‘Art isn’t just about dead white males’: galleries fight to lure young visitors

<span>Le Rodeur: The Exchange by Lubaina Himid (2016) from the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition.</span><span>Photograph: Courtesy of the artist and Hollybush Gardens, London. Photo: Andy Keate</span>
Le Rodeur: The Exchange by Lubaina Himid (2016) from the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition.Photograph: Courtesy of the artist and Hollybush Gardens, London. Photo: Andy Keate

Obstacles that stop young people visiting galleries and museums in bigger numbers must be torn down if Britain’s major arts institutions are to remain central to culture, according to Nick Cullinan, director of London’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG).

“I don’t think the young have a problem with culture, but they are often falsely made to feel it is not for them,” said Cullinan, on the opening weekend of a “gamechanging” art exhibition that showcases black painters and black subjects on a grand scale.

Analysis carried out by the gallery, coupled with a recent study by the arts foundation Mohn Westlake, indicates that only around a fifth of younger people attend or participate in an organised arts event. “We have to make our galleries welcoming and accessible, and to make it clear they are not just about the past and full of dead white males. But this is never about dumbing down. It is about dialogue and exchange,” said Cullinan.

The gallery’s new show, The Time is Always Now, is already winning plaudits from art critics for the scope of its challenge to the belief that Britain’s public museums are places exclusively for seeing historic and establishment imagery.

But perhaps most significant is an NPG pledge to let in all visitors to this show who are under 25 for £5 instead of the adult price of £16. The low-entry fee offer, supported by Bank of America, is an extension of a similar scheme introduced for the under-30s when the gallery reopened last year. It made a major impact on the age of the people crossing the threshold of the imposing building behind Trafalgar Square. “Our previous £5 tickets for the two opening shows attracted more than 21,000 visitors, and the number of people aged 16 to 34 who are visiting us has increased by 34%,” said Cullinan. “What’s more, 63% of the young group of these visitors, the ones under 24, had never been to the gallery before. Entry to the museum’s permanent collection is free, while an entrance fee is charged for special exhibitions. “Our visitors of all ages are up 31% since the reopening, while since the pandemic most other free institutions are still down on visitors by 14% on 2019 levels,” said Cullinan.

The show, which features many previously unseen portraits and is curated by writer Ekow Eshun, comes just as the Victoria and Albert Museum in south Kensington has put a call out for experts on American singer Taylor Swift and her superfans, or Swifties, as part of a wider new drive to pick up on grassroots cultural movements and niche areas.

The battle to win the hearts of the next generation of museum-goers is clearly on. A study carried out by Arts Council England established that, although cost was a key barrier for almost a third of young people, the great majority also saw schools and other educational buildings as the main place to encounter culture, while those from less privileged backgrounds had only visited cultural venues when on a school trip.

Mohn Westlake Foundation’s most recent research in this area also found that young people were often put off by unfamiliar venues, and this was “especially true for organisations which have historic buildings”.

One of the striking portraits now on display, in the hope of breaking down such assumptions, is Jordan Casteel’s study of a man called James she met on the streets of Harlem.

The New York artist was working in the area at the Studio Museum, when she spotted him sitting at a restaurant table stacked with music CDs and cassettes. When the painting was shown in a small New York gallery, James’s wife, Yvonne, was overcome by the scale of the work and thanked Casteel “for seeing him how I have always seen him,” the artist has recounted.