The national appetite for art and art spaces seems insatiable. When Tate Modern was unveiled in 2000, two million annual visits were expected; today more than five million visitors a year pour through its Thames-side doors.
The National Gallery and the Natural History Museum each have more than five million visits a year also, and the British Museum topped not only UK cultural attractions, but all UK attractions, with 5.6 million visits in 2012, four years after it first usurped Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Meanwhile provincial museums and galleries can top one million visits, without the benefit of London tourism.
But while it is hard to think of this cultural boom as anything but good news, it brings its own problems. One came to light recently when I attended a briefing about the new home for New York’s distinguished Whitney Museum of American Art. In 2015, the Whitney will move its Rauschenbergs, Ruschas and Rothkos into a stonking new building, designed by Renzo Piano, in the city’s old meat-packing district by the Hudson.
There are echoes of Tate Modern here – a hip institution on a brownfield site, by the river, regenerating an unfashionable space and attracting non-regular gallery-goers; no coincidence, then, that the Whitney’s chief curator is Donna De Salvo (pictured), formerly senior curator at Tate Modern. And the new Whitney should prove at least as popular – but, for this reason, Ms De Salvo told me, she is thinking of introducing a new measure: a ban on using iPads as cameras in the gallery. And she thinks that museums and galleries overall are going to have to take a long hard look at the issue. I agree. These A4-sized devices too often block other visitors’ view of the art.
Of the most visited museums and galleries in Britain, only the National Gallery bans photography outright. Everywhere else photography with personal cameras or phones or tablets, without flash, is commonplace, except in certain exhibitions. But why bother snapping? There are better images on the galleries’ websites and in the gift shops than can be taken with an Apple. And taking a picture of the caption is not the same as making a note. In short, we should experience the art at first hand, and at the scale the artist intended, savouring its texture, its relationship with surrounding artworks. And use the phone to tell someone all about it afterwards.