The Art Museum in Modern Times || Charles Saumarez Smith

At a time when just about every institution is being questioned as to its role, need and relevance, it is fitting that those devoted to art should come under the eye of someone as august as Charles Saumarez Smith. Having held senior posts at the National and National Portrait Galleries as well as the Royal Academy, Charles is well-placed to offer not just an opinion on these matters, but one which demands to be taken seriously.

The book takes the form of a series of case studies that examine individual institutions, starting with the Museum of Modern Art in New York and stretching to the West Bund Museum in Shanghai by way of the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing, the Hepworth Gallery and several incarnations of the Louvre. In each, Charles examines the intent, layout, content and realities, offering several views of how institutions develop both organically and through steering. After this, he presents his overall conclusions, which involve the roles of what we might call the stakeholders – clients, architects, private collections and the morality of wealth and, of course, the audiences.

There is a wealth of material here, but Charles manages it well. The book comes in at under 300 pages, which is something to welcome – a lesser author could easily have doubled that, not so much by over-writing, but simply by not being so completely on top of their material. “Impressive” in this context is a word that would normally be applied to something much larger, but here it is appropriate to something so manageable, both physically and intellectually.

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