Step Inside: A 21st-Century Gallery Guide, review - Paul Morley's reflections made rather urgent listening

It took an art world outsider to help us see the bigger picture, says Fiona Sturges

Fiona Sturges
Thursday 25 February 2016 00:39
Larkinesque: Paul Morley presented 'Step Inside: a 21st-Century Gallery Guide'
Larkinesque: Paul Morley presented 'Step Inside: a 21st-Century Gallery Guide'

We are, as a nation, going to fewer galleries than ever. Where, in other countries, you are likely to have to pay for the privilege to see iconic works of art, here gaining entrance to a gallery's permanent collections is nearly always free. Yet still we drag our feet. What utter wazzocks we are.

Now, funding cuts are threatening our local arts institutions, meaning many are now asking us to pay to access them. Some may not survive. If this comes to pass, the cultural lives of our towns and cities will be that much less egalitarian. Colour and imagination will slowly seep away.

All of which makes Paul Morley's reflection on gallery-going, Step Inside: a 21st-Century Gallery Guide, rather urgent listening. It might have sounded daft on paper – cultural commentator tells Radio 3 listeners, an audience clearly sympathetic to the arts, that going to galleries is good.

But it was so much more than that. Morley is a music journalist and sometime musician who has mostly specialised in popular art forms. He is not seen as a "high art" kind of guy. This is significant because here he talked about how, to a working-class lad from the North, galleries seemed like closed shops. He talked about that "threshold of fear", that intangible vibe that arts institutions sometimes give off that you are not sufficiently sophisticated to enter its hallowed portals.

The programme saw him revisiting the galleries of his youth and recalling how standing in front of works of art "propelled me into wonderful other worlds, into monumental other minds, emotions and imaginations". He took us to the War Memorial Art Gallery in Stockport, where, in 1970, he stood as a teenage boy feeling intimidated yet oddly thrilled. It was a place that memorialised dead people and "was built in the exact shape of depression". But, he said, "something was pulling me in, if only the word 'art', which I knew in my sensation-seeking, Bowie and Bolan-loving bones was never going to be an easy thing to track down."

Out of someone else's mouth, such poetically introspective words might seem affected. But there was a mournfulness to Morley's delivery that was charming and a little bit Larkinesque. Art becomes a serious business when it's under threat.

I also loved how he ignored the more famous institutions down south, instead examining the galleries of the North, among them the Hepworth Wakefield, a place where, he said, "the gallery has possibly peaked". He also went to the Whitworth in Manchester, which used to be stern and uninviting, but is now an open, inclusive community hub complete with a new café and shop.

"I know when I walk through those doors I will be walking effectively into the heart of the imagination," said Morley. On this occasion he walked into the heart of a school trip, and found himself surrounded by young chatterboxes clamouring to tell him about the funny spidery piece they'd seen in the next room. Here was a gallery where there was life and noise and joy, a far cry from the grimly respectful institutions of old.

In his nostalgic wanderings, Morley put forward a striking case for galleries not merely as places where we can gawp at pictures, but as meeting places, centres of adventure and inspiration, and buildings where memories are made.

This, surely, is something we should fight for.

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