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.
In the very first Taitmail of the year we warned that despite the then Chancellor’s dismissal of the notion of cutting arts funding as a “false economy”, the threat from local authority cuts was undiminished, and so it remains – Oxford, Derby then, Walsall, Kirklees now. It’s still the big issue despite Brexitmania, and all the while the creative economy had grown to be worth £84 billion a year.
This month the culture select committee demanded that nationally funded organisations democratise yet back in February the National Theatre under Rufus Norris was announcing exactly that: co-productions with regional houses; diversity with not only more female roles but the first female Malvolio and Captain Hook, and 50-50 male-female playwrights in the season by 2021; more roles for black actors, with the first black Salieri, and Lenny Henry joining the board.
In March a huge row exploded with the announcement that the Science Museum was moving the Royal Phototographic Society’s unique collection to London from its Bradford branch, the National Media Museum, another move, it was said, towards centralisation. Problem was, no-one went to see it in Bradford, and in London it joins the comprehensive National Collection of the Art of Photography in the V&A while the Bradford museum is rethought to give it a genuinely national role, exploring the science of light and sound.
In April ENO, a desperately foundering ship holed beneath the waterline by the Arts Council slashing its grant, hit another rock with the sudden departure of its music director over disagreement about the slimmed down forthcoming programme. The company still had no artistic director since the departure of John Berry nine months before, and it was going to be another couple of months before the young efficiency expert drafted in as CEO could announce the appointment of an American theatre director with little experience of opera.
In May London elected Sadiq Khan as its mayor and his first public act was to announce the capital’s first cultural infrastructure plan, with enterprise zones, new apprenticeships, a programme of engagement for Londoners as opposed to tourists who can largely take care of themselves, and protection of the grassroots music venues that give birth to so much of contemporary cultural significance. And he made Justine Simons, the head of culture who was starting on her third mayor, his deputy mayor for culture.
Everything in June, and ever since, was overshadowed by what happened in June 23, but that was the month when the Switch House opened, which many thought was to be Nick Serota’s swan song just after his 70th birthday. The £260m temple to contemporary art whose very existence – because it requires the faith of funders of all degrees and they are the most hard-headed of punters – puts the lie to the acid cynicism of politicians such as Michael Gove, “who can’t see the point”. Thousands a day do, and their commitment will help us keep our heads while the Brexit floundering goes on, as it seems it will, into infinity.
In July The V&A was declared the Art Fund Prize Museum of the Year and its German director, Martin Roth, promised that he would use the £100,0000 prize to restore the lost and, for 40 years, lamented Circulation Department that toured the collection to the regions in specially devised exhibitions. Within a few weeks he had resigned because, he said, of Brexit.
In August Ally Pally announced it was going to spend £28m on reviving itself with its Victorian theatre being brought back to life, the old BBC studios where TV began turned into a museum and its East Court returned from Cinderella status as a foyer to its old glory as a performance space in a riposte to the bean-counters’ insistence on having “value engineered out”. And this is to be just the start of a 25 year vision.
In September we knew that our suspicions of the spring were justified: the Serota Tendency is coming to an end after 25 years, and Tate’s director is to become the next chair of the Arts Council. As well as supporters Serota has had his many detractors, not least Brian Sewell who coined that phrase. But as we said here, what he did was to let people who didn’t even know they could like contemporary art know that it was OK to love it.
As the Brexit arguments raged on a visiting European voice had a say in October when Csaba Káel who runs Budapest’s answer to the South Bank Centre, Mupa, affirmed that British culture was indelibly European whatever the politicians say. “In our mind, in our spirit, there is a part that comes from you, the UK” he said.
In November the government decided it didn’t like Rattle Hall and asked for its money back, money George Osborne had committed to a feasibility study and fundraising business plan. But if the new government is against the arts the old Corporation of London, the biggest and richest local authority in the country, is four square behind the £278m Centre for Music, to give it its proper name. If it has anything to do with it, Rattle Hall will open in 2023.
December was when the government announced that it was vetoing the appointment of Althea Efunshile, the admired, trusted and even loved recently retired ACE deputy CEO, to the Channel 4 board after being recommended by Ofcom. The reason, it was said, was that she wasn’t qualified – the most significant qualification, of course, being a commitment to privatisation.