagine.