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.

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