An alliance of smaller museums is fighting back against what it labels the "blockbusteritis" promoted by major galleries by joining forces to promote the notion that small is beautiful.
The Wallace Collection, the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Courtauld Institute of Art in London hosted a joint announcement of their forthcoming plans yesterday in an attempt to prove that there was life beyond the attention-grabbing programmes of the Tate, the National Gallery and Royal Academy.
The institutions pointed out that in an age where visitor numbers dominate headlines, they had neither the capacity nor the facilities to cope with the crowds drawn to big-name shows.
But they claimed they were still capable of producing gems which were important for scholars and exciting for the public.
Highlights of the next year include an exhibition at Dulwich focusing on the paintings Canaletto produced during his nine-year stay in Britain, and the first ever show on the great German Renaissance master, Lucas Cranach, to be held at the Courtauld. Ian Dejardin, who runs the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which was established nearly two centuries ago as the first public art gallery in England, said he saw himself as up against "various diseases ... and one of them is blockbusteritis".
"We live in a rather curious age where the blockbuster exhibition is king. Exhibitions are happening all over the world all the time and there's a terrible competition and it's quite anguish-making," he said.
Only a few artists, such as Vermeer, Van Gogh and the Impressionists were capable of attracting huge crowds and they constituted only 1 or 2 per cent of art history, he added. "That leaves 98 per cent for us."
But he admitted that the major corporate sponsors which the gallery, as a charity entirely dependent on private fund-raising, would like to attract were not always interested in the rest of art history.
Thankfully some people are. Dulwich's current exhibition, on the work of the 16th-century German painter Adam Elsheimer, has just been named best exhibition of the year by Apollo, the international art and antiques magazine. Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times said last week that experiencing the show was "an epiphany" that trumped Holbein at Tate Britain and the slides at Tate Modern.
Rosalind Savill, director of the Wallace, which is set in a historic 18th-century house near Oxford Street, said huge numbers were more of a problem than a bonus for institutions such as hers. The effect when 52,000 people poured into the Wallace Collection in 18 days to see a special exhibition of works by Lucian Freud had been merely to distort government expectations of their normal visitor numbers.
But she added: "We show our works of art in small domestic rooms with no barriers or plinths, with chiming clocks and creaking floorboards".
Deborah Swallow, director of the Courtauld, stressed the importance of her gallery as an educational institution which was a breeding ground for many museums and gallery staff, art sales experts and arts journalists. "We're about scholarship, we're about art history, we're about conservation, and about making the fruits of that research available to the wider world," she said.
Many of its exhibitions focused on a work in its collection and put it in context, just as the Cranach show will do.
MUSEUMS FIGHTING BACK
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
One of the world's most important collections of European old master paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries, housed in the first purpose-built art gallery in England, designed by Sir John Soane in 1811. Canaletto's Westminster Bridge, with the Lord Mayor's Procession on the Thames, 1747, oil on canvas, coming to Dulwich next year.
Dove Cottage, Cumbria
The home of the Romantic poet William Wordsworth where he wrote some of his most famous poems is preserved with a collection of manuscripts and books in a neighbouring museum and research library
Bowes Museum, County Durham
Founded by John Bowes, a member of a 19th-century Durham landowning family, and his wife Josephine, its collection of European fine and decorative arts of the period 1400-1875 is unrivalled in the North of England and outstanding in Britain
Holburne Museum, Bath
Arguably Bath's most beautiful museum, it houses a rich collection of paintings, silver, sculpture, furniture and porcelain in an 18th-century house set within the park of Sydney Gardens
Watts Gallery, Surrey
Houses the studio collection of the Victorian artist GF Watts in a purpose-built picture gallery which was opened in 1904, just before his death
Sir John Soane's Museum, London
The house designed by the architect Sir John Soane at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields has been a public museum since the early 19th-century, preserving at his own instigation his collection of painting and sculpture for the benefit of "amateurs and students"
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