Art has a branding and outreach problem. The folks in Stem subjects seem to have these challenges licked. They have a jazzy acronym — Stem stands for science, technology, engineering and maths — and all of the coolness that accompanies topics like robots and artificial intelligence.
A few years ago, the creative sector tried to add an “A” for art to make Steam, but it never caught on. This summer, Arts Council England and the London School of Economics initiated an awkward new acronym: Shape, for social sciences, humanities and the arts for people and the economy.
It reads a little like a backronym — an acronym that began with the end in mind — but I appreciate the concept. It takes a diversity of interests and professions to power a society, and that includes the humanities.
Still, an acronym alone can’t drive visitors to museums or foster an interest in art in underserved audiences. Those aged between 16 and 24 make up 15 per cent of the population but only 10 per cent of museum-goers, according to a 2018 report by the Audience Agency, a publicly supported body. Similarly, people of colour aged over 35 go half as much as you would expect from their population size.
We have reached the point of recognising a disconnect between art and audiences but haven’t yet determined how to bridge the gap. Two answers to tackling this challenge lie in telling a greater diversity of art histories and communicating these stories in more modern and accessible ways.
If you have ever tried to power through reading a museum’s complex wall text, you know art discussions can be laden with jargon. In 2018, I started a podcast called Art Matters for the charity Art UK with the aim of discussing art from a pop-culture perspective with topics that would engage younger and more diverse audiences.
It offers an accessible pathway to art history with low-jargon conversations on topics such as film, psychology and even Beyoncé. The series has been a useful way of connecting art to current events — a recent episode tackled the topic of epidemics by looking at art from the Great Plague of 1665-66.
Despite being an auditory medium, podcasts are proving to be an effective way of tapping into new visual-art audiences. Actor and collector Russell Tovey’s Talk Art podcast quickly shot to the top of the art podcast charts (yes, that’s a thing).
Listeners commend him and his co-host, gallerist Robert Diament, for their personable conversations with celebrities and artists. Part of the success of such podcasts is that art history is about storytelling; art content shines when there is an effort to bring audiences along for the discussion.
More traditional institutions are paying attention. This summer, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles issued a social-media challenge for people to recreate paintings using items they had at home.
Users displayed incredible creativity — toilet rolls featured frequently — and the museum was flooded with submissions. This reaction proves that there is a latent desire for audiences to engage with art topics if the format is appealing.
Many people are intimidated by art and feel that there’s a base level of understanding required to join the conversation. The Getty initiative embraced the visuality of art, served as a reminder that there are many pathways to engaging with it — all of them valid — and lay down a challenge to British galleries and museums. Institutions like the Royal Academy in London and the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading are doing similar work with their light-hearted Twitter accounts.
Another interesting byproduct of the Getty challenge was the exposure given to a diversity of artworks. British opera singer Peter Brathwaite, for example, made scores of stunning recreations highlighting centuries of black portraiture, including a collaboration with London’s National Portrait Gallery.
His efforts counter the perception that there are not many historical portraits of black figures. It is imperative that we do a better job of showcasing the many complex and diverse stories that are represented in art. In doing so, we preserve more histories and welcome wider demographics.
Social media have offered a platform for people who have not traditionally had a seat at the table. Anyone can recognise a gap in the field and address it. Accounts have amassed tens of thousands of followers by dedicating their feeds to female artists, artists of colour, LGBT+ art and more.
Their followings are proof positive that there is a hunger to hear these art histories, and these themes work brilliantly for museum programming — the Victoria and Albert Museum in London runs LGBT+ tours with great success, as do Brighton Museum and the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge.
But there is only so much that can be done without Britain’s museums and galleries changing meaningfully from within. We need to see a better balance of these stories represented in permanent collections. We also need a much wider diversity of people and interests represented on boards and executive teams.
Ensuring that art — and writing and talking about art — resonates throughout the population hinges on the rising generation of storytellers, inside institutions and out, getting the funding and support they need to paint a brighter picture for the sector.
Ferren Gipson is an art historian and broadcaster researching modern Chinese art and intersections between art and popular culture