People sometimes complain about important artworks “disappearing into private collections.” And one can certainly see why: privately owned artworks are typically off-limits to anyone but their owners and their immediate circle of friends, family and associates. That’s when they bother to hang them, of course; the really valuable ones might end up in a bank vault somewhere, their value as aesthetic objects, or objects of meaning, subsumed by their sheer investment value.
However, a parallel phenomenon is not exactly unknown in public collections. While you don’t hear as much about works “disappearing into public collections,” it does happen a lot. For whatever reason, a lot of the works in public collections never get publicly shown, or if they do, very, very rarely. The reasons are probably various, and I’ll freely admit I’m speculating a bit here, but my sense is that one of the main reasons is that many of them don’t quite fit the curatorial vision for the shows that do get mounted. Perhaps the works are so out of fashion they never seem to come up as fodder for a retrospective, or possibly there are better examples in the collection of whatever historical moment they exemplify.
I don’t know how you feel about this, but to me it seems a bit of a waste. If we’re putting resources into collecting and preserving these things, we should be able to see them once in a while. Maybe they aren’t the “best that has been thought and said”, but so what? Someone thought they were worth something, and they must at least have some historical value.
So here’s my proposal: any public gallery over certain size should dedicate a part of its space to exhibitions consisting of works pulled randomly from the subset of its collection that hasn’t seen the light of day in ten years. Let the curators have their fun in most of the space of course – I’m not criticizing curators here; the work they do is valuable. But let’s also have a small space where we remove the various curatorial filters that conceal as well as reveal.
If total randomness seems a bit extreme, I’d be willing to consider scoping the randomly-selected works in a couple of different ways: works made in a given decade, say, or in a given geographic location. But not works from specific movements or styles; that leaves the door too open to curatorial intervention; the temptation to shield us from approaches that are currently out of favour might just be too great.
Of course, a lot of galleries have made a real effort to put their collections online in recent years, which is one way of addressing the problem. But a small jpeg representation of a painting or sculpture, while much better than nothing, isn’t quite enough I feel. Let’s have a space where we can see the works themselves, from time to time.