Sorry for lazy blogging. When I heard about the Tate/BP re-hang I thought it was time for a post, .
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a large multinational conglomerate, BP, is advertised in the name of an exhibition designed to inaugurate the Tate’s makeover. In fact you have to admire the audacity of a corporation putting its name on an exhibition encompassing “500 Years of British Art,” especially as its origins are in 1909, not 1450. It’s like BP are laying claim to the traditions and cultures of British art, absorbing all the historical continuities, disruptions within one brand name. History packaged as a commodity to be sold to the “visitor’s economy” in the unhappy neoliberal speak of our times. Not that there’s anything new about BP advertising at the Tate. In his Privatizing Culture: Corporate Art Intervention since the 1980s. Chin-Tao Wu traced the infiltration of the museums by corporations such as BP which one of the largest sponsors of art in this country. Excellent overview of corporate activity in the art’s sector. Not an alarmist political diatribe, but a very cool and objective analysis of how the corporations have gained footholds on the boards of trustees, annexed space and generally encroached on the museums and galleries, all inspired by the Thatcherism revolution. My favourite corp tale was the semiotic shenanigans of the Swedish Absolut Vodka to sell their product at Oxford Modern Art. There are many examples of this; it’s become endemic to the culture.
Some directors have become habituated to the role of corporations in modern museum culture. It’s not even a subject for discussion- just glossed over for fear of offending the sponsors. In an article in yesterday’s Evening Standard, the current Director of Tate Britain Penelope Curtis doesn’t even offer a rationale for the inclusion of BP in the exhibition’s title. “Our criterion for the new BP Walk through British Art, as we are calling it, has been to create a sense of flow and to encourage the pleasure of looking at art as it changes.” (my emphasis) Absolutely no attempt to explain the inclusion of the corporation in the title of the re-hang- the question doesn’t arise.
This comes just a few weeks after the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, told a stunned conclave of arts supremos that they have to give their projects, museums and culture completely over to the discipline of the free-market, give up all claims to art for art’s sake and regard art in brute economic units, turn art into commodity, turn aesthetic material into the tools of advertising. Miller has a background in advertising, and it’s clear that there’s going to be more pervasive marketing in our cultural spaces in the future, which doesn’t bode well for the gallery-goer seeking sanctuary from the commercialism of modern life. I’m too lazy to check the reference but I think one of the original ideas behind the National Gallery was that the art would provide relaxation, a break from work, not that the visiting experience would be an extension of work into the space of the galleries. I know people who work in the commercial, financial sector, who love their art- and I’m sure they’d want that kind of experience. There’s a debate about distraction and work emerging here- but another time.
This public space has been under attack for twenty years or so. Since the days of the Enterprize culture of Mrs Thatcher, the arts have been forced into a Faustian bargain and it’s becoming clear that they sold their soul for nothing. The terms of the devil’s bargain went something like this. “We’ll give your museums money for refurbishments, exhibitions, cultural innovations- just allow us to put our brand names on the pages of catalogues, on the pennants flying outside your museums, some advertising in the media.” “OK, we’ll do that; no harm in doing a bit of advertising, not too intrusive, and it’ll still be arts for art’s sake, with the money/commercial success we might make from it an after-effect, not as an entrepreneurial goal.” Faustian pacts aside, my feeling is that the arts have massively underestimated the ambitions of the corporations, urged on by the privatizing ambitions of this government. Reading advertising agency trained Miller’s stark ultimatum which has been met with utter dismay by many leading figures in the arts – see BG’s detailed post on AHN- and thinking about “500 Years of BP British Art” it’s difficult not to conclude that corporate advertising in the arts might be entering a new phase, especially as the axe of austerity is inevitably going to fall heavily on the funding for arts and culture. The arts aren’t confident that MM is going to “fight their corner” with the Treasury in the looming spending reviews. We’re embarking on a new chapter in the narrative of the museum in neoliberal culture, and it’s likely to be unedifying and banal.