Can the UK afford another Gauguin?


LONDON, United Kingdom — While arts organizations across the United Kingdom hold their collective breath waiting for the results of the Conservative government's spending review to be announced Oct. 20, “Gauguin: Maker of Myth,” one of the most anticipated art exhibitions ever held in London, opens today at the Tate Modern.

If the government’s cuts in arts funding come anywhere close to predictions, it could mark the end of such ambitious shows for several years. Arts organizations have already taken a 3.5 percent cut and, in July, the government asked all major arts funding bodies to show how they would manage cuts of 25 percent or 30 percent.

To people in the arts, the impending reductions appear completely unreasonable, in part because the British cultural sector so invaluably contributes to the image of Britain abroad. A glance at the history of the Tate Modern more than makes their case. In 2000, an investment of 137 million pounds ($217 million) of public and private money created the museum. Exceeding all expectations, it has become the most popular gallery of modern and contemporary art in the world.

The museum attracts more 5 million visitors each year and more than 45 million visitors total since it opened. Moreover, it contributes more than 100 million pounds in economic benefits to London annually, according to the museum's press office. "Matisse Picasso" in 2002 and "Edward Hopper" in 2004 head the list of its most popular shows. The Gauguin exhibition, which was sponsored by Bank of America Merrill Lynch with additional support from individual supporters, as well as the government, could very well overtake them.

Calling the outcome of the cuts potentially disastrous, a coalition of prominent figures have waged a protest, including directors of the Tate, the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Serpentine Gallery, Sadler’s Wells theatre and the South Bank Centre. More recently over 100 artists, including David Hockney, Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley and Tracey Emin, expressed fear that the new proposals would devastate the country's creative economy.

The campaign in support of the arts includes an online petition and a video. Without the long tradition of philanthropy that supports arts endeavors in the United States, campaign leaders worry that government funding is irreplaceable.

There are some institutions, however, that never received government funding, such as The Royal Academy of Arts.

“We’re very unusual as we’re completely private,” said Charles Saumarez Smith, the Secretary/Chief Executive. “Even when government money has been offered, which happened in the 1830s and 1860s, when we built a new building, the artists turned it down. In Britain, there’s the assumption if you take money from the government, you’ll have to listen to its views.”

However, he foresees changes both at The Royal Academy of Arts and other galleries, if the cuts occur. “We’re very different here than in the United States,” he said, “in that we feel more responsibility to our collections, while in the U.S., there’s more of responsibility to the exhibitions.

"We’ll probably move more toward the American model, though we don’t give the same tax concessions to philanthropists," Smith continued. "Oddly enough, with all this talk of cuts over recent months, the government never talks about shifting the burden from public to private individuals, and offering them advantages for their contributions. ... In our case, we used to rely on major corporate sponsorship, but are increasingly turning to individuals for help, owing to the difficult financial climate.”

If nothing else the Gauguin exhibit — which continues through Jan. 16, 2011, before heading to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in the spring — should demonstrate art’s enormous drawing power.

The flamboyant artist — half French, half Peruvian — claims a special place in people’s hearts. Paul Gauguin was a renegade who snubbed convention, leaving home, family and financial security for the life of a voluptuary far from the strictures of bourgeois society. More significantly, of course, he produced some of the most potent and resonant images of the 20th century, reflecting his years in France, the Caribbean, Tahiti and the remote Marquesas Islands. An admirer of Monet, Cezanne and Delacroix and mentored by Pissarro and Degas, he felt the need to free himself from his heritage in order to grow artistically.

“The extraordinary thing is that this intensely self-conscious and intellectual Frenchman,” wrote the art critic Roger Fry in 1910, “did manage to create an art which fused perfectly the naivete of savage art with the most accomplished European tradition.”

For curator Christine Riding, who helped organize the exhibition, Gauguin proves endlessly fascinating. Taking a break recently from the busy lead-up to the opening, she pulled up a chair in the museum coffee shop, full of excitement about what she and fellow curators have discovered about Gauguin over the past few years.

“He was prolific in manic way,” she said. “He used whatever was at hand: painting, sculpting, carving and making prints. He liked to tell stories, in pictures and words. At a time when artists were turning away from literal subject matter, his paintings often have narratives. For instance, he would use words from Tahitian in his paintings, to suggest meaning. But they also obscured it — because most people didn’t know the language. There’s a mischievousness that we kept coming across.”

Riding expects the exhibit to introduce the public to lesser known dimensions of Gauguin's work.

"Because of his popularity, he has sometimes been considered shallow or decorative," she said. "He is the opposite; he has tremendous force and meaning. There’s an underlying richness in everything he produced.”

Altogether, the exhibition includes 150 works, among the most famous the woodcut “Noa Noa” and the paintings “The Bathers” and “Two Tahitian Women.” To shed light on them, the curators also collected Gauguin's correspondence, diaries and books, as well as his personalized canes and his clogs. They earned a room of their own in the museum, along with travel posters from the period, which give an idea of how exotic the world seemed at his time.

In the final stages of preparing for the exhibition, Riding had an important job coming up. "I am about to hang the show," she said. "I want to make sure not to put works too close together. I know we’ll have crowds, and I want everyone to get as close a look as possible at these masterpieces. I can’t imagine anyone seeing them not being convinced that art is crucial to our society, and worth all our support."