Sharp visitor decline in London galleries.

August 10 2018

Image of Sharp visitor decline in London galleries.

Picture: The Times

There's been a rather worrying decline in visitor numbers at some of London's leading art galleries. The Times reports that directors are holding 'crisis meetings'. The significant drops are at Tate Modern, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery.

An immediate thought might be that the drop has something to do with Brexit and foreign travel. But in fact it appears the decline is linked to Londoners and people who live in the South East, particularly younger audiences. The Times article searches for various causes, but the fact is that nobody really seems to know. 

Overall, the numbers are not encouraging for art lovers. The one institutions to break the trend is the V&A, which has seen a consistent rise, and a sharp increase of late. There was an interesting piece in The Guardian recently attributing part of the rise not only to a strong exhibition programme, but also a new entrance, which the V&A's director Tristram Hunt described as 'frankly less scary'. People always under-estimate 'threshold resistance' in museums, so well done the V&A for tackling it - it's a museum which is a pleasure to enter.

But what of the rest? Here, for what it is worth, is my diagnosis. This is a decline which, if it is because local and younger audiences are turning away, has been a long time coming. Institutions like the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery are now paying the price for disregarding a key part of their core mission; that is, telling the story of the nation's art and its portraits in a readily accessible way. For too long they've chased the tourist pound on their doorstep (not surprisingly, given their locations), but they have neglected the need to reach out to new and younger audiences.

This is most evident in two areas. First, the most basic one; opening times. Regular readers will know that AHN has long argued for opening times that better suit busy working locals, and that means later opening hours, not just on one day a week. The Prado is open till 8pm Monday to Saturdays. 

The second is their online presence, and an antiquated approach to things like images, story-telling, and engaging with those who can help to share their message online. One of the worst offenders - I regret to say, because I love the place - is the National Portrait Gallery.

Have a look at their YouTube page, and you will find very few videos, none of great interest. They've been watched by very few people. It's really quite embarrassing. Maybe the new Michael Jackson exhibition will transform the way the gallery is seen by younger audiences. But somehow I doubt it; it's an old person's idea of a young person's show. The decline at the NPG's visitor numbers represents a consistent fall to about half its levels of a few years ago. That's not good.

What I think is interesting about the V&A's success is the way they are quite good at exploiting the diversity of their collection, and using individual objects as ambassadors in their mission. It helps that of all the UK's national museums, the V&A is the most generous at providing higher resolution images online, and with entries that are well-catalogued too. With the V&A you get the sense that they are keen to glory in all the fascinating stories that their collection has to offer. With the NPG, it doesn't feel like that, which is a shame, because with portraiture the story-telling opportunities are always so rich; you get the story of the sitter, of the artist, and the wider historical moment the poirtrait was made. Portraits are story-telling machines, in the way that (say) still-lifes are not. 

One gets a similar sense at Tate Britain, which in terms of visitor numbers continues to bump along the bottom. But there, a wholesale change in emphasis is needed if they're to hope to make the likes of Hogarth and Gainsborough more appealing to new audiences. Will the leadership at Tate ever allow 'historical' British art to emerge from the shadows?

The good news is that at the National Gallery, they're now doing a much better job with their online offering, such as their Facebook live talks, and videos on everything from framing to conservation.

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