WHY WASTE MONEY ON ART GALLERIES?
AN ADDRESS BY MR. W. G. CONSTABLE
Chairman: The President, J. P. Pratt, Esq., K.C.
Thursday, November 3, 1938.
THE PRESIDENT: Sir Robert Falconer, Sir Wyly Grier, and Gentlemen of The Empire Club: We are indeed fortunate in having as our guest-speaker today a gentleman who is recognized as a world expert in several parts of his chosen field of art. Mr. Constable was born in England and was educated at Cambridge. He became a Barrister, but gave that up to join the troops in 1914. Following the war he went into the field of art, and became lecturer in Fine Arts, first at his Alma Mater, Cambridge, and later at the Universities of Hull and Bristol. He has held many high offices in the galleries of England, and in 1933, at the invitation of the National Gallery of Canada, he made a tour of the various galleries of our Dominion from coast to coast. He remained in England until this spring, when at the invitation of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston he accepted the position of Curator of Paintings. It is my privilege and pleasure to introduce Mr. W. G. Constable, Curator of Pantings, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.
MR. W. G. CONSTABLE: Mr. Chairman, Gentlemen. Has it ever occurred to you to speculate on what would happen to the majority of the buildings in Whitehall, London, in an ideal state of society, an ideal that any one of us might cherish? The War Office and the Admiralty would cease to function. They might survive as ministries of pageantry, but their present functions would all disappear. The Treasury would be one of the first ofces to go. In fact, the whole paraphernalia, the whole mechanism of government would be laid flat, with two exceptions. You would preserve and cherish the National Gallery at one end of Whitehall; and at the other you would preserve and cherish Westminster Abbey.
That illustrates my main thesis today, that Art is not a mere decoration of life, is not a mere adjunct to more serious affairs, but a fundamental and indispensable element in life. Of course, it is often said: What about problems such as food, clothing, shelter? Those, after all, are more indispensable. Certainly they are more indispensable for the continuance of life, for mere existence; but after all they are the means of life and what I am suggesting to you is that in art we have one of the ends of life, one of the purposes of life, and one of the most important ends and purposes. If this be admitted, the question arises, what can Art bring into the life of the ordinary man? The answer is tolerably easy to give.
The spirit, the essence of Art lies in order, proportion and harmony, in an exact adjustment of means to ends. That is the prime function of what Art can do for us today. But over and above that is the function of giving inspiration, not merely to the chosen few, but to the great majority of people.
I put this general thesis forward in order to come now to a particular application; and to suggest to you that for Art to play its part in the life of an ordered and civilized society, one of the most important agencies is art galleries.
Now, the old conception of art galleries was that they were a kind of store-house into which anything that wasn't good enough to keep in a house might very conveniently go, and into which you could unload for example a portrait too bad even to sell or give away. That, of course, merely brings art galleries, to say nothing of Art, into contempt. But today a new conception is gaining and has gained ground, that the art gallery is the collection of the community. It is the community's way of bringing together for its delectation and inspiration fine things so that those who run may read and enjoy.
Given this point of view the question at once comes up, how can the modern art gallery fulfill its function? Broadly speaking, an art gallery concerns three sets of people. It has a duty (and a great duty) toward the creative artist; it has to look after the public as a whole; and finally it has to have an eye to the scholar and the student.
Now, the importance of the care for the creative artist is if you want Art in life you can't have it unless you have artists; so the art gallery must take its share in looking after the man who makes fine things. This it can do in several ways. In the first place it can provide him, or should provide him with standards of achievement. It can set before him not dead things that have come down from the past, but living examples of his art and craft. It is important to realize that the best way in which this can be done is not for an art student or an artist to go into an art gallery and make a copy of some particular work there. Rather the gallery should give him a fundamental knowledge of what constitutes good Art. It is curious to note that the great French architect, Corbusier, learned the principles of the methods of modern architecture, not by studying modern buildings at all, but by a six months series of careful investigation of the principles on which the Parthenon had been built. That is an intelligent way to use the art of the past.
Then, again, the art gallery can and should provide a market for the wares of living, creative artists and by so doing help to encourage other people to take an interest in it and buy what he has to sell. In fact, the art gallery is one of the channels for civic patronage of the Arts. This is becoming increasingly important because owing to circumstances, the broad development of economic forces, the race of great private patrons is to a certain extent disappearing, and more and more the responsibility is thrown upon the community as a whole to provide fine things it needs.
What I have said about the creative artist applies not merely to the man who makes individual works of art with his own hands; it applies just as much to the product of the manufacturer and the artist working in collaboration. We have got to admit that machine and large scale production have come to stay. The ordinary man has to use the thing which is produced on a large scale. It is one of the major problems of the day to provide for the artist to work in collaboration with the man who controls actual production. But whenever industrial products, as many of them do today, deserve to be ranked as works of art, then I hold it is part of the duty of an art gallery to recognize that fact and to provide both a market and a show-ground for those things.
So much then for what the art gallery can do for artists engaged in making things. Now, we come to the general public. Here, perhaps the most vital thing the art gallery does is to make the man in the street feel that Art has got some importance. To use the words of a great British journalist, Mr. James Bone, a gallery can help to make the general public "art conscious," and then having, as it were, created a wish and a desire, set out to satisfy it. I often think we underrate the importance of this function of the gallery. For me, one of the most cheering things that has happened recently in London has been the extent to which at lunch time and after work large numbers of young people drop inthat is the only word you can use-to the National Gallery, and for a quarter of an hour or half an hour enjoy themselves; and if a gallery can provide in the otherwise somewhat drab life of the young people, that particular type of young people in England, a moment of inspiration and enjoyment, then surely it is making a tremendous and valuable contribution to life.
Another thing an art gallery can do is to provide for the ordinary man and woman standards as to what is good and bad in itself. You set before them examples which will help to shape their taste and through the shaping of that taste influence the artist and the manufacturer to provide articles of good design. This doesn't mean, of course, that the things he buys need be expensive. What I have in mind is this, that if a man or woman has formed, as it were, good standards of taste, then when they go to the five and ten cent store, they naturally inevitably go for the glass of good shape, the lamp shade of reasonable taste and design, rather than for the bad; and so you introduce almost automatically into their daily lives an element of pleasure and an element of beauty.
Now, lastly, what can the art gallery do for the student and scholar? Now, it is often forgotten that for the introduction of the vitalizing element of art into life much more than a general acquaintance with the Arts is necessary. You must have behind everything, the man who is deeply versed and well informed. The gallery can or ought to be a kind of laboratory, and a means of providing a corpus of material, a corpus of knowledge on which he can base his standards.
Thus, the gallery has got, somehow or other, to look in three directions and bring three main lines of action into harmony. The question is how can it best do it?
That problem has got two main aspects. First of all is the question, what kind of things is the gallery going to buy or acquire? The second is, how is it going to exhibit them in the most effective way?
Take first the question of acquisition. Of course, the ideal gallery, the gallery of our dreams, should include fine examples of every art and craft that the world has ever produced. That, of course, is out of the question. Not only are gallery funds limited, but the things in many cases do not exist. 'They are already sealed up and are inaccessible. So automatically, the range of any gallery is limited. Assuming this, the first principle a gallery must work upon is that whatever it gets should be good of its kind. It is easy to say that but much more difficult to put it into practice. It isn't the same thing as saying it should always buy expensive things. It is saying it should buy good things. For example, I would very much rather see in a living-room a really well-shaped piece of betel-ware bought from the "five and ten," than an inferior piece of glass dignified by the name of Waterford. This obligation to acquire good things means, for example, that galleries should not set out on the dangerous path of what is known as "gap filling" and because it doesn't happen to have an example of something or other it should accept an inferior thing to put in that gap. Once a gallery starts "gap filling" with inferior things, inevitably it tends to become a junk shop.
Because the gallery has to look for good, though not necessarily expensive things, it must look gift horses in the mouth to the utmost. It is a great temptation to accept the unworthy object because you think the giver thereof may have something better up his sleeve in the future. But when that problem arises, as it continually arises in my own museum, the only thing is to harden one's heart and turn for confirmation to the policy of the British National Gallery of never pandering to that kind of consideration. Say, Is the thing good enough or isn't it? and you refuse it or accept it solely on that decision. Though you may offend an individual here and there you begin to find that when people know your standard is high, they begin to tumble over themselves to give you fine things because it becomes an honour to have a piece of work given by them to the gallery. That is sound and true psychology:
Proceeding on the principle that a gallery should go for what is good, a gallery must cut its coat according to its cloth. It is a delusion, if you have only limited funds, to try and buy high sounding titles. That is the way of death. It is of no real use to a gallery to buy a damaged or decayed picture, because it was once a Rembrandt. It may have been so, but it is no service to anyone merely to be able to put on the frame a magic name. It would be far better to get a first rate example of a second rate master than something that is virtually nothing but a name.
This particular point raises another very important matter. That is how far ought a gallery to make use of reproductions? Now, I am one of the people--I am possibly a heretic who considers that everybody has to face the local situation and the local situation may be such that the use of reproductions is important or indeed essential.
It isn't always possible to have all you want for the purposes which you set out to serve and consequently it may be invaluable to have good reproductions which are frankly .put forward as reproductions, as substitutes for the real thing, but which studied by the side of the real things may serve an extremely useful purpose.
To turn to another working principle of the live art gallery. What it acquires should, I think, always take into account local conditions. I have emphasized that in the case of reproductions, and I emphasize it still more in the general policy of acquisition. A gallery must consider conditions, the kind of community you have to serve. But it isn't enough to say, "O, well, we won't have that because the people in the city aren't likely to be interested in it." It is your business to make them interested in coming to see fine things, at the same time such considerations as the encouragement of local artists; the building of a collection which shows, for good or ill, what the artists of a district have done in the past; the emphasis in some particular branch of the collection of a close relation to local industry. All these things should play their part. That is not to say the gallery should play down in any way to local sentiment. Rather in the high standards it sets, with the high principles which inspire its practice it should combine consideration for the interests, for the predispositions of the citizens to whom the gallery belongs.
Limitation of range on these lines has proved very successful in Great Britain. For example specialization on a particular type of art has been very successful in the City of Leicester. The gallery had very limited funds to develop representation of the British school of painting as a whole. Therefore, they decided to build up a collection of water colours and drawings only of the British school, which is now one of the best collections of its kind in Great Britain. That was an example of seeking for the best but of limiting range in accordance with the amount of your resources, while definitely stimulating a local interest.
Turn now to another set of problems which the art gallery has to face. I have already mentioned the question of the acceptance of gifts. Now comes the question of purchase. The Director and his Committee, I think, have in most places an extraordinarily difficult load to carry in the providing of adequate funds. Galleries adequately endowed are rare; and a major problem is how to interest benefactors. Sir Sidney Cockerall, of the Fitzwilliam Museum, is a master in this respect. He would somehow or other secure funds to build a gallery, and then, pointing to a gallery with nothing to put in it, would conjure out of somebody's pocket the wherewithal to fill the gallery. Then, having got that far, would go to the next person and suggest he should provide a gallery for acquisitions which could not be properly shown. It sounds very easy. But it needs a great personality to do it and ingenuity in raising funds is an indispensable part of a gallery's activity.
Then, there is another problem involved in purchases. You can't just go out into the market and buy, as it were, Rembrandts by the bushel. You have to watch, you have to wait, you have to explore the market. You have to play this fish, while you are eagerly hoping a much bigger fish will come along on your hook, and all that, of course, takes a great deal of time and more often it involves a certain amount of outlay.
I always regard it as essential that the director and the governing body of a gallery should make frequent visits to centres where works of art are bought and sold, and such excursions should be regarded not as holidays, as leave almost illicitly taken, but rather as very necessary even though a very severe and tiring part of gallery work. Unless you are prepared, for example, here in Toronto, to be in and out of the New York market, and fairly frequently in and out of the London market, you will never really be able to put your fingers on fine things at a reasonable price.
That raises, of course, what I know is one of the most difficult problems of all-how on earth to decide what to buy and conscious as I am of the Director of the Toronto Gallery and many of his Trustees on my right and left, I don't hesitate to say that in the long run the decision of what you buy has got to rest with one man. A committee is an excellent thing, but it cannot function, because it lives on compromise, and compromise in a decision as to goodness or badness in work of art is fatal. One of the greatest Directors of all time, Wilhelm Bode, in whose hands the Kaiser Fredrich Museum became one of the greatest museums in the world, once said to me, "No Director is worth his salt unless he makes at least two mistakes out of six." "What do you mean?" I said. He replied: "A fellow has no gumption, no enterprise, if he doesn't make that proportion -of mistakes. You have got to do it if you are going to get fine things. You have got to risk something." And those are words that I feel should be engraved on the note paper of every gallery in the world.
I rejoice that the Boston Museum today consistently follows the system of giving the Curators their heads. But the value to an art gallery of a Committee must not be underestimated. It introduces an element of general wisdom, of knowledge of all the surrounding circumstances which nothing whatever can replace and which no one man can provide. I am merely suggesting that for purchases you have to have a final "Yes" or "No" in one man's mind. Of course you have also to give this one man an adequate technical assistance and help. No one man can be an authority on everything. That again is a problem. But if you are going to get the best you must be prepared to cast your bread to some extent upon the waters, and provide a man with an adequate staff, whose experience and knowledge can be added to that of the Director.
The next problem is=if we do all these things how are we going to get the money for things other than works of art? I have suggested how ingenious trustees and committees can conjure gifts, either money or works of art out of individual donors; but it is a very much more difficult problem providing for the gas and water side of the gallery, which has no romance. You can't go to a person and say, "Will you pay the electric light bill for a year?" That doesn't yield any credit or any particular beneficent: reaction. At the same time gas bills have to be paid and the problem of finance is therefore a very vital one.
Well, it is not for me to suggest methods of raising money, but there is one principle of financial administration I feel is of vital importance. Perhaps the Toronto Gallery pursues it but in certain galleries it is not pursued. You should be able to accumulate a surplus and carry any surplus you may accumulate over to the next year. The British Treasury, in all ordinary civil service departments, does not allow this; but mercifully, under pressure, the great museums may now, if they save anything, carry it over to the next year and the benefit of that is this, that they can embark on long range policy. You can watch and wait for the really fine thing. You can build up a fund to do redecoration on a large scale, the large scheme of installation. If at the end of every year you feel any savings you may have made are going as it were down the sink, then you are helpless. What happens in certain galleries is that toward the end of the financial year you find a director going out in the market and buying any rubbish he can lay his hands upon or embarking on some superfluous scheme of installation in order to get something with the surplus he may otherwise lose.
Now, finally, if you have got your works of art, your building and your gas and your water, how are you going to exhibit all the things you possess? You have to bear in mind that you are serving three masters-the creative artist, the general public and the scholar and student. The scholar and student is generally a queer fish in that he wants to see everything you have got, good or bad. On the other hand, the creative artist and the general public aren't interested in seeing everything. There is a particular type of thing you have that they want to see, or a few things well displayed. So today the basic notion of having display galleries as distinct from study galleries is steadily gaining ground and it is the solution of a great many problems. The museum and gallery that has carried that perhaps farther than any one I know is the National Museum of Wales, in Cardiff, where two parallel galleries are separated by a range of arches. In one the Director and his assistant make a display of a selection of things from different departments which are regularly varied. In the other gallery, the exhibits are arranged in an orderly way, though close packed, so the student can see them easily and see them all. The general public and men like the creative artists want to get a stimulus and standards, and they use the exhibition gallery; the scholar and student use both. That, I think, is the secret of good and effective gallery arrangement. In this connection a system which was adopted first, I believe, in the British Museum, is worth mentioning; one which has met with even greater success in the Victoria and Albert Museum in England, is that of having an exhibit of the week, a thing not necessarily chosen because it is rare and expensive, but because it is fine. It is brought out and given a little separate show in a case by itself, thereby attracting public attention and stimulating those who see it to follow up the knowledge and interest aroused. In Boston it has been very successful; and many other museums in the United States are following that system. Some people say such methods are dangerous, as they may cheapen the museum. But in fact they are part of the business, to use a vulgarism, of selling your goods to the people whom you know ought to buy them.
Among other problems in exhibiting works of art are, what are you going to do about the design of the show cases, and how are you going to place them? Then, again, are you going to have your galleries humanized by the use of furniture, carpets and a few flowers, or are they going to be cold and bare and official looking? Incidentally, the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge organized a band of twelve Cambridge ladies who undertook under solemn pledge to keep the Fitzwilliam Museum decorated with flowers and flowering plants throughout the year. Those galleries were humanized to a perfectly amazing extent and have been made really attractive and welcoming.
I think it is an important thing about a gallery that you should not only be able to see individual exhibits reasonably well, but you should feel the whole gallery is, as it were, taking you in and saying to you, "Come in, you are welcome." It is a small thing but I think the whole attitude of the guides in a gallery is of the greatest importance. On this side of the Atlantic there is an extraordinarily high standard of kindliness and civility. I can remember the days in the British Museum when if you began to look more than half a minute at an object a policeman suddenly appeared behind you, always prepared to leap on you if you made the least movement which might suggest the least intention of burglary or robbery. The whole atmosphere, in other words, was wrong. After all, a gallery partly belongs to the visitor. Why shouldn't one look at exhibits without a policeman standing behind to see that one does not look at them too long?
There are other things I might mention. How much does rearrangement in a gallery help? A visitor comes in and finds the picture he is fondest of moved from this corner to that corner, and says. "O, I have seen things in that picture and in that piece of sculpture that I never saw before because it is put in a new light." I do commend frequent rearrangement as a valuable means of gaining attention.
Then comes the question of labels. This is a difficult problem which nobody has really solved entirely satisfactorily. You want something not too conspicuous and also reasonably informative if you are going to help visitors: but too lengthy labels are apt to be boring and lead to people reading labels rather than looking at works of art.
Finally, there is the business of catalogues. Now, for a rapidly expanding gallery a catalogue is an expensive luxury. But it is a thing worth producing when a gallery attains first class rank. A good catalogue is a means of publicity, of letting people know you exist, quite apart from its indispensable function of giving information. Even a brief catalogue is far better than no catalogue at all. Expensive as it may be, yet it is again one of the means by which you put yourselves at the service of the public.
So it is with lectures--guide lecturing. I can remember when first introduced in Great Britain it was greeted with horror. People thought how unnecessary it was to have people go around and display works of art, how disagreeable to hear the human voice in a gallery. That point of view has now entirely disappeared. Today, my only criticism is that a great deal of guide lecturing is done by people who aren't paid enough, and as a result are not sufficiently well qualified. Explaining works of art in a gallery is a very difficult matter. I have done it a good deal myself many years ago, and I know if you are going to get the best out of this kind of service you have got to have people of first rate ability and pay them adequately.
I have said enough to show you, I hope, the great potentialities of service to your community that lie in an art gallery and something of the difficult problems which confront the administrators of the gallery if they are to do their job. It is a job that needs money, but I do hope that I have said enough at least to temporarily convince you it is a job worth doing and that properly conceived, properly administered and properly thought out, an art gallery can be one of the vital centres of life and civilization in the community's service. (Applause)
THE PRESIDENT: Mr. Constable, on behalf of the members of the Club, and the audience which has been listening to you over the air, may I extend a very hearty vote of thanks. I am sure your remarks have given
complete answer to the question which is so often asked, "Why waste money on art galleries?"
The meeting is adjourned.