The Heckler

The Heckler: Tate Britain is a mess. Its director Penelope Curtis must go

There’s a serious scholarship deficiency now at the gallery, as the abysmal current Sculpture Victorious exhibitions shows, and the blame for this lies with Curtis - and Nicholas Serota

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

Things have not been happy at Tate Britain for some time. Last year Waldemar Januszczak wrote an article culminating with this cri de coeur: ‘Curtis has to go. She really does.’ The meat of the argument against Tate Britain’s director was that she had presided over a run of misconceived exhibitions disliked as much by critics and scholars as by the public. In her defence, these were not the blockbuster shows but the low-cost fillers that UK museums must put on when the coffers are low. As such they tend to be long on ideas and short on jaw-dropping loans. It is not much of a defence. The massive unseen collections of the Tate present plenty of opportunity to mount extraordinary exhibitions.

Now, however, she has presided over a stinker of a blockbuster. Sculpture Victorious has been panned across the board.  The Guardian’s good art critic, Adrian Searle, labelled it ‘an epic fail’ and Richard Dorment, who is not only the Telegraph’s chief art critic but also an eminent scholar of Victorian sculpture, wrote the worst review I have ever read. He takes issue with the conception — ‘an extended academic lecture …deadly dull from start to finish’; the curation — ‘these dolts don’t realise …that exhibitions … are above all visual experiences’; and the scholarship — ‘hot-air generalisations that veer between the banal …and the meaningless’.


This is unacceptable where Tate Britain is playing on home ground. Worse, Penelope Curtis is a sculpture expert, previously leading the Henry Moore Institute. She has just finished giving the Paul Mellon lectures on ‘Sculpture on the Threshold’. I made it to the second of her five lectures, in which she took an hour to express the relatively simple idea that tomb sculpture had an influence on 20th-century sculptors. Ideas were superseded by showing slides juxtaposing images and waiting for some point to make itself.

This seems of a piece both with Sculpture Victorious, of which she is not the named curator but which she must have supervised very closely, and with her expressed aims as she told the Art Newspaper on taking the job in 2010, ‘I wanted to show the collection more aesthetically, sometimes with less information and allowing the art to speak for itself.’

Penelope Curtis has, then, done what she promised. If her reign has proved a disaster then questions should be asked about who appointed her. The culprit is Sir Nicholas Serota. Everyone in Britain is deeply in Serota’s debt for the creation of Tates Modern, Liverpool and St Ives. But he is a cultural warrior. His heart is with Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Cy Twombly at Tate Modern. In his exceptionally long career British greats such as Lord Leighton, Jacob Epstein or Peter Lanyon have been ignored at Tate Britain.

After Serota appointed Curtis, he manoeuvred senior curators out of Tate Britain, scholars with the greatest understanding of Turner and Constable. Out with scholarship and in with cultural criticism seems to have been the plan of action. Well, it has not worked. Curtis must certainly go now. What is more, Serota and his internationally focused trustees should not control the position. A new, nationally focused committee is needed. It should answer to the Prime Minister and include a representative from the National Gallery, whose collections and ambitions jog alongside those of the Tate. Let me be the first to suggest that Alex Kidson, formerly of the Walker Gallery, Liverpool, would be an outstanding director who could sort out the current scholarship problem.

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  • RUPERTCHRISTIANSEN

    Rubbish! Tate B has never looked better than it has under Curtis’ leadership – whatever one makes of individual exhibits (I haven;t yet seen this sculptural one)

    • jack

      You like the permanent hang then. Well the 20th century is a mess. Maybe 50 pieces by Henry Moore and, for example, not a single painting by Keith Vaughan. And the later 20th century is profoundly depressing reflecting weaknesses in the collection but also, bizarrely, avoiding the best UK painter, in my opinion, Cecily Brown despite a major work being in store.

  • Mark Bostridge

    I don’t know about Tate Britain but Januszczak is a fine one to talk. Did anyone see his EXECRABLE programme about Holbein earlier this year on BBC2. It symbolised everything that’s wrong with BBCTV’s arts coverage- dreadful jaunty camerawork, an in-your-face-presenter and so many factual mistakes that they should make any self-respecting Director General blush (e.g. Anne of Cleves was ‘a French’ princess!)

  • edithgrove

    Tate Britain has become one of the best museums in Europe under the directorship of Penelope Curtis. It is serious and intelligent and does not pander to the art worlds top ten nor aim for flashy entertainment. It has all the qualities we lost sight of since the eighties. Waldemar Januszczak is best judged by his television programmes, they were appalling. And this may tell readers all they need to know about young Jack Wakefield:

    “Sir Humphry and the Hon. Lady Wakefield have two sons and a daughter who are frequent visitors along with their many friends. The eldest son Maximilian, an entrepreneur and racing driver, served as a Captain in the Hussars during the first Gulf War. Daughter Mary, a musician and painter, is also Assistant Editor of The Spectator, and younger son Jack is an art critic and dealer.”

    • jack

      You’re more than welcome to engage with the substance and I’ll try and respond.

      • edithgrove

        Well Jack I doubt Curtis got her job at Tate Britain because her sister was a Tate Trustee, she had a long and respected career at the Henry Moore Institute before that. The galleries have never looked so good. They include artists we know little of, at the moment there’s Marlow Moss, as well as Epstein, G&G, Hockney and Howard Hodgkin. Moore looks as great as Picasso (and is). It is a display that doesn’t follow the orthodoxy of recent art history nor the patronage of major galleries sponsoring their artists, as Paris museums are doing. I wonder if that, as an art dealer, is what irks you most. For all this Curtis deserves a medal, rather than snide attacks from lightweights.

  • A Pansy Resting On Its Laurels

    Is this some sort of comment on Britain at the moment? Britain is a mess

  • Alex Pilcher

    Jack, I’m curious to know if you’ve actually visited the Sculpture Victorious exhibition at Tate Britain. In the article above, you seem happy to write it off on the basis of reviews by two critics.

    • jack

      Sorry, I didn’t see your message. I have seen the show but this isn’t a review.

  • Tanya Harrod

    This is pure uninformed bile – a puppy tugging at Januszcak and Dorment’s coat-tails, emulating two embittered male critics of a certain age. The Tate has never looked better while Sculpture Victorious is original and stimulating. With vicious & personalised attacks all three men have lowered the standards of art criticism.

  • Ipsmick

    It was pretty dumb to lose expert and globally-respected Turner and Constable curators, and it is now difficult to know what Tate Britain is actually for. The root of the problem is Serota, and until he is compulsorily retired, that will not change. And anyone who takes either Janusczcak or Dorment seriously is a buffoon.

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