Rant 97: Babyccinos vs Braque

Rant 97: Babyccinos vs Braque Iain Aitch, photo by Elizabeth Blanchet

Are some art galleries becoming glorified coffee shops? Iain Aitch thinks it's getting that way!

Being a really great café with a rather good gallery attached may be a commercial necessity for major and even minor galleries nowadays, but there are times when the struggle to achieve a superb latte or optimise postcard displays in the gift shop appears to outweigh the efforts made to simply run an art gallery. 

My local coffee shop has paintings on the walls and does a very decent espresso, but that doesn't mean I am willing to recommend it to paying art-lovers or taxpayer-backed funders.

If art galleries really want to be seen as part of the service sector, then they need to start providing a good service, starting with what they put on the walls. A 'good morning, sir' wouldn’t go amiss, either.

As a journalist, artist and Arts Council assessor, I have seen my fair share of galleries both large and small. Some have been wonderful, with engaged and engaging staff, outstanding exhibitions in out of the way places and a gift shop book selection that would shame even the best of specialist booksellers. But these delights have too often been counterbalanced by galleries that seem to exist only for the convenience of the staff, the padding of career-advancing CVs and the sale of muffins.

Worse still are the examples where the work itself seems like a mere afterthought. I know that curation can be a struggle, but installing a contemplative video piece betwixt gift shop and ladies' toilet (as one large gallery did) is disrespectful to both artist and viewer. 

Video art is one of the few mediums where an artist could choose to add the sound of a hand-dryer and screaming children, should he or she so wish. But I am sure that their dreams of being flushed with success did not extend to their narrative being drowned out by the toilet cistern.

If curators and directors cease to care, then so will the public. And you can't sell coffee to an empty room.

Contributed by Iain Aitch, December 2013

Iain Aitch is a London-based author, journalist and artist who writes and makes work about British popular and unpopular culture alike. You can find him at http://www.iainaitch.com 

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