High art for the masses

Fountain, Trafalgar Square © Janet E Davis

Fountain with National Gallery entrance in background, Trafalgar Square © Janet E Davis

Often, I would be one of the first to defend the right of public cultural institutions to charge for special exhibitions, or even a modest cost for entry (provided there are appropriate exceptions and concessions). They need to have money to open to the public, and temporary exhibitions of work mostly borrowed from others has been one way of also making more money. I should also state at this point that I knew a lot about the costs and income of such places at one time because I was involved in the monitoring of expenditure and income for, and in project planning of, about 140 heritage sites.

I was interested to read Charles Saatchi’s piece in the Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’ section: ‘£20 for an exhibition – are museums fooling the public, or themselves?’ especially his statement:

But even London’s leading museums, admirable in so many ways, only earn about 7% of their annual costs from ticket sales – the rest being provided by the public purse, and sponsorship.

It would be interesting to see if this relatively low proportion is at the same sort of level at provincial museums. His assertion that it would be easier to attract sponsors to provide more funding if the special exhibitions were free to all may be true in London. I do wonder whether it would help to encourage sponsors elsewhere in the country.

I do agree with Charles Saatchi that exhibitions should be free, but I am not yet convinced that they could find ways of filling in the income gap beyond London. If it were that easy, we would not have had museums closing or having to reduce their opening hours to save money.

The principle of people having access to experience some of the finest achievements of culture and knowledge was well-established by the late 19th century. Successful industrialists set up museums and libraries in towns and cities throughout Britain. Many libraries were founded on collections donated by earlier, 18th century benefactors who believed that it would benefit all to have access to culture.

Henry Cole had argued for the importance of educating everyone about good art and design. He pushed for the founding of the V&A Museum (Victoria & Albert Museum) and set it up to:

  1. inspire designers
  2. educate ordinary people about art and design
  3. encourage industrialists to manufacture well-designed products that could compete with any from elsewhere in the world.

Henry Cole could see clearly the connection between good design and the country’s commercial success. He understood that by educating everyone about what good art and design is, not only does the country get better designers and makers, but also better-educated customers who expect better design.

One of the most exciting developments of the last 200 years has been the increasing opening up of the best of cultural heritage in our public museums, galleries and historic properties to almost everybody in the UK for free, or at a reasonably affordable price. The best art and design, including architecture, has been produced for the rich. Traditionally in Britain for many centuries, this meant mostly for the Church, royalty, aristocrats and the wealthiest of the upper middle class.

By the early 19th century, the government of the day was sufficiently concerned by the standard of Britain’s designers to have set up the Government School of Design in 1837. This became the National Art Training School in 1853 (and usually called the South Kensington Schools in the later 19th century). Bursaries enabled the best students from from less affluent families and from elsewhere in Britain to study there. The students were able to study some of the best art and design in the world in the South Kensington Museum (later renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum).

Although the South Kensington Schools were intended to train young men and women to become designers or art teachers, many went on to be professional fine artists. During the 1860s and 1870s, many of the graphic artists who worked on the rapidly proliferating illustrated journals and newspapers were those students as they emerged into full-time professional work. These publications were the Web of the day. They went into homes throughout the United Kingdom, and the illustrations (including those in holiday and other special supplements) were cut out and pinned to the walls in even the poorest labourer’s cottage.

Fast-forward to 1960s Britain: art and design is at the heart of a  post-war contemporary culture renaissance. Art schools produce some of the great rock and pop bands as well as some of the most challenging artists and coolest of designers.  Many in the rest of the world want what Britain creates. Meanwhile, Woolworth’s stock framed pictures for the masses: clowns crying, a herd of white horses galloping out of the waves, mediterranean waifs with huge eyes crying, Constable’s Suffolk idylls, Tretchikoff’s ‘Chinese Girl’ (more usually known as the ‘Green Lady’).

The British masses also had access to some of the greatest art and design in the world in their public museums and galleries. There were grants to enable the talented from any socio-economic level to go to art school. The art schools produced designers so talented that companies from elsewhere in the world snapped them up (sometimes offering places before they had graduated). One of the most successful companies in the world (at the time of writing) which has had most influence on design so far in the 21st century has a design team headed by a British designer.

It is vitally important to our society both culturally and economically that all have access to see and learn about the finest art and design. The UK is a special place where for centuries there has been cultural stability and flux simultaneously as trade and political connections bring different cultural influences from everywhere else in the world.  This provides a great environment in which creativity can flourish if people have access to it.

We need our public museums and galleries, and we need to keep the free ones free to encourage future generations to continue the superb British tradition of creativity. This is especially important in an age when tuition fees are likely to deter many potential talented people from studying at university. Both our culture and our country’s economy would be badly affected if only the wealthy had access to the best of art and design. We need the masses to access and understand ‘high’ art.

Further reading

Charles Saatchi, ‘£20 for an exhibition – are museums fooling the public, or themselves?’ Comment is Free, The Guardian, Monday 30th January 2012 14:30 GMT.

<http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/30/museums-free-admission-art-exhibitions?CMP=twt_fd&gt; last accessed 8th February 2012.

Javier Pes, ‘Ten years of free entry, but can it last?’ The Art Newspaper, 1st February, 2012.

<http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Ten-years-of-free-entry-but-can-it-last/25518&gt; last accessed 8th February 2012.


6 thoughts on “High art for the masses

  1. Frankie Roberto

    One of the interesting consequences of charging for exhibitions is that it means that people generally plan for and ‘do’ the exhibition in one go, often in a fairly prescribed order (i.e. in at the entrance, out at the exit). This can, sometimes, lead to a better actual experience, as the visitor is emotionally (and financially) committed, less tired, and the visit more structured. Crowds can be more easily controlled too.

    So whilst I agree that it’d be good if more special exhibitions were free, it might be worth considering how you’d preserve those aspects – e.g. by still requiring (free) tickets, having fixed time slots, and so on. You could even try to retain some of income by really pushing for donations with the tickets (though perhaps not quite as hard as the American museums).

    1. Janet E Davis Post author

      Thanks for commenting, Frankie.
      Interesting idea to have time slots even if the exhibition were free. As a visitor, I dislike seeing an exhibition in one concentrated visit, shuffling round with the crowd. If I were organising the exhibition, I would prefer to organise visitors into a steady flow and avoid long queues.

  2. patrickhadfield

    I go to lots of art exhibitions, especially being based in London. I love that museums are (generally) free, and I’m happy to pay/contribute. (I’m a “friend” at the Tate, RA and National Portrait Gallery, too.)

    Special exhibitions, though, can be different. I happily queued for three hours for a ticket to Leonardo at the National Gallery – and it was tremendous to see all those amazing paintings brought together in one place. I was a little miffed thought that my two favourites in the show were both from the National’s collection – which I had been denied the opportunity to see for the last year or so in preparation for the exhibition! It felt like I had to pay for something I could have seen for free had the exhibition not been on…!

    1. Janet E Davis Post author

      Didn’t you feel that you gained something by seeing your two favourites in the context of the other work? And at least by being in the exhibition, the conservators would have worked on them so the paintings would be looking their best.

      I find queueing a problem (I simply can’t stand for that long), and currently cannot afford entry fees to special exhibitions but have paid to see exhibitions when I have been able to afford them. I would be a Friend at some of the nationals if I could afford it, even if I can’t visit them often, because it’s a good way of contributing regularly (and they can get the tax back).

      As a child and teenager, I spent many hours in museums, and could do so because (as far as I remember) entrance was free. It was fantastic to have that access to stunning art and design of all periods.

      1. Patrick

        I loved the Leonardo show – it felt a privilege to be able to see all those paintings and drawings together.

        It just felt a bit ironic that I had to pay to see pictures I would make a point of seeing for free – last summer I dashed into the National Gallery because I had a few minutes free specifically to look at The Madonna of the Rocks. And it wasn’t there! And won’t be for a while, assuming the exhibition moves onto Paris, Rome, Washington…!

      2. Janet E Davis Post author

        If it does travel (I don’t think all pieces in the show will), you’ll have the pleasure of seeing that painting anew when it does return. In the meantime, perhaps you could at least get a warm glow from thinking what pleasure other people will get from seeing it. It’s probably my favourite Leonardo (I prefer it to the Mona Lisa).

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