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Friday, 5 May, 2000, 08:58 GMT 09:58 UK
Do new galleries put us all in the frame?

By BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley

Who's the world's most famous artist? Rolf Harris, according to an oft-quoted mid-1990s survey of Britons.

With a positive deluge of new galleries opening across the country, would Mr Harris win top honours if the question were posed again tomorrow?

Britain's art spaces and museums notch up an impressive 80 million visits each year. But for all the media hurrah about Salford's Lowry Centre and the 134m Tate Modern in London, is art any more accessible to people in the UK?
Rolf Harris
Rolf: "Can you tell what it is yet?"

Matthew Evans, the government's new appointee to head the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, seems to have his doubts.

Mr Evans provoked a storm of protest when he suggested the nation's galleries were crying out for "leadership and change".

Proposals that art works should be displayed in libraries, schools and shops were trounced by many cultural commentators.

Meating masterpieces

"Keep Rembrandt's mother out of the butcher's shop!" cried the London Evening Standard's waspish art critic Brian Sewell.

Traditional art spaces are certainly not being ignored. At least seven major gallery building and refurbishment projects will have been unveiled by the end of this year.
Tate Modern
Tate Modern is a powerhouse of modern art

While tourists and British culture vultures will appreciate these ventures, they may not have an effect on the general populace.

Patrick Greene, head of the Museum's Association, fears grand cultural projects may never attract enough people to justify their price tags.

"There simply aren't enough visitors to go round," he said.

A survey last year found many young Britons, particularly teenage boys, believe art is the preserve of the rich and the old.

Building an audience

Martin Bailey, from the Art Newspaper, thinks venues such as the Tate Modern's converted power station can attract those unfamiliar with galleries.

"I'm sure it will broaden access. It's a very dramatic space and a lot of people are interested in the building. It's bound to attract people who aren't necessarily lovers of painting."
Tate Gallery exhibit
Horse drawn: Accessible art?

Architecture has long been blamed for putting off prospective visitors, with many people likening the experience of entering a gallery to that of crossing the threshold of a cathedral.

Hushed-tones and an atmosphere of awed reverence is not the sort of leisure experience many of us are seeking on our days off.

"It's unfair to say galleries are unwelcoming. They're very open places. They have cafes and shops and websites. Many of the major galleries are also free."

Media sensations

Thanks to countless column inches, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin would probably give Rolf a run for his money in the most famous artist stakes.

However, some pundits doubt all the media attention paid to the Turner Prize and the Royal Academy's Sensation show really encourage new gallery visitors.
Tate Gallery Exhibit
Is contemporary art rubbish?

David Lee, former editor of Art Review, says promoting controversial or conceptual art may be counterproductive.

"Apologists for this work claim it causes discussion. It serves only to confirm people's worst suspicions about contemporary art."

Mr Lee says national collections are selecting high-profile artists of the sort promoted by Charles Saatchi, at the expense of other styles.

"If you're going to have 'state' art, it should recognise talent across the range of styles and not just artists who give galleries and the government a youngish, coolish image."

Young at art

Simon Ritchie, from the Gulbenkian Foundation which funded last year's survey into art's appeal, says 'young' art doesn't always attract even young visitors.

"There's a lot of exciting and energetic art created by young artists, but it is not necessarily accessible to young people.

"If they think they're being taken for a ride, young people are quick to respond."
Cerith Wyn Evans: Inverse Reverse Perverse
"Who's that meant to be?"

Mr Ritchie says the greatest service the new art museums can do for our cultural life is to offer visitors a helping hand.

"We all need to be introduced to places and taken around them. If I were to go to a greyhound race, I'd want someone to show me the ropes."

While art galleries may not be everyone's cup of tea, Mr Ritchie says the of use 'mentors' may give those uncomfortable with art some cultural confidence.

"There are people who may like art very much, but have been turned off before they get to the door of a gallery because of their preconceptions."

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See also:

08 Feb 00 | UK
Thoroughly modern Tate
20 Jan 00 | Entertainment
New museums 'may fail'
03 Apr 00 | UK
Museum visits for 1
26 Apr 00 | UK
Lowry gallery opens
14 Dec 99 | UK
Arts 'a teenage turn-off'
20 Oct 99 | UK
The Turner Prize draw
03 Apr 00 | UK
Art Hirst and foremost
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