It's good to do things on your holidays that you might not ordinarily do. Even so, I generally fall into the 'culture vulture' type of holiday-maker - tromping round cities visiting galleries and museums, book and record shops, concerts, theatres if I can understand the language, that kind of thing. This year's holiday, a trains and old friends one, was exactly that, starting in one of the summer's hot spots - Hackney. Moving on to Brussels and Holland, however, we began doing things we don't usually do - eating Ethiopian (if you're ever in Brussels go to Kokob, it's fantastic), cycling - and paying to get into art galleries. This in particular made me ponder a few questions. (To which I'll also posit some simplistic answers.)
- Was there a connection between the not insubstantial amounts we paid to get into really fine contemporary galleries like Wiels and Bozar and the lack of people in the galleries? (I've seen more people in UK galleries on a wet Wednesday morning.) The shows we saw were mainly excellent and ambitious - the Jeff Wall retrospective at Bozar in particular, juxtaposing his photos with pieces that inspired him. They were big and value for money. But there were few people there. My simplistic answer?: Yes, despite the truism being that research shows price is not the main barrier to attendance at the arts. (Google that phrase if you want some research about that - it's slightly more nuanced, but generally observed.) But whilst price may not be the barrier, the entry fee stands for a show of commitment - you need to be committed in some way - to the show, or the visit - rather than simply curious or sheltering from the rain. So once that commitment to attend is built, price - more or less, if I'd not been on holiday I might have thought twice - is not a barrier - but free entry can be an incentive for the un-committed.
- Or was it the contemporary nature of the work which was off-putting, as the museum galleries we visited were all heaving. Even Andy Warhol at the temporary Stedilijk in Amsterdam had a stroll in factor whilst the nearby museums had long queues for van Gogh, Rembrandt et al. Does the 'subscription' model of getting on in the visual arts actually lessen the audience for new work, by creating a popular demand for 200 years of subscription before making something part of a tourist/visitor experience? Simplistic answers: yes to both. Many people just don't trust contemporary taste and prefer things to have been 'resolved' by art history. (Not saying I agree, or think it's healthy. It just seems the case.)
- It was noticeable how, let's say, 'undeveloped' the secondary offer - catering especially, but also shops to a lesser degree - seemed to be in the galleries we visited - why was this? Simplistic answer: having paid to get in, people are less likely to want to pay for lunch in the venue, and maybe the venues have a mix of ticket and public income that reduces the need to really focus on a notoriously difficult area. as many UK galleries testify, if you don;t really think the offer through, you end up with mediocre shops and cafes. Also, if the place is not one you can 'drop into' or have informal meetings in, as the cafes and bars of many UK arts venues are, they are limited in potential, and - for me - don't feel as good.
- Final question was, are European galleries - or perhaps more accurately, the European curator grapevine/network - behind an odd trend I've noticed for curators getting their name headlined on posters and brochures and in big letters on gallery walls. Almost all the contemporary galleries seemed to emphasise curators almost as much as artists - and at least one listed the CEO and his team alongside that. This may well be connected to the 'subscription' model for curators - ie, never mind the audience, did peer curators like the show? - but as a punter I find it distracting, as for me curators are not auteurs any more (or less) than the editors of, say, novels are. I imagine the case is, firstly, credit where it's due (they're the poor devils who have to dig out those Lyotard quotes for the brochures after all) but also the curating is a fundamental part of the gallery experience, and the visitor should be aware of it. Simplistic answer: perhaps, but I'd rather avoid following this particular trend, please, and stick to the credits and the acknowledgements - and the gradual awareness of a curator's work and influence that comes from helping artists make great shows.