TAITMAIL Art, Larry, and how another Christmas saved the world

By Simon Tait

I’ll spare you another Brexit sermon, that can wait at least a week. Instead I can take advantage of the fact that today is December 7, the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, and make a connection with the extraordinary polymath Larry Holofcener, who died last year aged 91, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. 

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TAITMAIL Keeping the arts ahead of Ofsted’s robots

Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, has been one of the quieter incumbents of that office, a post which has attracted its fair share of controversialists. Some of her predecessors considered they weren’t doing a proper job unless they were making headlines with their latest musings.

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TAITMAIL Spit the truth

This image is from a play. Both are quite literally “in yer face”.  So are the issues they confront: alienated youth, drugs, knife and gun violence.

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TAITMAIL What NOW?

Halfway through her brief tenure as culture secretary, Maria Miller did the only thing she will probably be remembered for, apart from standing down in the face of an expenses complaint. The expectation was for some kind of Westminster Abbey affair with a full set of royals and military on parade, but Mrs Miller had something else in mind.

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The guts of the matter

It takes a soothsayer to pick over the entrails of the budget every year and find the relevance to the arts and culture, and this year’s no different. Even the DCMS’s own post-budget blog ignores the subject to concentrate on cyber security. But as BOP Consulting’s estimable Jonathan Todd remarks, “Culture is everywhere and largely missing in this budget”.

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The big bite of minnows

The Arts & Business Awards used to be the high point of the cultural season, if there is such a thing: a champagne dinner, black tie, silver service, in an exhalted venue like the V&A’s Raphael Cartoon Court. Forgotten now.

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Goodbye to all that

By Patrick Kelly

In recent years the European Capital of Culture award seems to have gone to cities that most Brits would find hard to place.  It’s as if the EU was playing a Continental version of the game where you have to name the more obscure London Underground stations.

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TAITMAIL Time for artists to stop speaking for themselves

Next week is Tessa Jowell’s memorial service, and I hope there will be space in the tributes for mention of her greatest achievement, the most democratising event in Britain since the war: the 2012 Olympics.

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Nationalism is cultural, not political

They could hardly have been less striking, just a couple of dozen middle-aged men, dentists, fishermen, tomato growers, bank clerks - no sashes, no three-quarter length trousers or red berets, just white shirts and black trousers.

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TAITMAIL Sci-art: a thing of the future, or the past?

Can art and science really serve each other well, or is the current enthusiasm for mixing and matching the opposites of the educational spectrum just an exercise in denerding perceptions of the boffins?

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Is free museums admission doomed?

At the beginning of September the Natural History Museum will open a new suite of rooms in a hitherto forgotten wing of Waterhouse’s South Ken palace, something AI will report on fully later in accordance with an embargo. 

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TAITMAIL The trouble with national museums – too scary

National museums seem to have entered an existential hiatus with the Science Museum director Ian Blatchford saying other institutions should be lending stuff to regional museums, and the museum directors themselves - presumably including Blatchford – in a huddle about why their visitor numbers are plummeting.

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Museums, Design Museum

TaitMail Hope? Nope

The Design Museum staff will turn up for work on Monday with a spring in their steps, knowing that the most troublesome exhibition in its short Kensington High Street history, Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-18, has ended.

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Dance, Wellcome Trust, Digital

Art going viral

It has been overshadowed in history by the other thing that happened in 1918, and with reason. It might have killed already sinking morale among survivors as a wearisome war ended.

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Festivals, Brexit, Edinburgh, Fringe Festival

Will Brexit kill the Fringe?

We leave Europe next March and all the visa exceptions and reciprocal arrangements that keep our cultural wheels oiled will go too, with the hard Brexit that looks more and more likely.

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Politics, Arts Jobs

What, me worry, when Mr Wright has come along?

Who is Jeremy Wright, the headlines on Tuesday were asking.  For me, he bears an unnerving likeness to Mad Magazine’s Alfred E Neuman (a kind of 1960s Forrest Gump who only ever said “What, me worry?”), but he was the Attorney General and is now the seventh Secretary State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport since 2010.

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TAITMAIL Creativity museums

 

The rather messy headline is because there are two topics to address, Darren Henley’s little book Creativity – why it matters, and the Museum of the Year. But are they separate?

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TAITMAIL Development blight on Dankworths’ gift to youth and music

The priorities of some local authorities leave me baffled. Take Milton Keynes Council, where planning and culture clearly don’t share the same office.

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TAITMAIL Splitting Christo

It’s Christotime in London with two important exhibitions opening one day after the other this week, one of which you will certainly be aware of, the other probably not.

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TaitMail Bilbao’s King Gugg

It’s almost 21 years since the Guggenheim Bilbao opened, controversially and changing museum aspiration for ever. It was paid for by the Basque government, looked like nothing anyone had ever seen before, and after it opened every city wanted one.

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Where is culture's champion?

By Patrick Kelly

European news isn’t of much interest to our media, unless it contains the word Brexit. So you could have measured the coverage of the EU’s plans for its budget, (which we will still be contributing to, regardless of what happens on March 2019) with a microscope. Inevitably there was little or no reference to the culture element of that budget.

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TAITMAIL Royal minstrels

With all the faff about which of Meghan Markle’s kin were going to be at the wedding, which celebs were in and which were out, who was designing what for whom, would the Spice Girls/Ed Sheeran/Elton John be performing on the Chapel, the only ones who really got it right were the royals themselves, mostly the young ones.

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TaitMail The local enterprise partnership that isn’t an LEP

The John Hansard Gallery opens on Saturday in its splendid new city centre premises, just over a year late. 

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Why diversity is not black and white

Diversity, the accepted euphemism for racial neutrality, has had a bumper week with claims, counter claims, pledges and projects.

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TaitMail Windrush - a momentous fiasco

This afternoon people will queue in the April rain and in an orderly fashion as they file into a Brixton museum in a place now called Windrush Square.

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TaitMail Lessons from St John’s Smith Square: that six legs are better than three

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.  

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What’s the point of…. Quentin?

Poor Quentin Letts has got a shellacking for being “blatantly racist” in his Daily Mail review of the RSC’s quirky Restoration play The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, and I find myself in the awkward position of having sympathy for him.

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Rinsing out Nadfas’s blue tints

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.

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Culture: at last, a Thing even governments have to reckon with

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.

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TaitMail The race to save London’s soul

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.

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TaitMail The enchantment quotient

Hooray! Despite everything, Brexit, terror attacks, Southern Rail and London Bridge Station,  the Beast from the East, Russian nerve gas and the Arsenal’s dismal form, tourism is up!

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TaitMail Arts funding? Forgot to ask…

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.

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TaitMail Flogging a dead museum

Is the Museums Association preaching heresy?

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How Tusa's strategic pragmatism saved the arts

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.

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Freezing our lifeblood, ignoring our heartbeat

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.
 

 

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Oi, you, Brutus!

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.

 

https://www.rsc.org.uk/first-encounters-julius-caesar/

 

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Hylas and the numpties

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.

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New: real history in the movies as you’ve never seen it

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.

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Thanks, Jude

Jude Kelly has been artistic director at the Southbank for 12 years. It seems so much longer, not because her tenure has been a yawn-making bore, the very opposite. Hard to imagine the place without her.

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Freedom of non-speech

Huge sigh of relief for John Kampfner and his Creative Industries Federation team over the Cabinet reshuffle.

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Are they on the level?

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.

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Whatever happened to TV’s arts savvy?

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?

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Getting the picture

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.

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Ladies with balls

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.

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Enabling music

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.

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Culture clash

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”.

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Mendoza's Museums Action Plan - but where's the cash?

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.

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The hardening of soft power

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.

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A story that keeps on giving

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”.

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Who are the grown-ups now?

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.

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Now we know what Brexit really means

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.

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Creating a fortress mentality

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.

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Playing parts

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.

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Shades of prejudice

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.

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Happy slappy

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”.

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Treasure Chester

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.
 

 

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Northern broadside

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.

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The age of the people’s arts

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.

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Populism or kitsch – does it matter?

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.

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A nice little list

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.

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