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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Ballance

On Galleries and their Collections

I’ve had the fortunate experience over the past few weeks to experience a slew of major cities in close succession: Vancouver, Montréal, Toronto, and New York. Whenever I visit a city I tend to make a beeline for the major art gallery, and in a European context this tends to serve me well. Whether in Florence, Madrid, Paris, or Liverpool, there’s usually something ‘A-List’ on show. In North America, I’ve had something of a different experience. The Vancouver Art Gallery’s centrepiece was a fairly uninteresting exhibition by Yoko Ono, with a couple of minor Canadian artists exhibited on the upper floors; in Toronto, I was actively warned off bothering with the galleries given the impending visit to New York; nothing much appealed from what I saw advertised in Montréal. In many ways this was my first experience of visiting cities that are, from a financial or population perspective, significant, but culturally relatively impoverished.

The difference was made all the more stark by my visit to New York. Three days took in the Met, Guggenheim, and MoMA, and in the outer two I felt that I hadn’t even really appreciated the scope of what was there, let alone the body of the collection itself. (This also pointed out to me the virtue of the British system whereby the permanent collection is free to enter, and you pay only for specific exhibitions. In the American context where you buy one ticket to access everything, the amazement at what this seemingly cheap ticket has bought you quickly collapses in the face of limited time and concentration.)

I began with my good fortune, and it’s worth also acknowledging here that much of what I say won’t be news to anyone who didn’t—as I again was fortunate enough to do so—grow up in London, with easy access to the RA, National Gallery, both Tates, and a host of other galleries and collections. Traipsing around these New York galleries, however, I began to feel almost sickened by the breadth and quality of these collections. I couldn’t help but feel that so much of what was just part of the collection here would be the centrepiece of a gallery elsewhere. The Met is so overstuffed that a floor full of furniture didn’t even have space for labels by the items, but ferreted away somewhere in an index, and that doesn’t even take account of the quantity of the collections not on display. We often think of libraries as overstuffed, full of dusty untouched books, but there’s a crucial difference here which is the fungibility of books, a property not (typically) the case for visual art. These few galleries hoarding these works like Fafner, actively prevents us from seeing them elsewhere, and others benefitting from them. In fact, this didn’t just feel uncomfortable comparatively, but I found myself increasingly inured to the power of these works: when you’ve passed Starry Night, Water Lilies, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and a host of other wonders, the extraordinary starts to appear rather less special.

Of course, it’s easy to criticise, and so it did leave me wondering what a better solution would be. There are perhaps strengths to this degree of centralisation: keen art aficionados need not traverse the entire globe searching out many of the ‘great works’ they need merely to visit a handful of galleries in a few Western cities. Conversely, many of these works are frequently travelling: taking part in specific touring exhibitions or on loan (though, one notes, often only to the same circumscribed set of galleries). Presumably—and I’m speculating here—the cumulative effect of galleries’ capital, both financial and cultural, enables the top-quality preservative work these pieces deserve, but more risky acquisitions as well as audience exposure to other artists. One would hope that every Guggenheim visitor coming to see the Kandinsky is equally impressed by Jennie C. Jones’s (as I was!).

Like most things in western society today, however, we are left with an extreme degree of inequality. This extreme concentration means that access to these artworks is restricted not only by the, comparatively small, barriers to the galleries themselves (ticket price, accessibility, opening hours (on the subject of which, why do galleries still insist on closing so early on weekday evenings?!)), but by the very ability to reach these galleries at all. It’s no good being able to afford the $25 to enter MoMA if it costs $500 to come from Vancouver.

One answer would be a radical flattening of these collections: spreading the ‘A-List’ works out such that these celebrity pieces are much more fairly distributed across a variety of museums (in a variety of locations!). This might allow them pride of place, to be the highlight of a collection. An alternative would be to opt for more specialist museums, defined quite strictly by style or artist, again distributed much more evenly. That risks, of course, a set of unchanging galleries, bound to an endless succession of ‘new spins’ on the same body of work.

I don’t know what the answer is, and I had a fantastic time in these galleries. Any opportunity to spend time with Vir Heroicus Sublimis is an excellent one in my book, but there’s something uncomfortable underlying this intense concentration, and its negative effects are not to be underestimated.

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