There's no doubt that with a conservative prime minister back in harness, even if he is propped up by some shoddy and disreputable coalition, hard times are ahead for the arts. Well before Cameron and his Etonian banker friends gained the reins of power, museum directors were already having to resort to desperate remedies like shipping renaissance masterpieces all over America in order to attract sponsorship or money. I've posted complaints about this before, but next to what I'm hearing from an certain art curator, this is nothing.
In a provocative article in the Art Newspaper, the Tory art writer, Dr Bendor Grosvenor talks about curbing wastage and inefficiency due to arcane practices like using 12 people to hang a picture- I must admit I've never seen that-, first class air travel for curators accompanying works of art- I've met museum directors who insist on that. All well and good, some valid points, but Grosvenor's sign-off sentiment about deaccessioning "third rate" works of art to make space in museums and raise money for them is questionable as a cure for financial ills. Should deaccessioning be used by museums to alleviate some of the financial pain that is going to increase as Cameron's plans for slashing public funds are rolled out? My answer to that is if we go down that road, then it would be a very sad day for museums in this country indeed. And how would you decide what is third rate and worthy of deaccessioning, Dr Grosvenor? Take the National Gallery for example. There are many paintings downstairs in an unofficial overflow section that could be termed "third-rate", but they're still significant. Something doesn't have to be high-quality or canonical, and therefore valuable financially, to be meaningful to a collection and its viewers. Despite what the magnifici say, the Madonna of the Pinks is a third-rate picture, but even I would draw the line at letting this be deaccessioned, assuming that it was de-attributed, hopefully in the next decade.
Another argument for deaccessioning apart from freeing up museum space is that it increases quality in a museum by weeding out the unfit or sickly work of art- the Darwinian principle applied to museums. However, Bendor Grosvenor doesn't seem to be talking about this aspect of deaccessioning; he means selling works of art to bolster museum operating funds rather than using deaccessioning to rebalance a collection to fit in with curatorial policy linked to issues of quality.
Dr Grosvenor has advised the Tory party in the past about the arts; as he says, he helped draft documents for an Arts Task Force and an arts manifesto for the conservatives. Reading through the former, to their credit, no mention of deaccessioning is found; instead it's remarkably liberal in its espousal of free museum entry and increasing subsidy of the arts. I haven't seen the manifesto, so I can't comment. Yet it's worrying that Grosvenor's article has more than a whiff of new right ideology about it: cry havoc, attack state institutions and let set the dogs of deregulation.
"Further steps will be taken to encourage private philanthropy, not to replace state funding but to force museums to look outward, through the use of matched funding, and erode the creatively stultifying mindset of state. Museums must re-engage with visitors, their supporters, and new audiences if they are to diversify their funding base."
There's been a debate going on during this decade about quality verses visitor experience in museums. One of the best examples of this is an essay by Philip Wright in The New Museology in which the author asks the same question as Dr Grosvenor, though mercifully without the ideological baggage. Wright argues that curators need to engage with educationalists by making transparent the processes by which art historians and curators choose to display art on their museum walls. It's a laudable aim, but I don't think it'll be realized. Curators create displays for other art historians, not the public. For instance, how many of the general public would have discerned that the Raphael exhibition of 2004 at the NG was meant to illustrate the arguments of a handful of scholars seeking to present their ideas in exhibition form- but that's another issue.
I wonder what Dr Grosvenor has got in mind. Could it perhaps be something along the lines of the current Tory mantra? Consult the public; let them make decisions about how money is spent in the museum sector? We could have a representative of Joe Public on the National Gallery's board of trustees, helping to curb the seemingly wasteful amount of money spent on the running of the gallery.
Of course, we all know that Cameron's consultative exercise is designed to shift blame for the UK's large deficit to the public and away from the government. It strikes me that there's something of the same attitude prevalent in Dr Grosvenor's little lecture, only this time blamed is offloaded on to the museum profession. Sure, curators and museum professionals are not models of economic management, but they're not to blame for the systematic erosion of arts funding over the last few decades- blame that on philistine governments, and especially right-wing ideologues like Cameron who only care about art when it has political leverage.
Doubtless, Dr Grosvenor has a valuable contribution to make to the debate about arts funding, but could we drop the language of the new right first? We're going to get enough of that in the months to come as we return to a Thatcherite programme of savage and unjustifiable cuts. Sure, let's talk about the new museology, but please leave the new right for whimsical semi-retired Thatcherite philosophers like Roger Scruton.