Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Taint Modern

At the end of his recent Guardian article, ‘Isms come back with a vengeanceAdrian Searle worries that the problem with the Tate Modern is its popularity.

“It is difficult to see how it can reasonably cope with the volume of visitors, many of whom will have little chance to pause and savour either individual works or their new contexts. They won't get the gags, they won't be moved or touched. Instead, they'll be crushed.”

Not a new problem for art museums and galleries: the Museé du Luxembourg here in Paris, to name only one, is regularly full to bursting point and the queues that extend around the building by day, and on occasions, late into the night, show no sign of shortening even inside the exhibition hall. But visitor numbers for the Tate exceed the Pompidou Centre, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

So how is it that the plastic arts are able to wallow in a popularity that the art of serious music can only crave? Deyan Sudjic in an Observer article [May 1 2005] covers most of the ground in explaining the Tate’s laudable success although he swiftly glosses over the fact that entry to the museum is free, which I’m sure is of more than passing significance.

The Beeb and the usual pundits made much of the series of free downloads that were available from the BBC last year – expressing astonishment that “The take-up has been absolutely enormous!” While the rather more cautious, considered response from Noseda now seems laden with a certain amount of satirical pessimism.

"I'm thrilled that our performances have reached such a large, new audience and hope this trial will encourage more people to experience and enjoy orchestral music live in concert."
I wonder if it has?

Both of these examples are unquestionably marketing success stories; the former, for reasons explained in Deyan’s article, and because museums remain high on the cultural tourist’s itinerary; the latter because large numbers of people now have conspicuously redundant, acquisitively hungry portable media devices hanging about their necks.

Classical music – or at least the idealised sound of classical music - still has a certain cachet. By appealing to widespread dilettantism it inspires an intellectual elitism, which is why it remains popular in film scores, and why orchestral samples pervade serious news bulletins, ads etc. However, shifting the audience’s transitory interest from the periphery to the core is quite another matter: a matter not of marketing, but of education.

To make any sense of the statistics we’d need to know a few more details. For example: what proportion of the average 103-minute visit do Tate Modern visitors actually spend looking at paintings - as opposed to ascending and descending the various stairways, visiting one of the largest art bookshops in the world and pondering the range of hot or cold beverages? Similarly, we’d need to know how many freeloaders were sufficiently impressed or inspired by wall-to-wall Beethoven to cough-up their hard-earned cash and attend a live performance?

Adrian Searle needn’t worry; if the Tate becomes over-popular they can always starting charging an entry fee. Besides, Nicholas Serota, (the Tate’s director) is struggling with a rather different problem:

“…to deal with the single greatest challenge facing the Tate - its inability to afford to buy new works in an exploding art market. We need people to give us great works.”
And we need musicians to give us great performances – and we too are unable, or unwilling to pay.

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