Art: The Greatest Hits

By Kevin O’Sullivan

Stephen Forbes - HeadsThe story in today’s Irish Times that the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism has asked the authorities of the National GalleryIMMA, and the Crawford Gallery to step up their pursuit of commercial opportunities and partnerships to fund their activities, and to adopt ‘more populist’ exhibition policies raises an age old question: should we give the people what they want (or what they think they want) or should the role of our cultural institutions be to challenge and open the minds of the population to a new cultural experience?

We can, I think, largely discard the idea that commercial partnerships are detrimental to the arts, certainly not when they are viewed as Peter Murray, director of the Crawford, sees them: as an opportunity to open ‘innovative thinking in terms of commercial initiatives’. Commercial funding of the arts is nothing new and has helped to bring together some of the best exhibitions in the world in recent years. Case in point: the brilliant and massively successful ‘Picasso et les Maîtres’ I attended at the Grand Palais in Paris earlier this year, sponsored by Möet and Louis Vuitton among others. As long as commercial sponsorship is used to develop and open doors for those who work curating the galleries, I can’t see anything wrong with it in the slightest. Nor anything hugely different to gaining a helping hand from a Renaissance banking family; in fact, even better since modern sponsorship has the potential to open doors to a much wider audience.

The big ‘if’ in that paragraph – if commercial sponsorship is used to open doors – depends largely on the second major point of the DAST directive: the move to ‘populism’. Now there’s a dangerous concept. I’ll go back to my original question: what’s better, to give the people what they want and draw the punters in again and again to our important cultural institutions, or to try and offer something that might challenge and open doors to new experiences? To me it’s a no-brainer. The idea of art pandering to populism is madness. Pop along to the RHA’s 129th annual exhibition (and while you’re there, see Stephen Forbes’s painting that accompanies this post) and tell me if this eclectic show of modern Irish art is any less important than showing another exhibition of Monet’s (admittedly largely excellent) work, or standing in pretentious pose pretending you like Gaugin. If ‘populist’ exhibitions are used as an opportunity to get more people in to our galleries and offer them the chance to explore their further treasures, without impinging on the space on offer to other artists, all well and good. But I wonder whether that is really what is at the heart of this directive. We’ll see.

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3 Responses to “Art: The Greatest Hits”

  1. puesoccurrences Says:

    This debate has of course been ongoing since many of these institutions were founded in the nineteenth century. Museums in general were seen as public ventures and a way of encouraging ‘rational recreation’ among the masses and keeping them out of the pub. On the other hand they have been pretty much run by and for the middle classes since they opened. I’m intrigued that this notion that visiting a museum should ‘improve’ the visitors has still not died off. You suggest that exhibits should ‘challenge’ people and ‘open doors to new experiences’. This is just a twenty-first century version of the same kind of paternalistic rhetoric propounded by 19th C liberals. Is a museum an educational experience or is it entertainment? I suppose it’s both, but I don’t see why it shouldn’t pander to the public that pays its bills and if that public likes Monet, well…I can see where you’re coming from, but I think you’re just suggesting a different form of elitism. Neither way really gives the people what they want because no one has actually stopped to ask them. On the other hand this directive worries me more from a different perspective. I think the references to commercialisation probably hint at the introduction of popular exhibits for which people will pay (already true in the NGI). One of the best things about the museums, and that which at least makes gestures towards welcoming a wide audience, is that they are free. I’d hate to see that change.


  2. Patrick Walsh Says:

    Taking up Juliana’s last point on free access, I too wondered if thats what is really about. I think the NGI is prohibited from charging for their main collection as part of the terms of the GB Shaw bequest, which funds the bilk of the collection, and I think the Hugh Lane might be similarly “constrained”. However, others might start charging, although if fees are modest and ringfenced to pay for the upkeep and services of the individual institutions this would not be all bad. Again I wonder if such a direction is likely?

    I agree with Kevin re: the dangers of populism, if for nothing else for the narrowr horizons it engenders. What struck me, when I saw this article, was the implications for history. Is history funding, and indeed university research funding going to head down the populist route? Some might say it is heading there already as witnessed by the rather anodyne subjects of the Observer’s young stars highlighted here recently, or indeed the Judging Dev debate ongoing in the History Ireland and Irish Times letter pages. Here I think we need to be vigilant that our creative impulses are not constrained by populist considerations.


  3. puesoccurrences Says:

    Juliana wrote:
    ‘You suggest that exhibits should ‘challenge’ people and ‘open doors to new experiences’. This is just a twenty-first century version of the same kind of paternalistic rhetoric propounded by 19th C liberals. Is a museum an educational experience or is it entertainment?’

    I don’t necessary mean it in that kind of paternalistic way. What I tended more towards – and perhaps this wasn’t clear from the article – is exposing people to the new. If we keep calling for the greatest hits, then how are we ever going to know, let alone get to see anything new, unless we are nudged towards it? If they decide the new stuff is rubbish, then go ahead and say it’s rubbish, but at least they’ll have seen it and, as Patrick says opened horizons. There’s a hell of an amount of hugely popular painting that people like just because it’s popular and everyone else likes it. (Gaugin was the example I used, for a reason: I find his paintings, especially the ones from Tahiti, interminably dull.) I’m in absolute agreement with the argument that there is an inherent danger in setting the agenda for what the masses should and shouldn’t see, but then who’s to say that the masses know better? Maybe we should get Plato et al involved here, since this sounds like something they might have run over a few times already.

    On a side but related note, the one thing we do want to avoid is the situation outlined in this week’s Economist where the Belgian government 160 years ago agreed to build a museum for an obscure (and apparently quite bad) Belgian artist called Antione Wiertz, which it is still obliged to keep open and which has 10 visitors a day (mostly school children who’ve been forced to go).

    As regards education v entertainment, we can definitely have both, since education is not exclusive of being entertaining. It’s just the way things are presented. I must admit to not being a great fan of history museums in general, but not because they don’t show what I want them to show. It’s because they’re largely (though certainly not entirely, and I’m speaking about museums across the world, not just Ireland) not laid out in a very interesting way to engage the visiting public. There just has to be a way to do both. If a World War I trench with an artificial smell of urine (Imperial War Museum) is what the punters want, then that’s what they shall have, but it also happens to work as quite a brilliant addition to that particular exhibition.

    Re what you both say about funding. Yes, it would be a terrible shame if the museums and galleries in Ireland weren’t free any more. But if commercial sponsorship of larger exhibitions is a way of keeping them free for everything else, then maybe that would be a good thing, would it not? With the squeeze on funding, maybe the money is really badly needed to keep the institutions away from having to charge.

    Which brings me to another question: if the role of these institutions is to give the people what they want and they do that and the people don’t turn up, or they still don’t want to give any more funding to them, where does that leave us? Up a certain type of creek, sans paddle probably.


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