DEA BIRKETT A step back into the future

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Dea Birkett makes her predictions for the arts in 2017

What will be the trends in the arts and culture in 2017? Here’s my best guess: I predict museums will start to look and feel far more like museums, that is buildings where lots of old stuff is displayed on walls, in cabinets and on plinths. This year has seen the start of a museum backlash, with redevelopments propelling organisations back to an old style of what a museum is for, rather than forward. The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) in Reading is one such example. With a large Heritage Lottery Fund grant it’s been beautifully refurbished. The galleries are gorgeous, with seminal objects – wooden carts, agricultural implements, farm animal bells – displayed and interpreted with taste and restraint. It’s a fine example of a museum in a classic sense – object centric, properly serious, embracing static museum design.

This backlash isn’t all bad. I’ve been concerned for some time about museums losing their USP of being about real stuff. Do that, and they also risk losing the argument about why they should be supported when we already have community centres and wellbeing clinics. But it could become bad, if we allow the stories and sensual experiences that should accompany the beautifully displayed stuff to wither away.

In theatre, I predict more women in major roles that were made for men. Glenda Jackson as King Lear at London’s Old Vic and Phyllida Lloyd’s all female casts in the Donmar’s Shakespeare trilogy are recent examples of parts that are written for one sex and being played by another (just as Shakespeare did). Perhaps we can move towards gender-blind casting? That might work for Shakespeare, but I wonder how it will work for more modern scripts and parts? A better way forward might be to write more major roles for women, so they don’t have to keep playing men.

Circus will come into its own as an artform, influencing not only circuses themselves but being incorporated into dance, theatre and even music. Chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan’s show The Carny Dream had her swinging on a trapeze above the audience at this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe Circus Hub. Expect more swinging singers. With the 250 years of circus coming in 2018, many companies are developing pioneering work. Circus250, the co-ordinating body of the 2018 celebrations (of which I’m “ringmaster”) is looking forward to more collaborations across art forms. The great thing about circus is its accessibility. Everyone can join in; it requires no specific level of education and no literacy. It can be practiced at the highest levels of artistic excellence, and by any school kid. As far as I’m concerned, the more circus in all arts the better all the arts will be.

I promise to reinstate grammar schools – both against all learned advice. Experts in the arts – whether critics, commentators, writers, producers or curators – will be increasingly seen as demagogic and irrelevant. With some notable exceptions, such as in Derby, museums aren’t embracing co-creation of exhibitions with their audiences. In most, and the more contemporary the collection the more likely is the case, the curator is still king. So is the theatre critic. The Guardian’s Michael Billington, an expert if ever there was one, recently declared himself appalled by the rise of the non-professional critic who dared to say what they thought, even though they didn’t have a salaried job with a broadsheet.

Billington only reveals how little he understands what consumers of culture will be wanting. I predict personal experience, rather than knowledge acquired through study and training, will be at the heart of new commentary and creations in 2017. Testosterone, opening at the New Diorama theatre in London this month, is a typical example of what lies ahead. This semi- autobiographical work about gender reassignment is written and performed by female-male transgender actor Kit Redstone. In the arts, research won’t mean reading a lot, but literally living the part. Audiences won’t only seek artistry, but authenticity. This clamour is echoed in the museums’ forefronting of their collection and the rise of circus, both of which rely upon stuff being and happening right in front of you.

In a virtual world, authenticity is what the arts can contribute – whether a farmer’s cart, an actor’s sex change or a highwire performance. I predict 2017 will be the year of the real.


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