Don't shoot the gallery

July 18, 1997

Marcia Pointon defends university museums and art galleries against the 'think the unthinkable' lobby

FINAL-YEAR students and their parents partied in the Whitworth Art Gallery earlier this month. The gallery, with its outstanding collections of paintings, drawings, sculpture and applied arts belongs to the University of Manchester and was a fitting location for the 80 or so graduates in the history of art.

But the Whitworth is not just a good place for parties or concerts. It is a vital adjunct of the university and as much a part of it as laboratories and libraries. Fewer students make regular use of it than of the sports centre, but qualitatively the gallery, and the museum, should be regarded as "core" to the university.

No one argues that a piece of laboratory equipment needs to be used all day every day or by a certain percentage of undergraduates to justify the expenditure. It is accepted that it offers access to knowledge that cannot be provided any other way. The contribution of a gallery or museum to the research and teaching must similarly be taken on trust.

The fact that culture, media and sport minister Chris Smith recently included Manchester (University) Museum and the Whitworth Art Gallery, along with Oxford's Ashmolean and Cambridge's Fitzwilliam, when he designated 32 museums in England for the pre-eminence of their collections, is a huge affirmation of quality. But since no funding follows, such designation is a further headache for university administrators who must be imaginative in ensuring their museums and galleries remain cultural assets.

The beleaguered Hatton Gallery at Newcastle University was rescued by the generosity of a local novelist. But sugar daddies or mummies can provide only a stop-gap. Besides gifts, however welcome, often come with strings attached.

If financial pressure forces universities to shut galleries, we may be sure that this is only the beginning. Those collections, and the distinguished buildings that house them, were largely the product of the philanthropic and enlightened mentality that funded the establishment of laboratories, libraries and teaching hospitals.

The gallery offers a rare space where the university and the local community intersect. It also is one of the few places where a visitor may expect to find quiet (something they will find in few university libraries these days). But let us not deceive ourselves. Those who vote to close galleries today will vote to close libraries (who needs books when there is electronic publishing?) and laboratories tomorrow.

If universities regard the National Heritage Lottery Fund as a corporate sugar daddy, they should do so with considerable caution. Certainly the lottery has provided munificent funding for building programmes. The success of the Manchester (University) Museum in winning one of the three huge grants to Manchester in the last round is a tribute to the acumen of its director. The money will transform the accommodation hitherto chiefly provided by Waterhouse's architecturally distinguished but cramped buildings on Oxford Road. But a successful lottery application is a massive investment of staff time. It also excludes recurrent costs.

Furthermore, the principle of partnership funding requires input from the institution itself in the form of 25 per cent of the project costs. Getting the cash to satisfy this, when the total bid is in the millions, may be harder than acquiring the lottery money.

The spectre of bright new theatres with wonderful bars and nothing on the stage, and refurbished galleries that are closed for lack of staff, is real. If the Government with its "think the unthinkable" philosophy decides, when it reviews the lottery funding rules, that entry fees to museums and galleries are the only option, there will be a further headache. Just how constitutional, let alone how moral, would it be to charge students and staff to enter an art gallery or museum owned and administered by their university, when non-formula Higher Education Funding Council for England income is conditional on providing free access to everyone in higher education? "Everyone" must mean, in the view of one director, staff and students from any university. University core collections often originated in the transfer of material from municipal or private ownership into the custodianship of a civic university in the 19th century. Universities were then understood to have major civic responsibilities and the principle of free access is, therefore, frequently a major element in their constitution.

A few weeks ago the Hatton was "saved", and English artists walked off with some of the best prizes at the Venice biennale. Artists like Rachel Whiteread might never go into a gallery but the winning of those prizes is not merely a matter of pride, it is also a challenge to those in the discipline of art history, whose work it is to track, chart and offer explanations for acts of visual communication. Works of art in art galleries, and artists making art are not disconnected from academics who study and teach art history. Indeed, probably the most recently published and arguably one of the most perceptive analyses of Rachel Whiteread's work is in the current issue of Art History, an academic journal that is edited by myself from the history of art department at Manchester University.

In this department we offer a degree in modern art, and we are fortunate to have another highly innovative contemporary artist, Sonia Boyce, as an artist in residence. The work of these artists is being done now, but it is also already history and is studied in programmes that range from prehistory to the present day. Art- works are not discrete to museum spaces, studios or university departments, any more than practice is separable from theory. A gallery cannot be evaluated on a spreadsheet: it is a place of learning, as well as a place of display and viewing.

I am struck by how little this is understood. Of course, departments cannot, and should not, construct syllabuses around the accidental nature of collections. The quality of a class that is taught in a gallery is, however, unique. This spring I introduced second-year students to the history of print. Understanding how the plates for Tumer's Liber Studiorum were made, distinguishing between a 19th-century wood engraving and an 18th-century mezzotint, appreciating that more copies and mass dissemination of imagery depends on technological as well as cultural change or that plates in a mass circulation paper like the Illustrated London News were the result of piece-work, can only be grasped in a hands-on session.The Whitworth has the only serious print room north of Oxford and south of Edinburgh, and only with a major print collection can youn undertake this work.

University senate members should ponder the implications of what they advocate when university art collections seem easy targets. Who should manage, and who should finance, university museums and galleries is a debate that must take place in a properly informed way.

Marcia Pointon is professor of art history, University of Manchester.

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