No one has been more of a breath of fresh air in the arts than John Tusa in his long and kaleidoscopic career, and he should be a case study in his own new book, Bright Sparks.
As del Piombo’s massive and newly cleaned The Raising of Lazarus - the first picture in the collection in 1824 with the accession number NG1 – loomed from the wall, Gabriele Finaldi announced this week that to mark its 200th birthday the National Gallery was at long last going to live up to its title. It’s going national.
“A museum is like a living organism; it requires continual and tender care; it must grow or it will perish.”
There are two key phrases in the cultural news this week, equally ugly: “levelling up” and “gentrification”, sparked by four different stories.
Forty years ago after the last refurbishment but one of the museum that is now Young V&A, the then director Anthony Burton, who liked to refer to what was the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood as “the nation’s toyshop”, remarked prophetically: “A later generation could easily take it all away and start again… but it is, I hope of more than local interest”.
This column has had a lot to say about recovery reinvention, how the people who run the arts are having to think outside the box that’s outside the box, and try to ignore politicians but focus instead on local communities and even councils for support where they wouldn’t have before, keep risk to a minimum and work with partners. So it’s good to see that an old friend is doing just that.
This is a tale of two museums whose only other commonality is that they are both in the London Borough of Camden, but they each represent a different aspect of the angst that is keeping directors and trustees awake at night. I’m talking about the British Museum and the Jewish Museum.
The Arts Council’s handling of ENO and the way it carried out Nadine Dorries’s instruction to slash arts funding in London with English National Opera being expelled from the capital was at best amateur at worst incompetent, but with this week’s joint announcement from ACE and ENO the dust seems to have cleared revealing - what?
Michael Heseltine was no longer environment secretary when the National Heritage Act came into effect in 1983, but he was its godfather, patron of perhaps the most significant cultural change before the National Lottery a decade later.
Sculpture in the City, says Will Gompertz, artistic director of the Barbican Centre who also has oversight of the City of London’s cultural profile, is “telling the story of the present and future while reflecting on the past”.
The music sector has gone apoplectic over cuts in the subsidy for music, first with the Arts Council’s unexplained and, frankly inexplicable decisions, and then with the BBC’s loony attempt (failed, so far) to lop 20% off its orchestras’ budget.
Whatever happened to Alice Black, the credit analyst who fell in love with creative art, helped make the Design Museum, becoming its co-director … and then left?
This is to be the third and the last in our series on music in the community, focussing today on a symphony orchestra’s research into audiences, but first the BBC…
Free music lessons at his Coalville comprehensive are the reason why Jonathan Vaughan did not become a brickmaker in the Leicestershire village of Ibstock where he was born and where his grandfather was foreman at the brickworks.
Sahana Gero’s guiding principle has been that everyone of us has music at our soul, because we’ve had a heartbeat and therefore rhythm from the start of our existence. So we each have a right to exploit that fundamental component of our make-up.
The Adelaide Festival this week announced a bold new feature for its 2024 edition, Create4Adelaide which, if it works, its progenitors believe could impact the rest of the world. Thousands of young people across Adelaide’s state of South Australia are being asked to use art to show their fears for climate change, and maybe their hopes.
The choreographer Gary Clarke was at the top of his game, creating contemporary dances that won acclaim and awards and working at every kind of venue from the Royal Opera House to the Edinburgh Fringe, making seminal pieces such as Coal (pictured), born from his Grimethorpe background in Barnsley, and its sequel Wasteland.
Just when you thought the ENO row was quietening down for some serious beer and sandwiches negotiating, up pops guess who to raise the stakes again. Turns out we’re not just talking about ENO’s survival, but the Arts Council’s too.
There’s a blur of works of art and antiquity criss-crossing the world in a frenzy of decolonisation and repatriation, claims and accusations.
Alisha is a 35-year-old woman with learning difficulties and an abusive partner. The partner attacks her viciously enough to force her out of her home and into the street where she is confronted by a male acquaintance who sexually assaults her. Her mother is over-protective of Alisha, and when she tries to report the two incidents to the police she is not believed.
This is not a true story. It is a series of true stories put together to make a play with the profoundest of messages: one in three women in the world suffers from domestic and/or sexual abuse, too many never get justice in a system loaded against them, but if you’re one of them you need to know that you are not alone.
Alisha’s Story is the latest production from the theatre company Open Clasp, co-founded almost 25 years ago by Catrin McHugh, now the artistic director and joint CEO. It also marks a turning point for the company, for this is the first play to be written to a commission following a stream of plays the company has produced, all of them written by McHugh. Their aim is to change the world, she says, “one play at a time”, by placing theatre at the heart of transforming the lives of disadvantaged women and girls. Open Clasp puts their lives at the heart of their theatre, for political, social and personal change. They call it urgent theatre, and its patrons include Erica Whyman, acting artistic director of the RSC. “This is a company that does something which is not only unique, entertaining and engaging, but also incredibly important” she says. “They tell stories that need to be hears and they allow their audiences to see the world through unexpected eyes”.
The commission follows research at Durham and Sunderland Universities showing that women with learning disabilities are especially vulnerable to sexual assault and that their reports to the police are less likely to be believed or lead to conviction. In fact, a working party from Durham University, Rape Crisis Tyneside and Northumberland, and Northumbria Police found that the criminal justice system actually creates barriers for those with autism or learning difficulties when they report rape and sexual assault. “It’s not just an other world” says McHugh. “Everybody knows it even if they haven’t personally experienced it”.
The modus operandi is to gather groups of women gleaned from communities’ social, professional and welfare networks to meet in a room with an Open Clasp facilitator who stimulates a discussion while a playwright builds from the conversation to create a dramatic but faithful mirror of it. The 2015 play Key Change, written by McHugh but devised with women in Low Newton prison to take on tour to men’s prisons, won a Best of Edinburgh Award. It inspired the company’s first foreign tour and in 2016 was the New York Times Critics’ Pick. The piece was then filmed with support from the BBC and the Arts Council (Open Clasp is an ACE NPO and has received standstill funding for 2023-26). That was a watershed which let the company’s ambitions run free, and this year it launched a workforce development programme to expand its operation. It has its first international collaboration with a New Zealand sex workers' collective for a production with a cast of eight.
Us Too: Alisha‘s Story is the first Open Clasp play not to have been written by McHugh. Commissioned by the two universities, the writer is the award-winning playwright Julie Tsang. one of four the company worked with. The play’s task is to bring change and develop inclusive criminal justice responses to domestic and sexual violence against women with learning difficulties or autism, the lack of which is the theme of the play.
Open Clasp have made the piece by working with the Exeter-based drama group Us Too whose members have learning difficulties or autism, and Holly Wilkinson (pictured in the role), who is a brain injury survivor and has autism, is cast in her first professional role. Having deliberately trawled for disabled actors, in her McHugh believes they have found an original talent. “I responded to the casting call because I don’t think that there is enough representation of disabled performers within the acting industry, which is something that really needs to change in my view” Wilkinson says. “Performers with disabilities need to be seen and heard”.
The 20-minute piece is being released online tomorrow, December 3, the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, running until December 10. It will then be widely used in an Economic and Social Research Council funded project to develop criminal justice practice and to train frontline officers in recognising coercive control, with a team from Open Clasp using the film to train 200 police officers at Durham Constabulary in April and May next year. It will also be made available to schools, and will be a live touring performance as well.
“Even before the pandemic we had moved online, capturing work on film, streaming across worlds and con6nents” McHugh says. “We could see the impact and reach when theatre meets film. This commission joins our catalogue of work, theatre that raises its fist and demands an end to violence against women and girls.”
The co-lead researcher into the treatment of women with learning difficulties in the criminal justice system is Helen Williams, Sunderland University’s senior lecturer in criminology, and she fully approves of the play, its uncompromising content and delivery and the process in which the narrative was built. “It's hard hitting because it is truth, that story is truth. I feel bonded to the women, it’s a special sort of bravery and to speak those words... it’s been a privilege.”
When The Box, Plymouth’s £46m museum/archive/art gallery, opened in 2020 it did so with a mission statement: “To redefine the collections-based institution for the 21st century, expanding its horizons from local to global, placing collections, artists and audiences at its core”.
ENO are accusing the Arts Council of making a “howling mistake” in its three-year investment announcement, the one that reduced the opera company’s subsidy to nought unless they agree to go to Manchester - which may not want them even if they did, no-one has asked Manchester. Elsewhere the act has been described as “shocking”, “devastating” and “cultural vandalism”.
So ENO gets dumped on again. You’d think they’d be used to it by now, but their website was in buoyant mood as the announcement was made on Friday that they’d lost all their grant – they had already been “reimagining what a modern opera company should look like, building new audiences and reaching beyond London”. Manchester seemed like a good spot, and they should get it sorted out by April.
By Patrick Kelly
To the delightful Theatre by the Lake in Keswick to see a spirited production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane. A healthy-looking house enjoyed the show despite a typical Lake District wet and windy October evening.
There’s long been a perception that artists are in the vanguard of the campaign for environmental virtue, and so they are. Mostly.
On Wednesday a capacity audience in the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, witnessed an interpretation of “The Scottish Play” like no other.
This is a Russian doll kind of a story, one intriguing tale inside another, till we get to a real-life heroine who went swimming with Picasso on behalf of British primary schools.
By Patrick Kelly, Northern Editor
Amid all the grim economic news, it’s good to be able to record positive events. One such is the reaction of Durham County Council to the disappointing news that it had been pipped by Bradford for the title of UK City of Culture in 2025.
In the foyer of the new Brixton House theatre shortly before 11am last Saturday, 18 young people in their teens and early 20s introduced themselves to each other for the first time, strangers. Ninety minutes later they had created a moment of theatre together.
New culture secretaries used to have to endure a rather tiresome game at the hands of arts correspondents when they were routinely asked what the last film/play/exhibition was that they saw. It was a small test of their cultural credentials which they always failed, more pressing questions no doubt being on their minds, and so they started their (usually short) terms of office with a small amount of egg on their faces to the amusement of a handful of hacks, and no-one else.
Museums used to be fondly classified as “cabinets of curiosity”, more tendentiously “the memory of our communities”, even “the story of our cultures”. In the 80s, when the word “museum” was anachronistic anathema, they were known as “heritage centres”.
The Unlimited Festival is back at the Southbank on September 7, its first proper outing for four years. “It’s like a celebration” says Nickie Miles-Wildin. “It’s great to be able to feel part of the arts community again.”
The Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, has been revisiting the poems of Philip Larkin to mark the centenary of Larkin’s birth last week to see if, 37 years after his death, they’re still relevant.
By Patrick Kelly, Northern Editor
A few months before Covid hit I found myself in Sheffield with some time to kill before I could catch a train home, and wandered down a little city centre lane into a place called Trippet’s Lounge Bar.
Andria Zafirakou is the Brent secondary school art teacher who became famous in 2018 by winning the $1m Global Art Teacher Prize and ploughing her prize money back into her vocation: teaching art
The distinction between a refugee and an asylum seeker is a fine one. It seems to depend on the degree of despair, how the individuals referred to are regarded by those to whom they are appealing, and whether they are seeking merely shelter or more direct succour (a distinction that comes down to how much they are expected to be a burden on the taxpayer).
Sara Shamma is known for her uncompromising paintings of the human condition - her own website has as its main image a brain laid bare in all its glistening viscerally.
The sacking of Jaroslav Suchan as director of Poland’s state modern art museum in Lodz in April for ideological reasons has set off alarms across the globe, condemned by the Tate’s Maria Balshaw among the world’s directors.
By Patrick Kelly
The Covid crisis has revived the idea of creating a basic income for artists. Too often it’s been dismissed, even by artists themselves, as the kind of crazy idea which will never happen.
“Why can’t we sit in a comfy armchair, drink coffee and chat while we look at art?” Kenneth Hudson liked to posit. “Why do we have to treat a visit to the museum as if it were a sepulchre where you have to stand in silence and awe?”
One of the deep grassroots of our cultural heritage is dying. It’s jazz and the cause of its demise seems to be, well, its informality.
In a monstrous conspiracy of fate British musicians, acknowledged globally as the finest in the world, have never had it so bad thanks to Brexit, Covid and the cost of living crisis. Employment among professional musicians fell by 35% in 2020 alone.
By Patrick Kelly, northern editor
York has everything a self-respecting tourist city might want – a smattering of Roman ruins, a magnificent Gothic cathedral, medieval streets with crazily overhanging houses, a clutch of fine suitably colonnaded Georgian buildings, and most of its original walls. But one thing York is missing is a castle.
The Burrell Collection that reopened in Glasgow’s Pollok Park this week is magnificent by any standards, maybe a model for a modern museum.
The Battle of Lincoln in 1217 isn’t up there with Hastings or The Field of the Cloth of Gold or Bannockburn in the pantheon of major conflicts that define our history. It doesn’t feature much in the history books or make it to the silver screen.
By Patrick Kelly, Northern Editor
Nadine Dorries didn’t mince her words in the Yorkshire Post when announcing the government’s approach to levelling up arts funding a few weeks ago. It’s the “biggest ever shake-up in arts funding” she says, designed to redress the “deeply unfair” imbalance in government support for the arts between London and the rest of the country.
Today at a Philips auction in Berkeley Square the last bricks will be taken out of the wall hiding one of London’s best kept secrets, the Warburg Institute.
Twenty years ago Adrian Noble drew almost universal opprobrium when, as the RSC’s artistic director, he engineered the company’s departure from the Barbican in London (where the theatre was tailor-made for the ompany), believing that Shakespeare belongs at least as much to regional audiences who he felt had been neglected in favour of the London bright lights. He wanted to refocus on Stratford.
An interesting week for arts funding. As the Arts Council got down to the nitty gritty of its national portfolio for 2023-27, Nadine Dorries announced a new £50m pot of money intended to level up arts funding outside London and the South East.
The death last week of John Sainsbury will not, we must earnestly hope, mean the end of an era of personal and family philanthropy. But it does feel like it.
We Brits love our children’s illustrators. It’s through the work of Kate Greenaway (The Pied Piper of Hamelin), John Tenniel (Alice in Wonderland) and Ernest Shepard (Wind in the Willows) that we visualise our earliest reading, and versions without their drawings just aren’t quite the same.
So now what? Lockdown by any other name - no indiscriminate mixing indoors the doctors say - appears to be inevitable and with Omicron on the gallop the only question seems to be whether it happens before or after Christmas.
By Patrick Kelly, Northern Editor
Walk on the square - perhaps piazza might be too fancy a term - outside Barnsley’s gleaming town hall, now repurposed as a cultural space, and admire Nigel Hall’s dramatic Crossing sculpture.
Nottingham Castle Museum was doing well, for a museum without much real history left to talk about, and it was getting a healthy 150,000 visitors a year - about half what Stonehenge gets - before it closed for its £30m refurb which it was hoped would double the numbers.
It is the practice to aim museums’ didactic at a 12-year-old schoolchild, not to dumb down but because that is the demographic that is most intellectually receptive and represents the level of attention visitors will have – carefully constructed so as to give the right information without being exhaustive. Generally a 12-year-old is interested, unbiased, questioning and is able to absorb new concepts easily.
Arts organisations are missing out by not recruiting disabled people to their boards for their intellectual abilities rather than their physical status.
A quarter of a century or so ago there was a fervour for a national dance theatre. We had a national theatre, a national gallery, a nation opera company, even a national youth orchestra, but never a national theatre of dance.
The National Trust’s annual meeting on Saturday was billed as being potentially the most explosive since its foundation 126 years ago. More than 100,000 members zoomed in from 12 countries, joining 400 in a Harrogate hall. What happened?
In the unlikeliest of settings, the courtyard of a St James’s gentleman’s club, the most keenly argued issue of contemporary art of the last 70 years is being tackled full on: is abstract art really abstract?
TOTAL WAR! the didactic shouts at the start of the Imperial War Museum’s new permanent exhibition: the concept realised for the first time with the Second World War that non-combatants as well as combatants were considered legitimate targets.