The Royal Academy’s exhibition ‘Manet: Portraying Life,’ which opened Jan. 26 and runs through April 14 in London, features more than 50 paintings spanning the career of the 19th-century French artist.
LONDON — The lunchtime crowd on a recent Friday at the Royal Academy of Arts was bustling as a mix of retirees and foreign tourists queued up to view Manet: Portraying Life, the blockbuster exhibit that was co-curated in Toledo.
The reviews of the show by patrons were mixed, but there was unanimity on one facet of the exhibition: No one was aware that the exhibit was a collaboration with the Toledo Museum of Art despite its mention in Royal Academy promotional literature and on a sign posted with the exhibit.
That’s not surprising with most of the Fleet Street press — the Guardian, the London Evening Standard, the Independent, the Express, the Telegraph, and the Daily Mail — failing to mention the Toledo museum’s role in curating and staging the exhibit, or that it had first opened to rave reviews in Toledo in October with 47,000 people viewing it there.
Even the Economist and the Financial Times, both international publications with the bulk of their circulation in North America, gave no credit to Toledo.
“I didn’t know,” said Ian Danks, 64, outside the Manet show in London. “I’ve heard of Toledo, but I don’t know much about it. I have an idea, and I may well be wrong, but is it some kind of industrial city?”
“Oh, really?” said Alison Hawkes when told the exhibition was co-curated by Larry Nichols of the Toledo Museum of Art. An unscientific poll conducted over an hour in the courtyard of Burlington House, where the Royal Academy is located, found no one who knew of the Ohio connection.
Perhaps ignorance of Toledo’s role in the popular exhibit is the result of what some feel is cultural ignorance by the London press. Or the question could be whether the omission was overt snobbery by the British art press or simply shoddy journalism.
Lord Conrad Black, who has owned newspapers in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Israel, and Canada, said a combination of cultural ignorance and weak reporting was the likely culprit.
While the Guardian and Independent are “anti-American, almost relentlessly,” he said the other London papers have a more measured view of the country.
“Look, there’s plenty of snobbery in England, there’s no doubt about that. But I would be a little bit surprised if that was the explanation for this,” he said, noting that the omission could be the “whim or negligence” of the writers.
“I think it would just be some cultural writer not knowing where Toledo was or thinking that it’s pretty irrelevant, but not because he’s anti-American. It’s because he doesn’t know anything about the U.S.”
■ Laura Cumming, art critic of the Observer: “I had no idea of the degree of Toledo’s involvement. It exercised me somewhat to find out. We are guilty of great parochialism on this occasion.”
■ Frank Whitford, a veteran London art critic who writes for the Sunday Times: “It would be more correct I guess to talk about the art press generally in this country as being a bit snobby because after all it is art we’re talking about and art isn’t necessarily the type of thing that everyone is interested in. ... I think particularly culturally ... we are quite ignorant of the cultural riches, particularly in museums, in dare I say smaller North American cities.”
■ Simon Edge of the Express: “Most people, myself included, don’t really know where Toledo is in this country. So if it had come from the Louvre, maybe people would have felt the need to mention that.”
■ Richard Dorment of the Telegraph said he did not mention the exhibition because it isn’t going to Toledo and therefore his readers wouldn’t have the option of seeing it. “The same would be true of Washington, D.C., or New York City.”
■ Fiona Hughes, arts editor of the Evening Standard, noted that museums send “a raft of information” regarding exhibits. “I leave it to our critic, Brian Sewell, to mention curators or where the exhibition was originated if that information is pertinent to his argument. It hardly ever is.”
■ Fiammetta Rocco, arts editor for the Economist: “There’s nothing snobbish about it at all. For our readers it was no longer possible to go and see the show in Toledo so I suspect that is probably the reason it wasn’t mentioned.”
■ Melanie Gerlis, an editor at the Art Newspaper in London, said the Toledo Museum of Art’s role was important to include in her publication’s coverage. “To me if you’re going to write a half-a-page [review] on an art exhibition, to exclude who organized it would be crazy, but we are a very specialist newspaper whereas you’re talking about newspapers of a national interest.”
The omission of the Toledo Museum of Art’s role was “rude,” said Sir Harold Evans, the former editor of the Sunday Times and the Times, a noted author, and a close observer of the London media.
“I’m very surprised. They’re not barbarians, although this may have been, how can I put it, kind of rude, really,” he said. “I mean, it doesn’t cost anything to say ‘in cooperation with Toledo or the Royal Academy’ or whatever.’”
The omission inadvertently devalues a collaboration that is an “example of the deep ties that exist between Great Britain and the U.S.,” said Consul General Robert Chatterton Dickson of the British Consulate-General in Chicago.
He said the British press has a provincial view of large parts of this country.
“There is sometimes a tendency to take a kind of coastal view of the U.S.,” he said. “Some in the media in the U.K. underappreciate America between the coasts. I’m continually impressed with the amazing wealth and diversity of cultural assets in the Midwest.”
Repeated calls for comment to the British Embassy in Washington were not returned.
Laura Cumming, art critic of the Observer, which is published on Sundays and is the sister paper of the Guardian, agreed that the role of a co-curator from another internationally known museum, in this case the Toledo Museum of Art, should have been included in coverage of the Manet exhibit.
“Toledo has a fair point. I had no idea of the degree of Toledo’s involvement,” she said. “It exercised me somewhat to find out. We are guilty of great parochialism on this occasion.”
‘A bit snobby’
For its part, the Royal Academy met all its obligations in promoting the exhibit, said Toledo Museum of Art Director Brian Kennedy, who was sanguine on the role of the British press giving the museum short shrift.
“We have really no way to control what the journalists or the press or critics might do about mentioning Toledo or not, but everybody who goes will know because it says it on the front wall and everybody will know because it says so in the catalog and we’ll just let it play through,” he said, noting that he plans to visit the exhibit this month.
Experienced veterans of the London press said that Fleet Street cultural elitism can creep into coverage of anything that doesn’t originate in cities such as Washington, New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles.
Frank Whitford is a longtime London art critic who writes for the Sunday Times and has curated museum exhibits, so he has viewed the issue from both sides.
“It would be more correct, I guess, to talk about the art press generally in this country as being a bit snobby because after all, it is art we’re talking about and art isn’t necessarily the type of thing that everyone is interested in,” he said.
He echoed Mr. Chatterton Dickson’s notion of Londoners taking a “coastal” view of the United States, sometimes at their own detriment. “I think particularly culturally ... we are quite ignorant of the cultural riches, particularly in museums, in dare I say smaller North American cities,” he said.
The Blade contacted a number of the critics and editors involved in omitting the Toledo museum’s co-curator role and sent email requests for interviews to the top editors of the papers involved.
Several of the writers responded, but only two of the editors returned emails.
Simon Edge, who wrote about the show for the Express, where he has worked for 13 years, said he didn’t include the Toledo connection in his review because he did not think mentioning the origin of the show was necessary.
However, he added that if it had come from a larger museum or city, he may have included that information.
“Most people, myself included, don’t really know where Toledo is in this country. So if it had come from the Louvre, maybe people would have felt the need to mention that,” he said, adding that proximity to London is important to his readers.
Telegraph arts writer Richard Dorment said he did not mention the exhibition because it isn’t going to Toledo and therefore his readers wouldn’t have the option of seeing it.
“The same would be true of Washington, D.C., or New York City,” Mr. Dorment said.
Fiona Hughes, arts editor of the Evening Standard, noted that museums send “a raft of information” regarding exhibits to writers and her critics decide what should be included in their reviews.
“I leave it to our critic, Brian Sewell, to mention curators or where the exhibition was originated if that information is pertinent to his argument. It hardly ever is,” she wrote.
Fiammetta Rocco, the arts editor for the Economist, noted that her publication has limited space and generally only includes background that the editors and writers feel is pertinent to readers who want to see a show.
“It’s really simple. There’s nothing snobbish about it at all. For our readers it was no longer possible to go and see the show in Toledo, so I suspect that is probably the reason it wasn’t mentioned,” she said in a telephone interview.
The Economist and the Financial Times each have significant circulation in the United States, however, both in print and online versions.
The Financial Times’ Web site said it reaches 2.1 million readers every day and its “average daily global audience” for May, 2012, was 1.55 million for the print product and 776,764 for its online desktop product worldwide. That included 486,785 print and 289,188 online desktop in the Americas.
The Economist’s North American circulation is 897,000, compared to 217,000 in the United Kingdom.
Top editors at the Financial Times and the Economist could not be reached for comment Friday.
Getting it right
A handful of critics felt the Toledo museum’s role in putting together the Manet show was essential to their coverage.
Mike Collett-White, who wrote about the exhibit for Reuters and interviewed Mr. Nichols for his story, said a “mental pecking order” may exist among British journalists regarding cultural works that don’t originate from East Coast U.S. cities.
“It’s something if you work for a global news agency you’re likely less prone to [do] because you probably have a more balanced view of the world,” he said.
Melanie Gerlis, an editor at the Art Newspaper in London, also thought the Toledo Museum of Art’s role was important to include in her publication’s coverage.
“To me if you’re going to write a half-a-page [review] on an art exhibition, to exclude who organized it would be crazy, but we are a very specialist newspaper whereas you’re talking about newspapers of a national interest,” she said.
Perhaps the final word on the handling of the coverage is best left to Sir Harold and Lord Black, both longtime veterans of the British press whose views are nuanced and steeped in the recent history of the competitive Fleet Street newspaper market.
Both men are erudite, able to speak with authority on the issue, and candid.
Sir Harold, 84, the editor of London’s Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981, has spent a good portion of his life living in the United States. He taught at Duke University, was a key leader at both U.S. News and World Report and Atlantic Monthly, and has written several important histories, including The American Century (1998) and its sequel, They Made America (2004).
He was asked about the general view of British citizens, and the press, regarding the United States.
“The knowledge of the noncoastal cities is, shall I say, minimal. When I crossed the United States as a postgraduate student, it was a revelation to me and on occasion I’ve written about it when I’ve reviewed Alistair Cooke’s travels and so on,” he said.
“I mean Toledo’s famous, for God’s sake. I mean everybody will have heard of Toledo. But exactly what kind of place Toledo is, how civilized it is, how wonderful the people are, et cetera, et cetera, there are not many people who would know.”
Lord Black, 69, owned the Daily Telegraph and the Chicago Sun-Times through his controlling interest in Hollinger International. He has written biographies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Richard M. Nixon and now lives in Toronto, where he is preparing a TV news talk show.
He said that in the case of the handling of the Manet exhibit and Toledo’s role in co-curating it, a bit of ignorance is likely in play.
“With Europeans, including the British, they all think they know a lot about the United States, but in fact almost none of them do,” he said. “They typecast and they don’t know. But that doesn’t mean they’re hostile. They’re just ignorant.”
Michael Goldfarb is a free-lance writer based in London.
Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.