Exclusivity in the art-world is part of the ongoing debate, even as far as the archives. As for Accessibility, what are the benefits for galleries?

When we talk about a place like Christie’s, we imbue a certain sentimentality upon it. Sentimentality is our way of placing importance upon things that others consider useless and irrelevant.

It’s a preservation technique and, when used correctly, it protects what should be protected. The recent closure of Christie’s world-famous King Street archive, then, has sparked a flurry of concerns from academics, artists, and curators alike. King Street is not just an iconic location in the art world; it’s a beating heart for scholarship, a place where obscure discoveries are made and art history narratives forged.

Home to what is considered the most comprehensive auction archive in the world, it’s not just a case of sentimentality but historical and cultural significance. That alone is enough to warrant the wave of criticism stemming from the decision to close off public access to the archive. If we cannot access art, what use is it collecting dust?

Key records

Back in 2019, Lynda Mcleod, Christie’s Head Librarian, spoke about the importance of the archive

“Many researchers today expect to be able to sit at their desks and do everything online… It’s our job to show specialists what historical documents are available to them.” Without people like Mcleod working tirelessly to maintain and preserve archives like the King Street one, auction records dating back to Christie’s first sales in 1766 may end up being lost. “We have pieces of the jigsaw down here,” Mcleod says, “and when you’re able to find them and connect them and put the picture together, it’s very rewarding.”

Susan Palmer, head of library services at Soane Museum in London, furthers this sentiment, noting that it is “not only the completeness of the set [at Christie’s] but also that they include records of every buyer at every auction and the price paid.”

It’s not just Christie’s threatening the closure of its archives to the public.

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The Wallace Collection, which holds one of the world’s most extensive collections of 18th Century French works and those by the Old Masters, is also considering proposals to close the collection’s library and archive to the public.

A petition to obstruct the proposal claims that museum director Xavier Gray is focused on “income generation.” Libraries and archives are rarely money-makers; their intrinsic value lies elsewhere, in cultural education and public service.

If we began to view them as cash machines, as Gray perhaps is doing, the country would no doubt have to declare bankruptcy. Closing these institutions threatens a much more serious form of financial peril: cultural bankruptcy. 

It must be said that the Covid-19 pandemic has taken its toll on our cultural institutions. With museum and gallery closures pilling up across Europe and North America, western hegemony is finally realising that it isn’t impervious to collapse. The biggest consequence? Access, or lack thereof. Again, what use are these vast archives and libraries if the public cannot gain access to them?

What this question ultimately stirs up is a conversation about who gets to access art. According to comments made by Dirk Boll, President of Christie’s in Europe, the Middle East, Russia and India, access is to be decided by those in charge. “Be assured that we remain committed to keep our records in a proper and accessible manner,” Boll noted in a statement given to The Art Newspaper, “and we will be exploring ways in which we can develop access in the future.”

For Boll, Christie’s remains as the sole gatekeeper of its collection, allowing access only to those they deem important enough. Maybe it’s unfair to accuse Christie’s of using the pandemic as an excuse to close off its collection. Xavier Gray clearly understands the importance of access. “For me,” he says, in light of the decision to allow loans of the Wallace Collection’s artwork to other museums for the first time, “it is a bit like The Hobbit and you see that dragon just sitting on the treasure, not letting anybody get close to it.” 

Whether they like it or not, institutions like Christie’s are behemoths in the art world. They carry with them a responsibility to keep their collections accessible and open. Sitting on their treasure serves only to entrench the idea of cultural superiority and elitism, a label that galleries, museums, and auction houses simply cannot afford to be stuck with anymore.



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