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To London, and a late-night tour of the National Gallery. Three of us rattle around a place designed for multitudes. Motion sensors turn lights on and off as we pass through the rooms but, in the main, darkness rules. There is no jostling or craning to see the anamorphic skull in Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”. Even as the staff near an 800-year old diptych acknowledge us, our presence feels transgressive.

For such privileged access, you have to know someone, and most people don’t. They must squeeze their cultural life into weekends or slivers of time after the working day. This constraint is not a London thing. The Louvre shuts at 6pm most evenings, as does the Hermitage. MoMA is finished half an hour earlier. Those wanton night owls at the Smithsonian burn the candle until 7pm. The modern art museum in San Francisco, the progressive edge of the world, shoos you out at 5pm. With a typical opening time of about 10am, great museums do not allow for a sly pre-work visit either.

The 24-hour city has always been more of a phrase than a fact. Such nettlesome considerations as the human need for sleep keep getting in the way. But the least excusable mismatch between the ideal and the reality is the nightly recession of culture. The performing arts are available but the quieter, introspective ones are shut. “Nightlife”, for the most part, still denotes the consumption of alcohol and less sanctioned pleasures. The result is a much-discussed but ultimately narrow after-hours economy: an urban terrain shorn of older people and non-hedonists.

Since former club promoter Mirik Milan pioneered the role in Amsterdam, “night mayors” have proliferated to cities around the world. Much of their work comes down to the politics of carousing: the licensing laws, the regulation of decibel levels, the froideur between revellers and local residents. No one who savours a midnight restorative once in a while can do anything other than salute these municipal heroes. But the narrow conception of nightlife is telling. A city is a poorer place if, outside office hours, it only accommodates one type of person and one pace of life.

Some cities have intuited as much, without quite solving the problem. In 2002, Paris staged the Nuit Blanche: a dusk-to-dawn festival of the arts that made an open-air museum of the city for one night. The movement has spread to Melbourne, Oran, Winnipeg and yet farther. Paris held its 17th edition last month. As contagious as it has proven, however, the original hope was that Nuit Blanche would storm its way into obsolescence. That is, late-night arts would become so normalised as to blur the line between a dedicated festival and just another evening. Instead, it remains a patchy affair, a matter of late Fridays or Saturdays and semi-legal pop-up galleries with an inevitable bias to the young and already art-literate. The monoculture of cities at night remains solid.

The loss is not just the cities’, but the masses’. Governments have tried to democratise access to museums through free or discounted entry. People of constrained means, however, tend also to have constrained time. For all the zeitgeist blather about a fluid new economy, we who can slink off to a show during a working day should remember how unusual we still are. Like voting, the consumption of art is a thing of national importance that is made harder than it should be. Museums’ endless physical extensions (another annex and the Tate Modern should just bid for city status) speak to the unmet demand for them. The trick is to accommodate it through time as well as space.

Cutting through Bloomsbury, I pass the Greek Revivalist fortress of the British Museum: treasure-laden, classily lit and, at dinner time, as inaccessible as Pentonville Prison up the road. These profound institutions, repositories of our civilisation, are dormant for two-thirds of the day. Round-the-clock admittance is unthinkable, of course, at least without compromising the material condition of the works. But to take in Canaletto’s “Venice” on a Monday evening should not be the extravagance it presently seems. Cities will come into their own when “nightlife” means more than one thing.

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