It goes without saying that the event of the year was (and remains) the National Gallery’s exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime blockbuster, "Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan". But even without that exhibition, it was another exceptional year for the visual arts, with a whole series of fascinating shows exploring some of the lesser known tributaries of western and indeed world art. The British Museum, going from strength to strength under the leadership of Neil MacGregor, once again showed the way, with enthralling and eye-opening exhibitions exploring such varied subjects as "Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World", a salutary reminder of the immense cultural riches that are still under threat in that beleaguered country; "Treasures of Heaven", a sense-stunning exploration of the neglected Christian art of the reliquary; and "Landscape, heroes and folktales: German Romantic Prints and Drawings" a hypnotisingly intense survey of graphic art in Germany from the end of the eighteenth century until (roughly) the mid-1860s. The last of these is still open, and free of charge.
The Royal Academy had a rather more mixed year, staging probably the most beautiful small show of the year, an exquisite exploration of Edgar Degas’ obsession with the motif of the female dancer; but also what was unquestionably the most disastrously misconceived and deeply disappointing exhibition of 2011, the much-trumpeted "Modern British Sculpture", a great opportunity squandered for reasons that still remain opaque. The V&A also served up something of a curate’s egg of a programme, with wonderful exhibitions devoted respectively to the textiles of imperial China ("Chinese Imperial Robes") and the cult of art for art’s sake in nineteenth century Britain ("The Cult of Beauty"). Considerably less successful was the museum’s gargantuan survey show, "Postmodernism", which attempted to argue that a movement in the sphere of ideas was also an all-pervasive movement in artistic style – the result was a perfect pandaemonium of an exhibition, deeply flawed by its own intellectual laziness, but nonetheless enough of a box-office hit to keep the musuem’s accountants happy.
Among the other highlights of the year were Tate Britain’s revisionist survey of the modern British watercolour tradition and a spine-tingling exhibition of photographs documenting the Scott and Shackleton polar expeditions, at the Queen’s Gallery. "Vermeer’s Women", at the Fitzwilliam Museum, focussed on some of the artist’s most apparently tranquil, meditative pictures, while hinting at both the personal and political turmoil beneath their seemingly becalmed surfaces. 2011 was a particularly strong year for some of the country’s smaller regional museums. Pallant House, in Chichester, put on a revelatory exhibition of the work of Edward Burra, one of the most unjustly neglected of British modern painters (that show continues until next year); Gainsborough’s House, in Sudbury, staged an entrancingly beautiful exhibition focussing on the painter’s late masterpiece, Diana and Actaeon; while the Barber Institute in Birmingham enjoyed a huge popular success with "Court on Canvas", a quirky exploration of the game of tennis as a subject in art. Two stylish new regional museums opened their doors to the public for the first time this year: the Hepworth Wakefield, and firstsite Colchester, now popularly known as the Golden Banana.
With a year of extreme austerity measures looming, the outlook for Britain’s museums and galleries is not exactly rosy. Budgets will almost certainly be cut, and belts will have to be tightened. The idea of reintroducing charges for national museums may well rear its head once again. If so, it should be strenuously resisted. Free admission to museums and galleries does not only make them available to all; it enables people to engage with the visual arts in a different and more enlightened way: a lunchtime visit to the National Gallery, to see perhaps just two or three favourite paintings, becomes an unaffordable luxury when charging (and queuing) become part of the experience. Without free museums, Britain would be a far less civilised place.