What are the arts for?
Against a background of shifting patterns of work and leisure and new digital technologies from apps and social media to AI, VR and interactive video, cultural institutions are increasingly interested in how they can create ‘experiences’ – regardless of the physical space in which they take place. But how do these shifts impact on the role of cultural institutions – when the museum and art gallery are no longer the exclusive ‘sacred’ home of art and artefacts and the boundaries within which they operate are fluid and porous? Is a focus on defining what belongs in- or outside cultural institutions – necessary when applying criteria such as quality and identity? What should cultural institutions focus upon in order to prolong the institutions themselves and how best should they preserve the entities they exhibit?
Throughout history, culture has been institutionalised in many ways and for many reasons. Museums for example have preserved the past with the purpose of developing knowledge, communicating truth, educating the public and creating a common understanding of history. Galleries meanwhile have accommodated the work of artists, curated a hierarchy of what constitutes art but it has also catered to markets. But is it the case that this relationship between institutions and cultural works now falling away? Historic truth is now contested; who owns cultural artefacts is now argued over by museum curators versus local and national communities.; artistic value as defined by institutions is challenged as elitist and so on. Some art works are even considered ‘problematic’ when they clash with what is considered acceptable in by today’s political and cultural norms. For example, in January this year, artist Sonia Boyce and curator Clare Gannaway challenged the appropriateness of Victorian paintings featuring naked girls, such as JW Waterhouse’s ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’, in Manchester Art Gallery in the wake of MeToo.
In an era when the audience’s experiencing of culture is becoming as important as art work itself, what does this mean for the purpose of host institutions? But what remains if the defined role of institutions becomes blurred and what happens to culture outside the institution? Are what how will cultural institutions of tomorrow be defined and what they can offer new generations in an ever-changing world?