Friday, January 6, 2012

18 Centuries of Wow

The new incarnations and offshoots of Tate and the Gulbenkian aside, most of us weren't alive when the major galleries of this world celebrated their 10th anniversaries. Great collections stand the test of time. Many tramp through their hallways, gawp at their splendours and amass their postcards in a desperate attempt to relive the experience. The Neue Galerie in New York is a little different. It opened in 2001 and has since made a massive impression on Museum Mile. Presenting cross-cultural exhibitions, cabaret, lectures and its own fantastic collection of fin-de-siècle art, it has become one of the go-to exhibition spaces in New York City in just a decade. The catalogue for its 10th Anniversary exhibition is a hefty testament to its ability to punch above its weight.

Like Henry Tate, who laid the foundations for the British gallery's vast collection, the Neue Galerie built its leading range of Austrian and German paintings around one man's vision. Ronald S. Lauder (the son of Estée) amassed his precious collection through years of seizing rare opportunities. One of his providers was a singularly brilliant dealer called Serge Sabarsky (honoured by the museum in the name of its glorious café). The rest is history. Klimts were bought for eye-widening sums and displayed with great panache in the Neue's chic 5th Avenue home.

For their 10th anniversary, the Neue Galerie has broadened that remit. They've been led from the top. Lauder's collection stretches some 16 centuries back before Klimt was even a twinkle in his mother's eye. Medieval art works, Old Masters, Armoury, Picassos and Post-War German painting all rub shoulders with the more familiar elements of the Neue Galerie collection. And until 2 April, you can see this all displayed in its galleries.

For those of us unable to travel to New York, Prestel has issued a 500-page tome in response. Not only is it good for upper body strength, but is a remarkable testament to one man's taste, wealth and generosity. Accompanied with essays by leading writers in all the fields of Lauder's taste - no mean feat - this is a great book. There's a sense of celebration that runs through the volume (and, no doubt, the exhibition). The single reason that a catalogue and exhibition as important as this one can exist is down to that one man's munificence.

As the Liechtenstein family closes the doors to its collection in Vienna (claiming lack of public interest) and tax payers' support becomes increasingly precarious we cannot take such big gestures for granted. And although it would be a terrible shame if the European subsidised model waned, Lauder and the Neue Galerie present a truly impressive version of the philanthropist's vision. Get to New York if you can but, if you can't, this 10th Anniversary catalogue is a veritable keepsake. Click here to order a copy.