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OPINION - London is overtaking Paris and New York for culture, so why can't I visit a gallery on a whim?

Dylan Jones (MARK HARRISON)
Dylan Jones (MARK HARRISON)

It was Saturday morning and my two twentysomething daughters had just announced that they were (rather shockingly) available for me to buy them lunch. Lucky me. I felt honoured. While I have learned not to be quite so enthusiastic when they suggest going shopping together (my accountant has actually banned me from this kind of activity, especially in Bond Street and large department stores), because they have left the family home — and because it so rarely happens — lunch with the pair of them is something to be treasured. Even if it costs me a small fortune. And with their mother out of town, this opportunity had “quality time” written all over it.

We met in Gail’s in Marylebone, which is one of those chains that manages to seem upmarket and cheap at the same time (good thing), and while we were making our way through the reasonably priced pastries and coffees, we decided we might quite like to go and see an exhibition. There were several shows we were all keen to see, and a couple we thought might be worth seeing just for the lols.

Georgia, the younger one, has a disarming way of walking around an exhibition, looking at a vitrine containing a broken vacuum cleaner, an overstuffed bin bag and a flickering television screen and saying, in her best Kevin McCloud, “This really speaks to me.” Edie, the elder one, can be equally as withering, and has the capacity to look at something most of us would be extraordinarily moved by, raise her eyebrow, and go, “Really?”

It’s become a corporate fait accompli that unless you buy a ticket in advance then you aren’t getting in

A couple of years ago we spent a day checking out the latest exhibitions in Los Angeles, and the only time I saw her animated was when we went into a dog hotel (dog hotels are big in LA) for a pee.

So, we all started scrolling through our phones. After a few false starts — “I’ve seen it and it’s rubbish”, “It’s too far away”, “There’s no way I’m seeing that,” “You’ll hate it”, “Are you actually mad?” — we found half a dozen things that we wouldn’t mind seeing, if pushed.

Twenty minutes later we all closed our phones and resigned ourselves to a far less cultural afternoon. Why? Everything was booked. And I mean everything. Every half-hour slot in the Tate, the Hayward, Somerset House and everywhere else we tried was full up. No availability at all. Apparently every museum, exhibition and gallery space in London was so popular that there was no room for anyone on a Saturday afternoon idly wondering whether it might be a nice idea to amble down along the Thames and go and see some art.

Hurrah for the comprehensively successful cultural IP of London, I thought, but yah-boo-sucks to its destruction of my afternoon with my daughters.

Museums and galleries have been doubling down on advanced tickets for years, but because lockdown made it much easier to control public movement it’s become a corporate fait accompli that unless you buy a ticket in advance then you aren’t getting in. Anywhere. Which I think is a terrible shame. It kills spontaneity, forces you to map out your cultural life as though you were planning a trip to the supermarket, and in this particular instance ruined a rare weekend with my offspring.

London is fast becoming a city that is principally driven by culture, a city that almost in spite of itself has become the most important cultural hub in the world, and one that is fast overtaking New York, Los Angeles or Paris in terms of Western influence. So being such a collective tight ass is not conducive to our cultural IP.

Thirty years ago, I remember flying to New York to see a Matisse show that wasn’t coming to London. I organised a work trip simply so I could go to the Museum of Modern Art to see what at the time was the greatest Matisse retrospective ever produced. And on arrival at MOMA, I found a chaotic football match of a crowd, a building full of what felt like the entire population of Manhattan.

It was madness, bewildering and kind of brilliant, almost like a massive piece of immersive theatre. Everyone had decided to come at once, and the place felt alive. But London a few Saturdays ago, felt anything but alive.

So, having been told that computer says no, and having successfully body swerved a trip to Selfridges, Edie, Georgia and myself went home and played whist. I lost.

Dylan Jones is the Evening Standard’s editor-in-chief