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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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…