What do you do when art is too popular?

You know the feeling, you’re on your way to a gallery and you feel very very hip. You’re an insider, one of the in crowd. No one is as cool and as cultured as you are. Until, that is, you get to the gallery and discover that it’s packed to the rafters like an art historical meat market.

The question is, what do you do when art becomes too popular? This has been a problem for sometime. When I went to see Turner Whistler Monet at the Tate Britian in 2005 visitors were being hearded in by a man with a megaphone. Around the paintings people were ten deep. It was an example of shameless overselling. Now, I do believe that as many people as possible have the right to see art, especially when it is a national instituion. But selling a room to capacity just doesn’t work, this doesn’t create new converts it just puts people off.

Three years later it seems like nothing has changed. When I went to see the Rothko exhibition a few weeks ago at the Tate Modern it was just the same, as this sneaky iphone picture shows.

Punters enjoying Rothko

To be honest this picture doesn’t do it justice, there were far too many people. Basically you know something has gone wrong when you have to queue up to read vinyl wall text. It is especially problematic when viewing art which should create an intimate and sacred experience.

This doesn’t just happen at large institutions, at the Fruitmarket Gallery’s summer exhibition of the work of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller the queues were so long that even after three visits I didn’t manage to see the whole exhibition.

waiting in line at the Fruitmarket Gallery

I’m not blaming the galleries, at least I don’t think it is always intentional, although in the case of the Tate I do sometimes wonder if this is the result of barefaced capitalism. But how can this problem be solved? This is a dificult question without any easy answers, beyond longer opening hours and longer runs there isn’t much else that can be done. A painting isn’t a film, it can’t be shown on two screens at the same time.

Perhaps galleries and museums need to be brave enough to limit numbers going into the gallery, to hold people back until a room is cleared, to say come back later rather than selling to capacity and hoping for the best. Otherwise this is the high water mark and soon no one will come back and art will definitely lose its cool.

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