A Point of View: Anyone for art?

A visitor looks at paintings hanging at The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

Isn't it time to democratise art? We, the public, should be allowed to borrow works of art from our national collections, argues Tom Shakespeare.

I made my best academic choice more than 30 years ago, when I opted to study Art History for A-levels. At the time, several people tried to discourage me, telling me to choose a proper subject instead.

I'm not a specialist and I've never worked for a gallery, but the cultural literacy that I gained sitting at the feet of my teacher Paul Kilsby, gave me a foundation on which to build a lifetime of looking at visual arts. I wish every teenager could have the same experience.

Art, particularly contemporary art, often feels intimidating. An art gallery can be like a maze without an obvious entrance. I do not think we should assume that huge visitor numbers at galleries like Tate Modern mean a corresponding relish for the avant garde.

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Tom Shakespeare
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST
  • Tom Shakespeare is a sociologist, writer and performer who researches disability studies, bioethics and medical sociology
  • He was born with restricted growth and leads research into the condition

Although 4.5 million people have visited the Baltic Gallery in Gateshead since it opened 10 years ago, it has always been my hunch that many of them go up to the top floor in the lift, look at the wonderful view of Tyneside, descend, and walk straight out again. I hope I'm mistaken.

And I'm not blaming the visitors. Often galleries don't have good interpretation to help viewers understand what a particular artist is trying to do. I know it's a difficult balance. You don't want too much interpretation, as it risks overwhelming your response. But you need something.

I remember visiting a show by the Dutch artist Mark Manders. I couldn't find a way in. Then the invigilator saw me puzzling and mentioned the artist's obsessive compulsion about the number five, and I suddenly got so much more from the installations.

But this is one of only a couple of times in my experience that I've had help from gallery staff. Mostly, the invigilators seem to be there to stop people touching things, rather than to help them engage. It feels as if you should lower your voice, rather than discuss the work. Sometimes, curators seem to be creating exhibitions to impress other curators, rather than to inspire their visitors.

I suspect that many people living in the shadow of one of these great lottery-funded ziggurats of high art never dream of going inside, despite the fact that it has been almost entirely funded with their own money.

BBC Your Paintings website

Coming from the Mill by L.S. Lowry

They've got better things to do, or they feel it isn't for them. If I'm right, this must be partly about a lack of good art education, partly about the atmosphere of many galleries, and partly about the image of contemporary art.

It would be absolutely wrong to think that having art in your life is a privilege only open to the wealthy and over-educated.

This month I was delighted to read the story of Herb and Dorothy Vogel. He worked in Manhattan for the post office and she worked for the Brooklyn Public Library. They lived in a one bedroom apartment, had little money and realized early on that they didn't have artistic talent themselves.

But over 40 years, they used her wages to eat, and his pay packet to amass a collection of nearly 5,000 artworks. Their taste was excellent and their criteria were simple: The work had to be affordable, it had to fit in their apartment, and it had be transportable via taxi or subway.

Herb died last year, but the Vogel collection has been donated to museums in every state of the US, as one of the most important collections of the 20th Century.

Herb and Dorothy Vogel in 2009 Herb and Dorothy Vogel in 2009

When I sat for a while on the Arts Council, as the representative of the North East of England, I and others fought hard for it to adopt the simple but inspired slogan "Great art for everyone". Despite continuing cuts to government funding of the arts, this fantastic public institution still maintains that commitment.

Rightly, we celebrate our NHS and the BBC as international beacons of excellence and access. At the risk of making you scoff, I'd say that the Arts Council is another such British success story, despite its many minor failings over the years.

The long lost Van Dyck

A Van Dyck portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter

This painting by 17th century painter Anthony van Dyck was only identified in March after being spotted online using BBC Your Paintings.

The portrait was previously thought to have been a copy and had been left in storage at the Bowes Museum in County Durham.

It was in a bad condition, covered in layers of dirt and varnish.

The portrait depicts Olivia Boteler Porter, lady-in-waiting to Charles I's wife Henrietta Maria.

In an era of austerity, one way to share out our nation's cultural treasures would be to do something about the thousands of artworks that currently sit in the vaults of our museums.

Usually, what you see in the galleries is only a fraction of the total holding of an institution. The storerooms of the great museums contain untold treasures, such as the previously unidentified Van Dyck portrait discovered earlier this year in the vaults of the Bowes Museum.

The BBC Your Paintings website tells me that there are 212,000 oil paintings in the UK national collection, 80% of which are not currently on show, but all of which are now online for the public to view.

And of course, there are as many more drawings, and etchings stored away in drawers, without even mentioning the sculptures.

When I was a student, I remember that King's College, Cambridge operated an annual ballot, by which undergraduates were entitled to choose artworks from the college collection to hang on their walls. I was so jealous when I visited my friend and saw a Tom Phillips print on her wall.

What a great sharing of an endowment. What a difference it makes to live with an artwork, rather than see it on a single visit. You get to know it better, you notice more things in it, you develop a relationship with it. I'd prefer to have an affair with art, rather than a one-night stand.

The first things I unpack when I move to a new flat are my pictures. Now I've got a Tom Phillips of my own. Only when the art is on the wall, and the books are on the shelf, do I feel at home. The print or drawing I would most like to live with would be one of Vija Celmin's images of the starry sky or the restless waves, pictures that you can lose yourself in.

Tom Phillips' portrait of Iris Murdoch

Tom Phillips' portrait of Iris Murdoch

At present, only government ministers have the privilege of choosing a piece of the nation's art for their walls.

Would it be too radical to ask whether we, the people, might be trusted to borrow, cherish and look daily at lesser works from the collections of Britain?

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Couldn't a gallery be more like a library and less like a temple?”

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Our art institutions might be funded to buy the best work of each year's graduating art students, both as an investment, but also to enable the public to borrow it. No doubt some pieces would go astray and a few pieces would be damaged.

But people could pay a deposit, and it would do wonders for the insurance industry, and I think it might turn out to be rather popular. Couldn't a gallery be more like a library and less like a temple?

Andy Warhol, not one of my favourite artists, said this, which I think is wise: "An artist is somebody who produces things that people don't need to have."

To put it another way, art is the difference between merely existing, and truly living. I wouldn't force you to have an artwork on your wall, anymore than I would demand you to have a book on your shelf or a CD in your car.

But I firmly believe that we could and should do more to democratise not just engagement with art but also the availability of art. If we succeeded in this enterprise, we would end up living in a happier, more interesting land.

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Perhaps this all sounds somewhat pretentious and irrelevant.

After all, my school can't have been the only one where anyone who read more books than were prescribed in the English syllabus was immediately pilloried as a "pseud" (pseudo-intellectual). Ouch!

Liking sport never needs an apology, especially if you're a chap. It's "manly", it's classless, and the British invented most of those games anyway. But enthusiasm for art or ideas risks making one appear elitist or, well, un-English.

Maybe my modest proposal to break open the museum vaults will appear as fanciful as my support for the much-maligned Arts Council. In which case, let me finish by mentioning another way of democratising the visual arts - an experiment that is happening here and now and in the UK, no less.

Last week, the long list for Art Everywhere was published. This project, subtitled "A very, very big art show", seeks to use hundreds of donated billboard sites to bring 50 of the best-loved works of British art into the public space for two weeks.

I think that Art Everywhere is an inspired idea. We are being asked to donate three pounds, and to choose which pictures from the long list will get this unprecedented exposure.

Just imagine: for two weeks, large scale artworks, in our streets. Not selling, not scaring, not "sloganising", not titillating - just existing. Intervening silently in our lives with beauty and wonder and mystery.

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Here is a selection of your comments.

One of my favourite things about living in Harlow was the artwork. Rather than invest in a gallery, the town planners/council bought large sculptures that could be outside for all to see. Some of them were in the town centre, but others were dotted at various locations further out. It was always a pleasure to stumble across one unexpectedly. I miss that added beauty to my day to day life now I live in Sussex.

Clare, Arundel, West Sussex

This article made me truly excited. This is a brilliant idea. I like how it was written as approachable as he wants art to be. I felt this was unpretentious and joyous. You can tell he is a true art lover. The proposal not only help educate the public; it is a gesture of trust from the government and Art institutions to the general public. And aren't these institutions like the father/ teacher of our society. We know to teach respect one must give respect, to trust our public to make the best decisions, the government has to make the honest best decision not be fearful hoarders for the sake of profit or lack of innovation.

Cody Huff, San Diego, USA

I believe Leeds city art gallery has a scheme were members of the public can borrow a work of art from the gallery for a period of time for a relatively modest amount of money. The scheme has been running for years. Good eh?

Darren Mills, Leeds

When I moved to Sheffield 25 years ago, one of the very best things I discovered was that the city art gallery had a picture lending library, for lesser known images in the collection. It was a fabulous idea and it worked. It was one of the many things that hit the dust as Sheffield struggled into the nineties.

Jane Horton, Sheffield UK

This article made me look at my own walls and wonder (a) why 'art' has such a mystique about it, and (b) why anyone would bother borrowing from a gallery. I decided to count how much hangs on my walls - over 100 items in my two bedroom house. These range from several oil paintings, two by an artist neighbour of a relative, through water colours, prints, embroideries and even a set of framed cigarette cards inherited from my father. Two of my favourites are in some ways the most ironic, being postcards of a pair of medieval portraits from the National Gallery. I loved them so much that, although only postcards, I bought frames that cost me 50 times more than the cards. To me there is no mystique. I hang on my wall what gives me pleasure regardless of its 'message' or its value. As a result of my love of beautiful things my walls are nearly at capacity, so there would be no room for borrowed items. I feel sure that the people who borrowed would do so because they felt there should be 'art' on their walls but they are so insecure in their tastes that they need a gallery to direct them. "If it is from the gallery it must be good". My advice is if you like it, hang it, whether it is a chipped plate you found at the local charity shop, a postcard from your last holiday, or that painting that costs you a few pounds more than you planned to spend. If there is a story attached to what is on your wall then it doubles your pleasure. My walls are full of stories.

Philip Meers, Birmingham

A foolish idea. Only an artist would be so daft as to suggest this. Art needs to be preserved, and if you let people borrow it, how do you now it is going to be well looked after? How are you going to stop children daubing things on paintings, how are you going to ensure that the environmental conditions are right? The great benefits of collections, publicly owned, is that they congregate material in one place where it can be looked after and where it can be accessed--even if it is not on display. You cannot say, "Oh, if you need to see object/painting X, you have to make an appointment to go and see Mr and Mrs Bloggs in Y". No, art which belongs to the public should be made available only in galleries and museums. We would be prejudicing our artistic heritage by doing anything else. Could you imagine the Louvre lending out the Mona Lisa? Of course not, and while that painting is special, the principle is the same for all art. I write as an ex-curator and academic, so arguably I am biased...

Nigel Strudwick, Cambridge, UK

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