The John Hansard Gallery opens on Saturday in its splendid new city centre premises, just over a year late.
The shell burst last weekend was the loudest culture bang to go off since ENO lost a large hunk of its subsidy three years ago and threatened to go dark if its new business plan didn’t work. St John’s Smith Square isn’t the Coliseum, but it not being there would leave a large hole in a lot of people’s musical lives.
They used to send the fear of God into young V&A curators, those battalions of Nadfas ladies in their pastel coloured day coats, flowery hats and blue rinses with their certain knowledge and uncertain aim with it. But once they were in, hats and coats off, sleeves rolled up, they were gold dust – tireless, fastidious and, it turned out, eager to learn.
It’s such a dull name for it, “sector deal”, but to be plain the government’s Roundhouse announcement of £150m to “help cultural and creative businesses across Britain thrive” is very good news.
I got a rap over the knuckles from Jacqui of Portsmouth after last week’s offering, in which I highlighted the fact that while arts and heritage tourism was up across the country, it was down in London, as reported in the latest Association of Leading Visitor Attractions’ figures.
The arts and creative industries have been lauded for the inventiveness, entrepreneurship, partnership and pragmatism they have brought to survival against the storm of subsidy cuts over the last seven or eight years, and rightly so.
Is the Museums Association preaching heresy?
To read John Tusa’s new autobiography, Making a Noise, especially chapter 12, you’d think he saved the arts in this country. He probably did; he certainly saved the Barbican Centre, destined to become a conference centre if factions in its owner the Corporation of London had had their way, we learn here.
Two reports this week highlight the strange contradiction in our treatment of culture, how as a nation we can both love it and loathe it. One tells us that if there is an economic recovery underway in this country, it is because of the creative industries that receive no recognition in the Brexit negotiations that so badly need something pointing upwards. The other that our museums and galleries, our glory and the things that millions come from all over the world to see, are having their lifeblood frozen in their veins by cash cuts.
The lifeblood is the acquisition process that keeps museums from becoming dead repositories – this incredible Lorenzetti triptych transformed Hull’s Ferens Gallery at the start of its year of culture. New objects do not simply take up much needed room, they complete narratives, inspire special exhibitions, inform research, and fascinate an ever more interested public. Somehow politicians have never understood this. Up to three or four decades ago national funded institutions got two grants, one for running costs and a smaller but significant one for acquisitions. Then Lord Gowrie, in Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet as arts minister (who later left politics to become chairman of Sotheby’s because he couldn’t live on a minister’s salary), decided to “tidy it all up” by combining them. When it was put to him that this was effectively abolishing the acquisition fund, he said “no, no it’ll all be all right, it’s incorporated, you’ll see”. Within three years the grants were cut to below what the combined allocations had been, and acquisition funds have never been restored.
It takes a history professor (at an American university), to highlight the cryogenic effects of this on museums. His Why Collect? report (https://www.artfund.org/assets/downloads/why-collect-report.pdf ) shows that the UK government spends less on culture in percentage terms than Denmark, France or Latvia. It also shows that junior curators, the poor bloody infantry with shoals of PhDs among its cvs, that has to keep clean, record and love these objects, are paid 25% less than the market rate. http://www.artsindustry.co.uk/news/1033-museums-collecting-frozen-by-funding-cuts
Nesta’s report (www.nesta.org.uk/publications/creative-nation) researched with the Creative Industries Council, shows how the creative industries are surging head at an average 11% growth of any other sector in the economy, and will be worth a million new jobs by 2030. It's the UK’s modern heartbeat, but it’s happening organically, without the help of any national policy or in spite of the lack of it. “If cities can increase the number of higher growth, scale-up creative businesses, the creative industries could make a dent in the UK’s productivity problem too” says Nesta’s Hasan Bakshi. “Providing the climate for such businesses to grow should be a top priority for local economic policymakers”. http://www.artsindustry.co.uk/news/1032-creative-industries-on-track-to-create-1m-local-jobs-nesta
In both cases the unevenness of local authority funding is as much to blame as the disinterestedness of central government. There needs to be a national system of regional funding for our sustainable arts and creative resources – not least by paying those involved a decent wage – run by our city powerhouses to ensure there is still something for tourists to see, and that we have at least one industrial sector we can boast about.
There was a moment in the performance of Julius Caesar this week, surreal in any other context, when Brutus is shocked by the appearance of Caesar’s ghost. “Of course Caesar’s haunting you” piped up a ten-year-old from the second row. “You’ve just murdered him, what did you expect?”
But here, in the main hall of a primary school in Barking, it was not only fine, it was to be welcomed. There were 200+ kids surrounding the RSC actors on tour with the production for the next couple of months.
The venues are all schools, mostly junior schools, in deprived areas where Shakespeare is, if not a stranger, a very rare acquaintance.
The children, aged seven to 13, study the play for several weeks before the performance, and become part of it, in the case of this production as Citizens of Rome. So there is back and forth between the cast and the audience, till you half expect the end to change. As one of the cast told them in the preamble before the start, this was an experience they would never forget.
The usual things apply to this sort of exercise: kids get a sense of teamwork, of self-confidence, of the value of words and rhetoric, of unscary Shakespeare, of the sheer joy of performance. But as one of the cast told me, “we want them not to just like Shakespeare, we want them to wear him”.
And there’ll be youngsters around the country, from Cornwall to County Durham, who will be able to tell their kids that they acted in an RSC production of Julius Caesar. And then explain it.
It’s the first time this particular school has been part of the RSC’s First Encounters scheme, and it might be the last. It’s a large, 900-pupil, school in a deprived area, and the head teacher thinks it has been fantastic – “really amazing to see how the children responded, to bring the RSC here is fabulous. The children get so much out of it, not just for now but through their lives” – but they have to share the cost, and money is scarce. It is, she says, a luxury “and that’s the real shame”.
She’ll have to make a budget decision after half-term as to whether a life-influencing experience that will give them access to their cultural birthright is a luxury she can afford when the next production. As the little girl on row two would no doubt say, it’s a no-brainer.
I don’t know if it’s still there, but on the V&A’s cast of Michelangelo’s David in the Cast Courts there used to be a tiny brass hook above the hero’s pudenda; on the wall behind there was a plaster fig leaf provided by curators which could be hung on the tiny brass hook in case Queen Victoria happened to look in one day.
Britain’s whispered mention in the Oscars nominations this time is likely to be a paean to fake history, a romantic movie that takes historical fact and invents new bits to make it more interesting.
Huge sigh of relief for John Kampfner and his Creative Industries Federation team over the Cabinet reshuffle.
The Police Federation has had a go at Freemasonry again, accusing the brotherhood of blocking policing reform, keeping out women and black people through a kind of network of prejudice. That network may well exist, but it’s got nothing to do with Freemasons.
Over the years ITV has made fitful attempts at getting art into its schedules, and without very strong support from above it has never been sustained and culture has largely been left to the BBC. Now the channel that doesn’t even have an arts commissioning editor any more might have come up with a rather brilliant wheeze, alongside the X Factor, I’m a Celebrity… and The Voice UK. Visual art as well as live opera and theatre is now bringing audiences into cinemas, thought someone in ITV’s penthouse suite, why not to television via the same sources? High quality at affordable prices, who wouldn’t go for that?
The Museum of the Year Award has, at last, eclipsed the Turner Prize. The search for the next winner began this week, and the BBC is putting it on both TV and radio. It’s not just the £100,000 first prize as opposed to the Turner’s £25,000 that gives it the edge; it’s actually more interesting, and while this year’s Turner winner couldn’t have been more worthy, Lubaina Himid had had a couple of very successful and well-publicised exhibitions this year and, having been around for decades, was suddenly in the eye of the public as well as of the critic. So no-one was surprised when she won.
The page 3 headline screeches “Women set to shine as scandalised Hollywood does the honours”, and the story posits that women will do particularly well at the Oscars this time because the men that run the film industry have been shown to be sexual monsters who run their business with their pricks.
I’ve been upbraided by one of you for overdoing the entrepreneurial genius of arts organisations in this country and underplaying the bone-headed refusal of the government, particularly, and local authorities as a concomitant, to understand the importance of supporting community arts, and creativity in education. Well, seems to me I’ve been scribbling about little else for the last half dozen years, but there is a current story that covers both, and it’s at least partly in Bristol.
Dismay, fury, incomprehension and a scramble to renegotiate follows the EC’s terse note to the PM that for the UK to nominate Europe’s Capital of Culture for 2023 “would not be possible” and the nomination process should be “immediately discontinued”.
Everyone from the Museums Association to the Art Fund is hugging themselves with glee at the announcement by DCMS of its Museums Action Plan for England.
Great jubilation this week at the Arts Council’s findings that the value of the creative industries has zoomed 10% to be worth nearly £12bn a year to the UK economy (even though the figures relate to 2014-15, before the effects of Brexit have been recorded). The debate about why none of this largesse is manifested in funding for the arts is for another time.
It’s hard to believe, a quarter of a century on when we’ve settled into a cultural landscape that was been transformed by the National Lottery, what an apparently shambolic start it had. The brand new first chairman of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Lord Rothschild, had lunch with a group of arts correspondents and was asked what HLF was going to do. “Funny” he said “I came here to ask you that”.
But it’s true, and the whole story is told by someone who was at the heart of it all, Prue Skene, imbued in the arts from toddlerdom, who joined the Arts Council in 1992, two years before the lottery was launched, and she was the first chair of ACE’s arts lottery panel.
Her book, Capital Gains; How the National Lottery transformed England’s arts, has just been published and is more than a memoir because Skene has been, and still is, one of the best-connected individuals in the cultural network who uses all her contacts to lay out her story.
The Arts Council was going through one of its periodic melt-downs, its spending behaviour under deep scrutiny while it was obliged to consider which of London’s four symphony orchestras should be sacrificed to oblige government bean counters, and the last thing it needed was to work out how to allocate new gambling profits “for the public good”.
If you’ve been thinking that our young people have lost interest in the Brexit gallimaufry you’ve not been listening, as we elders tend to do with young people. It’s just that they've gone past the anger at having their futures betrayed, past the incredulity at the behaviour of our leaders, and they're looking beyond. They’re looking at what’s happening in Spain, at Trump’s barely believable antics, at our home economy crumbling, at Europe’s bungling of the refugee crisis, at our government’s laughable attempts to appear to foreign negotiators and partners be in control, and looking at what god they can make of it.
There’s something totemic about the European Union Youth Orchestra’s decision to leave Britain where it was founded 41 years ago – by Lionel and Joy Bryer who ran the International Youth Foundation of Great Britain – with a view “to creating an orchestra which would represent the European ideal of a community working together to achieve peace and social understanding”. It has been offered a new home in Ferrara where its founding musical director Claudio Abbado hailed from.
Once again, the annual conferences of the two main parties, when not focussing on their own navels or being obsessed with the perception of their commitment to Brexit, have failed to address the place the fastest growing sector in the economy should have in their visions for the future.
I understand how most discrimination happens, it’s a simple distrust growing to fear of those that aren’t like us, and nearly all of us acknowledge that it’s wrong. But there’s a discrimination that makes no sense at all from any level. One of the most egregious is discrimination by half of us against the other half, regardless of race, religion or nationality; a discrimination against a sort like us in every respect but one, and a sort that we can't live without.
The word “racism” is fairly recent, and has connotations of violence and viciousness. The former “racialism” and “racial prejudice” were less strident and more inactive, referring to notion rather than deed. But deep down there is something more difficult to eke out, something more akin to a kind of racial conceit mixed with racial ignorance. Racism is a reactive surface thing, this other one goes deeper.
A small galaxy of music stars, all of whom as far as I can tell have been concerned in making sacred music, have protested against an evangelical vicar’s decision to ban what he regards as non-religious music-making from the church to which he has recently been appointed (www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/23/uks-leading-musicians-fight-church-ban-on-secular-bookings-aled-jones-judith-weir). He says the hallowed premises should be devoted to “worship and ministry”.
I went to Chester this week to see the Ark, the latest exhibition based on a partnership between a cathedral, Gloucester last time, and Pangolin, the foundry that has a gallery in London but also a mission to get its extraordinary fellowship of client artists, past and present, seen in what is arguably the most sculptural of architectural contexts, big churches.
But there is something else going on in this tiny historic city, population 118,000 which makes it less than half the size of Hull. This summer it finally got over its political and administrative upheavals to open an enormous £37m statement of cultural confidence, the Storyhouse in Northgate, just along from the town hall.
This was the 1930s Odeon, a picture palace that had lost its place, and Chester had more recently lost its theatre. The council-generated scheme not only created a new theatre and cinema complex by extending the Ocean site and retaining the art deco charm, but resited the city library here to make it more attractive to younger readers and their carers and give Chestonians (if that’s what they are) a cultural city-centre. It’s not like a multi-arts complex I’ve ever seen, with books the first statement. They surround you as collect your coffee in the large ground floor café, and small kids - representing the second statement, that this place is about families - clamber over settees among the reference shelves, with no-one to tell them to keep quiet and no-one minding.
But there's no art gallery in its story. Almost next door in the town hall complex is where the city library used to be, and the ground floor is currently occupied by an exhibition of pop art posters from the V&A. It’s the first exhibition organised by Chester Visual Arts, a community interest company set up by a group of interested residents. “We just thought it simply wasn’t good enough that although this lovely city has a marvellous new facility in the Storyhouse, there’s no public art gallery” said Hilary Banner, a retired solicitor who is on the voluntary board with regeneration experts, a property manager, a cathedral representative an accountant and the arts professor at Chester University. “We’re here temporarily but we hope we can make it permanent, if we can attract enough interest”. They are doing, with up to 400 a day going in to see the Blakes, the Hamiltons, the Caulfields and the Lichtensteins, having convinced the V&A to put this pop-up venue on its list of touring venues for this lovely show.
This is not supposed to be Chester Visual Arts’ permanent home, it has a programme of interventions in underused buildings, but it would be the perfect answer to Chester’s conundrum if what to do with the space and how to answer its gallery deficiency, and with the help of the new pastoral policies of national institutions like the V&A, Tate and the British Museum programming longer term is more than possible.
But the point is that this is not a council initiative, or even an intervention by the Arts Council. It’s come from a group of local influential people who have been allowed to carry their enthusiasm to the public, and raised the required funding. Their next exhibition will be a collaboration with Chester Cathedral which has its own adventure this summer, with Ark, where Pangolin sculptors of the calibre of David Mach, William Pye, Sarah Lucas, Phillip King, Damien Hirst, Lynn Chadwick and Barbara Hepworth are giving Chester’s people the opportunity of a lifetime.
It’s all a reverse of the Victorian patrician practice of giving the people what they ought to have; it’s the people saying this is what we want, and we’re going to have it.
The north-south divide, we are being told with increasing shrillness, is growing, with the income gap wider than ever, unemployment disproportionately high beyond Watford and rent and house prices being ratcheted up by landlords and developers to rival London’s.
Two new reports, one from the Gulbenkian Foundation, the other from King’s College, have highlighted the urgent need for a new philosophy for public art engagement.
I don’t know why anyone should be surprised that when the nation was asked what its favourite work of art was the nation overlooked Turner, Constable, Gainsborough and even David Hockney and pointed to Banksy.
It’s warming that Historic England have gone on a bit of a listing splurge in Hull, a city that before this year was hardly regarded at all for its historic nature, let alone highly. William Wilberforce’s house is listed, as is Andrew Marvell’s statue, but that’s because of who they represent, not where they are.
Two new reports out this week give a high-pitched testimony to the importance of the arts to our lives, beyond the theatre, concert hall and art gallery – and how stupid is the policy of expunging creativity from education.
Nicholas Serota was like a boy with a new bike, going through the gears, testing its turning circle, seeing how far he could push it but not braking too hard.
It’s a warm, overcast Thursday afternoon in June, in Hull’s Queen Victoria Square. A lone guitar player sits on a canvas folding chair, picking out a tune, surrounded by his luggage. Passers-by pass by without a glance and across the square beside City Hall children play in the new pavement fountains. It’s half term and Hull is half way through its term as UK City of Culture. Has it worked?
Shortly there will be a report on how it has fared so far, and later this week DCMS are expected to announce the shortlist for its successor, the UK City of Culture in 2021. The bookies are saying it’s down to Coventry, Perth, Paisley and Swansea and we’ll know the winner at the end of the year, so they’ll be looking closely at Hull’s accounts book.
From the sylvan glades of Holland Park a mile away Grenfell Tower isn’t visible. Last week, though, it was by the black pall that besmirched the blue horizon, but otherwise the park and it activities are a world away from the horror billowing to the north-east. Or so we are led to believe.
Optimistic sighs of relief, perhaps, not for any party political reasons but because a little common sense might prevail over Brexit and the cultural industries. Mrs May seems to have been told by the nation that the monochrome view of the world won’t do, and for no sector was that truer than for the arts.
If you thought Nick Serota had left Tate months ago, he has now and Maria Balshaw takes over tomorrow. It’s a huge legacy, including a very large debt she will have to fill at a time when, unlike when Serota took over, subsidy is shrinking, and the estate she becomes chatelaine of is several times the modest mansion that Alan Bowness handed over in 1988.
It didn’t matter what the original sentiment of the song was – don’t look back in anger? Of course, we will, for eternity.
Just when you're in the direst need of some light relief, along gallops that most genial of disc jockeys Tim Lihoreau of Classic FM’s daily More Music Breakfast. His listeners began sending him the weird names of where they lived with tweets and phone-ins, and some of the even weirder ones they passed through. Then Lihoreau had a stroke of genius. You know how the Germans have the perfect word for something that’s not in the English vocabulary, like zeitgeist and schadenfreude? Well, it occurred to our morning host that the same might apply to the arcane world of music, where there are familiar experiences, incidents and encounters which some of the more bizarre topographical nomenclature would fit like a glove. He’s brought them together as The Classic FM Musical Treasury, just published by Elliott and Thompson. Here’s a flavour.
The trouble with general elections is politics. They get in the way of proper policy-making, and the politicians draw up manifestos full of the kind of promises they think will appeal to the electorate – fewer foreigners jumping the NHS queues, more power for the unions, fair tax for everyone, no tax rises for anyone - while the really important stuff is left in the in-tray. Really important stuff vital in a unique way to the British economy like the arts and allied endeavours. Top of the news lists post-election will be the winners tying themselves in knots as they try to get out of those promises.
The Art Fund just keeps on giving. Not only is it happy to cough up £100,000 every year for the Museum of the Year winner, as of this year the runners up all get £10,000 as well.
Now and again art clips you round the ear and yells, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
It happens to me once or twice a year, and I’m lucky, I see and hear a lot of the stuff. It happened yesterday, in the unlikely surroundings of the Australian High Commission where there are 20 paintings by Sidney Nolan being exhibited from today until May 5.
These pictures have never been seen in public before. He was extraordinarily prolific and periodically rang up the London store where most of the pictures were kept, saying he would be in town and wanted to see this, this and that, and would turn up as appointed and spend two or three hours communing.
But these are ones he kept by him at his remote farmhouse hideway at The Rodd in Powys, and in these 20 canvases is 40 years of work that swirls from surreal to abstract to landscape to portrait. One of the most eerie and moving is Head (Ned Kelly): if Sir Sid is known for anything these days it’s his Ned Kelly pictures – he was fascinated by Australian legends – but Kelly’s head is always encased in an iron helmet; not this one (pictured). More alarming from a couple of years before is Head (Gallipoli), the rotting bonce of a dead Australian soldier whose craggy features are somehow reminiscent of the artist himself. There is a tiny painting from his early attempts to get his thoughts onto canvas, and there are some of the giant spray abstracts, 10 feet by 15 feet, that he was painting in the 1980s towards the end of his life, sometimes at a rate of three a day, with the canvas on the floor of his Elizabethan barn while he was hanging from the rafters by a jackstay, a spray can in each hand.
Tomorrow would be Sir Sid’s 100th birthday and this little show is part of it. There is already an admirable exhibition of his painting in Britain at Pallant House in Chichester - he lived here for most of the last 40 years of his life – but this one is personal, “Sidney’s very personal musings” as Anthony Plant, who runs the Sydney Nolan Trust (which owns The Rodd now and 3,800 of his pictures), puts it.
The trust’s chairman, David Lipsey, hopes the year will rehabilitate Nolan’s reputation which never recovered from his shoving off to the Marches away from the London scene in 1983: too many young art lovers have never heard of him, even Australians. His friend the poet Simon Mundy has written a new biography and will talk about him at his grave in Highgate Cemetery on Tuesday (to find out more about what’s on in this Nolan year go to www.sidneynolantruist.org). Surprisingly there is to be no major retrospective exhibition, the calendars of the Tate and Royal Academy were already full when thoughts were turned to it, but his studio is to be opened for the first time next month at The Rodd, with exhibitions in the barn he painted in. You’ll need to really want to go, it’s not easy, but well worth it when you do. You’ll know why if you duck into the Australian High Commission in The Strand over the next three weeks.
The deadline for submissions to the government’s new industrial strategy is today and the Creative Industries Federation has got its oar in for the arts and creativity just in time. The Fed wants creative enterprise zones, a business booster network and a creative careers campaign to set right the negative careers advice being given on the sector.
Last night I had one of the most extraordinary musical experiences of my life when the Feinstein Ensemble and the Bach Singers gave a one-off performance of Bach’s monumental St Matthew Passion. Mendelssohn said it was the finest of all Christian compositions, and my thought as I left Kings Place was a that he could have dropped the “Christian”.
There used to be a kind of war weariness about our military museums, so that the National Maritime Museum focussed on subjects like Arctic exploration and the Imperial War Museum on the Holocaust, liked Fawlty’s “Don't mention, the war!” Places like the National Army Museum were lost, not sure whether to look at the well-known battle stories of yore or the plight of unlimbed EID victims. The Royal Artillery’s museum in Woolwich gave up the ghost altogether.
Alketa has a steady stream of visitors to her van parked in front of Tate Modern – well, it does say “Welcome” in large letters inside.
The received wisdom is that business sponsorship is dead, killed by the credit crunch. The first fundraising port of call for arts organisation is not the banks, supermarket chains or grocery manufacturers as of yore but charitable trusts and foundations. And philanthropy… it just didn’t happen did it?
There was a touching moment in Upper Regent Street the other day when Lady Lucinda Lambton cut a cake marking the 50th birthday of the Cinema Theatre Association, of which she is patron. It was in the shape of the old Twickenham Gaumont, a pre-Odeon style miniature palace of a picture house that opened in the Richmond Road in 1928 but is now long gone – there’s a petrol station on the site now, a battle that was lost.
This was going to be about how the Clore Leadership Programme had given us the new Tate director, and how the fears that, following the flouncing off back to Europe by the German director of the V&A after the Brexit vote, we would be excluding foreign talent from taking on our cultural institutions were groundless, and how Maria Balshaw’s story shows us why. The Clore has proved that this notoriously reticent nation has got talent bulging out of its tightly drawn borders. And then, out of the blue yesterday afternoon, the Clore’s director Sue Hoyle announced that she was leaving.
AI reported on the swingeing cuts Birmingham was proposing to make to its arts budget, and now comes the story that public pressure has made the council row back on its proposal to cut £750,000 from the Birmingham Museums Trust’s grant, part of the £78m cost reduction package. It’s also changed its mind about closing two libraries. But they’ll still be putting the council tax up 5%.
Let's be clear, the bust of Churchill that President Trump ceremoniously placed on a Georgian occasional table beneath what looks like an Impressionist landscape in the Oval Office on his first day is not his. It’s ours, and we should have it back and not let “the greatest Englishman” appear to be giving Britain’s sanction to The Donald’s crazy antics.
When Peter Bazalgette was announced as the new chairman of the Arts Council four years ago, to say there was scepticism is to put it mildly. Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail wondered what a “brutal populist” like the man who brought us Big Brother had to offer the arts.
There was a warm frisson at the LSO’s St Luke’s Centre earlier in the week when Simon Rattle made his first appearance at a press conference as the orchestra’s new music director to announce his first season. He was so pleased to be there, and everyone was so pleased to see him there. At last, was the feeling, we’ll see a bit of action.