National Gallery Vision 2100

For today’s audiences, 20th-century art is old and 19th-century art – ancient. Can galleries overcome this challenge? questioned Michael Archer in ‘How modern art became history’, an article published in The Guardian on March 28.

He applauds the policy of Nicholas Penny, the newly appointed director of the National Gallery in London, UK, to move towards ‘less attention to blockbuster temporary exhibitions and more emphasis on presenting the collection sympathetically’.

Blockbusters are perhaps not where it’s at. However, temporary exhibits can be used to relate and say something about the permanent collection in very meaningful ways. Temporary exhibits get the best-looking collateral and tv commercials. When related, the benefits of temporary exhibits can have a spillover to the permanent collection. So, by and large, I’d agree with Penny with his choice.

It is the responsibility of a gallery director to protect the value of the collection. In addition, his role is to leverage its intrinsic artistic value and show it to the gallery audience, through various modern forms of communication and showcasing. I love for example how the National Gallery showcases and teaches about Degas’ famous painting ‘Miss La La’ in its interactive online ‘Painting of the Month’.

Penny’s plan is to concentrate on pre-20th century work. This does sound rather ‘boring’ to me. I have my favorites from all times. And, yesterday is as much part of history as a day two centuries ago. I am not clear on the true motivation for this. ‘Concentrate’ seems an ill-chosen word as most of history happened pre-20th century. I feel that museums should not only look at the artwork they already have on hand, to make the strategic decision on what to feature in the upcoming decades. Surely, there has to be a vision regarding showcasing the voice of art, as it has emerged and as is emerging.


In a prior interview, Penny stated “I think that a major gallery should be prepared to introduce people to something they know nothing about.” I wholeheartedly disagree. I think the purpose of an art gallery should be to show people something that helps them contemplate their own reality. Usually, that involves bringing them something they are already familiar with and presenting it in an entirely new way, and/or in more detail.

The good news is that Penny has a lot more experience in running a world-league art museum than I’ll ever have, so I have good faith. Time will tell if we need to bring in a whole new breed of curators and museum directors… Because, after all, we’re moving towards 2100.

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