With Damien Hirst's record-breaking auction and two new galleries opening in Moscow this week, contemporary art is hot news. Next month, Charles Saatchi opens a big gallery in Chelsea and the Frieze Art Fair sees thousands of collectors and gallerists descend on London, all wanting to be part of the action.
Modern art is sexy. Some 2 million people turned up at Tate Modern to lie on the floor, seduced by Olafur Eliasson's big yellow sun, in the winter of 2003. Where does this leave London's other public galleries? Should they have to come up with big stunts that attract large numbers of punters in order to secure funding? Can a gallery with a cut-off point before 1900 compete in this in-your-face world of new art?
The National Gallery's new exhibitions programme looks like a radical move to lure visitors back. Since the abolition of museum charges, public galleries depend on sponsorship, corporate events, donations and entry fees to special shows in order to balance their books. The National lost its charismatic director Charles Saumarez Smith to the Royal Academy after disagreements with the board. Now his replacement, Nicholas Penny, has a new chairman in Max Getty. Does this mark the start of a new era?
The National definitely needs to attract more visitors, having had a lacklustre year so far. Two exhibitions, Radical Light and Pompeo Batoni, were financial flops, attracting just under two thirds of projected visitors, around 50,000 in total. Compare that with the successes – Vermeer in 2001, Titian in 2003 and Velasquez in 2006, attracting around 300,000 visitors each – and you see the scale of the problem.
Penny is on record as saying, "there are too many blockbuster exhibitions which tell people what they already know," although by August he admitted that "we need to sort out our exhibition policy". Next February the gallery plans the ultimate blockbuster, a show devoted to Picasso and his influences, featuring 60 of his works, along with paintings by the classical artists who inspired him. In July the gallery features landscape painting from Corot to Monet, a popular, non-challenging theme. The show attracting all the controversy opens in November with an installation by the legendary American artists Ed and Nancy Kienholz, created in 1983-88 and inspired by Amsterdam's red light district. As a counterpoint the exhibition will include a selection of the gallery's Dutch masters.
Critics say the National is straying into territory best covered by Tate Modern. Rubbish. That's not the problem. It's time there was more dialogue between all the London public galleries. Too often their directors seem like Premier League managers, all intent on outdoing each other, and none prepared to relinquish an area of expertise. There's a huge amount of cross-over between the collections at the V&A and the British Museum. Photography is shown everywhere. What's the point of the Hayward or the Whitechapel? Why have another Bacon exhibition? It's not long since the last one on the South Bank. The National Gallery shouldn't be allowed to move into collecting 20th-century art. That's the job of Tate Modern.
But exhibiting modern work alongside stuff from their main collection educates, stimulates and entertains visitors – exactly what a modern museum should do. We desperately need a museum supremo to bang a few heads together, encourage cross-fertilisation, more lending and exchanges. As for Ed Kienholz, back in the 1970s the ICA showed his masterwork, Barney's Beanery, and I've been hooked ever since.
Ugh! Old tripe on a bed of austerity
Food prices have risen and credit is in short supply, but does that mean we want recipes from an era when women wore pinnies, miners were on strike, and men expected dinner on the table after a hard day in the office? Retro-cookery is the latest trend. It's the perfect way for canny publishers to recycle stuff they've got, pretending that menus from 50 years ago cost less than modern fare. The only people making money from this shameless exploitation are middle-class writers and their publishers. Katharine Whitehorn wrote Cooking In A Bedsitter in 1963, and it's just been reprinted by Virago with a new introduction. Just because most young women today – just like Ms Whitehorn back then – don't know how to cook, I hardly think they will read this and want to whip up egg casserole, tripe or turbigo kidneys. Ugh!
Nearly as nasty are the concoctions in the reprint of Delia Smith's Frugal Food, first published in 1976: curried egg patties and kidney-stuffed onions. Both Delia and Katharine are now well-off pensioners with little concept of living on a budget, no matter how much they might claim to be in touch. Frugal Food is £17.99 (the original was £8.99). I could eat for a week on that, without resorting to curried eggs.
A fresh approach? Pass the bottle...
Launching a scheme in the North-west aimed at reducing excessive boozing, the NHS claims that new research identifies nine different types of problem drinker. I'm trying to work out how many of the boxes I could tick. Am I a bored drinker, sipping to pass the time? Am I a depressed drinker because I dare to have a glass as I listen (alone) to The Archers at 7pm? Am I a "conformist" drinker, imbibing to become a more interesting person?
Honestly, I'm sure we all need to drink less, but I wonder how much cash was wasted on this banal stuff? Dawn Primarolo claims that "this is a totally fresh approach to help people understand the effects of their drinking and help them make change for the better".
Shame that Guinness launched a new £5m telly ad this week, urging us to start drinking at 17.59! The best way to cut drinking is outlaw happy hours, ban alcopops, and stop the sale of cheap spirits and beers. But that's too simple.