Tate Modern’s new Switch House extension in London has been greeted with acclaim. It is a building designed in the distorted geometry of neo-modernist cliché, and offers a breathtaking array of piazzas, shops and cafeteria, with the added attraction of a free panorama of London that is much better than the adjacent Shard’s. There has been criticism of the contents, which are more appropriate to an experimental Shoreditch warehouse than a national gallery of 20th-century art. But who cares? The Tate attracts almost five million visitors a year.
League tables now dictate how we judge London visitor attractions, just as exam results are used to evaluate schools and waiting times hospitals. Last year the British Museum drew 6.8 million visits, the National Gallery 5.9 million, the Tate Modern 4.7 million and the V&A 3.4 million. These figures cannot be compared with overseas museums because London does not charge while others do. The Louvre charges €12 and wins 9.2 million visitors, New York’s Metropolitan gets 6.2 million at $25 and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum 2.4 million at €17.50. What we should compare is the quality of the displays.
Tate is simply not in the same league as museums of modern art in New York or San Francisco that charge for entry. It cannot buy the best, for all its director Nicholas Serota’s ingenuity in pleading with his friends. Of its 11 flours — costing £260 million — just four are art galleries, the rest being offices, private rooms, commercial and for circulation.
London’s museums have been remarkably successful in browbeating successive chancellors, including George Osborne, into butchering regional and local museums (39 of which have closed in five years) so as to retain free entry in London. Even the Tate in St Ives has to charge. But there has been a price. London’s museums lack the cash for gallery upkeep or to purchase new works. Instead they have to rely on raw numbers to justify their subsidies, and on tourist appeal to secure the numbers and raise additional revenue.
Nowhere in Britain is there a narrative exhibition of 20th-century art. Such as exists is either in store — 97 per cent of publicly owned art in England is not on display — or is shown fragmentarily at Tate Modern in that curatorial self-indulgence, the ‘themed room’. To see the greats, Londoners must wait and then pay for blockbusters, such as the Matisse, Picasso, Hopper, Rothko and Lichtenstein shows. There is not even a representative selection of such home-growns as Spencer, Bacon, Freud, Hockney or YBAs such as Hirst, the Chapman Brothers and Emin.
Where London scores is in making a virtue of poverty. Tate Modern has its destination on the South Bank opposite St Paul’s. The great ramp, the spectacular Turbine Hall, the shops, cafés and birch tree-dappled forecourt by the Thames are gifts to congregation. There is none of that obligation to look at the art that comes from paying. Numbers have risen as tourism has grown.
Nor is the Tate alone in the destination game. At the British Museum you pass porticos and foyers into a great court that is decked out like a giant tourist-information office. The galleries behind seem desperately old-fashioned. Across town at the V&A, paid-for shows are devoted to popular fashion and lingerie, while much of the ground floor is the nearest Kensington gets to a souk. The V&A’s Friday ‘lates’ are hugely popular, as are the Science Museum’s Wednesdays, congeries of pop-up shows, talks and even discos. Even the beleaguered Museum of London is about to move to Smithfield, where it must fit a museum into the sheds and alleys of an old meat market.
I may regret the decline of the traditional museum, the expectation, customary overseas, that beautiful things are worth paying to enjoy in hallowed surroundings. Visiting a museum was once part of a liberal education: the museum was not on trial, the visitor was. What we are seeing in London is a reversal of that relationship, a redefinition of what constitutes a modern urban museum.
People drift in and out of the public spaces that dominate museum entrances, taking the art for granted. Most of the crowds I see trooping through the V&A’s sculpture gallery to its inner garden clearly treat the objects as passing decoration. Anyone sketching is likely to be removed as an impediment to trade. The museum’s old advertisement, an ‘ace caff with nice museum attached’, has come too true. The food is good and it is all immense fun. As for the National Gallery, it is like Wembley on match day, usually with a French team in town.
Museums have been forced by the logic of refusing to charge to move not just down the market but out into the market. If people are not going to pay to experience art — to the astonishment of most tourists — they must be relieved of their money some other way. This merging of free art with paying tourism has had the effect of fusing galleries with streets outside, bringing London’s public spaces inside the museum walls, or perhaps even treating them as Malraux’s ‘museums without walls’.
These museums have become civic galleries in the Florentine sense of open-air forums. Their tired permanent displays may cede pride of place to the revenue-rich institutions of Paris, Berlin, New York and California. Their preferred poverty is relegating them to the second division of modern museums. But those who want to see great art dynamically displayed can go to Paris or New York, and pay. London’s museums are set on a different path, as accessible pleasure palaces, places of public resort. It may be an unintended consequence, but they offer a different sort of exhilaration.
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