There’s been a lot of moaning about art galleries recently. The low percentage of any gallery’s collection actually on display has been inviting exasperated grumbles for quite some time; Grayson Perry, in his Reith Lecture to be broadcast on Radio 4 on Tuesday, is rumored to complain about the ample authority of a tiny group of ‘expert’ curators, and the Frieze Fair, opening this week in London, has attracted a flurry of criticism for being a staged in the parallel universe of the super-rich oligarch yacht-owners. It’s easy to lose faith in our galleries.
But galleries aren’t just about the art on display. Last Friday saw the opening of the Nation//Live exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery here in Edinburgh. The exhibition is the gallery’s largest community outreach project and features responses to works art by residents of Clydebank, Inverness, Dumfriesshire and Skye. At the opening last week, participants in the project performed in a musical cross-cultural exchange: Senegalese vocals accompanied a very Scottish-sounding two stringed guitar. Rabbie Burns, or at least his full-length bust, overlooked the proceedings in the historic hall of the Portrait Gallery; the participants certainly didn’t miss the magnitude of the moment and of their achievements. After all, the gallery made it possible for ‘amateur’ artists from a small community to exhibit their work in the oldest portrait gallery in the world. It’s not something to take lightly.
Our society of exclusively negative news makes it easy to lose perspective; the amount of work galleries put in to making art accessible to all is a regrettably under-discussed topic. This year sees the launch of Project Generation, a mission to display 1000 pieces from the Scottish National Gallery’s collection in some of the smaller communities across Scotland. In an economic climate where Arts budgets are still adjusting to huge cuts, it’s a noble move. Keeping an interest in art alive in communities where it’s more difficult to see works in the flesh is a critical part of maintaining an argument for the purpose of art in today’s society.