By Kevin O’Sullivan
The story in today’s Irish Times that the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism has asked the authorities of the National Gallery, IMMA, 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.