Art in the time of austerity

By Martin Vogel

National Portrait Gallery

We’ve recently completed a project with the National Portrait Gallery, who engaged us to develop a draft social value model. We spoke to people at all levels of the National Portrait Gallery’s staff as well as external stakeholders such as corporate sponsors.

We found this a striking instance of the specifity of making a social value case. It’s tempting to think in generic terms about the social value of any given sector. But each institution is different. The National Portrait Gallery has unique characteristics which differentiate it from other galleries and museums. These are rooted in its founding purpose, which was to tell the story of Britain through portraits of men and women of achievement. Unusually for an art gallery, this means that the subject of the artworks is of greater importance than their artistic merit. Is the National Portrait Gallery, therefore, most similar to other galleries in their role as custodians of arts or to museums which curate artifacts of historic interest? To what extent should it stay true to its Victorian mission to tell a canonical story of Britain versus a contemporary, post-modern one to foster critique of hegemonic narratives and encourage a more inclusive portrayal of Britain?

The answer to these question are determined in part by the view one takes of the social value that the Gallery should deliver under different scenarios of how the economic crisis will play out.

In the boom years, prior to the financial crash, the cultural sector enjoyed growing financial support – the case for which was made largely in terms of the arts’ contribution to the economy. In times of austerity, one might expect the focus to become narrower still – as declining financial support may encourage institutions to worry purely about inputs and hang the outcomes. From this perspective, consideration of social value is a luxury that can wait for more buoyant economic conditions.

But it is interesting to note that some aspects of the National Portrait Gallery’s social value come to the fore most clearly in times of uncertainty and social distress. The potential for a gallery of portraiture and achievement to promote social cohesion and moral example was part of its attraction to the Victorian founders and remains relevant today. This potential was fufilled in 2005, when the Gallery saw a significant growth in visitor numbers in the weeks and months following the 7/7 tube and bus bombings in London.

The reasons for this are unclear but it’s an echo of the role the neighbouring National Gallery played during the Second World War. Bombed and with its entire collection removed to safety in North Wales, the National Gallery nonetheless became a much-loved beacon of hope and civilisation as it maintained a programme of daily concerts and a changing monthly display of a single picture. The director, Kenneth Clarke – inundated with requests – programmed for a public he regarded as “anxious to contemplate a nobler order of humanity” as noted by the art critic, Andrew Graham-Dixon:

“The first “Picture of the Month” selected was … the Noli me Tangere, Titian’s profoundly moving depiction of the Magdalen reaching out towards Christ, who has appeared to her after his resurrection, and who gently reproves her with the words “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my father.” It is not hard to see why this image of the unattainable Christ, of a salvation that can be sensed but not touched, would have spoken so directly to people during the darkest days of war.”

Attendances outstripped normal peacetime attendance to the full gallery. Andrew Graham-Dixon discerns a lasting impact today on the National Gallery’s sense of purpose:

“The legacy of the “Picture of the Month” is impossible to quantify but perhaps the Observer’s reporter came closest to the truth when he remarked that as a result of it “The National Gallery is far more genuinely a national possession than ever before”. Its Trustees, true to the moral example set by their wartime predecessors, have made sure that it remains just that. Unlike virtually any other national museum of equivalent status – the Louvre, say, or the Prado – it remains free of charge. This is reflected in patterns of visitor attendance, so that whereas the typical French visitor to the Louvre attends once a year, if that, the majority of British visitors to the National Gallery will go there around ten or twelve times in the same period. They may go to see a special exhibition, but as often as not they will go during a lunch hour, or even just for ten minutes or a quarter of an hour, to see a particular, favourite work of art. The pleasure of looking at art is often greatest when the object of attention is just one picture and it seems that this lesson, learned all those years ago, during wartime, has somehow embedded itself in the national consciousness.”

This aspect of value is also evident at the National Portrait Gallery. It seems that, in the wake of 7/7, people gravitated towards both the vision the Gallery offers of Britain as a conducive and inclusive society and the ease of enjoyment and uplift that wandering its galleries provides.

While we were working there in the months after the London riots and with the prospect, still with us, of financial collapse in Europe, we could see how this aspect of the Gallery’s social value could be especially pertinent in the current climate. Not only does it provide an antidote to the sense of social division that the riots exemplified, it also provides a cost-effective and accessible way of fostering well-being at a time when more material compensations are contracting.

Arts institutions are accustomed to thinking about these aspects of their value in relation to their outreach work in local communities. They are less assertive in articulating these benefits in relation to their core purpose. We find that people who work in organisations often find it difficult to describe the intrinsic value of what they do – partly because it is self-evident to them, partly because the culture of the last thirty years has been more interested in the instrumental value of institutions. Is it possible that the era of austerity will make it more propitious to justify the intrinsic value of the arts?

Image courtesy Roberto Trm.