University of Leicester eBulletin

Tate Britain and the Universities

February 2003
No 59

Two experts from the University of Leicester’s History of Art Department have been invited to a seminar at Tate Britain on Friday, 28th February, 2003. Dr Phillip Lindley, Head of Department, and Dr Matthew Craske, a lecturer on eighteenth-century art, are helping Tate Britain staff and invited academics and curators in a discussion of the changing nature of exhibitions held at Tate Britain, several of which have been very controversial.

Dr Lindley, who jointly curated an exhibition called Image and Idol at Tate Britain last year, with the famous contemporary sculptor Richard Deacon, said: ‘Tate Britain has launched major new exhibitions in the last few years, all of which have been extremely popular but have also provoked sometimes violent debate. Right-wing critics hate any mention of the social and historical context of works of art, and dislike any changes in the way exhibitions are organised. There is a huge struggle going on at the moment, as national museums and galleries try to square the circle of bringing new visitors into exhibitions of historical art at the same time as satisfying the demands of elderly right-wing critics not to change anything.’

Dr Matthew Craske said: ‘It is actually an indication of the success of Tate Britain’s exhibition policy that recent events have been the subject of wide controversy. For some years now, the Gallery has made a point of consulting leading academics in the field of British art history not just on the design of individual exhibitions but upon matters of general policy. On the foundation of the new ‘Tate Britain’ concept I was brought onto an advisory panel upon the organization of the permanent collections. At this juncture, we were much concerned with the issue of how the Gallery would reflect current debates on national identity as well as act as a showcase for the splendour of the national tradition. The subject of whether to exhibit works in chronologically ordered period groups was raised. The Gallery opted, controversially, to order works in terms of subject, mixing modern, contemporary and traditional images.’

Even, or perhaps especially, in exhibitions upon artists who have a central place in the story of British art, such as Gainsborough, public argument is readily provoked. The Gallery is obliged to present such artists in a new and stimulating light, one that is often at odds with conservative opinion. Not only the reputation of the artist, but also that of the nation’s past, is often seen to be at stake. Sometimes issues that have been widely known and discussed for decades, such as the involvement of certain noted patrons in the slave trade, invite a sense of shock and disbelief. It is the function of the advisory bodies to anticipate, comment and reflect upon such debates. At stake is more than the presentation of art, it is the manner in which our national culture views the relationship between its past, present and future.

NOTE TO NEWSDESK: For further information contact Carol Charles on 0116 252 2866.

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