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August 03 2012

European arts cuts: Rome's Maxxi maxes out the ministerial funding

Management of Zaha Hadid-designed hub for modern artists replaced by culture ministry commissioner

When the Maxxi opened in Rome in 2010 it aspired to become a hub for 21st-century artists. The management of the imposing museum - designed by the Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid - was replaced with a commissioner appointed by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities, due to an €11m (£8.6m) budget projection deficit.

Former director Pio Baldi blamed the progressive reduction in ministerial funding. Public funding was cut from €7m in 2010 to €2m by 2012.

The ministerial commissioner Antonia Pasqua Recchia said the initial funds earmarked for the museum were to be considered "extraordinary" as their purpose was to give an initial push to the institution. From 2012, the foundation was intended to rely on ordinary funding. The previous management blamed the ministry for mismanaging resources and setting the self-funding bar too high.


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European arts cuts: the death of a Greek gallery

'Art becomes the least priority,' says Elizabeth Louizou, who has been forced to close her formerly popular gallery in a prime Athens location

The Greek economic crisis has inevitably affected the country's commercial art market. Elizabeth Louizou founded Harma Gallery in Athens in 2007. It sold contemporary painting, sculpture, jewellery, drawing and decorative objects. Despite a strong presence on the Greek art scene and a prominent location in Plaka, the old Athens neighbourhood beneath the Acropolis, Louizou was forced to close down the space in March last year because of financial difficulties.

"Since its very first exhibition in 2007, Harma Gallery has known great recognition, overcome visitors' expectations and gained popularity and customer loyalty very rapidly. Its market share increased until the last quarter of 2009, when its number of visitors and moreover, sales, gradually started declining," says Louizou.

Louizou set up the gallery at the age of 22 without any financial assistance. "I tried to support it by working a second job but the economy and tourism only got worse. As business is business, all the sentimental part had to be taken aside. A negative balance shows an unhealthy business and I could not support a gallery just for a hobby at the age of 26."

While a few collectors invested in art as prices decreased, the revival was short-lived, says Louizou. "Art is a luxury good. When people are struggling to pay for necessity goods – electricity and taxes – they have to set their priorities accordingly. This has a knock-on effect on the Greek art scene. Art becomes the least priority."


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July 28 2012

Can you make any kind of living as an artist?

With the exception of household names, most people in the creative arts need a day job to make ends meet. But should artists have to work or should they be supported by the state?

Jennie Rooney is the first to admit she has something of a split personality. By day, she is an in-house lawyer for a television company. By night, she is something different altogether: a novelist.

Typically, she will cycle into the office in central London, where she spends much of her day "drawing up contracts involving production companies buying formats such as The X Factor". At 5.30pm, Rooney returns home, eats an early supper and then sits down at her laptop for four hours to write, immersing herself in the world of cold war espionage that provides the backdrop for her third book.

Rooney would like her life to be different. She'd like to be a full-time novelist and, given the success of her books (her first, Inside the Whale, was nominated for the Costa first novel award in 2008), one might expect this to be possible. But the financial reality of such a move would make her life extremely difficult. In order to make a reasonable living, Rooney finds herself juggling a full-time job alongside her artistic endeavours.

"I do feel resentful," she admits. "I don't have as much time to think or to read as I'd like. I don't dislike my job and the people I work with are really nice but, in and of itself, there's a limit to how excited I can get about selling TV programmes such as Farmer Wants a Wife to Slovenia, although," she adds, drily, "it was a ratings hit."

Is it possible, in the current economic climate, for someone working in the creative arts to make a living from it? Unless you have the good fortune to be a Damien Hirst or a JK Rowling, the answer increasingly seems to be no. For artists who are already faced with low job security and the absence of company benefits such as pensions or paid holidays, the impact of the global financial crisis has been keenly felt.

The statistics make for uncomfortable reading. Almost a third of visual and applied artists earn less than £5,000 a year from their creative work, according to a survey conducted last year by Artists' Interaction and Representation (AIR); 57% of the 1,457 respondents said that less than a quarter of their total income was generated by their art practices and only 16% of them paid into a private pension fund, raising questions about how professional artists will support themselves once they reach retirement age.

The figures are not much better for musicians. PPL, a music licensing company that collects royalties on behalf of 24,000 performers, says that 90% of them earn less than £15,000 a year. A similar proportion of songwriters and composers earn less than £5,000 a year.

Then there is the added pressure of austerity-era cuts. Local authorities anticipate cuts of 7.1% each year for the next two years and the arts are often earmarked as dispensable in comparison with "frontline organisations". This leads to an inevitable loss of commissions and grants, in a climate where competition is already rife – individuals applying for grants to the Arts Council already have only around a 32% success rate nationwide.

"Arts history is full of double jobbers," says the actress Louise Brealey, who recently starred alongside Benedict Cumberbatch as the lovelorn Molly Hooper in the BBC's hit show Sherlock. "The recession, and the government's handling of the recession, has just made it that much harder.Politicians certainly see the arts as an easy target. The arts are not obviously saving lives, but I think they improve lives."

Brealey, like many of her contemporaries, has a portfolio career. She used to juggle acting jobs with journalism and was the deputy editor of Wonderland magazine: "At one point, I was rehearsing at the Royal Court and editing a piece about Twin Peaks' 20th anniversary in my tea breaks." More recently, she has been working as a documentary researcher and has just produced a children's comedy drama for the BBC, The Charles Dickens Show.

For Brealey, the fact that jobs in the arts are underpaid and underfunded has serious repercussions. "In journalism and TV production, it's getting more difficult all the time for kids from poorer backgrounds to break in because you're expected to work for nothing in endless internships," she says. "Without someone bankrolling you, that's impossible. The upshot is that working-class voices will be heard even less frequently than they are already."

Rob James-Collier, who plays Thomas the footman in Downton Abbey, aired similar concerns in an interview earlier in the year with the Radio Times in which he claimed that working-class performers were being squeezed aside because they did not have the "comfort blanket" of a wealthy family to support them. Collier, who was raised in Stockport and funded his career by working as a bricklayer's assistant and packing frozen pasties in a factory, said that in order to get into acting, "you have to work for a year without money".

According to Equity, the performers' union, at least two-thirds of actors are out of work at any time. The union's minimum rates (£379 per week for regional repertory; £497 per week for a West End play in a 799 seat theatre; £607 in an 1,100 plus theatre) are set at a level intended to see them through the lean times of silent phones and failed auditions, but it can still be challenging to make ends meet. Authors' advances are supposed to perform a similar function but they, too, have dwindled dramatically since the days when a 21-year-old unknown called Zadie Smith received a £250,000 golden handshake for her debut novel, White Teeth, while still at university.

Debs Paterson, who directed her first feature film, Africa United, last year to considerable critical and popular acclaim, found that the money she was paid as a novice director "spread pretty thin". "I was paid properly and I felt very lucky; I've got no complaints," she says. "But it represents a year-and-a-half of work, plus the exhaustion, plus the time we've put in before that getting it off the ground."

Paterson worked in a cinema, directed corporate videos and designed websites to raise money for her first short film. "A film is basically like a high-risk start-up," she says. "It can work brilliantly or it can be a total disaster and there's a weird alchemy behind whether it's going to work or not. Nobody knows."

Even established artists find it hard to make ends meet. In March, Susan Hill took to her Twitter page to claim that, despite the film adaptation of her bestselling book The Woman in Black having grossed more than £100m worldwide, "I am still broke".

Likewise, when Hilary Mantel won the Booker prize in 2009 for Wolf Hall, the £50,000 went – rather unglamorously – on reducing her mortgage. "I had been publishing for over 20 years and although the reviewers had been consistently kind, I had never sold in great numbers," Mantel wrote last year. "It is hard to make a good income from fiction alone."

It was ever thus. Gillian Wearing used to be a telephone market researcher while Billy Bragg once worked at an all-night petrol station. Emma Chaplin, the guitarist and keyboard player from the five-piece indie rock band the Long Blondes supplemented her income by working in a Leeds library. Calvin Harris made his debut album while stacking shelves in the Dumfries branch of Marks & Spencer.

In other countries, there are different approaches. In Denmark, selected artists are awarded life-long annual stipends. In Sweden, the government offers five- and 10-year arts scholarships. Interestingly, however, the majority of people I spoke to in the UK prefer to maintain their artistic independence rather than taking money from the state.

"I think it's amazing there are public subsidies," says Paterson. "But I think there's a danger to it as well. Nobody owes me a living and if I'm going to spend someone's money, I want to be able to give it back to them. Obviously it would be nice to go on holiday a bit more often and not be worrying about money, but I have this whole theory that when people get too comfortable, they become rarefied.

"If you have a computer and a degree, you're already in the top 1% of the planet, so why should I get to float around without having to earn a living? I want to earn my stripes. I don't want anyone to say, 'You don't deserve to be here.'"

Rooney agrees: "It's been alarming to see how much grants have been cut, but I've always thought I'd wait until I really needed them to apply. I can have these two jobs at the moment, but if I were to have a kid, for instance, I couldn't.

"I've seen Arts Council grants and subsidies as being there for people who really require them: if you've been a writer for 10 years and there's nothing else you can do and you can't get another job, for instance. For me, it's similar to unemployment benefit really."

And there is an added advantage to getting out and working in the real world. Although the romantic notion of a penniless artist living in a garret has plenty of cultural precedence, it does leave said artist without much in the way of day-to-day inspiration (plus, they almost always end up addicted to absinthe or dying of consumption). Having a day job, says Rooney, can feed back into your work: "I was a history and English GCSE teacher for a while after the publication of my first book and there's nothing like teaching a class of 15-year-olds to make you realise what holds the attention. I got better at the 'talking' part of writing and at how to present a book in a way that keeps people's interest."

As someone who is a full-time journalist and also writes novels, I tend to agree. My job as a journalist means I'm privileged enough to meet people from all walks of life and ask them nosy questions, which is one of the best insights into the human condition anyone could ask for. And as Rooney puts it: "Having another job does drive me on more because I know I only have a certain amount of time to write, so I get on with it."

But whether such a lifestyle continues to be feasible as the years go by is a moot point. Louise Brealey says that she knows "a lot of people who've stopped acting because they were paying the bills with temping and telesales and in the end it ground them down. It's hard to stick with it if you're breaking your heart in TFI Friday's every night," she adds. "That's fine when you're starting out, but after a decade it can get a bit wearing."

The Opposite of Falling by Jennie Rooney is out now, published by Vintage


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June 27 2012

Arab Spring photographs added to British Museum and V&A collection

Art Fund says it is giving £150,000 to establish joint collection that has been in development over the last three years

Photographs created in reaction to the Arab Spring of 2011 will form an important part of a major collection of Middle Eastern photography being established jointly by the British Museum and the V&A.

The Art Fund said it was giving £150,000 to establish a collection that has been in development by the two institutions over the last three years.

The fund's director, Stephen Deuchar, said it would help remedy an under-representation. "It is a response to the surge in interest in visual arts in that part of the world, a surge that has not been matched by its representation in museums generally."

Both institutions have hugely important photographic collections for slightly different reasons. Roughly speaking the British Museum collects to tell the stories of societies while the V&A explores the possibilities of particular mediums.

"Putting the two together allows so many different narratives and no narrative, I think, is more important at the moment than that of the contemporary Middle East," said the British Museum's director, Neil MacGregor. "That is a world that we need to understand and photography is a particularly powerful way of allowing us to do so."

More than 80 works by 22 artists form the collection to date including more recent photographs taken as a response to the Arab Spring. Most of the works will be on show at an exhibition called Light from the Middle East: New Photography at the V&A that will run from 13 November until 7 April 2013.

That show's curator, Marta Weiss, said contemporary Middle East photography was some of the "most exciting, innovative and varied art anywhere in the world."

The artists include Youssef Nabil who took portraits of the last surviving Yemeni seamen who settled in South Shields to the UK's oldest Muslim and Arab community; and the Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian who took portraits of women dressed in traditional late 19th century clothing but with modern anomalies added – such as sun glasses or a Pepsi can.

The donation came as the Art Fund gave an annual update on its activities and revealed a 20% rise in membership in 2011/12. That increase was down to the launch in April 2011 of its National Art Pass which gives free or discounted entry to museums and galleries across the UK.

The Fund gave a total of £6m to arts organisations to help them purchase works of art including its biggest ever grant of £2m which it gave to the National Gallery and National Galleries of Scotland for Titian's Diana and Callisto.


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May 17 2012

Scottish arts shakeup to concentrate funding on one-off projects

National arts agency Creative Scotland's new strategy after suffering £2.1m budget cut raises fears of a drain of talent

Dozens of Scottish arts companies and art centres are facing deep funding cuts and job losses under a radical restructuring of spending by the national arts agency Creative Scotland.

The agency's new funding strategy puts far greater emphasis on theatre groups, art centres, galleries and festivals competing against each other for subsidies for one-off projects from next April to help it cope with a £2.1m cut in its funding from the Scottish government.

Creative Scotland insists the new system will produce much sharper and more creative art, and greater collaboration between companies, but critics within the arts community believe it raises doubts about the long-term survival and strength of many of the organisations losing core funding.

They fear the uncertainty and instability of relying in future on short-term funding will lead to a drain of talent from Scotland and harm their ability to attract new talented directors and curators.

Creative Scotland said overall arts spending in Scotland was being far better protected than in England, where the Arts Council has seen swingeing funding cuts.

One of the UK's largest annual poetry festivals, the StAnza festival based in St Andrews, the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, a city now famous for its three Turner Prize winners, and the Stills contemporary photography gallery in Edinburgh are among the 49 organisations being put on short-term project funding.

Deirdre MacKenna, the director at Stills, which had got up to 60% of its funding from Creative Scotland, said: "We've no idea what the impact will be because we don't understand what it is Creative Scotland has in mind for us. [It's] all about the expertise and keeping it in the sector. [If] we undermine the capacity of the sector, you start to mess long term with its potential capacity."

Eleanor Livingston, director of the StAnza festival, said they had received significant basic funding from Creative Scotland under the now-scrapped flexible funding scheme, which allowed StAnza to stage its most ambitious programme to date in March.

"We're very disappointed that flexible funding won't continue, because we've found it extremely useful in helping StAnza develop and expand," she said.

Creative Scotland is organising a series of meetings with the affected groups to discuss the new strategy. Its executives admit it will involve pain and change for many affected groups, but it insisted that it could be extremely helpful to many companies.

The agency estimates the money available for funding arts projects in Scotland will roughly double to £15m because of a steep increase in National Lottery funding in the next few years; that will increase from £18m in 2010 to £32.3m in 2014, and again the next year.

However, the 49 "projects clients" getting short-term funding will be forced to compete on a project-by-project basis.

Venu Dhupa, the most senior of Creative Scotland's three creative directors and architect of the restructuring, conceded the shakeup would create a "more volatile environment" and require flexibility for many of the affected companies.

Dhupa said her job was to get the best possible value from public funding, but the agency would try to support the companies and ensure projects lasting for two or three years were funded where possible.

She said: "What we're trying to do is inject some energy into the ecology [of Scotland's art world] but also have some stability. We know some organisations will find it difficult to adjust to the new climate, but we will do our best to help advise them."

Creative Scotland has secured the core funding for 40 other major "foundation" organisations, such as the Edinburgh international festival, the Fruitmarket gallery in Edinburgh, Dundee Contemporary Arts, the Tramway and Citizen's theatre in Glasgow, Edinburgh's Traverse theatre and Pier Arts Centre in Orkney. Three other arts organisations, including Edinburgh Printmakers workshop, have been added to the list of foundation organisations.

A further 22 organisations have been made "annual clients", including the cutting-edge Glasgow International arts festival, the Celtic Connections music festival, Edinburgh's Festival Fringe Society, and the St Magnus music festival in Orkney.

Dhupa said the restructuring would force some companies to become more entrepreneurial and commercially-orientated to win external funding or put on more popular shows. She cited the Canadian-based theatrical circus company Cirque du Soleil and the playwright and director Robert Lepage as examples of brands which had won independent commercial success.

There would also be a greater emphasis, she said, on finding and cultivating celebrities who could be trained to promote Scotland and Scottish arts and abroad, as well as supporting and promoting volunteers and amateur artists.

• This article was amended on 18 May 2012 because it suggested Robert Lepage has a dance company; in fact he's a playwright and a stage and cinema director. The spelling of Cirque du Soleil was also corrected.


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Tate Britain promises new chronological display of art treasures

Success in raising £45m for improvements allows 2013 project to rehang collection and display works from 1550 to present day

Tate Britain has promised visitors a chronological circuit of the full 500-year range of its art treasures from next year as it announced success in raising the £45m needed for its major improvements.

The last link in the chain was a £4.9m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, allowing completion in 2013 of a project to conserve and upgrade galleries and open up new spaces.

Central to that is a rehang of the collection, which the gallery's director Penelope Curtis said would be displayed chronologically – from 1550 to the present day – rather themed or by artist group.

That will please vocal critics – among them the Guardian's Jonathan Jones and the respected Burlington Magazine – who have been aghast at the paucity of pre-1900 works being displayed over recent years.

That is down to the Millbank Project, explained Curtis. "What we didn't do well enough was communicate that we were in the middle of a building project. We were perhaps too successful in hiding it."

Nicholas Serota, overall director of Tate, admitted: "Obviously when you have something like a fifth of the galleries out of service you have to sympathise with the visitors.

"They are expecting to see a full panorama of art from 1550 to the present day and we haven't been able to show many of the great works in the collection."

Tate Britain hopes there will be fewer critics when the rehang is opened to the public next May.

The chronological circuit of around 400 works will begin with early treasures such as Hans Eworth's 1565 Portrait of an Unknown Lady, showing works through the centuries to the present day including, said Curtis, both the unexpected and those that "people want and expect to see".

Artists on display will include Constable, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Millais, Stubbs, Bacon, Hockney, Lowry and Spencer. There will also be dedicated galleries for William Blake and Henry Moore.

The gallery has also opened the doors to a rehang of its Turner bequest in the Clore gallery – "the first phase of putting the Tate back to what it should be", said Curtis. It includes many popular favourites as well as lesser-known aspects of his work, including an unfinished study of female nudes never been displayed by Tate Britain and conventionally difficult to recognise as a Turner.

The galleries will also feature works which benefit from recent research, including a room in which Turner seascapes hang alongside works by his contemporary and rival, Constable.

A total of £1.9m from the HLF grant will pay for a major digitisation project integrating the archives into an online collection with the other £3m going in to the £45m pot, a target Tate set for itself in 2009.

Getting the money is something of a relief, particularly as the HLF turned down Tate's application for a £7.5m grant 18 months ago, prompting the gallery to go back to them for a smaller sum.

"Obviously not raising money in the initial tranche has put additional pressure on our fundraising from individuals, foundations and trusts," said Serota. "It is a tribute to the support and faith that individuals, foundations and trusts have in Tate Britain and in its programme that we have managed to achieve that level of support."

Sue Bower, head of the HLF London, said her organisation was "passionate about supporting projects that make our heritage accessible to everyone and through opening up the galleries, creating new learning spaces and digitising archives – this impressive project will do just that".


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December 21 2011

Arts Council's third Flashback tour puts artist Gary Hume in spotlight

Hume follows in footsteps of Bridget Riley and Anish Kapoor

It is a snowman, definitely a snowman, but a melancholic one with a red body and brown head, and he stands with his back to us aware, perhaps, that he won't last long. The work is by the artist Gary Hume and will feature in an exhibition of his work set to tour Britain early next year.

The Arts Council Collection said Hume would be the third artist to appear in the Flashback shows, which have so far featured Bridget Riley and Anish Kapoor, with Rachel Whiteread planned for the fourth.

Caroline Douglas, head of the collection, said the Flashback shows helped highlight one of the council's fundamental purposes, which was "to support artists early in their career".

She added: "We have many outstanding examples of work from early in the career of artists who have gone on to make enormous reputations nationally and internationally."

For the Riley exhibition the collection showed the 1961 painting Movement in Squares, which the artist said was her breakthrough piece, the one that led her to the work she then pursued over the next 50 years.

Douglas hopes the third tour, which will take in Leeds, Wolverhampton, Hastings and Aberdeen, will bring Hume's work to a wider audience.

Douglas said: "Gary is far too little known in this country. He has had remarkably little exposure in the UK outside of London. This is the thread that runs through all the Flashbacks – artists obtain a certain level in their career and they are rarely showing outside capital cities.

"People enjoy having an in-depth examination of one artist's career, and the [Flashback] shows have had a fantastic response. There is a great appetite … to see the work of outstanding contemporary artists."

The Arts Council Collection, which started up in 1946, holds more than 7,500 works, by artists ranging from Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst, which it regularly lends.

The tour takes place in what will be a busy year for Hume, one of the YBA generation who was part of important shows including Freeze in 1988, the 1997 Sensation show at the Royal Academy and who represented the UK at 1999's Venice Biennale . On 18 January the White Cube gallery will present work he completed over the last two years, in its galleries in central and east London.

The tour begins at Leeds Art Gallery, from 2 February–15 April, then goes to Wolverhampton Art Gallery (28 April–7 July), the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings (14 July–23 September ), and Aberdeen Art Gallery (13 October–19 January 2013).


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December 19 2011

Slick art sponsorship: BP and the Tate

Calm down, dears, the Tate is renewing its sponsorship deal with BP. But before you join the BP-Tate haters, stop and think about how else galleries are supposed to survive funding cuts

The Tate is renewing its sponsorship deal with BP – shock, horror, how dare they.

Oh, give me a break. The campaign to stop Tate, the National Portrait Gallery and other museums from accepting money from Britain's controversial petroleum outfit is the stupidest and most misplaced of supposedly radical campaigns. Why not do something useful like join Occupy? While protests around the world this year, from Wall Street to Tahrir Square, have picked the right causes and enemies, the BP art campaign is mistargeted, misconceived and massively self-indulgent.

I would have thought the involvement of Bob and Roberta Smith dealt it the death blow. Having Bob and Roberta on your side should make anyone think twice. The silliest and most spurious artist in Britain speaks out against BP! It must be an oil man's birthday.

Declaration of interest: I went to a party with a lot of BP executives earlier this year, to celebrate the Portrait award at the National Portrait Gallery. Big men in suits, demonstrators at the door ... And I shrugged.

Galleries need money. Presumably all of you who are angry about oily art are also strong supporters of free museums? Well, the involvement of BP obviously makes it easier for galleries like the Tate to work at the world-class level they do and remain free. Either museums are going to survive and be first-rate in these challenging times, or they are going to be reduced to sad shells of themselves. Cultural sponsorship is an excellent way for them to resist the impact of cuts.

The critics of business sponsorship are playing fantasy politics against the softest of targets. Museums are not anyone's enemy. But they are vulnerable precisely because they are run by decent people. Let's guilttrip them! So much easier than taking on the heartless corporations themselves.

Pick your targets well. Museums are beacons of culture. They are not the running dogs of capitalism – and if they can get BP to hand over its filthy lucre for the cause of art, well, it is going to good use.


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December 08 2011

Manet painting under export ban while £28m is sought to keep it in UK

Arts minister Ed Vaizey defers export decision on 'outstanding' but unfinished Fanny Claus portrait last exhibited in 1883

An outstanding, unfinished Édouard Manet portrait of a woman sitting sedately on a balcony has had a temporary export bar placed on it by the government in the hope that someone will raise £28m to keep the painting in  the UK.

Ed Vaizey, the arts minister, deferred the export decision until February at the earliest to allow an individual or institution to raise the required sum, which is a high figure by any standard and exceeds the present auction record for the artist.

The picture, entitled Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus, was painted in 1868 as part of the process of completing what is now one Manet's most popular pictures, The Balcony, which hangs in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

The unfinished work shows the young violinist Fanny Claus seated on a balcony, although in the final portrait she is standing.

Lowell Libson, a member of the reviewing committee that makes recommendations to the culture department, said Manet was one of the 19th century's most important painters who had had "a profound influence on the development of impressionism".

Libson said Manet's painting demonstrated his ability to innovate while working with a framework of historical reference and allusion. "The painting in its unfinished state adds to its interest, revealing the artist's creative process whilst emphasising the haunting beauty of the portrait."

The portrait was last seen in public at the National Gallery in 1983, at a show marking the centenary of Manet's death. It was originally bought by the London-based American painter John Singer Sargent, in 1884, at the Paris auction house Hôtel Drouot. It has remained in the UK ever since and is now owned privately.

The reviewing committee recommended deferral on grounds that the portrait was "of outstanding aesthetic importance and outstanding significance for the study of French painting of the second half of the 19th century, and in particular the work of Manet, one of the leading Impressionist painters of the period".

The painter, the subject of one of this year's biggest blockbusters – an exhibition at the Musée d'Orsay in the spring called Manet: the Man Who Invented Modernity – fetches big money on the rare occasions his work comes on the market.

A Manet self-portrait, sold at Sotheby's in June by the US hedge fund tycoon Steven Cohen, set an auction record for a work by the painter when it was bought for £22.4m.


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November 09 2011

ACE 'ignored advice' and made 'poor judgements' over the Public, says its own report

Arts Council England has produced its own damning report into the West Bromwich arts centre into which it sunk £31m – a "gross waste of public money", according to the Culture select committee

Arts Council England has published a report examining the extent of the organisation's failings when it came to the Public: the West Bromwich arts centre that ate up £31m of ACE's money (from an original allocation of £19m), suffered three insolvencies, took 13 years to get off the ground, and even then failed to deliver the innovative interactive galleries it had promised.

And, though the report, by Anthony Blackstock, falls short of the Culture Select Committee's condemnation that the Public was "a gross waste of public money", it is pretty damning (though, significantly, the present executive and Council are let off the hook, as the most damaging decisions were made, according to Blackstock, as far back as 2001).

The report draws attention to a number of areas, including:

- ACE failed to secure a charge on the building - meaning that if the building were "repurposed" as a non-arts building, it would have no way of getting its money back. That is pretty serious, especially as Sandwell Council is currently looking at a range of options including, according to Blackstock, "disposal, closure and demolition as well as continuation".

- ACE went ahead and granted large sums to a project even though it was not convinced about the quality of the leadership of the project or of its viability at the time. "In summary," writes Blackstock, "Arts Council England agreed to fund a building that was not fit for purpose."

- Worryingly, at the highest level – ie, Council – there was a failure to follow advice from the expert panel on the development which recommended walking away. And once ACE had given permission for the development to go ahead in 2001, it found itself fatally embroiled. Blackstock: "Arts Council England made two very poor judgements. The first was the decision to proceed in 2001 despite all the explicit misgivings. Thereafter, the Arts Council apparently found it politically impossible not to continue its support in the teeth of every setback." The decision to confirm funding in July 2001, he said, was "highly questionable".

- And that, says Blackstock, was a result not of poor processes or poor advice, but of a wilful ignoring of its own processes. "Too often it subverted the safeguards in its desire to progress the project despite its potential shortcomings. It should not have."

The whole thing – when you read through Blackstock's dispassionate though occasionally enjoyably spiky prose – feels like it could be summarised thus. ACE ignored the fact/didn't interrogate the fact that both the concept and the leadership of the project was inadequate. They gave it enormous sums anyway; but then found themselves so sucked in that they almost felt they had to make the Public succeed at any cost – which was impossible, given the flawed set-up. That imbroglio caused ACE to make a "critical error ... to cross the line that must separate funder from developer". The hard thing to understand is how the highest echelons at ACE knowingly acted in the teeth of expert advice. One of my favourite understated lines from Blackstock is this faintly incredulous: "The volume and lucidity of the documents available to Arts Council England senior officers and committees for each critical decision stand in remarkable and paradoxical contrast to the quality of decision making."


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November 01 2011

Arts Council calls halt to new English galleries

ACE outlines plan for investing £440m of mostly lottery money in 2011-15 on 'strategic funding', with focus on existing facilities

England's Arts Council has signalled an end to the bold and rejuvenating new arts buildings of recent years as it published details of how it was going to spend more than £400m of lottery money between 2012 and 2015.

The last decade has seen a string of venue openings which have benefited from lottery money. These include the Baltic in Gateshead which this year plays host to the Turner prize, the Hepworth Wakefield in West Yorkshire and the Turner Contemporary in Margate. The last one to slip in, by the skin of its teeth, was Firstsite in Colchester which opened in September.

The economic gloom means that could be that, for the foreseeable future. Alan Davey, chief executive of Arts Council England (ACE) said: "Previous capital programmes have been about big, new, brash buildings. This capital programme won't be about that – it is more about getting the most out of the existing estate."

ACE on Tuesday said it would provide a £180m capital programme and it expected to invest from £500,000 to £5m on individual projects. The theme, said Davey, was "renewal and resilience" and ACE believes it needs to help existing organisations become stronger rather than starting from scratch.

"There will be some new buildings, but they'll be additions to existing buildings," he said.

Most of the new arts buildings – Nottingham Contemporary, say, or Mima in Middlesbrough – are regarded as success stories locally and nationally. There has been the odd disaster though, notably The Public in West Bromwich, a distinctive Will Alsop-designed building meant to house interactive digital arts displays. It came in £49m over budget and, while still a working venue, is being put to nothing like the use that was originally planned.

ACE announced it will invest £440m of mostly lottery money in strategic funding programmes between 2012-15. The money sits alongside the £1.04bn of public money it gives to 696 national portfolio organisations, which it announced at the end of March.

It will have more lottery money to spend thanks to the government's decision to increase the share going to the arts. It also expects to have about £30m a year in lottery money previously diverted to the Olympics back in its wallet.

Yesterday, ACE announced how it will invest around £287m of it. As well as the £180m capital fund there will also be a £45m touring programme designed "so more people across England experience and are inspired by the arts".

On top of that there is the previously announced £50m Catalyst Arts fund to help arts organisations attract more private and philanthropic money. It opened for business on Tuesday.

There will also be a £7.5m audience focus fund and £4.5m to extend the Artsmark scheme to museums and galleries.

Davey said the strategic funding programmes announced were about trying to instil excellence as well as helping to make arts organisations more financially resilient. "We've looked at the past, we've seen what happens when you allow a decline to set in and then how long it takes to get it back. We don't want that to happen," said Davey.

ACE also published a document called The Arts Council Plan 2011-15 in which it set out its overall goals and priorities.

The key figure in the report is the 50% cut in administration costs ordered by the government.

The Arts Council argues that it has already made substantial savings – staff numbers have gone from 622 in 2008-09 to 491 in 2010-11 – and points out that it is taking on additional responsibilities for areas including museums and libraries.

So far that has cut little ice with the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, so as things stand, the council needs to become a much smaller organisation by 2013. ACE staff have begun working on that but the organisation has not ruled out a change in heart from the government. "We're ever hopeful until the time comes not to be hopeful," said Davey.


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October 24 2011

Why Britain must hold on to Titian's Diana and Callisto

Titian is no ordinary painter and this work is one of his greatest. Let it go and we become a nation of philistines

It will be a national tragedy if Titian's painting Diana and Callisto is sold to a foreign museum or collector and is lost to Britain. It is a mark of philistinism and small-mindedness for Scotland's government to declare at this early stage that it will not be giving any public funds to keep this painting in our public collections.

The National Galleries in Edinburgh and London have until the end of next year to raise £50m to buy this masterpiece of European art, which has been on loan to Scotland's national collection from the Duke of Sutherland for years. A passionate campaign in 2008 led to its companion, Titian's Diana and Actaeon, being bought, in spite of the economic crash. This time around it looks bleaker, now that Scotland's government has declared bluntly that it has "made its contribution" and that no more cash will be forthcoming.

This is seriously mean and stupid. The campaign has barely begun. The government didn't have to say anything at this moment. In doing so, it seems to be murdering the cause before it is born, short-circuiting the kind of excitement that eventually secured a deal for Diana and Actaeon. Will English funding be forthcoming? Or is this really the end for high art in Britain?

Make no mistake: if we do not buy this picture for our public collections we may as well give up any pretence that we care on these islands about serious culture or the lofty heights of genius. This is no ordinary painting. Both the Titians from the Bridgewater Collection are stupefying works in the absolute elite of oil paintings. There are very few paintings on earth that hold a candle to them. Titian is one of the two or three greatest painters in history, and these two paintings are marvels from the most brilliant period of his life.

It was a mark of civilisation that Britain bought the first Titian. It will be a lapse into barbarism to let the second go. It really is as simple as that.


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September 22 2011

Colchester's Firstsite for sore eyes

Lottery backed arts centre – dubbed The Golden Banana – set to open, three years late and £10m over original budget

Firstsite, Colchester, an arts centre variously dubbed The Golden Banana, or – by one aggrieved correspondent of the local paper – "the overpriced bling bikeshed", finally opens to the public on Sunday.

The spectacular Rafael Viñoly-designed building, a swoop of glass and metal beside and on top of the remains of the first Roman town in Britain, was originally projected to cost £18m and open in 2008. It would have been one of the first of the major new lottery backed regional arts centres, but will now probably be the last.

The Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (Mima), the Hepworth in Wakefield, the Towner in Eastbourne, and Turner Contemporary in Margate all got their doors open first, and now Firstsite is joining them at last, at a cost of £28m.

"There were moments, I must admit," Kath Wood, the director for the last 17 years since before the building was even a glimmer in an eye, never mind a hole in the ground. "At one point my mother sent me a postcard of Big Ben to keep my heart up – that took even longer to complete."

Wood originally took over a gallery in a charming Georgian building on the high street, the Minories, where she built visitor numbers from 12,000 to 80,000 a year. Critics have wondered about the suitability of a banana shaped building for displaying art, but in Firstsite's old home the windows regularly had to be taken out to install larger pieces. At her lowest ebb, when her mother had to chip in the morale-boosting postcards, the centre was an abandoned building site, beset by financial and technical problems: many in the town and the arts community believed it would never open.

Now there are high hopes riding on the building. In the boom years Colchester became one of the fastest growing towns in Britain, adding 35,000 new residents, but the centre opens in a very different economic landscape.

"This is a very emotional day," Peter Martin, leader of Essex county council, said. "We have ended up with a stunning building, but we have had our moments. This may convince our sceptics that we are investing in success."

He hopes and believes the centre will be the springboard for major investment in what was a run down quarter of the town – the building is wrapped around a grove of trees originally planted to screen a Georgian householder's view of the slums. Now the talk is of a new creative quarter, half a million extra tourists, three new hotels, new shops, hundreds of new jobs.

It's a heavy burden of expectation to lay on the building's narrow shoulders, but commercial director Wayne Warner, whose challenge is to generate 45% of the operating costs from the posh cafe, events and conferences, is convinced it can be done, and has already hit his financial target for the first year. His last job was at Wembley Arena. "This is the only other building I know that makes the hairs stand up on the back of my head," he said.

Every visitor will walk across evidence of the town's glory days, the only permanent work of art in the building – a spectacular Roman mosaic found on the site in the 1920s, moved to the castle museum, and then chopped up into nine pieces to bring home again and lay under glass panels below the floor.

The opening exhibition, Camulodunum, also ties together the past and present, with what appears to be a tumbled Roman colossus in the foyer – actually a shattered scale replica of the hand of the Statue of Liberty by Danh Vo. The exhibits include major loans from collections including the Tate, the V&A and the Arts Council, mingling Roman coins found in the surrounding streets, Henry Moore classically inspired bronze helmets, Turner's notebook pencil sketches of Colchester Castle, ceramics by Grayson Perry, precariously balanced Chinese vases by Ai Weiwei, and archive photographs including a heroically silly pageant held in 1906.

"I hope people wont be too disappointed if they're expecting something really shocking," Wood said.

In bright Autumn sunshine the building is very, very gold indeed. "We've had a test panel in the garden and it will fade slightly, but it's always going to be gold. We're proud of it, we embrace our inner bling," she added.

The gift shop reinforces the point: it sells golden handled umbrellas, golden playing cards, and at a very reasonable £2.95, golden rubber ducks.

Firstsite, Colchester, opens to the public, 25 September 2011. Entry is free


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September 15 2011

Did you create one of these anti-cuts placards?

The search is on for the people behind demo placards going on display at Turner Contemporary in Margate

See a gallery of a selection of the placards

Placards used at the big TUC anti-cuts demonstration last March are to go on display at Turner Contemporary from Saturday 17 September but organisers have a small problem: they don't know who made them all.

Guy Atkins was one of the team from Goldsmiths, University of London, which helped organise the Save Our Placards project (I wrote about it here) when 50,000 people marched through London, protesting at government spending cuts.

Hundreds of placards were left at the project tree in Hyde Park and 12 of them will go on display as part of the Nothing in the World But Youth at the exhibition in Margate.

Atkins told me: "We're trying to track down their creators to tell them about the Turner show and tell their stories of the demo and life since. So far we've got 6 out of the 12."

So if you created this placard of George Osborne as Edward Scissorhands then first of all, congratulations. Second of all get in touch at saveourplacards@gmail.com or through Facebook.

The Margate exhibition looks well worth a visit in any event with more than 200 works exploring the excitement and creativity of youth. But one of you people out there could have created an exhibit which is going on display alongside works by Henry Moore, Peter Blake, Sarah Lucas, David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Mark Leckey and a young JMW Turner no less.

See a selection of the placards in this gallery.


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September 08 2011

Tate Modern's Oil Tanks to follow Turbine Hall in time for Olympics

'World's most exciting new art space' to open in 2012 with Nicholas Serota confident of raising £215m needed

Two enormous concrete oil tanks behind the Tate Modern, unused for 30 years, will become perhaps the "most exciting new space for art in the world" in time for the Olympics, the chairman of Tate said yesterday.

Launching the organisation's annual report, Lord Browne said phase one of Tate Modern's £215m extension plans would be opened as part of next summer's London 2012 festival, the big bang finale of the Cultural Olympiad.

Tate had hoped the full extension project would be completed by 2012 but officially conceded on Thursday that will not happen. Phase two, a building above the tankers, will now open "at the latest in 2016".

What will open next year are the two 30-metre wide and seven-metre high concrete chambers. They will be known as what they were – the Oil Tanks – just as the now world-famous Turbine Hall of the former power station retained its original name. They will become a space for installations, live and performance art, film, lectures and symposia among other things.

After that, 10 new floors will be built above them and linked to the present Tate Modern building. Tate said 70% of the money for the full £215m project had been raised, with the biggest donors wishing to remain anonymous.

The lack of government money for large projects and the recession have made raising money difficult but Tate director Nicholas Serota was upbeat and said he was "super-confident" that all the money would be raised.

Browne said it was the "single largest fundraising campaign from private sources ever undertaken in the cultural field". He added that Tate Modern was there to stand "as a defence against all that remains ugly and unimaginative within our country".

Tate Modern director Chris Dercon, who arrived in April, said visitors wanted new and different things from a museum. They wanted it to be a place for "mental and bodily exercise", where they could learn and interact. "A museum is never ever finished, it is a constant work in progress, a constant process of change and transformation."

By the time the Tate Modern project is finished there will be 70% more space to display art.

The announcement was made as Tate released its annual report for its four museums – two in London, one in Liverpool and one in St Ives.

The report shows that the public appetite for visual art continues unabated with 7.4 million people visiting the four galleries in 2011, making it the second most popular arts organisation in the world after the Louvre.

Tate last year acquired 287 works through purchase or bequest, with a total value of more than £8m.

The works included donations to the Artist Rooms collection from Jenny Holzer, Robert Therrien and Jannis Kounellis; the purchase of a room-sized fabric installation by Korean Do Ho Suh, Staircase-111 2010, which he made specifically for Tate Modern; and the acquisition of two of only four known works in oil on paper by 17th-century artist Mary Beale.

Tate said it was also extending its geographical reach, collecting more work from the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. It also this week appointed a curator for contemporary African art and continues to expand its photography collection.

The organisation said that 62% of its funding now came from private and not public sources.

One of its biggest exhibitions next year will be a Damien Hirst retrospective at Tate Modern, while at Tate Britain there will be a show about Picasso and Modern British Art and in the autumn a big pre-Raphaelite exhibition. At St Ives there will be a show dedicated to American artist Alex Katz, while Liverpool will explore late works of Turner, Monet and Twombly.

Asked about the results of a recent staff survey which raised concerns about overwork, low pay and accusations of bullying, Serota said Tate was seriously concerned. He said: "Some of that bullying and harassment comes from members of the public and from outside people as well as within the building, but wherever it comes from we regard it as completely unacceptable".

Tate staff have had a pay freeze for three years, year one voluntary and the next two imposed by the government. Serota commented: "If you polled most staff in most arts organisations they would probably say they were underpaid and indeed most of them are."


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July 24 2011

Yorkshire Sculpture Park widens appeal

Open-air art exhibition space near Wakefield grows by 150 acres after completion of £800,000 restoration project

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park, an open-air art exhibition space near Wakefield, has had 150 acres restored after a £800,000 project.

Features including the ruins of a shell-shaped grotto and a Greek-style temple that had long lain forgotten and hidden from view, have now been rescued from the overgrowth and opened to the general public.

Patrick James, a historical landscapist who has restored the Victorian gardens to its former glory, said: "It's a lost landscape … a whole designed landscape that's been forgotten."

Such is the size of the area that it contains two lakes spanning 60 and 40 acres respectively. These too had been blocked off from view, said James. "People were never aware that there was this vast piece of water."

The gardens were commissioned two centuries ago for the private amusement of one of the richest families in England, the Beaumonts, who made their fortune from coal in the 18th century.

The restoration, which has involved opening up historic vistas towards the family's original 18th-century Bretton Hall mansion, extends the Yorkshire Sculpture Park's open-air gallery to 600 acres.

James, head of the Landscape Agency, a specialist consultancy in historic British landscapes, said a lack of funds had seen the site become completely neglected since the second world war and inaccessible to the public. In the 1940s, the estate was passed to Leeds University.

Three years later, English Heritage was so concerned about its future, it placed the landscape on its "At Risk Register".

In the Leeds city archives, James found the original plans, drawings and descriptions for formal gardens designed by Richard Woods, "a lesser-known Capability Brown", he said, referring to the great 18th-century landscape architect.

On site, he was astonished to find the original follies and other architectural delights, although in a "pretty ruinous" state. He said: "There's a shell house beside the upper lake which had disappeared in a whole dense mound of ivy and overgrowth which we've uncovered. There's a beautifully-designed boat house, a wonderful folly, a sort of temple which had been completely overgrown. We've realised the incredible design and effort that had gone into making the landscape."

Yorkshire Sculpture Park, a registered charity, is one of Britain's pre-eminent cultural spaces, attracting some 300,000 visitors a year. It was founded in 1977 as the country's first permanent sculpture park, staging the work of Andy Goldsworthy and James Turrell, among international artists. It is mainly funded by £1.36m from the Arts Council, from which it will have to pay for park maintenance, believed to be around £400,000 a year.

James said: "The opportunity now for YSP is that it opens up a whole new area for sculpture."


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July 21 2011

Museums should feel free to charge admission

We can't have museums selling off our cultural heritage to make ends meet – charging entry is a far better solution

Britain's museums are in crisis. On the surface, things looks good. Our galleries have benefited from years of expansion. But all over Britain, a darker reality is emerging in the wake of spending cuts. A survey has shown that since the spending review 58% of museums have suffered cuts, and a fifth have been hit by devastating cuts of 25%.

On that measure, yes, 42% have not yet suffered cuts – but surely it's a policy of divide and rule, with councils, not central government, making the big decisions, and less fashionable venues taking the biggest hits (at least as far as I can see). But an overall climate of contraction will surely hit all museums and all aspects of what they do. And there is little chance of this improving in the near future.

The worst option is for museums and public collections to start selling works to pay the bills. The recent sale of a Millais by one cash-strapped council is a terrible mistake, a betrayal of our cultural heritage.

The best option, I am starting to think, may be to introduce admission fees. I spat out this notion earlier this week in the wake of the attack on two paintings recently in the National Gallery. The debate was taken up by the Telegraph. Obviously, attacks on art happen at museums that charge an entry fee as well as at free ones. But this is about much more than security.

I remember the drab, uncared-for feeling of some of Britain's biggest museums in the 1980s and 90s. They seemed to be eking out their time, with no big plans and no sense of splendour. Free museums with a supportive government are very different from free museums in a climate of austerity. Going to the Louvre or to American museums 20 years ago was like entering a different universe of cultural pride and enjoyment – these museums really wanted to thrill, and they did justice to their collections.

So do ours – right now. Britons have realised how precious our great collections are. The world shares the passion, and if you visit the British Museum this summer the sheer crowd numbers startle. How about turning that popularity into money? We can't let recent progress in our galleries and museums be destroyed by a cost-cutting mentality that first freezes, then rolls back, everything that has been achieved.

Charging for entry cannot be a taboo. I probably make more use of free entry than most people; there are obviously ways to make entrance fees egalitarian. Free entry for everyone under 20 and all students, membership schemes for the rest of us, something like the new National Art Pass for those who want to purchase annual overall access.

I think free museums are a great British tradition, but I don't want these museums to decay. Charging for entry is a better remedy than selling paintings, closing galleries or sacking staff. Might it even give visitors a keener sense of the value of some of the greatest experiences it is possible to have?


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June 12 2011

The hunt for the best British museum

What's the best museum in Britain? To find out, Charlotte Higgins travelled the country with Michael Portillo and Jeremy Deller

It felt like a series of pilgrimages, albeit ones with the atmosphere of school trips. As one of the judges on this year's Art Fund museums prize, my spring was dominated by visits to the 10 extraordinary venues up and down the country that made the longlist. We have travelled from Ayrshire to Llandudno, from London to Manchester, from York to Bath, and various places in between. These journeys are what make judging the £100,000 competition quite different from, say, a book prize. Instead of being given a heap of novels and told to get on with it in glorious isolation, we museum jurors hit the road.

I've lost count of how many early mornings, bleary-eyed, I've hailed Michael Portillo across a chilly station. (Except for the morning when he missed his train to Llandudno, for which he, as the frontman of BBC2's Great British Railway Journeys, was mercilessly teased.) As our travels continued, we took on certain roles. Antiques Roadshow expert Lars Tharp was the raconteur, occasionally bloodymindedly argumentative (the dispute, which started before we even arrived at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum and still rages, was about whether Scots is a language or a dialect). I think I may have ended up as the naughty kid at the back, but I blame the influence of artist Jeremy Deller, the 2004 Turner prize winner.

Crossbench peer Lola Young was the studious one, head buried in her Kindle on the long journeys (at least when she wasn't making some wicked joke); museum consultant Kathy Gee was the dry one; and theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili was the mystery one (his schedule usually requiring him to be a secret shopper to the museums rather than a school tripper).

It was always an experience walking the streets of British towns with the instantly recognisable Michael Portillo. In Glasgow, he was stopped by a burly chap in the street, and I froze, dreading an ugly scene. Instead, he was love‑bombed by what turned out to be a fan. As we walked on, he said: "Twenty years ago, I would have been worried about being bottled in Glasgow." Truly, time and telly stardom are the great healers.

When the winner of the prize is announced this Wednesday, it will be from a shortlist of four: that mighty behemoth, the British Museum, for its A History of the World project; the delightful, pocket-sized Polar Museum in Cambridge, which chronicles scientific adventures at the planet's extremities; the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, not so much a museum as a "campus" of sites in the poet's home village of Alloway; and the Roman baths at Bath, which wraps a museum around one of Britain's most important and fascinating archaeological sites.

In every conceivable way – scale, budget, intent – the projects that got each institution considered for the prize are wildly different. And yet when visiting these places, as well as the excellent six that didn't make it, some common threads emerged. In different ways and at different speeds, museums appear to be abandoning their authoritarian role as repositories of closely guarded knowledge, which they ration out to a grateful but essentially supine public. That relationship is changing – and for the better. Audiences now have a voice.

For example, the British Museum and Radio 4 joined forces to make Neil MacGregor's programme A History of the World in 100 Objects – but then invited the public to upload images of their own chosen artefacts, telling their personal narratives on the theme of global connectedness. At the other end of the scale, tiny Hertford Museum has turned itself into a community resource: when we visited, the weekly country market was in full swing, with stalwarts of the Women's Institute selling jam and cakes. Over in Manchester, the People's History Museum has built a state‑of‑the-art textiles conservation centre. But instead of hiding it behind closed doors, a glass wall is all that separates studio and gallery, so the public can watch union banners and other textiles being rescued from oblivion.

At the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the new ceramics study gallery puts its vast and hitherto hidden store of pots on view in a mesmerising display, inviting scholars, students and visitors to request items to handle and study at close quarters. And curators at the Yorkshire Museum have taken a radical approach to their artefacts: if it's not behind glass, you can touch it. So ordinary visitors, not just curators, can get to know what it feels like to have a Roman mosaic beneath your feet, or iron-age pottery between your fingers. Similarly, in the British Museum, visitors are invited, under close supervision, to pick up a hand-axe that is 1.6m years old. This was an indescribably moving experience: who made it, who swung it, what did it slice?

The make-do-and-mend future

In recent years, some museums have become so overwhelmed by all the possibilities of audio-visual, touchscreen, interactive wizardry, that the objects have ended up taking second place. Museums have felt the need to dazzle an experience-sated public, when I suspect that what many visitors really value is a firsthand, often quiet and contemplative encounter with something real and tangible that has a story to tell.

For example, the British Museum put a scholarly reading of artefacts at the centre of A History of the World, and used technology not as an end but as a means of spectacularly increasing the project's reach (12.5m podcasts of the programme were downloaded from iTunes). The Polar Museum, meanwhile, moved me to tears. Stored in drawers, and shown in rotation to protect them from light, are the last letters, written on the brink of death, by Captain Scott and his companions.Here is Scott writing to the wife of Edward Wilson, one of the last three survivors on the fatal 1912 expedition to the south pole. "My dear Mrs Wilson, If this reaches you Bill and I have gone out together – we are very near it now and I should like you to know how splendid he was at the end – everlastingly cheerful and ready to sacrifice himself to others, never a word of blame to me for landing him into this mess . . . "

Seeing the letter itself – not a reproduction or a transcription, but the genuine article, creased, with Scott's neatly pencilled handwriting boring across it – is astonishing. Meanwhile, the Yorkshire Museum was entered in the prize for its £2.2m redevelopment, a tiny fraction of what it usually costs to so transform a museum. But then the whole effort was essentially a vast DIY project, with curators and other staff rolling up their sleeves and ripping down walls, plastering, painting and moving entire Roman mosaics.

Big-budget, publicly funded museum projects are destined to get rarer and rarer; make‑do-and-mend could be what lies ahead, and a lot of institutions face dwindling funds as the cuts hit. But I emerged from my spring pilgrimages feeling proud of Britain's museums. They're not just repositories of wonder, but of the passion, ingenuity and scholarship of the people who work in them. Find out who wins on Wednesday.

Cow's stomachs and 2,000-year-old hair

Bezoar stone, Hertford Museum

It looks like a large brown pebble. In fact, it's a ball of indigestible material from the stomach of a cow. Such objects were believed to have magic powers, able to counter the effects of poison.

Roman woman's hair, Yorkshire Museum

There is something distinctly creepy about these 2,000-year-old locks, bound into a chignon, hairpins intact.

British Celtic text, Bath

A small lead tablet at the Roman Baths is inscribed with British Celtic words, transcribed into Roman letters. The only known written example of British Celtic, the language of the native Britons, it cannot be deciphered.

Scott's last letters, Polar Museum

Heartbreakingly stoical, stiff-upper-lip missives by Scott and his companions as they faced death. They never knew if they would reach their intended recipients.

Hand-axe (pictured), British Museum

Any visitor is allowed, under careful supervision, to touch and hold 1.6m-year-old hand-axes, the first objects shaped into usefulness by early man.

Map of the 1932 Hunger March, People's History Museum

A map of Britain, with the marchers' various routes to London, from industrial heartlands as far afield as Glasgow, hand-inked in by the organisers.


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June 07 2011

This week's arts diary

Lloyd Webber relaunches Love Never Dies, plus Donald Trump's golf course, Dave Stewart sells Hirst to save art, and Wilton's gets the thumbs down

Love Never Dies not dead yet

Andrew Lloyd Webber is positively beaming at the new version of his not-entirely-acclaimed Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies. It's "quite extraordinary", he told the Diary. The downside (unless you live there) is that it's in Melbourne. But Lloyd Webber, who was in the city for the opening last week, is optimistic that this version will eventually make it to London's West End, probably after opening in Sydney, Tokyo, Toronto, and then Broadway.

If you recall, Love Never Dies opened to grim reviews in March 2010 (it was dubbed Paint Never Dries by some), but then was rejigged by the producer Bill Kenwright. It's still not as good as it should be in Lloyd Webber's eyes, however.

The Melbourne show started almost from scratch. "It's a new production in every single way, wonderfully designed and wonderfully directed," says Lloyd Webber. "We didn't quite get it right in London. To let somebody else have a go is sometimes a very good idea. Forgetting that I have anything to do with it, I'd go so far as to say that, as a piece of musical theatre, it's as good as I've seen – ever."

Lloyd Webber says he wants to "let it settle" in Australia, since much of next year will be spent touring Jesus Christ Superstar. But the end plan does seem to be a move to London, where it would replace the Love Never Dies currently running at the Adelphi. "I'm confident it will be the production that, eventually, everyone remembers," he says.

Donald Trump's golf-course

A documentary chronicling the almost unbelievable ease with which Donald Trump was allowed to build a £1bn golf course for the mega-rich on environmentally protected dunes north of Aberdeen will get its UK premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest on Friday. You've Been Trumped won plaudits at Toronto film festival, and Anthony Baxter's film, which the Diary has seen, is certainly compelling stuff.

Trump (right) comes across as a buffoon and bully, while Alex Salmond's Scottish government seems to roll over and say yes please, no problem. Grampian police, which put Baxter in a cell for four hours and held on to his camera for six days, also come across badly. So what will the reaction in Scotland be?

Baxter tells me that arts investors Creative Scotland refused his initial application for money – he wanted £10,000 – on "lack of audience interest" grounds. The Edinburgh film festival declined to show it and "told me not to ask for a reason". So in Scotland it will show instead at Aberdeen's Belmont Picturehouse on 17 June.

Dave Stewart sells Hirst to save art

The Guardian reported at the weekend that musician Dave Stewart was selling seven works from his contemporary art collection, including a Damien Hirst spot painting that is presumably close to his heart – in that it is dedicated to Stewart himself. The one question that went unanswered was why he's selling. Stewart now tells the Diary: "I'm selling because I'm investing in something revolutionary that will help artists in the future." We can't wait to hear more.

Thumbs down for Wilton's

It was a genuine shame that Wilton's Music Hall in east London failed in its bid to get money from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Here is an amazing building, the world's oldest working music hall, playing host to some wonderful work including a terrific all-male Iolanthe in April. Wilton's wanted £2.25m of lottery money to put towards the £3.8m it needs for renovating and conservation. The refusal must be a blow, but director Frances Mayhew remains ever optimistic. "If we do nothing, by autumn this year we would be closed down," she said. "We won't let this happen." Anyone wishing to donate should go to wiltons.org.uk.


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May 24 2011

Barbican unveils Olympics arts festival

Programme includes theatre productions starring Juliette Binoche and Cate Blanchett, and major Bauhaus exhibition

The Barbican arts centre in London will celebrate next year's Olympics with an "unparalleled" lineup of international stars, including the actors Juliette Binoche and Cate Blanchett; stage directors Yukio Ninagawa and Peter Sellars; and the first UK performance of Einstein on the Beach, the opera that four decades ago made the reputations of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson.

The centre will host the biggest exhibition in the UK for 40 years on the Bauhaus design school, which flourished in the 1920s and early 30s.

"In 2012, London welcomes the world for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and the Barbican will be at the forefront of that international moment with an extraordinary range of cultural experiences for all," said Barbican director Sir Nicholas Kenyon.

He predicted that London will "punch above its weight" in the arts festival, and promised "something for everyone", both within the concrete bunker of its Barbican home and in many events across the capital.

"This is not an imported rent-a-festival that is happening all through the world. It is a real collection of things that we believe in that represent the Barbican values."

Kenyon can afford his starry spending spree because the Barbican – whose core funding comes from the City of London – will receive a special grant of £700,000 from the London Olympics organisers to join the nationwide arts festival planned to coincide with the Games.

The Barbican also pulled off a funding coup recognising its eclectic programming – which is both popular and critically acclaimed – when it won a substantial increase in Arts Council funding at a time when hundreds of other organisations were being slashed.

Programme director Louise Jeffreys said the Barbican represented the Bauhaus principles in breaking down divisions between art forms. "We continue to push forward the pioneering spirit. In 2012 stars of stage and screen will rub shoulders with first-timers, international artists will meet local people, and the traditional will meet the new."

The Bauhaus exhibition, Art as Life, will track the design school from its founding in 1919 by Walter Gropius, to its last director, the architect Mies van der Rohe, and its forced closure in 1933 by the Nazis, who detested its radical modernist ethos. The exhibition will include painting, sculpture, film, photography, textiles, ceramics and architecture.

French film star Binoche, who made an acclaimed debut on the London stage at the National Theatre in a dance piece with the choreographer Akram Khan, will return in a more conventional acting role, in Mademoiselle Julie, a new version – in French – of August Strindberg's play about seething class and sexual tensions, with costumes by couture house Lanvin.

The Australian actor Cate Blanchett, star of the 1998 film Elizabeth – and better known to a younger audience as Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings – returns to the London stage after 13 years in a new version by the British playwright Martin Crimp of the German play Gross und Klein, in the role of a lonely wife implausibly deserted by her husband. The show will be a co-production between the Barbican and the Sydney theatre company Blanchett runs with her husband.

Co-productions are a feature of the programme: the Barbican is getting together with Sadler's Wells for the first time to bring in one of the most acclaimed dance companies in the world, the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in a month-long season across the two venues.

Classical stars include the New York Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw orchestra from Amsterdam, and the Kronos quartet, which will also play a concert at the Hackney Empire in east London.

Ninagawa, renowned for his take on Shakespeare, will direct a new version of Cymbeline in Japanese, and the theatre season will also include a major new production by Simon McBurney for the Complicite company.

The author and academic Toni Morrison is working with Rokia Traore, a singer and song writer from Mali, on Desdemona, a performance incorporating traditional African instruments inspired by an invisible character in Shakespeare's play, his heroine's African nurse Barbary.

Other music highlights will include the return of Sir Simon Rattle as conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra. African and western musicians will also unite in Africa Express, the collective founded by Damon Albarn, which will visit UK towns and cities on its most ambitious tour to date, with the Barbican as executive producer.


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