We are all friends of the National Gallery
The National Gallery has now launched the long-awaited membership scheme. I think this is the first day on which you can join. I confess to having some misgivings about this: all my life I have been a friend of the National Gallery, even if, like M. Jourdan, I didn’t realise it until now. A measure like this has the risk of antagonising that relationship rather than cementing it. Whether you are called “member” or “friend”, the scheme is nothing other than a mechanism for getting money from you for something everyone already enjoys.
It may be that in straitened times this was inevitable, but as you can expect from a laudator temporis acti, I watch with dismay as the hard-won gains for equal, free access to public institutions such as the National Gallery slip away in this post-Pikettyan world we now live in. Of course £50 is a trivial sum for some of us, and of course it’s not compulsory (but queues for exhibitions and withdrawing season ticket options create a fairly strong incentive), but as a symptom of how the National Gallery approaches the future it is worrying. What next if the accountants are in charge? How about closing more rooms, or sacking the wardens? Lending to countries who will pay fees? Why not sell the prime real estate and move the Gallery to somewhere cheaper? If you are simply targetting the P&L, why not just revalue the stock? That isn’t even in Tesco territory. But if the Treasury see through that and insist on real cashflow as the target, the answer couldn’t be simpler (and cannot possibly be matched by any other plan): deaccessions. A couple of choice items would raise more than the mansion tax (and penalise many of the same people): that should play well in the provinces, particularly if the proceeds are pledged to saving the NHS.
According to the press release, “Membership also allows us to understand what our visitors want”: let me take this opportunity to say that I’d have expected the subscription to allow me to go into exhibitions without having to book in advance or queue at the door. But at present it does not: you still have to enter the timed entry system. That incidentally is not a plea for the introduction of a second tier, élite grade of membership.
For today however, I confess I have given in and paid up. I wondered if I should hesitate, to express my disapproval, but then acknowledged that whatever problems the Gallery is faced with, our friendship, loyalty or love is unconditional.