25 Jul, 2009

Does England really need another museum?

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Plans are being drawn up for a major new gallery in Birmingham, but there are already several fine collections which could be developed around the West Midlands

Regardless of the art market’s current woes, contemporary art has never seemed more popular with the public. More than 60,000 people make their way to London’s Frieze art fair each October, while 750,000 visitors attend the Serpentine Gallery’s exhibitions, summer pavilion and Park Nights programme each year. At the top of the contemporary art charts is Tate Modern, which has an extraordinary 4.6 million visitors per year – more than double the number it was designed to accommodate.

Given all this, it’s perhaps not surprising that many areas in England want a piece of the action. Earlier this month, the first public event was held to discuss the idea of creating a major museum for contemporary art in Birmingham. The proposal is being led by Jonathan Watkins, director of Ikon, one of the most internationally respected galleries of contemporary art in England and the leading venue of its kind in Birmingham and the West Midlands.

You might wonder if Britain needs yet another new arts venue. Public access to exhibitions of contemporary art is better today than it has ever been, not least owing to the innumerable institutions that have sprung up since Lottery funding began in the mid-1990s. There’s Baltic in Gateshead, the New Art Gallery in Walsall, MKG in Milton Keynes and the forthcoming Nottingham Contemporary, which is due to open in November. Many of them are first-rate, putting on top-quality exhibitions and offering facilities that have won over their local audiences, driving economic regeneration.

Their success masks a problem, however. Although many cities and towns are showing strong exhibitions, most of them don’t actually own much of the art they show; public collections of contemporary art around England simply aren’t as good as they should be. Arts Council England acknowledged this in a 2006 report, bluntly asserting that “regional collections in England do not represent the visual art of our time”.

With its plans for a new museum, Birmingham is the first city that seems to be seriously addressing this problem. From the public discussion earlier this month, it was clear that Watkins is thinking big: he wants vast spaces capable of presenting large-scale sculptures and installations, with an acquisitions policy aiming to collect the most celebrated artists currently working around the world. It’s an ambitious plan. There’s no doubt that the West Midlands’ collections of contemporary art need to be much bigger and better, but do they need to be this much bigger and better? And do they need their own bespoke museum?

I wonder. Many existing venues around the West Midlands already have collections of contemporary art, and much can be said for developing smaller, specialist collections as opposed to creating a major new museum. The Royal Pump Rooms in Leamington Spa collects contemporary art with a medical theme, Wolverhampton Art Gallery has one of the best collections of pop art outside London, the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent has contemporary works by internationally acclaimed artists related to the applied arts, while Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum focuses its contemporary collections on the theme of landscape. All of these, and others, could be developed considerably with sufficient investment and expertise – and, you suspect, for a fraction of the cost.

The cost of a new museum of contemporary art in Birmingham was not addressed during the meeting, but is likely to be a big issue. After all, even plans for Tate Modern’s extension are currently under threat from the government’s decision to review its commitment of £50m. Having said that, it is undoubtedly easier for Birmingham and the West Midlands to raise funds for a new museum than to develop high-quality collections within existing museums in the region, even with the support of initiatives such as the Contemporary Art Society’s Special Collection scheme or the Art Fund International scheme, both of which have recently benefited collections in the region. When civic and local authority museums do have a dynamic contemporary art programme, it’s just one of many areas competing for funding. They alone are unlikely to be able to scrape together the cash.

Watkins’s ambitious plans aren’t just to do with local politics. Tate Modern is arguably the only major public museum of modern and contemporary art in England, but its remit extends all the way back to 1900. If Watkins can succeed in creating a real home for 21st-century art, one that leaves the 20th century behind, it could be a first for Birmingham and a major accomplishment for the entire country.

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