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.
It was a predictably oleaginous performance by the politicians at the Creative Industries Federation’s second birthday party this week, with the culture secretary Karen Bradley telling the Fed members gathered at the Design Museum what they’ve been telling her and her predecessors for the last 24 months, that the sector is worth nearly £90b a year to the economy, and the business secretary Greg Clark revealing that the creative industries will be part of the government’s industrial strategy – if they weren’t we’d have a story.
Local authorities don’t have to be supine and take their funding woes out on their communities’ cultural content, like Westminster, Walsall, Lancashire and Kirklees have. Here are two positive stories that probably won’t make many news pages just because they’re positive, and being positive about councils is not the zeitgeist.
No matter how much of an annus horribilis it might have been, and 2016 is going to take some beating, what goes round comes round.
Reports from the culture select committee tend to be marked by two characteristics, superficiality and complete misapprehension, but this latest one is different. Bafflingly titled “Countries of Culture” when it is about arts funding in the English regions, the report does this time seem to comprehend the problem. My issue with it is that it doesn’t go anything like far enough in recommending possible solutions.
Under its new chair, Damian Collins, the committee gleaned from its rather sparse line-up of witnesses that the arts have an undeniable intrinsic value but they have a definable and unique role in health, education and economic development. That vital cultural offer is failing because of local authority funding cuts – “there is a danger that, contrary to the government’s stated wish to make culture more accessible, it will become less so”, the report says and it wants a better defined policy on accessibility with “a higher priority in terms of funding”. Walsall is prepared to close its art gallery if the art gallery itself doesn't find alternative funding, and Birmingham, we learn today, is halving its grant to the world renowned Birmingham Rep.
The report recognises the importance of partnerships involving not only arts organisations and councils but also businesses and the education sector, as pointed up in Ed Vaizey’s white paper earlier this year, and with the tourism agencies.
It wants the Treasury and DCMS – no mention of the Department for Local Government and Communities, note, though that might have given the exercise a bit of context – to do an impact assessment on tax breaks, VAT regulation, Gift Aid and estate duty relief schemes to find ways of encouraging philanthropy and, who knows, business sponsorship. It wants nationally funded organisations to behave nationally by lending objects, productions and expertise to regional and local venues, which they increasingly do of course.
And it lays the responsibility on central government, but fails to lay down the law on solving the initial dilemma: local authorities can no longer afford to pay for the arts and there is no plan for replacing that funding. There is no suggestion of a unified policy of making councils use their initiative to consider partnerships with local universities, for instance, and local industry to ensure community arts provision which everyone is at long last agreed we need, but nobody can think of how to afford it. The report’s recommendations are too vague and no-one will take serious notice of a wish list. The government is not going to change its decision that there is to be no more money coming from that direction for regional arts, nor is it asked to here. And all this while the National Lottery flow that has been the making of the cultural capital in Britain for more than two decades, is fading fast.
But there is a way that works extremely well in Europe: a hotel culture tax. Britain and particularly England has a flourishing tourist market, particularly since the pound is so cheap, and a culture tax of 1%-5% on hotel bills such as operates in Italy with the proceeds hypothecated to a fund for local arts provision would be simple to run and enormously productive in terms of cash. We made a leap with the lottery a generation ago, and look what that has done for the arts and heritage. Here is a smaller step but one that might be at least as productive.
The black Labour MP David Lammy said the vetoing by Karen Bradley of Althea Efunshile as a new Channel Four board member after she had been vetted, approved and recommended by Ofcom “beggars belief”, and so it does.
No apology for returning to this. This evening the great and the good of the West Midlands will be making their way into the New Art Gallery Walsall for a preview of the annual Walsall Society of Artists exhibition, picking their way through a throng of protestors, demonstrating against the local authority’s proposal to, among other things, close the gallery in four years by reducing its net revenue spending to zero after four years.
Apart from a curious pledge to support the rescue of a remote Yorkshire Palladian pile, to not cut the main arts subsidy and offer a tiny tax concession for permanent exhibitions, the Chancellor spoke yesterday and uttered nothing culturally. Or did he?
There was an interesting seminar on Wednesday at the Jerwood Space in London at which three private collectors made the case for philanthropy and for making matchless collections such as theirs open to local communities. They were Alan Grieve, founder of the Jerwood Foundation who opened the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings four years ago; Valeria Napoleone whose collection of the work of female artists was at the Graves Gallery in Sheffield for three months before opening tomorrow at Touchstones Rochdale till March; and Chris Ingram whose 450-piece accumulation of modern British art is mostly to be seen at the Lightbox in Woking, the 2004 Museum of the Year. It’s “give back time” said Ingram, who made his fortune from advertising. It’s “all about assisting regeneration of communities” said Grieve – shopkeepers around galleries and museums all benefit. It's about “thinking big and being bold” in bringing art to the community said Napoleone.
The Rattle Hall plan has been badly shaken, maybe to its death rattle, by what seems to be yet another piece of new government revisionism. Cancelling the grant of £5.5m given by George Osborne to create a business case for the £278m Centre for Music, to give it its proper name, the government has said bluntly that it does not offer value for money for the taxpayer, and is therefore not affordable. It wants the money back.
She’s funny, she’s large, she’s just about the most committed person I’ve met and she’s landed what looks like a joke appointment that might turn out to be the best job in the world. A few days after he was elected mayor in May Sadiq Khan held a soirée for arts folk at which he announced he was going to have a nightmare. “Seriously. A Night Mayor… OK, so maybe we’ll call it something else, Night Tsar say”.
It did seem extraordinary, to fire the feisty, feminist, inventive Emma Rice after only a year at the Globe, and the theatre community is outraged - a modicum of that outrage might be expressed in the next AI. It's sexism, a “dull backwards step”, “nonsensical”, and the Globe has doomed itself to being no more than “a museum and research centre”. A sponsor, the Joyce Carr Doughty Charitable Trust, has removed its support.
Box office has apparently been OK, so the audience is holding up; reviews have been mixed, but then this is new stuff and critics are fuddy-duddies after all; and her adventures have got the Globe onto the news pages, which must be good. So why fire her – and not till April 2018?
First, she’s done nothing wrong in that she said what she was going to do and she did it. She has taken Shakespeare, a playwright she admits to having little affinity with, and tried to give him a modern swing, as directors have been doing since the old bean wrote the stuff. She played with the script – her A Midsummer Night’s Dream that has just finished was more a paraphrase than an interpretation, but it was huge fun and was the first Globe production to be broadcast live worldwide – and “reclaimed” Cymbeline so that it was renamed Imogen. She certainly brought a new dimension to the Wooden O. So it seems she’s not being fired and she’s got a programme as well as, presumably, a contract to complete, which she will.
Those productions may have narked the Bardiasts among us, but it is legitimate playmaking. The mistake was to try to stretch this extraordinary playhouse to fit her plans. The Globe was built by Sam Wanamaker, after decades of knock-backs, to find out how theatre was made in that golden age four centuries ago: how the plays worked, how the acoustics operated, how they coped with natural light, and the effect all that had on the acting. Mark Rylance and Dominic Dromgoole did that and introduced non-Shakespeare as well as testng the canon – as far as the venue would allow – and we’ve all learned so much about theatre then and theatre-making in general. Rice’s misunderstanding of the essence of the Globe allowed her to disguise the essential features of the theatre with lighting and sound systems that it would not have had, so that the point of the Globe was erased. She could have done this at the National, at the Roundhouse, even Nick Hytner’s new Tower Bridge theatre growing nearby. But not at the Globe.
So what the board and its CEO Neil Constable have done is, having realised that this experiment has failed, be bold enough to says so, let her get to the end of her first season and do something about it. If they were sexists they wouldn’t have hired her in the first place, and if they are backtracking, well, I would say it's more catching sight again of the original vision.
While Mrs May is in Brussels explaining to her mostly fuming Continental counterparts why it is necessary for Britain to retreat to the 1950s (when rationing comes back, will we also get that wonderful NHS orange juice for our kids?), other corners of Europe are having none of it.
There’s going to be a good deal of breath-holding at the Arts Council as it waits for the Autumn Statement next month, and what it will say about this peculiar government’s approach to the arts. The glow from last year’s, and the last Budget’s, successes has hardly worn off with the sound of the Chancellor declaring that arts cuts were a false economy still ringing. But that was the old Chancellor.
The encomiums for Nick Serota have come thick and fast since it was announced that he was standing down after 28 years of running Tate, from the new culture secretary to the BBC’s Will Gompertz. Most notable, perhaps, is the word of the Arts Council’s CEO Darren Henley – “Nick is a visionary arts leader of immense national and international standing, whose cultural credentials are second to none” – whose boss Serota will become at the start of February.
When philanthropy emerged as a credible source of arts funding, it came as a surprise to those of us who thought business sponsorship of the arts was a marketing process. But Arts & Business, whose subsidised job was to encourage commerce which had not looked past sport for a street profile to turn to the arts, had discovered that the privately wealthy were quietly giving cash to the arts, and doing it expressly without publicity and to values exceeding what corporate business was contributing. Despite Jeremy Hunt’s attempt to lay an entire funding policy on philanthropic largesse, the philanthropists actually did it for the love of the arts, not because they had a point to make.
Ally Pally’s 140 years should never have happened. It probably shouldn’t have lasted more than a few days, given that it was burned down 16 days after it was opened but then rebuilt opening less than two years later, bigger and better. There have been several fires since, an attempt by the local authority to lease it off, vandalism and neglect, and it’s main claim to fame is that television started there 80 years ago.
Wonderful news that the work of the amazing Extraordinary Bodies has been recognised by the Arts Council in being given more than £700,000 to expand its operation. I’ve seen this remarkable troupe of mixed able/disabled circus performers, actors and musicians aged between 21 and 50, in a public park before a non-paying audience, with their piece, Weighting, combing circus, dance, theatre and music and accompanied by several local amateur choirs - at least one of which didn’t sing at all, they deaf-signed their words. The accomplishment is incredible, the physical differences disappear and the effect is extremely moving – and it’s the kind of community arts that might have died as a result of local authority subsidy cuts, and this decision by ACE deserves a loud cheer.
As with every change of government, there’ll be a different accent to the appointment to quango boards. Cameron had got into the habit of choosing chairs of subsidised arts organisations himself, so there has been a flutter of bankers and hedge fund managers appointed. His successor might think she has got enough to do and leave these appointments to her ministers.
So, the economy is not in as bad shape as we thought it was going to be, post-Brexit. It grew by a heart-warming 0.6% in the quarter up to the Referendum, 0.2% up on the previous quarter, according to the Office of National Statistics, so the new Chancellor can tell us that we are in better shape than the doom-sayers (such as the former Foreign Secretary) have whined, and we enter the European withdrawal negotiations “from a position of economic strength”.
Lazy Vaizey the less generous-minded liked to call him, but the recently ex-Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy inspired an astonishing 162 signatures from everybody you can think of who is running the arts in this country for a letter to the Daily Telegraph praising his accomplishments.
Actually, the letter is a bit light on precisely what those accomplishments have been, other than always remaining “approachable, sincere and a knowledgeable advocate” during 2,255 days in office, but relaxing on the river not far from his Didcot and Wantage constituency with a new carefree beard framing his infectious grin, he is able to go into more detail about his achievements for the Oxford Mail. He claims credit for the music hubs set up by the Arts Council, for getting the cash that cleared English Heritage’s debts and allowed it to be hived off from government responsibility, and for the first arts white paper in 50 years which put on record that the arts are a good thing.
And he has been important for the arts, thoroughly deserving the Right Hon handle that goes with the Privy Council membership he got just before he was sacked. As he points out, he was not only the longest serving arts minister ever, he actually covered the brief for ten years, four of them in opposition, and gave a vital continuity in a department that has become a notorious transit station for politicians on their way up or down the greasy pole, and which nevertheless has in its brief the industries that are worth, as he will have been continuously telling the Treasury, £84 billion a year to the economy. The thing is, Ed got it, is genuinely cultured and was not only not afraid of being seen at concert halls, theatres and exhibitions as most of his colleagues seem to be - he loves being there and will love it even more now that it doesn’t matter.
Yet he never got Cabinet preferment though he was as capable as most culture secretaries and more than many.
He was not surprised to be fired, he says. He goes as one of the Camden Hill Square gang of Cameroons – Osborne, Gove, Boles etc - that created the Clear Blue Water polemics which brought Cameron to the Tory leadership in 2005 and have now been cleared out by May in her blood bath. It meant that for once there was a politician in government who didn’t need to be persuaded about the value of the arts, and had the ear of the Chancellor when his less well tuned bosses did not. He could have written the section of Osborne’s speech in the last Autumn Statement in which he dismissed arts funding cuts as folly. Against the pruning zeal of his first boss, Jeremy Hunt, he got lottery money released to ameliorate the worst depredations. So he was a Minster of State plus.
And he once asked me if I was ever going to write anything nice about him…
The first thing to say about the new Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport is that she is not Karren Brady, the Tory peer and vice-chairman of West Ham Football Club. No, it’s Karen Bradley, the 46-year-old MP for Staffordshire Moorlands and at first sight not as well qualified for the job as her close namesake – until yesterday she was the Minister for Preventing Abuse, Exploitation and Crime. So she was in the Prime Minister’s former fiefdom, the Home Office, and it smacks of being a leg-up for good and faithful service.
After the extraordinary Referendum result which seems to have set every sphere of life in the UK spinning, the many voices of the arts were among the first to make themselves heard, almost in unison to express their horror at the prospect. A week later so little is certain that we may not even be leaving the EU after all, with the prospect of a new prime minister who is a Remainer who would have to trigger the actual Brexit, a petition of more than £4m calling for the activation of a clause in the referendum rules that could mean a new one, and much talk of a much less clean break if we do leave. Patrick Kelly’s trenchant analysis of what it all means to the arts will be in next week’s AI.
There is still shock as we survey what happened last night, and the arts generally were unanimously for remain – 96% of the Creative Industries Federation members were in favour of staying in Europe. Most could not understand why a party leadership contest should be holding the nation’s economic, diplomatic and cultural future to ransom, but now we have to work out what it means and how to make the paying of that ransom work to our benefit.
There were upwards of 4,000 people in the building last night, they say, agog to see what it was that had cost £260m. It’s called the Switch House and it’s opening today, signalling, says Nick Serota, “a new era for modern and contemporary art in the UK”.
Congratulations to HOME, a year old and flushed with success. What its creation and development shows is that the pragmatic approach not only allows cost saving in that duplication is eliminated, it allows an airing to new art through co-production, a collegiate approach and the realisation of a new audience that previously, perhaps, knew only what it didn’t like, and that was what they thought was being offered.
Labour’s newish culture spokeswoman, the former professional cellist Thangam Debbonaire, has piped up to condemn her opposite number’s vaunted White Paper as “nothing new”, and the less niggardly than expected review settlement as a red herring to “distract from more damaging cuts to local government funding”, because councils' easiest resort for savings is their cultural budget.
It seemed like a rather clumsy lay-down for a not-very-funny side swipe at the previous mayor, who had a penchant for creating deputy mayors. “We were gonna have a night mayor – yeah, we really were” Sadiq Khan told the happy throng of arts pros gathered in City Hall on Wednesday night. “But in the end we decided on night tsar”. It turns that there actually is going to be a night tsar, “a champion for the night-time economy”, which is a “crucial part of London’s economy”.
Harry Brunjes, chairman of English National Opera, says he hopes the appointment of its new artistic director marks a turning point in the company’s history, and I’m sure everyone else does too. The American Daniel Kramer is certainly a bold appointment that might signal a dramatic change in ENO’s offerings when his first season starts in 2018, but he needs to be able to make changes in less obvious ways too.
Whisper it who dares, but the fire that destroyed the Battersea Arts Centre’s Great Hall a year ago might have been a godsend. Think of it. By the time of the fire on Friday, March 13, the BAC was seven years into a £13m redevelopment process with the best in the business, Haworth Tompkins, having to think and rethink and rethink again how to make this 1890s town hall, with its grand halls, imposing atrium entrance and scattering of offices, fit for an arts centre of the 21st century that would be multi-purpose. It's not a very prestigious Victorian municipal building with a lot of architectural conceits and not a little gerryness in the building – the BAC’s chairman, Michael Day, also happens to be chief executive of Historic Royal Palaces (Tower of London, Hampton Court, Banqueting House etc) and more than once he must have thought as he gazed on rain-catching buckets and sparking electrical fittings “from the sublime to the bleeding ridiculous”.
The fire seems to have solved a lot of problems. The restrictions imposed by being a listed building (it was m,are Grade II* in 1970 largely to head off a demolition attempt by the local council) mean that there was a lot HT couldn’t do and things that it had to do but wouldn’t have chosen to. The fire removed a lot of those complications, so that the Great Hall that reopens in 2018 will have up-to-date acoustics, lighting, sightlines and ventilation and becomes a versatile asset – before the fire, switching its use from a concert venue to, say, a wedding reception space would take eight days and cost £10,000, which will become one day and £1,000.
The other benefit of the fire was that it focussed national attention on the BAC, so that on the weekend following the fire the impromptu Phoenix Fund the artistic director David Jubb launched realised more than £50,000 from nearly 1,750 individuals. The government then bunged in half a million, Battersea Power Station £100,000, there were fund-raising galas and a crowd-funding campaign, so that in nine months £1m had been realised. It was as if those who had been vaguely if approvingly aware of the BAC and what it does suddenly made a cause of it, and Jubb has been riding that wave adroitly.
There is something uncomfortably evangelical about the whole thing. On the stage this week as he announced what the BAC would be doing in the next year or so, Jubb had behind him on a screen the motto “>TO INSPIRE PEOPLE>TO TAKE CREATIVE RISKS>TO SHAPE THE FUTURE>”, a mission statement he had come up with on the day before the fire to enthuse his staff. It’s admirable but also awkwardly pious.
So a little more than year after the disaster Jubb was able to announce a whole range of innovations and plans as well as developments of the Haworth Tompkins masterplan. This spring the BAC gets its brand new 300-seat open air courtyard theatre, a new partnership for touring with eight venues around the country, a commissioning fund (something Jubb has dreamed of since he came here 12 years ago), an enhancement of its creative business enterprise centre, the return of live music to a venue that hosted one of Time Out’s Greatest 100 Gigs Of All Time, the 1977 Jam concert. Last year the BAC absorbed the Wandsworth Museum, with displays and objects dotted about the place, and now the museum is to go out to Wandsworth’s schools, libraries and civic centres in cycle vans. And visiting performers can now stay in the BAC while their gigs are on, rent free, in former store rooms and offices converted to bedrooms by artists and charmingly furnished with whimsical junk.
Meanwhile, A Nation’s Theatre Festival, which Jubb and the BAC sparked with The Guardian, is on in 17 London venues, including this one, for April and May in which theatres form outside London have either brought their productions.
This battered and scorched old building would never have had much soul when it was a town hall; it has now, and it’s local purpose has become a national initiative.
He took his cue from the report the New Local Government Network has compiled for ACE which shows that while the local spend on arts and culture has gone down from £1.42bn in 2010 to £1.2bn last year, authorities still spend more than the Arts Council with a mere £700m, thanks to the 33% cuts.
Strange thing, as we edge up to April 23 and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, that all this bardolatry – as the doyen of Bankside guides John Constable likes to call it - doesn’t seem to be palling. Commemorations so quickly get swamped in overkill that all you want to do is forget as quickly as possible and move on.
Taking the risk of putting a business manager with no arts experience in charge was a bold one, and it hasn’t come off for ENO. With the loss of Mark Wigglesworth, the music director who has walked out after just six months because he couldn’t stand by and watch the programme decimated or the resident artists suffer, the gamble has also been lost.
Wikipedia says a White Paper is “an authoritative report or guide that informs readers concisely about a complex issue and presents the issuing body's philosophy on the matter”. Infopedia says White Papers are “sales and marketing documents used to entice or persuade potential customers to learn more about or purchase a particular product, service, technology or methodology”. In the case of the Culture White Paper launched today, Jude Kelly calls it simply “a statement of belief”. So what is it?
It would be churlish not to recognize the achievement of producing such a document, and what it does is set out in black and, particularly, white that the government believes the arts and culture are fundamental to not just the economy but our collective well-being, so there’s philosophy; what it might be selling is the government’s cultural credibility. But Ed Vaizey, whose baby it is, has encapsulated the essence of change that is shoving our artistic endeavours around at the moment, a change he chooses not to credit to the funding storms that the government has assailed the arts with since 2010. There’s a new mood of enterprise, of philanthropy, of self-reliance that needs to be formally harnessed.
So he is taking a lead by telling the arts to talk among themselves more, to co-operate, to get the ridiculous inconsistencies of what is called primly “diversity” – not enough black/female/young/homosexual leaders or even participants – corrected, to ensure that kids from poor backgrounds can have a chance of inspiration. He is standing up with the government and saying “This is what should be happening”, and he did well to get it out now given the extreme tightness of government schedules which meant that if he hadn’t managed it before Easter we might have had to wait until the autumn, or later. One very big arts panjandrum there this morning said in its favour that it was better to have had it than not to have had it.
What the White Paper does not do, and Vaizey might say isn’t supposed to do, is present either a stick or a carrot: no sanction for those that don’t adhere to this statement of belief, no financial encouragement either. As we kept being told today, this is the first White Paper since the very first in 1965 but brief as that was (ten pages, 200 paragraphs, Vaizey reminded us) it was accompanied by a considerable hike in arts subsidy and a new national brief for the Arts Council: there’s no new cash in these 68 pages.
There is plenty in the White Paper that we already know about – the Great Exhibition of the North, City of Culture, £20m for doing up cathedrals – because they are Treasury initiatives already announced by George Osborne. The fact is that the kind of arts that happen in communities and tend to be run by local authorities make almost £6bn a year for this country, and Vaizey is having to find ways of relieving the local authority arts funding crisis without cash. So show willing, not your wallet.
Politics, I’m afraid. Another panjandrum pointed out to me that there is one British institution that more than any other commissions, produces, sells, exports the best of our culture, and in the course of it entertains and informs the entire nation, and it gets no mention anywhere in this document. It is, of course, the BBC. Now why ever would that be?
As ever, you have to look for the small print in the Budget to find out what it might mean to the arts, and on the face of it there’s nothing nasty in the woodpile this time. There’s £53m for the Royal College of Art’s new Battersea campus; £20m for northern cities to bid to for hosting the Great Exhibition of the North, as promised in the autumn statement; £20m to do up our cathedrals, ditto; £19m for a new Shakespeare theatre at Knowsley on Merseyside; £14m for the STEAMhouse in Birmingham; £13m for Hull for its year as City of Culture next year; £5m for the V&A’s £81m Dundee design museum.
There are tax breaks for museums, with regional ones that don’t charge for admission eligible for VAT rebates like the nationals are, and touring exhibitions will get the same concession.
And then it starts to get foggy. The Lloyd George Museum at Criccieth in North Wales, the great man’s birthplace, is funded by the local authority which, in its straits, had opted to cut its grant and probably close it. So the Chancellor has decided to give the museum the same amount, £27,000. Nothing for the five Lancashire museums that are closing or any of the others under threat by beleaguered councils.
Why single that one out for special treatment? We can only guess, but this rather paltry amount should keep the place open until 2020, by which time we will have forgotten the centenary of the First World War. It would be an international embarrassment to see the closure now of the place devoted to the memory of the leader that saw us through that most catastrophic of conflicts. There was already encouraging news in that there had been a move to get the place nationalised and the Welsh government is thinking about making it part of the National Museum of Wales. Yet George Osborne felt it was politic to put his paddle in and stir it up a bit.
But the Chancellor’s fiddling about with business rate relief for small concerns means that local authorities, which with the other hand he has given the right to retain business rate income, means that councils will be, by the calculation of John Kampfner’s Creative Industries Federation, £7bn worse off. And what is the non-statutory responsibility local authorities have that is easiest to cut? You got it.
Which makes Ed Vaizey’s culture white paper, due this spring, even more interesting. He has said there would be something to address the conundrum of local authority arts funding so one hopes it will show how these odd bits of a jigsaw puzzle might fit together, and though Vaizey has said that in parliamentary terms spring lasts from about February to October, the word is that publication is imminent. We’ll see.