The former director of three of Britain’s most important museums has called for the National Gallery to lift its longstanding cut-off date of about 1900 for its collection because it suggests “painting died then as a great art form”.
Julian Spalding, who has headed public collections in Sheffield, Manchester and Glasgow, argued the National Gallery could, in its bicentenary this year, “resuscitate the great art of painting” by hanging pictures by David Hockney and other “great artists” alongside old masters.
He told the Guardian he was throwing down a direct challenge to the National Gallery. “I feel very passionate about it. The bicentenary is a fantastic occasion to do it. In 200 years’ time, every painting will be over 300 years old … They’re creating this terrible fossil.”
In a letter sent last week to Gabriele Finaldi, the director of the National Gallery, Spalding criticised its 1990s agreement with the Tate that 1900 should divide their respective collections. “[It was] as if painting died then as a great art form. This isn’t what happened. The art of painting non-representationally was brilliantly reinvented for our times, by Picasso and Matisse, of course, and many others.”
Spalding, who has also written to King Charles about the issue, argued that removing this cut-off could lead to “the renaissance of painting”. “Bringing the collection up to date will also naturally and most importantly widen the gallery’s representation of female artists and the art of many cultures, truly reflecting the nature of Britain and our world today.”
He added: “When it was founded, the gallery’s collection was on-going, with paintings being added when their greatness became apparent. This was often, understandably, a slow process, but sometimes surprisingly fast. The Gallery bought Van Gogh’s Chair only 34 years after it was painted.”
Although the National Gallery has held numerous exhibitions devoted to modern and contemporary artists – including Lucian Freud – these have been temporary, he said. “If the National Gallery begins again to collect great, lasting paintings of recent times, this will demonstrate to the world that the art of painting is still very much alive.”
In a 50-year career, Spalding established award-winning, innovative galleries and museum services, including the Ruskin Gallery, in Sheffield, and the Campaign for Drawing. Last year, he published his memoir, Art Exposed.
He proposed that modern and contemporary works could be transferred from the Tate to the National Gallery “easily and immediately, merely the cost of a van”, as happened in the past.
He suggested a dozen masterpieces: Gwen John: Self Portrait 1902; Georges Braque: Bottle and Fishes 1910-12; Marc Chagall: The Poet Reclining 1915; Pablo Picasso: The Three Dancers 1925; Stanley Spencer: The Resurrection, Cookham 1924-7; Alice Neel: Ethel Ashton 1930; Salvador Dalí: Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937; Francis Bacon: Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion 1944; Maria Helena Viera da Silva: The Corridor 1950; Henri Matisse: The Snail 1953; Bridget Riley: Late Morning 1967-8 and David Hockney: My Parents 1977, which includes a reflection of a National Gallery painting, Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ, in a mirror.
He wrote in his letter: “Half of these great paintings, the second, third, fifth, sixth, ninth and last are in store and not on public display [according to their website] … There are some publicly owned paintings that people should always be able to see. The National Gallery provides that opportunity.”
For future transfers, he suggested the public could become involved, voting for paintings, to stimulate annual debate.
The Tate said that, while the Spencer was in storage, the Braque, Chagall and Hockney works were due to be loaned to exhibitions in the coming months, the Vieira da Silva was in Tate Modern and the Neel was in Germany.
Richard Calvocoressi, an art historian and former Tate curator, said: “In principle, I think it’s not a bad idea. I’ve always thought the 1900 divide was pretty meaningless.”
Matthew Landrus, a leading art historian at Oxford University, said: “I agree that museums should have more options than strict limitations on time because the specific dates for historical periods are artificial.”
Sir Roy Strong, who, as the director of the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, staged landmark exhibitions, said: “The National Gallery has been extremely inventive in the last few years, sending pictures into shopping centres, for example. But everything is in such a state there is not the money or circumstance to achieve any major change of anything.”
Lifting the 1900 cut-off would be “a lovely idea”, he added: “Sooner or later, there’ll be a crisis and radical rethink of how exactly we look at the pictures of the past.”
Alex Kidson, a former curator of British art at the Walker Art Gallery Liverpool, argued that the 1900 cut-off was “much too early”, but he expressed reservations about including contemporary artists. “Artworks achieve greatness because they’ve survived over time. Arguments about who is actually worthy of getting into the National Gallery are bound to increase. If you had a cut-off point of, say, 1945, that would be easier to administer.”
Michael Daley, the director of ArtWatch UK, the museums and galleries watchdog, said he had concerns. “All the National Gallery curators’ enthusiasms would drift even further away from their old masters collection.”
While the National Gallery declined to comment, the Tate said: “There are no plans to change the date of 1900 as the collection divide between the two museums.”