The work of Leonardo da Vinci is some of the most recognisable and iconic the world has ever known. Over 500 years after his birth he still commands an audience so loyal they're willing to queue around the block at the National Gallery on the hope they'll score a ticket to his latest sell-out exhibition, and he's still generating headlines over the provenance of what may turn out to be one of his most influential works: the lost Salvator Mundi.
Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery, has gone on the record before about his suspicions over so-called 'blockbuster' exhibitions. Those shows designed with popularity and pound signs in mind that many think of as serving the same crowd-pleasing, profit-generating, seasonal shot in the arm that pantomime is supposed to do for many theatres.
But while it's hard to deny the natural buzz that surrounds Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, or the fact that tickets are currently selling via third party websites at over £100 a pop, it would be equally hard to accuse the National Gallery's Director of shifting tack and succumbing to the temptation of a big guns blockbuster to drive footfall. After all a successful show brings its own dilemmas, and when demand outstrips supply a gallery can find itself under even more pressure to deliver than when a show fails to find itself an audience.
Right now my real sympathy is for the National Gallery's frontline staff. Visiting recently to see art historian and author Martin Kemp give an excellent talk on whether the Salvator Mundi on show was indeed painted by Leonardo, I couldn't help but be impressed with the quiet patience and fortitude of the gallery staff, especially those trapped behind the information desks, in the face of the entirely unenviable task of repeatedly answering the same question, over and over and over again:
Yes, we're sold out of advance tickets already. Yes, that 's undoubtedly very annoying for all the people who don't have them. Yes, there might be some spare day tickets available tomorrow if you fancy queuing for hours from around 7am, and yes, of course, that is kind of inconvenient for those people who have other things to do, but then maybe next time Sir or Madam should consider more advance planning and less public venting as the best strategy for securing oneself a ticket (Note: last bit made up and not actually overheard at the National Gallery).
There's something disappointing, but perhaps inevitable, in this kind of reaction to a popular and critical success, and while queuing is often seen as Britain's national sport it would seem there are some people who take exception to that rule, at least when it suddenly applies to them.
There are many good reasons why a gallery can't stay open later just to accommodate more visitors who desperately want to get in. for instance, even if the demand is there it's doubtful the extra ticket sales would cover the staff and building costs required to keep the doors open all night.
Likewise, sometimes the show can't go on because there are serious preservation issues that mean many of the most fragile works on paper can only be displayed for a limited time period, and that's before considering that some of the current owners might actually want their works back.
Most importantly though, when a show truly reaches blockbuster proportions, it can expose fault lines in our own attitudes and expectations of the Arts, and the organisations charged with responsibility for overseeing them.
If anything the commercial success of an exhibition like Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, is evidence of the need for more, not less, funding investment for the Arts.
Like those belligerent audiences crowding the information desk, we assume the Arts are there waiting for us whenever we should happen to want them; a right, not a privilege. It's only when that access becomes limited do we realise the true value the Arts can play in our culture, and how much we miss them when they're gone.
It's not too late to change that attitude though, just like it's not too late to score a ticket if you're willing to work for it.
Leonardo still fascinates us with his portraits of a world rich with human passion, scientific invention and spiritual curiosity.
Personally I think that's a vision worth queuing for.Suggest a correction