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The sacramental dimension: “Still”, by Alison Watt, in Old St Paul’s Church, Edinburgh ( ©Alison Watt. Courtesy the Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh)

As a lapsed Anglican and descendant of several generations of Anglican priests on both sides of my family, there is an issue which I would expect to have been discussed: that is, as fast as there has been a decline in church-going and religious belief in the postwar period, so there has been a corresponding rise in the number of visits to museums and art galleries. Are the two perhaps in some way connected? Can one understand something about the nature of public artistic experience — the experience of going to a museum or an art gallery or an art exhibition — by considering it as in some ways analogous to what used to be — or, at least, what was intended to be — the experience of going to church: the search for the sacred; for the questioning of the meaning of existence; for trying to understand the nature of the unknown, as part of a public ritual; a communal and shared experience of the idea that there can, and should be, important aspects of life which are not part of the everyday and which can be interpreted by people who have special skills and insights into the subject.

Let me begin by considering some statistics of the decline of church-going as compared to the rise in visiting museums. In a recent article by Andrew Brown, the Guardian’s religious correspondent, I read that now, for the first time for at least a millennium, the majority of people under the age of 40 regard themselves as having no religion whatsoever, although, interestingly, only 40 per cent are convinced that there is no God or so-called “higher power”. Brown and Linda Woodhead, a sociologist at the University of Lancaster, have recently published a scurrilous book called That Was the Church that Was: How the Church of England Lost the English People (Bloomsbury, £16.99) which documents the phenomenon of the progressive decline in church-going. It parallels, and is itself a symptom of, a corresponding decline in religious belief. In January 2016, it was announced that, for the first time, weekly attendance at church services had dropped below a million, with regular Sunday attendances falling to 760,000, a drop of 12 per cent over the last decade to a point where less than 2 per cent of the population go to church regularly. The church loses approximately 1 per cent of its congregation every year through death and this number is not being replenished by new recruits. The habit of church-going, the presumption that there was something worthwhile in the ritual of going to church, is being lost. If people feel the need for quiet contemplation, for thinking about their place in history and the world, for enjoying the unknown, they are no longer finding it in church.

Look at the equivalent figures for museum-going. In May 2016, the latest month for which figures are available, there were 3.6 million visits in a single month to the museums funded by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport — that is, to the big national museums, including the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Tate. The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA), which publishes annual figures for the number of visits to museums, records that last year just under 7 million people visited the British Museum, just under 6 million the National Gallery (when I was there only a decade ago, the figures were somewhere between 4 and 5 million so there has been a big increase over the last decade), and just under 5 million visited the Tate overall. The National Portrait Gallery, which when I started as Director in 1994 had about 500,000 visitors, now has more than 2 million. There was publicity recently to do with the fact that there was an increasing number of tourists visiting museums and a decreasing number of domestic visitors.

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April 24th, 2017
12:04 PM
Atheism is not natural for us. People who do not believe in any kind of god or don't belong to any church or spiritual community feel lonely and out-of-this-world. With a 4th Islam invasion being at the gates of Euroe, all I can do is pray for our souls. Amy from

February 28th, 2017
2:02 PM
Perhaps the author has `lapsed` into `western-Buddhism`. Tim Marlow at the RA claims the RA is both traditional and radical (so it`s not just a twee and quaint jumble sale). This `western-Buddhism` tartling favoured by Frances Morris and Sarah Munro (the new Directors of Tate Modern and Baltic here in the NE)and the anti-Brexit artists, is all pervasive in the artworld. It`s the official public relations language. Would that be because they haven`t discovered Akiane Kramarik or refuse to mention her marvellous works because Jesus taught her ? Her parents were atheists when it started. No Remainers are interested. Which is interesting to us Object Oriented Ontologists who voted for Brexit. Keifer,Kapoor and Gormley have never mentioned Akiane either. A Michelangelo sculpture of a naked Christ is to be shown in London. It`s been stored away for hundreds of years. What will muslims say about it? Akiane is even better than Leonardo. The Curse Of The Tate Modern Curator is not eternal.

February 21st, 2017
1:02 AM
People will drift back to the church, just as they did in the nineteenth century; now that the politics of wishful thinking has finally collapsed, where else can the soft-hearted go?

February 4th, 2017
10:02 AM
The Louvre has lost 2 million visitors (even before the recent terrorist attack) and Brit museum visitors are declining . The new figures are at the Guardian online. Terrorism and austerity politics are blamed. Artists who voted Remain run the Royal Academy . The BBC is run by a Remain voting management. It`s `analysis` of Brexit and Trump is lazy and sloppy. Not a single word about Camille Paglia or Julie Burchill on the subjects. Isn`t the will of the people sacred? At least David Hockney is capable of a good interview in the Sun online.

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