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
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