#ClivedenLitFest: Galleries are a treasure trove for storytellers


Settling into my chair in the Great Hall, waiting for the inaugural Cliveden Literary Festival to open, I was warmed by the reds, golds and soft chatter around the room as the first session’s panellists began taking their seats in front of the ornate fireplace ready to share the stories behind some of our most respected galleries.

Art and storytelling are often married and the present owners of Cliveden are great patrons of the arts, architecture and design, so this was to be a fitting opening to the festival.

The Chair, Simon Jenkins (author and journalist), was joined by a distinguished line up from the art world including Hannah Rothschild (Chair of the Trustees of the National Gallery), Nicholas Cullinan (Director of the National Portrait Gallery) and Yana Peel (CEO of the Serpentine Galleries).

Watching over the panel, from her portrait on the wall, was Nancy Astor, a prominent hostess for the social elite, witty conversationalist and the first female Member of Parliament. I wondered what she’d make of it all.

Galleries tell stories through art

Galleries have a vital role in today’s society. In a time of great division, art can bring people together in a way that’s difficult to replicate. It’s wonderful when people come together around paintings which have so much to teach us about life.

That’s why galleries should never become windowless buildings with stuff deteriorating in them. They should be alive and they should tell stories through art over time.

Hannah Rothschild said she feels the National Gallery is a keeper of a collection of stories which capture the human spirit and struggles over the centuries. At the National Portrait Gallery, however, the focus is more around identity, according to Nicholas Cullinan. Whereas Yana Peel said she sees her role as promoting experimentation in the arts and inspiring wider audiences. She added there’s an urgent need to bring people into conversations around the art of today.

Storytellers need access to art

As with all debates about the arts, funding was an emotive issue. The panellists dwelled on the topic for some time and it generated some passionate responses from the audience too. I was encouraged to hear that free access to galleries was something the panellists were determined to maintain by being innovative with fundraising and embracing an entrepreneurial spirit. It enables people to experience art no matter their wealth.

Many artists and writers are on low incomes, at least at the beginning of their journeys, so it’s important they have access to one of the best sources of education and inspiration.

We especially need art in times of austerity for we turn to it in all its forms – paintings, novels, films and more – to lift us up and connect us.

Art benefits from entrepreneurship

We live in a time where – to draw a parallel from music – people are reluctant to pay to download tracks but will pay a premium to see their favourite stars in concert. People still value experiencing ‘the real thing’. Most paintings can be viewed on a laptop, tablet or phone but it’s much more exhilarating to see them in galleries. Up close, the eye can pick up the artist’s brushstrokes, a stray hair and other clues about the place each painting was created. It’s a joy to spend a few quiet moments pondering what the artist may have intended when the canvas was still on the easel and the story that might be beneath its varnish.

The desire to experience real things extends to the publishing industry. Between sessions at the Cliveden Literary Festival, attendees flocked to the bookshop to meet the authors, speak to them in person and get their books signed. The festival itself was packed with people wanting to experience something fresh in literature.

Galleries are now coming up with innovative ways to captivate audiences, often in collaboration with present-day authors through one-off commissions, special events and limited edition merchandise. The pressure to get people through the doors for financial reasons can create a dichotomy around whether to display blockbuster paintings, which will draw crowds, or niche works. It can also make it hard to maintain a core focus.

However, all these activities are a way of creating special memories and unique treasures that enable galleries to maintain access to art for the many.

We need galleries more than ever

With the rapid progression of digital technologies and growing demands for productivity, much of our time is now spent in the outside lane trying to overtake ourselves.

In this world of speed, sanctuaries have become increasingly important. They come in many forms from retreats in remote locations to tea rooms off the high street. Visitor numbers at Cathedrals are going up and many people are finding solace in galleries too.

Hannah Rothschild said, when she’s among the paintings at the National Gallery, she’s reminded of both the beauty and fragility of life. She enjoys reflecting on what the artists were intending to capture. Nicholas Cullinan said he feels privileged to be able to create wonderful experiences for visitors at the National Portrait Gallery like those which once made an impression on him. Yana Peel said she wants the Serpentine Galleries to be a place of sanctuary and education for both young people and life-long learners, a place to activate whatever’s in oneself, a place to talk about not just pictures but important ideas.

Our galleries house some of our most important, visual stories. Stories which provoke thought, reflection and connection. Many people need to be able to access art, benefit from being in its presence and join conversations around it. Galleries are not only filled with treasures but are places to be treasured themselves.

Discover more about Cliveden Literary Festival here


Photo credit: Charlie Hopkinson

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    By: Loretta Milan

    Loretta Milan is the founder of Literary Lightbox. She works as a professional writer and also has a novel in construction. She is a graduate of the Faber Academy and Curtis Brown Creative’s three-month novel writing programme. Her writing is fuelled by too much tea.

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