When I visited the Rijksmuseum May last year, it looked like this.
When I visited the Accademia in Venice this April, it looked like this. Note the developing theme: refurbishment indicated by cranes, trucks, scaffolding etc.
Now refurbishment is fine in itself. After all, museums need more space so that they can show more of their collection that is subterranean, hidden in store rooms or languishing far from the public gaze. I'm sure that once the cranes and lorries have rolled away, and we have entered the new spacious Rijksmuseum, all will deem, public and curators alike, that the long wait was worth it. However, the massive downside to refurbishments is that most of the permanent collection disappears for years. This is what has happened with the Rijksmuseum; this is what will happen to Tate Britain, which from next year undergoes a wholesale makeover of £45 million. Not only that, but as its new director and overseer of the project, Penelope Curtis says, there will be fewer exhibitions over the next few years. This will be a shame since the last few years under the stewardship of Stephen Deuchar saw some excellent shows like the Turner and the Masters which I visited last autumn.
I don't really care about the re-hang- you get used to them- but putting most of the collection's holdings into storage for 3 years- or more if the project doesn't finish on schedule- seems deplorable to me. At a time when the arts are threatened, we need to be reassured they're still there by seeing them and engaging with them face to canvas. To be fair to Penelope Curtis, there will be art on show during the refurbishment, but from what I can glean on the web, it's mainly going to be more modern art and less historical art. This is the re-surfacing of a problem that has bedeviled the Tate Empire for decades: is it a gallery of modern art or a gallery of English art? Tate Modern seemed to have solved the problem, but modern English art still has a claim on Tate Britain.
Perhaps the post- refurbishment re-hang will solve this problem of integrating English modernism and the traditional stuff- but you're going to have to wait a long time to see. But you see, these days you have to wait for things; you have to endure deprivation and suffer austerity because it will be worth it in the end, when the pictures are released from their dark captivity and emerge into the sunlight like the prisoners in Beethoven's Fidelio. Well, I don't buy that wait and see argument, and anyway, as one commentator says on Jonathan Jones thread about this topic, why not tour the traditional paintings round the regions? Or as Jones says himself, give the traditional art to other galleries the like the National Gallery, the V&A and Dulwich that would welcome historic art more. The Pre-Raphaelites, 18th century history painting et al would make sense in the display culture of the NG, V&A, and Dulwich.
I wonder if Tate Britain will put one of these renovation timelines on its website? It seems to stretch and stretch and stretch into the distance. 2013 seems a long way off, but it'll be worth the wait in the end. You'll see…in three years or more.