The art scene is boom­ing – but for how long?

Our new Chief Art Critic looks at the cracks be­neath the glossy ve­neer of the UK’S big­gest gal­leries

The Daily Telegraph - - Arts - Alastair Sooke

Are we liv­ing in a golden age for vis­ual art in this coun­try? This ques­tion pre­oc­cu­pied me the other day, as I flicked through an old copy of the col­lected es­says of the 20th-cen­tury critic and cu­ra­tor David Sylvester.

In his in­tro­duc­tion, he de­scribes what Lon­don was like in the For­ties, when he was start­ing out. It’s only a brief passage. But, from to­day’s van­tage point, it’s noth­ing short of star­tling – like lis­ten­ing to a man blessed with 20-20 vi­sion de­scrib­ing a time when he was blind.

In wartime Lon­don, Sylvester’s daily diet of art was ra­tioned, like every­thing else – re­stricted to black-and-white re­pro­duc­tions in pe­ri­od­i­cals, the odd show of con­tem­po­rary British art in a dealer’s gallery, and the monthly dis­play of a sin­gle (sin­gle!) Old Master at the Na­tional Gallery, “ab­stracted from the col­lec­tion’s un­der­ground hide­away” in a dis­used slate mine in Wales.

For some­one from my generation, whose ma­tu­rity co­in­cided with the open­ing of Tate Mod­ern, the big­gest sin­gle driver trans­form­ing at­ti­tudes to art in this coun­try for half a cen­tury, Sylvester’s descriptio­n of a bombed-out cul­tural waste­land is unimag­in­able – but also, if I’m hon­est, slightly en­vi­able.

Next time I wit­ness the bac­cha­na­lian spec­ta­cle of, say, the open­ing of Frieze art fair, sur­rounded by well-heeled lig­gers, gilded yes-men and savvy young artists as pro­fes­sion­alised as lawyers, I will han­ker for the sim­pler

era of Sylvester’s youth, when ca­ma­raderie, not money, was the cur­rency of the avant-garde.

Still, de­spite the cor­ro­sive in­tru­sions of the in­ter­na­tional mon­eyed elite, it is tempt­ing, as I take on the man­tle of the

Tele­graph’s chief art critic, sim­ply to marvel at the plethora of riches avail­able to us to­day. Sylvester, in his youth, would have been gob­s­macked.

Last year, three British in­sti­tu­tions – Tate Mod­ern, the British Mu­seum and the Na­tional Gallery – were among the top 10 most-vis­ited mu­se­ums and gal­leries glob­ally: tes­ta­ment, surely, to the sec­tor’s world-beat­ing, dy­namic ex­cel­lence. These days, we are spoiled with first-rate ex­hi­bi­tions. More­over, al­most ev­ery other week, de­spite the penny-pinch­ing reper­cus­sions of the fi­nan­cial crash, one eye-catch­ing new space or an­other seems to sprout like a toad­stool some­where in the coun­try.

In­deed, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Gov­ern­ment re­port, 55 per cent of the adult pop­u­la­tion in Eng­land live within walk­ing distance of a mu­seum. It’s worth paus­ing to re­flect on that. Could the same be said of post of­fices or doc­tor’s surgeries? Fu­ture gen­er­a­tions will look back on this pe­riod as boom years for mu­seum-builders.

In Bri­tain to­day, then, art is ev­ery­where: in the cap­i­tal, in the re­gions, on the airwaves, on­line. Gal­leries, we are told, stim­u­late hap­pi­ness and well-be­ing. We should count our lucky stars – shouldn’t we?

Well, yes and no. It is true that, in many ways, we are liv­ing through a pe­riod of tremen­dous vigour for vis­ual art. But self-con­grat­u­la­tion risks com­pla­cency, and, de­spite ap­pear­ances to the con­trary, the art world in Bri­tain is like a sick patient still ac­tive but un­aware they are in mor­tal dan­ger.

What, then, is the dis­ease? There are, I be­lieve, sev­eral deadly threats. The most ob­vi­ous is the ques­tion of fund­ing – or, rather, lack of it. The cuts since the fi­nan­cial crash have been bru­tal. Public spend­ing on mu­se­ums and gal­leries has fallen off a cliff.

Re­gional mu­se­ums, which are funded by lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, have been af­fected most cat­a­stroph­i­cally. Some are now ghost in­sti­tu­tions, in a state of ter­mi­nal ne­glect. Oth­ers have shut al­to­gether: ac­cord­ing to the Mu­se­ums As­so­ci­a­tion, there were 64 mu­seum clo­sures be­tween 2010 and 2016.

Cor­po­rate spon­sor­ship, too, is ei­ther toxic (wit­ness the many re­cent protests about mu­se­ums ac­cept­ing money from the likes of BP or the Sack­ler fam­ily) or in­creas­ingly hard to come by: Tate Bri­tain’s 2017 David Hock­ney ret­ro­spec­tive, for in­stance, did not at­tract a cor­po­rate spon­sor at all. If that beloved, gar­ru­lous York­shire­man, who can draw like an an­gel, can­not se­cure spon­sor­ship, who can?

And so, in­creas­ingly, mu­se­ums and gal­leries go cap in hand to pri­vate donors. Many of these wealthy in­di­vid­u­als are “so­phis­ti­cated”, a for­mer mu­seum di­rec­tor as­sures me, i.e. they make no de­mands that, in re­turn for cash, artists they col­lect must be shown. Still, there are in­evitable ten­sions be­tween the one per cent and the public sec­tor, and there re­mains the whiff of a Faus­tian pact about such bar­gains.

So far, I sus­pect, most mu­seum di­rec­tors would agree with me: yes, they would cry, it is a scandal that – ac­cord­ing to his­to­rian David Can­na­dine’s ex­cel­lent re­cent re­port for the Art Fund, Why Col­lect? – the British Gov­ern­ment now spends less on cul­ture, in per­cent­age terms, than Latvia. Why are the rulers of the world’s fifth-largest econ­omy so par­si­mo­nious?

But these same di­rec­tors should ac­knowl­edge their own cul­pa­bil­ity, too. Let me ex­plain.

Given the ter­mi­nal de­cline in fund­ing and spon­sor­ship, a key source of rev­enue for mu­se­ums is ticket sales – which brings me to an­other, re­lated threat: the in­sid­i­ous pres­sure to guar­an­tee box of­fice suc­cess.

Next spring, Tate Mod­ern will stage a ma­jor Warhol ex­hi­bi­tion. I re­mem­ber the de­fin­i­tive Warhol ret­ro­spec­tive at Tate Mod­ern in 2002. And the Pop Life ex­hi­bi­tion, in which Warhol featured promi­nently, at the same in­sti­tu­tion in 2009. What more can there be to say about him, other than to re­peat his maxim that “good busi­ness is the best art”?

It is gen­er­ally ac­knowl­edged that few his­tor­i­cal or liv­ing artists at­tract a crowd: the list is no longer than, say, 20 “block­buster” names. As a re­sult, every­one keeps chas­ing the same crowd-pleas­ing artists. Van Gogh Re­turns. Cézanne Re­mas­tered. Im­pres­sion­ism Re­dux.

The ar­gu­ment is that these mon­eyspin­ners al­low mu­se­ums to be dar­ing at other mo­ments. But risk-tak­ing is in abeyance. Courage is in short sup­ply. For all its ve­neer of pro­gres­sive rad­i­cal­ism, the art world is a cu­ri­ously con­ser­va­tive place.

Per­son­ally, I’d love to see more ex­hi­bi­tions re­dis­cov­er­ing ne­glected artists: how about the icily pre­cise re­al­ist Mered­ith Framp­ton? Yet, given the pre­vail­ing winds of so­ci­ety, this “privileged” dead white man is un­likely to get a ret­ro­spec­tive soon. Sup­pos­edly, Framp­ton was smug­gled into a re­cent re­hang at Tate Mod­ern only be­cause the di­rec­tor at the time, glanc­ing at his first name, as­sumed he was a woman. Ours is an age of “woke” virtue sig­nalling for virtue-sig­nalling’s sake.

This brings me to an­other dan­ger for mu­se­ums and gal­leries: the on­go­ing pres­sure to be as ac­ces­si­ble as pos­si­ble. Con­sider the suc­cess of Tate Mod­ern, which you en­ter by walk­ing down a ramp, rather than by climb­ing the sort of grand, neo­clas­si­cal stair­case that forms the off-putting thresh­old to many tra­di­tional mu­se­ums.

That ramp is a po­tent sym­bol of a pro­found demo­cratic shift that we have wit­nessed in re­cent decades. Mu­se­ums are no longer for­bid­ding citadels of high cul­ture, fre­quented by the elite, but friendly, open places, free to be en­joyed by every­one. Of course, this is a good thing. But, again, it comes with risks. The open­ing of Tate Mod­ern co­in­cided with a vogue for spec­tac­u­lar, in­ter­ac­tive, “im­mer­sive” con­tem­po­rary art. Think of Ola­fur Elias­son’s great sodium-yel­low sun, in Tate Mod­ern’s Tur­bine Hall. Art is now some­thing to be ex­pe­ri­enced rather than looked at.

The re­sult, for good or bad, is that, to­day, more than ever, fre­quent­ing a gallery has be­come a life­style choice, like go­ing for brunch. Avo­cado on toast in the morn­ing; a selfie at Tate Mod­ern in the af­ter­noon. In­creas­ingly, it seems, ex­hi­bi­tions are mounted with one eye on Instagram.

Noth­ing wrong with Instagram – ex­cept I would ar­gue that this is part of a wider, more wor­ry­ing shift: the de­struc­tive digi­ti­sa­tion of art. Al­ready, the gen­eral clam­our for “im­mer­sive­ness” has en­sured that dig­i­tal “ex­pe­ri­ences” – the cul­tural equiv­a­lent of the amuse­ment ride – are par for the course. Later this au­tumn, the Lou­vre will un­veil a VR recre­ation of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.

In short, art is now ut­terly in thrall to the siren song of fash­ion, which is why so many in­sti­tu­tions have staged shows about fash­ion de­sign­ers in re­cent years. Ear­lier this week, for in­stance, the V&A an­nounced that its Chris­tian Dior block­buster, which closed on Sun­day, was the most-vis­ited ex­hi­bi­tion in its his­tory. Last year, the Lou­vre was the set­ting for a mu­sic video by Beyoncé and Jay-z, which has been viewed on­line 184mil­lion times. Watch it for yourself: there they are, in pas­tel-coloured power suits, stand­ing in front of the Mona Lisa, like ev­ery other selfie-lover.

Yet it strikes me that this breath­less chase for vis­i­tor num­bers and new au­di­ences may not be an un­al­loyed force for good. We need a met­ric to quan­tify depth of en­gage­ment, and not just bums on seats. We must also en­sure that all the spec­ta­cle, bling and hoopla nei­ther daz­zle nor drown out older, qui­eter, but fun­da­men­tal art-his­tor­i­cal val­ues.

Thank­fully, ex­hi­bi­tions are still mo­ti­vated by solid schol­ar­ship and new re­search. “I don’t be­lieve there was a golden age when schol­ar­ship ruled, and now it’s all very schol­ar­ship-lite,” says Nicholas Serota, chair­man of Arts Coun­cil Eng­land, and for­mer di­rec­tor of the Tate.

Serota is more con­cerned about the lack of so­cial diver­sity in to­day’s art schools, as well as house prices in Lon­don, which, he says, de­ter young, in­ter­na­tional, in­vig­o­rat­ing tal­ents from mov­ing to Bri­tain. Yet, “in spite of every­thing,” he ar­gues, “artists do emerge”.

But, to para­phrase Michael Gove, we live in an era that no longer val­ues ex­per­tise. There are lots of ob­vi­ous things that mu­seum di­rec­tors should do: liberate un­seen works from stor­age, and tour them around the coun­try; shine light on per­ma­nent col­lec­tions, which, too of­ten, we take for granted; re­sist the undy­ing or­tho­doxy of the white-cube dis­play.

Above all, though, at a time when morale among mu­seum staff is low, di­rec­tors must fight to pre­vent qual­ity and knowl­edge be­ing trumped by hype.

To­day, fre­quent­ing a mu­seum or gallery has be­come a life­style choice, like go­ing for brunch

It’s ar­gued that ‘block­buster’ names al­low mu­se­ums to be dar­ing at other times, but risk-tak­ing is in abeyance

We must en­sure all the bling doesn’t drown out the older, qui­eter, but fun­da­men­tal art-his­tor­i­cal val­ues

Crowd-pleasers: Andy Warhol’s Un­ti­tled (silk-screen and syn­thetic poly­mer work on a sheet of dol­lar bills), main; Ola­fur Elias­son’s Star­dust Par­ti­cle at Tate Mod­ern, left; the Lou­vre was the set­ting for a mu­sic video by Beyoncé and Jay-z, be­low

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