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18th January 2021

Art galleries aren’t a priority in a pandemic – but they are essential

The real threat to galleries may not be Covid-19 but the government’s utilitarian attitude to the arts, says Probert Dean
Art galleries aren’t a priority in a pandemic – but they are essential
David Dixon @Geograph

Under Lockdown 3, our gallery doors are closed once more, reduced to empty frames on a wall, or blank pieces of canvas in an abandoned studio, longing to become gateways to worlds of imagination and delight.

A cautious person might reasonably call this an effective prophylaxis. But one could query this justification when other businesses, gyms for example, remain open. Gyms, surely, are the more perilous of the two. If I could ever be tempted to mingle with panting strangers, and couldn’t find a good dogging spot, I’d make straight for the gym in a beeline.

Exercising your rights

‘Gyms are essential for our mental health’, say the gym devotees on my Instagram. ‘6am mass Yoga sessions are more important than preventing infection’, says the man who stencils inspirational Bob Marley lyrics on Liverpool’s disused phone boxes. In my city, at least, most of the gym owners, and those refusing to close, seem to think the virus is a lie, or else beamed into us somehow through iPhones. If this is the sort of thing treadmillers and yoga mums are exposed to, then I can’t think of anywhere worse to go for my mental health than a gym. They’re breeding grounds for paranoid delusion.

I don’t deny that exercise can improve your mood – though it’s hard to believe when you’re halfway through a push-up – but it’s not like you can’t exercise from home, or go for a stroll, a hike, a run. During Lockdown the First, my partner did gym sessions in our living room via Zoom, which had the added benefit of allowing her to simultaneously drink vodka tonics.

But museums and galleries are one of the few things you can’t really do from home, no matter how good Google Image Search gets. Cheerfully, Manchester Art Gallery has released a report showing how paintings and sculptures benefit the public in times of viral catastrophe. This follows Neil Mendoza’s statement that the arts sector ‘finds it very hard to quantify’ such things to the Treasury. Art is a bit mysterious to economists. They don’t understand why anyone would paint anything other than Sir Robert Walpole with a beagle.

The results are in

If Manchester’s art galleries are trying to pitch themselves as beacons of hope in whatever version of ‘normal’ we’re now in, then the results look good. 98% of visitors said that they felt safe during their visit. While that reflects incredibly well on the gallery’s staff and their safety measures, perhaps we shouldn’t make too much of it. If humans could reliably interpret danger, we wouldn’t need No Swimming signs around alligator-infested lakes.

2 out of 5 surveyed said visiting the gallery had a positive impact on their happiness and wellbeing. I can corroborate that myself. One of my fondest memories was when work accidentally sent me to Manchester for no reason, and I spent the day in the Art Gallery and the Manchester Museum instead: basking in industrial landscapes, sitting in the dark while weird shorts looped, and admiring fossilised ammonites behind glass. I discovered Pierre Adolphe Valette, Lowry’s French Impressionist cousin, and listened to plants amplified through loudspeakers. It was truly one of the greatest days of my working life.

But put yourself in the Treasury’s shoes. How relevant is our personal happiness to the economy? My guess would be, not very. Splurge-buying and comfort-shopping probably account for a good deal of the nation’s GDP. Therapy is expensive, you know, and not just the real kind.

A terrified person, like myself, might reasonably argue that all public spaces are pregnable to airborne pathogens. Staying indoors is the vasectomy of prevention. But I agree with Manchester Art Gallery, that if gyms, of all places, can throw out the welcome mat, then so should our galleries.

Art attack

This seems typical of a regime that has closed our libraries, stripped our curriculums of music, and turned our art spaces into endless blocks of flats. The decision strikes me as another tribute to that ever-lurking nemesis of art, utilitarianism: the prevailing belief in this country that art and culture is frivolous – a luxury – despite the rocketing demand for Netflix originals, murder podcasts and Hamilton tickets. We consume more art than ever.

Galleries are not essential in a pandemic, but they are essential. They need prophylaxis too. We need to beware attempts to shun art and culture, and we must criticise any philosophy that values its institutions beneath the place where you go to lift heavy things and run on the spot. Otherwise, that might be all we have left.

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