Museums get a lot wrong, but then so does this book

In theory, I should like this book. It’s about the corruption of what Rachel Spence calls Planet Art, that, is museums and galleries, and there’s a lot of it about. It extends from the grossly inflated prices given to rubbish artefacts at auction, to the use of cultural philanthropy to elevate the social importance of controversial individuals such as Len Blavatnik and the Sackler family. Throw in the present, problematic funding formula for UK institutions — a third of funding from the Government so long as the museums and galleries raise a third from sales and a third from donors — and I’m right there with her. Patronage has always been a manifestation of power, from Maecenas to the Medicis, but we’ve rarely had such undiscerning patrons of art or such cynical purveyors of it.

As proof the world has gone mad she mentions the preposterous Rabbit by Jeff Koons, a stainless steel bunny sold at Christies in 2019 for just short of £70million as an example of “a particular skein of international contemporary art that has both fuelled and been fuelled by the wolfish art market”. She’s also sceptical about the investment by states like China, whose new galleries are notable for what’s missing from them: Ai Wei Wei. As for the overmighty Guggenheim, she applauds Helsinki for declining a branch.

There are so many easy targets in the arts sector, this book should be shooting fish in a barrel. Trouble is, it’s a shockingly bad read. It’s like being stuck in a confined space with a teenager with a sense of grievance about global warming, colonialism, the pay gap, the NHS and Black Lives Matter… only with the grievances directed at the arts. You’re not going to get any nonsense about Art for Art’s sake from our author; she’s too much taken up with issues around art in the service of equality, diversity and inclusion. She’s signed up to every modish cause: repatriate the Benin Bronzes and the Elgin Marbles? Of course! Parity of representation for Latinx, black and trans curators and artists? Yep. The NHS strikes? She’s with them all. As for her yoga teacher asking her to find the space between cynicism and magic, she lost me there.

Of course she has a point about the hypocrisy of an art world which professes to be passionate about the environment while actually contributing to the problem: one environmental charity estimated that visual art was responsible globally for an estimated 70million tonnes of CO2 per annum. She knows she’s part of the problem, one of the battalion of critics that institutions fly all over the world to celebrate fairs, exhibitions, events. But there could perhaps be more self-awareness on her part that as critic for the Financial Times she is contributing to an organ which, for all its merits, is the house journal of the global elite.

There’s far too little gratitude for the miracle that is free public access here to the finest collections

She may be right that we could do with fewer blockbuster shows, not to mention the ever expanding numbers of biennials and fairs, but her suggestion that the environmental footprint of art could be diminished by resorting to performance art instead, or dance or transient installations, is eccentric; just where do painting and sculpture go in this scenario?

And in all her ventilating about low pay for museum staff, and the environmental damage generated by blockbuster shows, she loses sight of what art is for. She tells us “if the woman who cleans the floor on which the Parthenon Marbles stand is forced to use a food bank because the museum exploits her labour, then the effect on me of those muscular shining figures is diminished.” This woman is in the wrong job.

There’s far too little gratitude here for the miracle that is free public access in the UK to the finest collections in the world. And that started out with the very dodgy Hans Sloane, former medic on a slave plantation, leaving his collection of 71,000 curios and antiquities to the nation. The principle of universal access began in 1753 with the British Museum. You don’t get that elsewhere. Right now there are queues at the National Gallery to see two pictures by Caravaggio for free. That’s rather marvellous, no?

This tendentious book is so given over to its author’s moral outrage that the functions of art, from giving simple pleasure to the viewer to raising our minds to God, is lost. So why bother?

Melanie McDonagh is an Evening Standard columnist

Battle for the Museum: Cultural Institutions in Crisis (Hurst,£20, out now)

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