Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former councillor in Suffolk.
A media firestorm greeted Manchester Art Gallery’s removal of ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’, a luscious painting by Pre-Raphaelite artist, JW Waterhouse, from public display. A curator had decided to “provoke a debate about women in art” because it features topless women, but she became the victim, vilified for her boldness. So, the picture was quickly restored to its regular location.
Nakedness, both male and female, is part of the art scene going back thousands of years, so linking the decision to the MeToo campaign seemed a bit opportunistic, and the publicity was certainly mishandled. However, we should celebrate that it did engage the public, which is a good thing. It raised awareness of an important work in the city’s collections, attracting a broad commentary, including from the much-derided ‘experts’; people who had never even heard of this particular painting, nor the artist, or ever visited the Gallery, will be motivated to discover more.
I hope the Gallery (as well as others around the UK) will learn from this experience, selecting other works for discussion in future, but without removing them from display; alternatively, bring something out of storage, inviting comment on why it should be restored and shown. One option would be to partner with schools and colleges to make the choice and work with the local media, including newspapers, to explain the focus of debate.
In the meantime, the furore is a reminder that the UK taxpayer owns a wide range of magnificent artefacts, including fine paintings, sculpture, porcelain and furniture, both ancient and modern. Yet the public are largely unaware of what is on their doorstep, in local museums and galleries, or held in often inadequate storage, rather than on public view.
Whilst London’s famous institutions have international recognition, this is not necessarily reflected right across the country, where local authorities (and some trusts) have responsibility – and don’t always appreciate their importance as economic assets, and a tool to develop tourism. Funding is a problem, but relatively small sums (Arts Council please note and make it easier to apply) can bring significant benefits to the most modest museums, allowing them to showcase more items.
Better known works are occasionally loaned to regional museums, or foreign galleries, but there is no central register for all the items in public ownership across the UK, including those in Parliament. Having such a register would enable greater coordination and creativity when designing special exhibitions and educational programmes, with the potential to share smaller collections, getting them out of storage and on display.
It would be wholly justified to make a modest charge, with the usual discounts applied for pensioners and children, as well as disabled people, to view special exhibitions – as already happens at some shows in prime locations – to fund the extra work. Ironically, a charge places a higher value on the visitor experience, especially for tourists.
Sadly, some schools are complaining that they are being forced to drop the Arts because of reduced funding and the focus on more academic subjects. This is a mistake because culture is at the heart of our history, and provides a lifetime of enjoyment – whether as an active participant as professional or amateur artist, musician, actor or playwright, or simply as a visitor or theatre-goer.
As with sport, culture is something for people from all walks of life and religion, developing confidence and friendships across age groups and abilities, removing social barriers. Disadvantaged youngsters who may otherwise find themselves embroiled in gangs (through no fault of their own) deploy their talents constructively, which helps them learn in the formal school environment.
There are opportunities for schools and colleges to work together, instead of in isolation, supporting outreach, evening and weekend training sessions (as with sport) to develop creativity. Public schools emphasise the value of the Arts in their curriculum, State schools and Academies should do the same, or we are in danger of limiting access and the creativity which derives from different life experiences.
Networks of volunteers already help in museums, and galleries, as well as mentoring young people and teaching new skills, but potential new recruits aren’t always aware of how they can contribute within their communities, especially if they relocate to a different area in retirement. Local authorities could use their annual Council Tax communications to suggest ideas…