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Feb 19 / Simon

What’s a show like you doing in a space like this?

Leonardo deserves better than the National Gallery’s basement, says Simon Tait
The Independent, 6/12/2011

Last week the national museums and galleries were celebrating ten years of free admission, hard fought for by some. The trustees of the National Gallery, however, had been aloof from that debate. They had never charged, and when in the 70s Edward Heath suggested they might like to be able to, they not only eschewed the idea of charging, they said they did not want the power to do so at any time in the future. Their public should never have to pay to see the pictures they already owned.

It makes a kind of ironic obscenity of tickets for the National Gallery’s record-breaking loan exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan tickets circulating on the black market for 16 times the already swollen cover price of £16. What is far worse, though, is that those lucky enough to be able to get into the “once in a lifetime show” have to see it in dingy, cramped rooms two floors below ground level, space that was never meant for exhibitions, let alone blockbusters like the Leonardo.

This exhibition has been many years in the making, and these pictures garnered from public and private collections around the world will never be seen together again. Millions ought to be able to enjoy them, and as it is 250,000 might be able to count themselves lucky to have done so by the time the exhibition ends on February 9. The logistics of handling a three hour daily queue of the hopefuls are a nightmare for gallery staff, and the constant confrontations with angry and disappointed art lovers must make them long for the day it closes.

It need not have been like this. The Sainsbury Wing, opened in 1993, was built without a proper temporary exhibition space, but provision was made later that could have put this glaring omission right. Towards the end of the 1990s a hotel behind the National Gallery came on the market and the trustees bought it as an income source and a capital asset. Five or so years later, with staff complaining that there were wonderful exhibitions touring the world that they could not have because of the lack space, the administration drew up detailed proposals for converting the hotel into a multi-storey exhibitions centre capable of doing justice to any blockbuster. Ambitious plans were developed by Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones, architects of the extended Royal Opera House and more recently of King’s Place.

But for reasons that have remained obscure, the trustees threw the plans out. There were more urgent priorities, such as the £17m East Wing development for the permanent collection, and the saving of a Raphael for the nation. It may be significant that shortly after that the director, Charles Saumarez Smith, left after reported but unspecified disagreements with the chairman of the trustees, and is now chief executive of the un-subsidised Royal Academy. He has never publicly commented.

The truth is that the needs and wants of the transitory exhibition-going public as opposed to the more reliable gallery-familiar art lovers have never been a major concern for the subsidised national art institutions. The British Museum built its £100m Millennium Court without a temporary exhibition space, and has had to make the best of the Round Reading Room, unneeded since the departure of the British Library. The Tate Gallery at Millbank only addressed the question with the latest extension that opened in 2001. The V&A, despite its £150m ten year development programme, will not have a proper gallery for passing shows until its new courtyard development is completed in 2015.

Meanwhile the Royal Academy, the only major visual art venue in London that isn’t subsidised and has no permanent collection to speak of, was more in touch with their audience for whom stunning shows and up-to-date display facilities were the first priority, before restaurants and interesting staircases, and went for it with blockbusters of their own like the current Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement (admission £14), the success of the autumn season until Leonardo.

The truth is that the National Gallery and other subsidised national museums and galleries, as they rejoice in their free admission to the permanent collections, have never understood the science of popular temporary exhibitions. They are still in an age when theatres were designed without ladies’ toilets and passing shows were the business of the commercial market.