As all public funding for the arts comes under the biggest assault in living memory, it is natural and necessary to assert that museums and galleries are beacons of civilisation, to be protected. Free museum entry is a marvel of British culture. And yet … let’s not close our minds. Otherwise the debates will happen among the coalition’s radical thinkers, and defenders of museums will find themselves sidestepped. To ask one radical question: does not the British love affair with contemporary art totally undermine the culture of public funding for the arts? Damien Hirst is one of the richest artists in history; the most prestigious event in the visual art calendar is the Frieze art fair. None of this has much to do with state subsidies – does it?
The always readable critic Waldemar Januszczak wrote recently in praise of Charles Saatchi. It was Saatchi, not Serota, who created the British modern art boom, he argued. The current reverence for the Tate is, in his eyes, misplaced – actually it was a private collector who launched our addiction to the new.
There is, absolutely, a case to be made that art is a commodity, full stop. Britain’s famous artists believe that more openly than anyone. But the truth is more complicated (surprise).
The art marketplace is in reality a splendid example of a mixed economy. The rise of the Hirst generation depended on constant interaction of private and public enthusiasm. Above all, it depended on the Turner prize, whose authority depended in turn on its being staged by a public museum.