What next for our national treasures?

Originally published in The Telegraph Art Guide, June 2015.

Royal Academy of Arts

It’s all change at the UK’s cultural institutions, both inside and out, finds Tom Jeffreys.

London’s galleries have got the builders in. At Bankside, a huge warped pyramid is rising as part of the extensive Tate Modern Project and on Piccadilly, architect David Chipperfield is redeveloping the Royal Academy of Arts ahead of its 250th anniversary in 2018. Meanwhile, up in Manchester, the Whitworth reopened earlier this year following a £15million overhaul, and further afield in New York, the Whitney has unveiled its vast new home, designed by Renzo Piano.

All this redevelopment raises questions about the purpose of our cultural institutions, and in London especially, this feels like a significant moment. Nicholas Penny is retiring from the National Gallery and Sandy Nairne is leaving the National Portrait Gallery. So what will the future hold for our most cherished institutions?

Today’s major galleries operate in a very different environment than they did even 20 years ago. Back in 2001, New Labour reintroduced free admission as a precondition of public funding. Visitor figures boomed, but the institutions were compelled to seek alternative revenue streams: shops, restaurants and blockbuster exhibitions.

Now, with cuts in the arts a reality across the board, these institutions are looking not only to the private sector for donations and corporate partnerships, but increasingly abroad. Tate, for example, has had an exhibition sponsored by the Qatar Museums Authority, while the Royal Academy has been training museum professionals in Hong Kong.

Along with adopting new financial models, these cultural institutions have also embraced new technologies. The digitisation of collections, for example, has enabled them to reach out to fresh audiences. In April, Tate made 11,000 new items available online, including previously unpublished photographs, drawings and sketches, and the digitisation of archives relating to artists such as LS Lowry and Henry Moore is due to be completed this summer.

Technology offers these cultural institutions the opportunity to share not only their collections but their values, too. At the Royal Academy, Chipperfield’s architectural changes go hand in hand with the organisation’s updated digital strategy. The aim is to open up aspects of the institution that many may be unaware of; in the words of Will Dallimore, its director of public engagement, to “reveal a thriving Academy to the world”.

The Royal Academy is not a museum. It is run by artists, and at its centre is the RA Schools. It’s hoped that by linking the Piccadilly and Burlington Gardens buildings, the Royal Academy’s focus on art practice will be reinforced. The development also includes a 260-seat lecture theatre to build on its rich heritage of debate.

In parallel, the website (which I worked on in 2013-14) has promoted wide- ranging comment about visual culture. Its recent online interview with artist Michael Landy demonstrated an admirable ability to champion institutional self-criticism: “I haven’t made up my mind about the RA. Am I part of the establishment – or am I here to destroy it?” he admitted.

Fears that the digital would replace the real have proved unfounded. At best, the two work hand in hand. Dallimore noted of the new generation of museum-goers: “While they want to share what they are doing online, they also crave analogue experiences – to see authentic artwork in the flesh in a gallery.”

Where technology has made an impact, however, is the nature of these experiences. “There is a desire now for more participation,” Dallimore admits. “The way that people regard the authority of curators has changed. People are increasingly keen to discover meaning for themselves, and, to some extent, co-create meaning.” He cites recent examples of so-called “event exhibitions”, such as Rain Room at the Barbican, the Hayward Gallery’s Light Show and the Royal Academy’s own Sensing Spaces. This is a view echoed by Carsten Höller, the artist who installed a series of giant slides in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2006-7.

In a recent talk, Höller described art’s role as akin to entertainment: “Art museums used to be part of an elitist environment. Now they are part of mainstream culture. Tate Modern is for the masses,” he commented.

In 2014, nearly 5.8 million people visited Tate Modern; part of the reason for the Tate Modern Project is simply to create more space. But such major projects also provide an opportunity to think more broadly about what these cultural institutions do – today and in the future.

For one thing, their popularity means they are playing an increasingly important economic role in the cities we live in. According to a 2015 Arts Council report, the UK museum sector contributes £1.45 billion in economic output to the national economy.

In London, these major galleries are a key part of the city’s appeal – for residents, businesses, investors and, increasingly, tourists. Over the past five years, international visitors to the National Gallery have more than doubled, from 1.5million in 2009 to 3.6 million in 2014, or 60 per cent of all visitors. The worry, as Dallimore points out, is that as property prices rise, artists will be priced out of a city whose cultural appeal they helped to create.

For if artists pave the way for gentrification, cultural institutions can accelerate the process. While it is simplistic to suggest that either art or money can solve long-term societal problems, the arrival of a major cultural institution can act as a catalyst for change.

The example par excellence is Guggenheim Bilbao and, more recently, the opening of Turner Contemporary in Margate, Kent, which attracted significant local investment. “Turner Contemporary has been a nucleus of development for the town,” says artist Jonny Briggs, who moved there this year. “I was drawn to the area because of the artist community that has followed the institution.”

Galleries, it seems, are no longer dusty repositories of arcane learning; they are active agents in the world we live in. All that building work is proof of their admirable ability to adapt and change.

Image credit: Royal Academy of Arts, London