Feature | Are crowds ruining culture?

Anne Torreggiani's response at Barbican's Battle of Ideas debate on whether crowds are ruining culture.

With 15 million figures to national institutions last year, some lament they are busy as shopping malls. The problem is typified by images of the Mona Lisa surrounded by crowds drying to take selfies but taking little time to appreciate the painting. Some question whether the surge of new visitors really indicates a renewed interest in culture. BCC Arts Ed Will Gompertz notes that visitor numbers have soared due to foreign tourists, who are often more holiday-makers than art lovers. Is it elitist to expect everyone to aspire to a deep appreciation of what they are looking at?

So, ARE crowds ruining culture?

The answer seems simple to me: it depends.

I’ll start with a story. This morning, I flew back Warsaw where I was wonderfully hosted by the city: I had the extraordinary experience of having a one-to-one tour by not one, but three different curators:

  • One the ZACHĘTA – National Gallery of Art, a very personal tour of a retrospective of a brilliant but little known collagist: Jan Dziaczkowski by his friend and curator.
  • Another, from a selecting curator for the Polish equivalent of the Turner prize by shared wtih me a fast overview of where Polish art is in 2015.
  • And lastly, from a wonderful anthropologist who has spent the last 10 years of her life finding sensitive ways of re-telling the story of Polish Jewry in the new Polin Museum. An object lesson in historical interpretation in this most politically charged of spaces.

How amazing to have these galleries to myself and the curators at my disposal to quiz. It was a deep and transformative experience. It makes me want to say: yes, go away crowds, let me have it all to myself! As it is, I recognise that as an extraordinary privilege.

But my real-world answer, has to be “NO!”. No, of course crowds are not ruining culture. Only those unaware of their privilege would even pose such a question! People are there in ever increasing numbers, because they love the amazing experiences that we create in public spaces. Visitor figures (among the UK population) have risen 10% in less than a decade. Finally, we are seeing a shift in the demographic profile of audiences. What’s more, 97% of visitors say they rated the experience as good, 90% saying they enjoyed themselves. Incidentally, only 1% of audiences claim to be visiting a museum or gallery “for reflection”.

So it seems all our hard work in audience development is paying off. In Britain, we have got very, very good at doing this: in creating… inspiring and connecting experiences, in beautiful but friendly spaces, backed up with communication, content and guided learning all developed through dialogue a diversity of audiences. As I know from my work, we are the envy of the world, because somehow we manage to have our cake and eat it by balancing the achievements of:

  • Making and presenting extremely high quality art and collections
  • With a strong social and democratising purpose
  • In an entrepreneurial way, that makes best of use of vital public investment

For me the answer to this question really depends on what you think the purpose of a public cultural institution actually is. If you think it’s primarily about the conservation of objects for the unhindered delectation of the few, you might say "Yes, the public are ruining it for us!" If you think it’s about creating extraordinary public experiences which take us beyond the shopping mall; creating new conversations, forging new identities, challenging old prejudices… (don't get me started on the benefits), then the answer is of course no.

But actually, I don't think either is right or wrong. As I say, it depends: I defend the right of every cultural organisation to answer this question in their own way. The only thing I would criticise is not being clear about that purpose. If you want a lot of public funds, then I think you must be, at least in part, in the mass experience business. If you want an exclusive, private members club, then you will need to resource it exclusively from private funds.

The popularisation of our big institutions seems entirely appropriate. We should also remember that the handful of national cultural institutions that make "brand London" what it is, are not representative of the whole sector. Our figures for London galleries suggest international visitors at around 23%, for the rest of the country it’s well under 5%. Similarly, for performing arts in London outside the West End. Still, 95% audiences at these large institutions also report having had a good experience.

Large, iconic institutions – and especially their blockbusters - are extremely important gateways for new audiences. The single greatest barrier that we encounter from would-be attenders (i.e. nearly everyone who isn’t already an enthusiast) is not knowing where to start. People like the big institutions because they’re so visible, in both a literal and figurative sense. And these enormous institutions have the space and ingenuity to include a spectrum of experiences – from blockbuster event exhibits to quiet late nights, and undisturbed corners.

Indeed, the big institutions could perhaps make more of their prime position in the cultural ecology, by collaborating or signposting other organisations. Many already do, but could do more: the picture is very different for many smaller organisations. The big institutions could also serve by making the gateways themselves wider. Yes, I think we should manage overcrowding by increasing capacity for popular stuff.
Personally, I have little sympathy with a cultural elite who don’t like the hoi polloi muscling in on what they still perceive as their culture, the preserve of “those that care”. I also have huge faith and confidence in our sector to respond creatively to the “problems” of their own popularity, embracing and delighting the many, still committed to world class quality.

Anne Torreggiani delivered this speech as part of the debate 'From Blockbusters to Selfie Sticks: are crowds ruining culture?' at the Barbican's Battle of Ideas Festival on 17 and 18 November 2015. It was facilitated by Wendy Earle, Birkbeck College, and included contributions from Dr Tiffany Jenkins, Dr Martin Roth Director V&A, and Dr Michael Savage.