Uncheapening By Stealth: Should Our Museums Remain Free? – Edward Lucie-Smith

British Museums

I don’t often read the financial sections of newspapers. I’m too dim and out of touch for that. Occasionally, however, when flipping through the pages on my way to something that’s more my cup of tea I encounter something so splendidly deranged that I have to stop and give it a go. That happened to me when I was ruffling through the London Evening Standard on Tuesday last (28th August). The author was a gent called Carl Mortished, who is quite a frequent contributor to the paper, and the headline that seized my eye ran as follows: ‘By keeping museums free we risk cheapening our culture.’ Here’s a link to the text that followed: Link

By uncheapening our culture, in the fashion proposed by Mr Mortished, we are increasingly likely to shut the locals out. – ELS

Snobbish as the wording is, it does contain a nugget of perhaps unintentional truth. The fact is that, while we live in a society which sees itself as egalitarian, the world of the visual arts here in Britain has a hard time keeping in step with the notion of equal opportunities for all.

A good reason for this is that the visual arts, among all forms of artistic expression, is the one most firmly chained to the world of money. Very large sums of money. Part of the thrill that comes from going to certain major exhibitions in equally major museums, comes from the act of looking at this Picasso, or that newly rediscovered Leonardo da Vinci, and thinking to oneself: ‘Blimey, I saw the price the other day in the paper, or heard about it on the telly – is that really what it’s worth?’ Human nature being what it is, there’s quite a thrill to be had from being in the presence of the embodiment of so much money.

One of the ways in which art differs from, say, literature, or even from many forms of music, is that it depends far more, for its full effect, in your being physically in the presence of the thing itself. Looking at a reproduction in a book, or seeing it on a screen, is not the same experience, only a much-diminished one. This, quite apart from the fact that quite a large number of the world’s most admired masterpieces exist in three dimensions, not just in two.

If we put major artworks in front of the British – also of course an international – public, are we entitled to confine this privilege strictly to those who happen to have a bob or two in their pockets?

British institutions have in fact been struggling with this dilemma for some time. The permanent collections in major museums, such as the various branches of the Tate, the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, are free entry, which is not the case with most comparable institutions elsewhere. But at the temporary exhibitions, the much-hyped events that keep these places alive and thronged with visitors, you pay to go in.

The situation is further complicated by attitudes within those major museums, More and more here in Britain they tend to focus on the idea of the ‘contemporary’ – a slippery word that can be interpreted in quite a number of different ways. More and more they are desperate to be seen as populist, in step with the young. That is to say, those least likely to have any extra cash to spare. The official, bureaucratic definition of what is populist is, moreover tainted by the still powerful conviction that communication within an institutional framework is always necessarily top down. Them, that is, telling you, with ears almost invariably stoppered against what you might want to tell them. Even though they may assert the contrary.

This complex situation has some equally complex, and on the face of it, peculiar consequences. Though our great London museums have expanded their facilities, indications are that, following a spike in numbers, attendances are currently going down. True, in one case at least, that of the National Portrait Gallery, this decline may recently have been exaggerated by imperfect methods of counting the number of visitors, But the tendency itself seems nevertheless to be well established. Worse still, it very much looks as if the decline has been, not in visitors from overseas – tourists that is, making their way around the sights – but in people who live and work in London, for whom going to the museums is ceasing to be a habit. They feel they have better things to do with their time.

A facility you don’t use if you get it for free, you are even less likely to visit if you have to pay. By uncheapening our culture, in the fashion proposed by Mr Mortished, we are increasingly likely to shut the locals out. ‘Museums – oh yes, they’re really for tourists, aren’t they – not for the likes of us?’ I have to say that this is very much the feeling I get when I go to Paris and queue up to pay my entrance fee at the Louvre. Not an actual French person within earshot, apart from the uniformed staff.

And there’s also something I note when I go to museums here – a very large percentage of the visitors wandering about are people of – ahem! – mature years. Just like myself. Young visitors are certainly not in a majority. It’s not too much to say that Tate Modern nowadays, especially on an ordinary weekday, can seem like a geriatric theme park.

Speaking of this museum, in particular, there are other things I note. One is increasing terror of anything that might seem too commercial. Performance art, environments and videos – yes, please! With those, the financial implications can be kept safely at arm’s length. What is bizarre about this is that performance art, and very often videos too, are inefficient ways of servicing a large throng of visitors. How many repetitions of a performance piece can you offer in a museum day, starting at 10 a.m., closing at 5 p.m.? How long can the performer or performers sustain the task? Surely not every day for a full month? Performance art often presents itself as the most democratic manifestation of contemporary art, but in fact, it has some claim to be the most elitist. Yes, you were privileged to be present. What fun to be able to describe what happened to all the others who missed it.

Perhaps the solution really is to confine events of this sort, when staged in official galleries, to an audience the wealthy few. It would be a double whammy. You make those present feel special, ready to sub up for things the government won’t pay for. And you remove at the same time all taint of the commercial. Dress the performers in rags. Give them some noisy begging bowls to rattle. The cash comes flowing in. Result! Everyone feels good. It’s so nice to feel part of an elite. Nicer still when you’re participating, feeling fully part of the art world, doing this stuff for charity. You’re a performer now yourself. In this context, who cares if you look a little absurd? Maybe Mr Mortished is talking sense after all?

Meanwhile, something equally weird. Instead of plonking down cash to go to London’s big museums, make a practice of visiting the cream of London’s commercial galleries: Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, White Cube etc.. Not on the evenings when their flashy openings take place. Just on an ordinary day. The staff are usually friendly enough. The art you’ll see will have an equal or better claim to be as right-up-to-the-minute as what you’ll find at Tate Modern. And you don’t have to pay to get in.

When I go to these grandee galleries, they’re very often completely deserted. Just me – and the art.

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