Magazine

A Point of View: Anyone for art?

  • 30 June 2013
  • From the section Magazine
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.

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.

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.

Image caption 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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

More please.

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