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In praise of the National Gallery

Established early in the Victorian age, the National Gallery has matured over the 171 years of its existence to become a well-loved symbol of art for all. Its imposing position overlooking Trafalgar Square, was specially chosen between the east and west sides of London so that it would be accessible to all social classes in London.

During World War II, when its treasures were buried deep in Welsh mines, the gallery became “a defiant outpost of culture right in the middle of a bombed and shattered metropolis", as critic Herbert Read put it, by holding exhibitions and musical recitals in the midst of the Blitz.

Yesterday the gallery announced a further step to make its collection available to the public. Not only is the entire collection online, but there is now a full-screen zoom facility. Visitors to the current landscape show, “Corot to Monet”, which opened earlier this month, have already been savouring this technological feat. Interactive computers allow you to touch the screen and move around a painting to explore parts and the whole in tandem.

The landscape exhibition which is drawn from the permanent collection is free of charge and has been attracting large visitor numbers. It is an unusual move in the summer, when blockbuster shows with admission charges of up to £12 a throw are a tried and tested way of generating income.

In addition to its upgraded site, where 12,000 images, plus audio and video can be accessed, the gallery also provides a Love Art service where images of 250 paintings from its collection can be viewed in detail on mobile phones. So far over 100,000 people have download images and audio to their mobiles. Last year the gallery also pioneered the posting up of large-scale reproductions of its favourite paintings around the streets of London.

The National Gallery, as one of its former keepers has noted, has reflected the declining fortunes of Britain on the global arena, as it could not afford to buy major art works sold off by the country’s own aristocrats. Over recent decades, public galleries and museums have introduced steep ticket prices for special exhibitions which often include many publicly-owned works, even from their own collections.

Many institutions have used blockbuster shows to increase revenues, by focussing on popular artists guaranteed to pull in big crowds, rather than bringing to light neglected artists or movements. The gallery’s director Nicholas Penny, has sought to buck this trend along with a number of other directors.

But even the National Gallery, for all its great achievements and refreshing anti-commercialism, is in a difficult position and is itself planning a Canaletto blockbuster for the autumn. At a time when financial insecurity on the global markets has pitched Old Master prices at all-time high rates, the National Galleries of Britain and Scotland had to appeal to the public to raise the £84 million needed to pay the Duke of Sutherland for two great paintings by Titian he was selling.

In addition to its expanded website facilities, the National Gallery allows users to reproduce its images on a not-for-profit, educational basis. At a time when images are increasingly owned and monopolised by corporations such as Getty, Corbis and Jupiter, making art available to all online is a shining example of the potential held by technology freed from the profit motive.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
22 July 2009

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