There are many things I like about living in London. The constant metropolitan buzz and vitality that abounds. The general acceptance of different cultures, lifestyles and ways of dress. The anonymity that you only get in a crowd.
But one of the things I absolutely love about living in London is the constant availability of superb, world class art exhibitions and works on display across the capital. If culture is your bag, as it is for many of my friends and me, then there is probably no better place to live on earth than in busy, bustling London town.
Last autumn I visited the Freize sculpture park in Regent’s Park. A subset of the famous annual Freize Art Fair London show, this year the powers-that-be decided to bring some sculptures out in to the open air and stage them within the Regency-fountained and gently landscaped environs of the park. The sculptures were specially selected and directed by Clare Lilley, the director of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. With works by world-class artists ranging from Zeng Fanzhi (a giant, bare plum tree branch that was both sinister and eery), Matthew Monahan (a bronze Poseidon cradling a rescuee in the waters of a baroque fountain) and Jean Dubuffet (a massive graphic 3D doodle crafted in primary colours and bold lines), the sculpture garden was simply positioned in one corner of the park and absolutely free to explore.
This democratising of great art is something that London does especially well. There are no outrageous entrance fees to see the great masters of British art in Tate Britain or the cream of Expressionist art at the National Gallery, unlike the horrendous ticket prices to enter the Louvre in Paris or the Sistine Chapel in Rome. There are also a plethora of smaller galleries to be explored in London that are generally free or cheap to enter, such as The Photographer’s Gallery in Soho, The Gagosian at Kings Cross and the Estorick Gallery in Islington. I have seen works by Terence Donovan, Andy Warhol and Richard Avedon at the first two alone, all completely for free.
The sheer scale and variety of art works in London can sometimes be overwhelming, however. Despairing messages frequently fly back and forth between my flatmate and me at the sheer impossibility of attending all the exhibitions that we would like to in London. Price can often be an issue too; although, as mentioned above, many collections are free or relatively cheap to visit, headlining exhibitions can cost up to £20 a go, a great expense for those of us still finding our career (and salary) legs.
For example, a few months ago I took in the Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Royal Academy, which featured pieces from Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, and Kline among many others, and was the first overview of the movement’s works and members since 1959. For my boyfriend and myself it was completely free as he is a Royal Academy member; with a general admission price of £17, however, I might have otherwise have thought twice about going without this added boon.
The question of whether art should be completely democratised and free for public consumption is a gritty one, and one that I have not decided where I stand. On one hand I firmly believe that art is for everyone and as a balm to the soul and an expression of human experience should absolutely not be restricted to those who can pay. On the other hand, artists need recognition of their work within society, as well as a means of living independently so they can go on creating. The increased price of these exhibitions also reflects the less and less support artists and the creative industries now get from governments in the post-2008 world. Art is seen perhaps as a luxury now, as opposed to a necessity. With this in mind, maybe I should enjoy my democratic art as long as it is available, as soon it could be even further out of reach.