Cultural Shopper

My local Dymocks bookstore at Erina Fair on the New South Wales central coast recently shut up shop. Since before Christmas, it has been selling off its stock at radically reduced prices, the shelves growing increasingly empty until now all that’s left are a few tables of unloved novels, picture books and self-help guides.

It’s not as though the store didn’t put up a fight: a year ago they reduced the range of books available to concentrate on just the most popular genres, discounting stock and offering two-for-one deals. But it was to no avail. Another shop goes the way of all those others facing the unlimited availability of online retail. The closure of bookstores, like record shops before them, is another transition in the era of what I used to call “cultural shopping”: that act of leaving the house to go out and buy something whose value is more than just the price tag.

As a kid growing up in the late 1970s, going into the central business district of Sydney on a Saturday morning and trailing around the cool bookshops and import record stores was a rite of passage. It was how the pre-internet generation got its cultural information – how we found out what was happening in our world – and the wider one.

For me, that Saturday ritual also included going into art galleries and museums to marvel at minimalist paintings and old Australian masters, and to avant garde film screenings at the Opera House or the city’s repertory cinemas. For a usually penniless window shopper like me, access was granted for the price of a return train ticket from the suburbs.

Post-internet, that world has pretty much disappeared. There is food and fashion and going to the movies, sure, but it all feels like background dressing to city planning, an architect’s visualisation of a future retail development. You see the little people in that model or mock-up? They’re all going to see the latest Marvel comic book movie.

Bookshops and music stores, especially the independent ones, added real and eccentric charm to a place. The sole reason to trek to some godforsaken suburb was often to find that specialist seller or secondhand record barn. The homogenisation of retail means there’s no real reason to travel anywhere anymore – Melbourne has all the same shops as Brisbane, Brisbane as Perth – and the web decreases travel time to zero.

For me, the one exception to all this is art galleries.

Art has to be experienced in real life and in real time and art galleries are still the best places to see it. This may well be generational bias – you can certainly get a good sense of an artwork from looking at it on a gallery’s website – but the subtlety of the experience disappears on the web. A photograph of a painting can, for example, alter colours and increase contrast, making bad paintings look great and good paintings look like crap.

Just about everything else, from sculpture and drawing to an installation, can only ever be an approximation on the web, and while photography and illustration can look fantastic on your computer screen, there’s a more fundamental reason art galleries persist as the vital stage between the artist and their audience.

Walking into a gallery is a singular experience. There’s the quiet in the room that settles the mind and focuses the attention. Art hung on walls is a narrative that unfolds as you walk around the gallery, and a complete statement when you regard the entire room. It’s a physical relationship too that, ideally at least, has been planned out by the gallerist or curator or artist.

Like a church or a temple, the contemporary gallery is a codified space with all sorts of meaning attached to what seem like incidentals – the height and placement of works, their order on the wall, the lighting – all of it a complete experience that complements art and makes the experience unique. Efforts to migrate art sales online have mostly failed because people simply don’t trust what an artwork is to a low-res JPEG.

In late 2014, American musician-artist David Byrne claimed that rich people were ruining art. If art was being made by artists for rich collectors, he suggested, then regular people like Byrne wouldn’t be able to buy it and what then was the point of going to galleries? Although there was some truth to his claims, it seems a very limited view of how people actually experience art.

In Australia at least, lots of people go to commercial art galleries and never buy a thing – they’re just there to look. And thank goodness for that. Out here on the fringes of what the city planners euphemistically call Greater Sydney, access to culture comes down a tube, drip-fed via Foxtel, in the ex-rental tables of the remnant video store, or in retail holdouts like a small but much-loved local bookshop.

And while you’d probably be crazy to imagine that West street in Umina could be a location for an art gallery, I often look at an empty shop space and wonder how much the weekly rent would be. Could someone set up an art gallery here? I don’t see why not.

Published as  Art galleries: the last refuge of the cultural window-shopper, Guardian Australia, February 2015
©Andrew Frost, 2015

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