Letter: The Tate Gallery's responsibilities

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your leading article on the Tate Gallery ('Splitting the Tate', 26 August) raises questions concerning the nature and function of a historic British collection.

Nicholas Serota's commitment to contemporary art and his pro-active policy with regard to its acquisition and display is to be applauded. However, those of us who research and teach in the area of pre-20th-century British painting have long felt extreme concern about the relative neglect of this aspect of the Tate's responsibilities. Contrary to the impression given in your leading article, the collection is substantial, varied and rich in historical interest, though the absence of a full catalogue has impeded knowledge of this fact.

Not only has the already limited space allocated to hanging pre-20th-century art been reduced, but it has become virtually impossible to see anything in store, works by artists such as Blake and Constable have been removed, and the spectacle of empty walls and closed galleries while the annual rehang takes place is depressing.

The Clore Gallery celebrates Turner in grand isolation from any historical context, and even here the pinch is felt since its study room is open only one day a week, by appointment.

The anxieties expressed in your leading article are the wrong ones. A historic national collection should contain and exhibit works regarded as of major significance in their time as well as those works that hindsight has brought to prominence. The relocation of Impressionist French painting to the Musee d'Orsay, where it is now viewed in the context of 19th- century French art, has assisted in a scholarly re-evaluation of the period.

The question of whether Bloomsbury artists should be with the historic collection or in the modern collection is easily answered. They should be represented in both.

What should be cause for anxiety is the way in which the British collection has been starved of funds and deprived of space. London (apart from the National Portrait Gallery, which does an excellent job but is limited by its remit) still has no national museum of national art. It is surely not beyond the capacities of the directors of the national galleries, as well as the keepers of small but important collections such as the Watts Gallery and Leighton House, to co-ordinate their efforts in order to establish a major location for the exhibit of national British art, so that the next time a visitor from abroad asks me where they should go to see historic British art, the first answer would be 'the Tate Gallery'.

Yours faithfully,



27 August