Rant 98: Elitism or Ignorance?

Rant 98: Elitism or Ignorance? Image courtesy of Ellen Bell

Ellen Bell asks why commercial galleries in London’s West End treat their visitors with such disdain?

I like to look at contemporary art but don’t like to feel that I am not worthy to do so because I am not rich enough to buy it. This is how I was made to feel when I visited fourteen private commercial galleries, in Cork Street, New Bond Street and Pimlico, last month.

It took some chutzpah to ring the buzzer when a po-faced gallery assistant, acting as gatekeeper to some echoing, palatial chamber of art, barely masked his or her boredom at having to press the door release and let me in.

At some galleries they were so reluctant to drag their gaze from their computer screens for even a moment that, I was lucky to be acknowledged. Throughout the day, only two actively engaged me in a discussion about their artists, while one merely offered me a price list and another a press release.

Is it good business to be rude to visitors, who may in fact be potential customers? To paraphrase Edina Monsoon in Absolutely Fabulous, are they not ‘just shops?’  

I am reminded of those apocryphal stories about wealthy collectors ‘dressing-down’ to visit dealers, being treated with derision and refusing to ever purchase from them again. If only one didn’t have to be a wealthy collector, secret or otherwise, to be treated with some degree of respect.

As an artist, I want my work to be seen and enjoyed as well as collected. But most of all I want the experience of engaging with art to be a good one, a rich one, a warm one.

So come on you London galleries, shrug off this elitism once and for all, stop couching art in exclusivity, make it democratic, open and all-embracing and maybe, just maybe, we will believe it is actually for us too.

Contributed by Ellen Bell, January 2014

Ellen Bell is an artist and writer currently living in Mid Wales. 

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