One of the pleasures, nay privileges of having been a Member of Parliament was the opportunity to join the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Arts and Culture. This august body brought together a wide ranging group of MPs, and demonstrated that even Labour oiks could express as much interest in Poussin as they might in mushy peas (or avocado dip as Peter Mandelson allegedly asked for in a chippy up north). On pain of having to get to the gallery by 9am, members could beat the public to see all the blockbusters and roam the galleries without being squashed and Instagramed (or whatever is today’s vernacular) in front of works, which when ordinarily dispersed around many art galleries wouldn’t command the same extreme attention as they do when gathered together in a heavily promoted blockbuster.
I have gazed upon Bosch and both Breughel senior and junior in the Brussels Royal Museums of Fine Arts without interruption or cramming for 20 minutes, but put those pictures into a ‘blockbuster’ and any pleasure is drained away by the sweaty crush of phone wielding numpties welded together in arousal by the historic occasion of the celebration of some or other artist’s 100th/200th/300th/500th/500th birth/death anniversary. In my experience this was no truer than Bosch’s 500th celebratory blockbuster in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 2016. Each picture magnetised a joggling, ogling crush of 20 or so gasping trophy hunters, keen to be pictured with something or other which might say ‘here’s me ‘n’ Bosch – look at me!’ My eager anticipation of my visit to that exhibition was I have to say, bitterly deflated by the experience if it. But the gallery shop did a roaring trade, and it seems the only way to really see such an exhibition these days is to buy the expensive, hardbound catalogue (if you have the weight lifting capacity that is). The same experience was almost replicated in this year’s Van Eyck exhibition in Ghent, which I managed to see just before we all became Covid captives. It wasn’t as crowded as the Bosch, but the industrial throughput of visitors was handled with the same poultry farm techniques.
I hope that some part of the Coronavirus legacy will see the end of blockbuster exhibitions. I realise they are money spinners, but to what extent are they pleasurable experiences? Indeed, in some cases to what extent are they even honest experiences? I went to Tate Britain and saw the fake news ‘Van Gogh and London’ exhibition. Van Gogh! London! When can we see a Van Gogh and Milton Keynes exhibition I want to know? Surely there’s some connection which merits our attention? Then there’s always the chance to tie ‘blockbuster artists’ together like Van Gogh and Hockney, Turner and Hockney, Monet and Hockney, Picasso and Hockney, Freud and Hockney, Manet and Hockney, Warhol and Hockney, Hockney and Hockney, and yes – even Rembrandt and Hockney. My imaginary favourite would be to see Capstan Full Strength and Hockney, but this pairing has so far escaped the imagination of our finance funnel-vision’d curators.
I hope all this may now change. There needs to be a radical review of how it might. At pain of being pelted with noxious blobs of cadmium yellow, not least by my socialist realist friends, the offer of free entry to one and all to our main galleries must be questioned. Imagine this: what if we allowed free entry to Covent Garden? That is, what if people were allowed to pay nowt to enter and then to wander around as the mood took them, taking their snaps for Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat/Instagram as their fleeting whims saw fit? No need to dwell on the performance, no need to linger whilst another freebie somewhere else beckons on their little blue screens? So why is visual art (hanging on walls, in the main) meant to be free when everything else isn’t? I have to say, anticipating an argument that I’m being elitist, here’s a short list of some of the things you have to pay for to entertain you in your leisure time:
Cinema, theatre, English Heritage/National Trust properties, opera, ballet, the BBC licence fee, Netflix, Sky, musicals, most foreign art galleries, football, rugby, cricket (yeah, most sport), zoos, the Cropton Forest Drive (yes that’s just a local thing), special exhibitions in art galleries (including of course blockbusters), and oh yes, in case you missed it most foreign art galleries – the list could go on and on. It is perhaps an interesting feature of imagined British values that we assume that free entrance to galleries and museums is an unquestionable civilising venture, whereas going to an opera or the cinema or a football game is a moral hazard which has to be paid for.
I began by saying how happy I was to have been a member of a certain privileged group. No doubt in some cynical minds that will have demonstrated how elites can acquire underserved advantage. That may depend somewhat on your political worldview. But what we need to learn from our experience is how to maximise the real cultural value of our art galleries. Are they merely to be showcases for marketing? Is a good art gallery the one which is jam packed? Surely some would say yes – and why, particularly in the case of local authority funded art galleries wouldn’t they want to pack ‘em in? The alternative might be closure.
I have to confess that the gallery visits that I enjoy most are the ones where I am most likely to be largely left alone with the pictures and artefacts. This makes me as comfortable say in Hull University’s recently recreated and delightful gallery as it does going upstairs in the ICA (always a good place to find oneself alone even if the visit only requires 48 seconds). But I recognise this kind of pleasure is not an economic proposition. Practically any and every visit to an art gallery is heavily subsidised. And without hesitation one might add, they always will be even with entry fees. In the United States, that great land of philanthropic art gallery sponsorship entrance fees still apply, and still don’t cover the costs.
In the coming world of recurrent plague, our galleries will be under enormous pressure, both from a drop in visitor numbers and probably from inadequate funding from any source. A crisis beckons, that is for sure. The question I would ask - and can’t provide an answer to, for now – is whose crisis is it? Perhaps the current members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts and Culture will organise a meeting to address the question? Their first consideration might be, post-Brexit, whether foreign tourists should be made to cough up, just as we do when we’re foreign tourists in their countries.