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August 17 2012

Picasso's Child with a Dove barred from export

Government fixes restriction until December but chances of purchase look slim after recent string of similar campaigns

The government has barred the export of a tender early painting by Picasso, his 1901 Child with a Dove, in the hope that a museum or gallery may manage to raise the £50m price and keep it in the country. The painting has been in British collections since 1924 and on loan to public collections in Britain for decades.

However it will take a miracle, or an exceptionally benevolent millionaire donor, to keep it here: the pockets of major museums and grant-givers are almost empty after a string of recent high-profile campaigns for other artworks.

The charming painting, made when the artist was just 19 and owned by the aristocratic Aberconway family in north Wales since the 1940s, is a significant transition piece from Picasso's earliest work to his later blue period. I has also been an infallible crowdpleaser whenever it has been exhibited in UK galleries over recent decades. There are only five early Picasso oil paintings in UK permanent collections.

Its UK significance is underlined in its current exhibition, part of the Picasso and Modern British Art show at the National Gallery of Scotland, which traces the artist's influence on generations of British artists. It would fit happily in either the Tate or the Courtauld collections, which have both displayed it in the last 30 years. It was once owned by Samuel Courtauld, co-founder of the art school and the gallery with its superb impressionist and early 20th-century collection. However, the Tate still has some heroic fundraising to do to build its major extension at Tate Modern, and the Courtauld has no purchase fund, relying instead on gifts and bequests.

The National Gallery, where it was on long loan from 1974 to 2010, almost exhausted its reserves (and the generosity of the Heritage Lottery Fund and other grant sources) when it bought the Duke of Sutherland's great Titians with the National Gallery of Scotland, in 2009 and this year, for £50m and £45m respectively.

Last week, the charity Art Fund, which has bridged the funding gap for many acquisitions, gave just £100,000 to the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge towards buying a famous painting by Poussin, because its reserves are still low after the Titian campaign and the £850,000 it gave to the Ashmolean in Oxford to buy a Manet work.

The National Museum of Art of Wales, which also has an outstanding late 19th- and early 20th-century collection mainly purchased directly from the artists by the remarkable sisters Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, would love the painting but have little hope of raising the price.

Significantly, no UK museum was able to make a bid for the painting before it was sold at a Christie's auction earlier this year to an undisclosed overseas buyer.

The painting came to London in 1924 with Mrs RA Workman who was, along with her husband, a major collector of impressionist and post-impressionist art. She sold it a few years later to Samuel Courtauld, and on his death in 1947 he left it to his friend Lady Aberconway, and it had been in her family ever since.

The export has been barred by the government until December, but could be extended for another six months if there is a chance of any gallery finding the money.

Aidan Weston-Lewis, a member of the reviewing committee which advises the government on such export bars, said: "Child with a Dove is a much-loved painting, whose iconic status, together with its long history in British collections – latterly on loan to public galleries – make it of outstanding importance to our national heritage."


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April 17 2012

Cultural Olympiad: but will the tower of mist be ready?

Confused by the Cultural Olympiad? With the 2012 Games just 100 days away, Alex Needham reveals the 10 things you need to know

1 Some of it's already over

The Cultural Olympiad (CO) kicked off in 2008, described by the government as "a four-year programme of cultural activity" intended to showcase the best of British art in the run-up to the Olympic Games. Some projects have launched already, like the celebrations for Charles Dickens's 200th anniversary. And one event has not only opened but closed: David Hockney's landscapes at the Royal Academy. Ruth Mackenzie, the programme director, cleverly got round this by badging it "a countdown event".

2 London is everywhere

Even to seasoned observers, the CO can be confusing. But all will become clear (hopefully) on 26 April, when the final programme will be announced for the big finale. This is called the London 2012 festival (21 June to 9 September) even though it encompasses events all over the country.

3 Why £40m might be bad news

The CO will cost around £97m. Though some projects will be screamingly high profile, they will seem like a slow night at an arthouse cinema compared to the opening and closing ceremonies. More than 1 billion people watched the 2008 opener in China. In December, David Cameron doubled the ceremonies' budget to £81m. This is either a good sign (the plans were so great they deserved even more dosh) or a very bad one (they were so awful only a £40m cash injection could save them).

4 It will feature a very big bell

Directed by Danny Boyle, the opening ceremony, on 27 July, will last four hours and has a 12,000-strong cast and crew ranging from a rumoured Paul McCartney to schoolchildren from the Olympic boroughs. The ceremony has been titled Isles of Wonder after Caliban's speech in the Tempest. At 9pm the biggest bell (27 tonnes) ever cast in Europe will toll, inspired by the one in Boyle's recent staging of Frankenstein at the National theatre. The BBC's coverage includes a skit filmed in Buckingham Palace, starring Daniel Craig as James Bond. There will be a section celebrating the NHS; one on the suffragettes; a soundtrack by Underworld; and, finally, the lighting of the Olympic torch.

5 Perfect people needn't apply

Insiders say idiosyncratic performers were chosen for ceremonies over ones with perfect looks or voices. The director has said he is aiming for the ramshackle charm of Sydney's opener rather than Beijing's epic stage-managed slickness.

6 Musicians are not amused

Masterminded by Kim Gavin, the man behind Take That's recent live extravaganzas, the closing ceremony on 12 August will include a two-and-a-half-hour "mashup" of British music. Much to the displeasure of the Musicians' Union, everything except the vocals will be pre-recorded, which the organisers have justified by blaming everything from the weather to the shape of the stadium. The Rolling Stones, Adele and the Spice Girls have all been rumoured as possible performers – but, tragically, the Sex Pistols have said no.

7 Keith Moon can't make it

The organisers also asked whether Keith Moon, the Who's drummer, was available for the closing concert, despite the fact, as his old agent explained, he died in 1978. Perhaps, like Tupac at Coachella this year, he may appear in hologram form.


8 The mist may be cancelled

The ceremonies will be as mainstream (albeit with an edge) as possible, but there will be highbrow projects, not least Birmingham Opera's staging of Stockhausen's six-hour opera Mittwoch aus Licht (Wednesday from Light). Its finale sees a string quartet performing airborne, in four separate helicopters. Olafur Eliasson's proposed artwork Take a Deep Breath, in which people record their breathing on a website, was turned down for a £1m grant after much rightwing media mockery. There is also little sign of Anthony McCall's Column, a six-mile-high tower of mist planned for Merseyside. One of 12 commissions called Artists Taking the Lead, it is still undergoing tests thanks to fears it could endanger aircraft.

The jury is also out on Martin Creed's Work No.1197: All the Bells in a Country Rung as Quickly and as Loudly as Possible for Three Minutes, which asks everyone in the UK to ring bicycle bells, doorbells and churchbells at 8am on 27 July. Spoilsports the Central Council of Bell Ringers have declared they won't be playing.

9 Aeolus, god of wind, is coming

The strand of the CO dedicated to deaf and disabled arts has received £3m and has big plans. Pointing the way to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, a project called Boomba Down the Tyne, will mashup Geordie and Brazilian culture. Comic Laurence Clark's show, Demotivational Speaker, promises to challenge perceptions of the Paralympics by asking why everyday activities are considered inspirational when disabled people do them. And a collection of disabled theatre companies will be on Weymouth beach performing Breathe, the story of Aeolus, the Olympian god of wind.


10 The Bard travels by tube

Shakespeare will be everywhere. Even if you're not going to the British Museum's Shakespeare: Staging the World, listening to the companion show on Radio 4, or watching the BBC's all-star productions (Henry IV stars Jeremy Irons and Julie Walters), you might find Mark Rylance declaiming monologues on the tube. It's all part of the World Shakespeare Festival, produced by the RSC with partners ranging from avant garde theatremakers the Wooster Group, who are putting on Troilus and Cressida, to the equally out-there dreamthinkspeak, whose "meditation on Hamlet" is titled The Rest is Silence. Amateur theatre groups all around Britain have also been invited to put on Shakespeare plays partnered with the RSC.

Then there's Globe to Globe, in which global companies perform Shakespeare's plays in their own languages – with minimal surtitles. Love's Labour's Lost will be in British Sign Language and Cymbeline in Juba Arabic, of South Sudan. So how do you say "Fear no more the heat o' the sun" in Juba Arabic? Only 100 days to go until it all kicks off and we find out.


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January 25 2012

Liverpool's DaDaFest wins prestigious prize

The international disability and deaf arts festival has scooped the Lever Prize

The DaDaFest in Liverpool has won this year's prestigious £10,000 Lever Prize, just over a year after I wrote about fears over the festival's future funding due to Arts Council cuts.

The UK's largest disability and deaf arts festival, which attracts international artists was chosen by senior representatives of the 30 largest companies in the north west to receive the prize.

In 2011, DaDaFest celebrated its 10th anniversary, having begun in 2001 as a community arts event. Over the last decade, it has attracted 100,000 visitors.

When it started, there were a handful of performers; last year the number of artists has swelled to 313, with a total of 1,200 participants and visitor numbers expected to reach at least 11,000.

The festival's aims are simple – to inspire and celebrate talent and excellence in disability and deaf arts. The performances took part in mainstream venues – Liverpool's theatres, art spaces and galleries, so the festival was accessible to all audiences.

At the time, festival's artistic director, Garry Robson, explained its ethos. He said: "DaDaFest is here to present the work of deaf and disabled artists, whose work is on a par with mainstream artists.

"Disabled and deaf people are not simply passive consumers of a tragic destiny but active participants in all areas of life, with a unique and valuable cultural perspective that we plan to share during the festival."

In 2011, there was an international feel to the festival with performances from north and south America, Europe and Australia, as well as the UK. American writer and director Christine Bruno is performing Screw You Jimmy Choo, a play "about a woman obsessed with men she can't have and shoes she can't wear."

Ugandan hip-hop artist Rockin Ronnie, who is involved with Krip Hop Nation, a collective of musicians based in Berkeley, California, wrote and performed a festival theme song.

The festival's CEO, Ruth Gould, said that research undertaken to evaluate the festival shows that 75% of participants have gone on to get employment in the creative arts sector.

"At DaDaFest we know that the arts give us a voice; give us a hope in a world where we feel excluded, forgotten and ignored," she says.

Previous winners of the Lever Prize, named in honour of 19th soap magnate and philanthropist William Lever, include Liverpool Biennial, Tate Liverpool and Manchester International Festival.

Each year the prize is judged by the North West Business Leadership Team (NWBLT) in partnership with Arts & Business North.

Arts groups, buildings, events, festivals, libraries and archives are all eligible and in addition to the £10,000 cash prize the award opens the door to collaboration with the region's top businesses. Last year's winner of the Lever Prize was the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester.

Gould said: "We're delighted the NWBLT have acknowledged the unique work DaDaFest does in representing disability and deaf culture in the north west and internationally.

"The award and resulting creative collaborations with NWBLT members will allow us to present an even more relevant and enticing festival later this year."

Geoffrey Piper, chief executive of NWBLT said: "DaDa's success in landing the 2012 Lever Prize is a truly outstanding achievement having seen off an extremely impressive range of the north west's other well-known arts organisations to win this major accolade."

This year's DaDaFest takes place from July 13 to September 2.


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December 26 2011

The Tracey Emin effect: where art overcomes austerity

Turner, Hepworth, FirstSite – the success of new galleries is making the case for culture-led regeneration

Across the UK, 2012 will be the year where art meets sport in hundreds of towns and villages. Such is the yearning for new cultural experiences outside the capital that the Cultural Olympiad has the power to regenerate ailing parts of the country, if the events are of a high enough quality. My experience in a corner of Kent has taught me that.

As chair of the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, one of the south-east's most deprived towns, I have witnessed one of the cultural success stories of 2011 at first hand. More than a third of a million visitors have come through its doors since it opened in April, more than twice the predicted number in half the time. Some are locals, including thousands who have never been to a gallery before; others have come from much further afield, including foreign tourists who have added it to their must-see destinations in Britain. According to research, more than 15,000 of the visitors so far say they have never been to an art gallery or museum in their lives.

Margate might be blazing a trail, but it is far from unique. Galleries have blossomed across the regions over the past decade. One or two may have struggled to make their mark, but the vast majority have received critical and community acclaim. The Baltic in Gateshead is thriving again, as its hosting of the Turner prize attests; Nottingham Contemporary opened to great plaudits in 2009; the FirstSite art gallery in Colchester is a welcome addition; and the arrival of the Hepworth Wakefield last May – the second of David Chipperfield's fantastic constructions after Turner Contemporary – creates an artistic hub in south Yorkshire, with the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the Henry Moore Institute nearby.

The Ikon has great expansion plans for a new museum quarter in the centre of Birmingham, comprising a museum of photography and a new museum of international art dating from 2000 – all linked to the arrival of high speed rail. Modern Art Oxford too has grand ambitions. Throw in the Arnolfini, resplendent on Bristol's waterfront, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (Mima) and others, and art-goers will surely need no convincing that life does not begin and end in London – a lesson the Spanish and Germans learned a long time ago, and the French are catching up with too (think Lille and Metz).

Artistic institutions outside the capital – from the visual arts to theatre, music and beyond – have traditionally been overlooked by governments and private funders, so they must shout louder in order to be heard through a combination of excellence and strong local engagement. These two are not contradictory. Indeed, they enhance each other.

At Margate, where many local people were either sceptical or hostile to the idea of a new gallery, the scale of the success has transformed opinion. A new spirit of entrepreneurship is taking hold, even amid the economic gloom. The Old Town, a warren of lanes just behind the seafront, is packed with boutiques, pubs and cafes. With flair and business savvy, other parts of the town will follow suit.

It is still early to gauge the full extent of the gallery's economic and social impact, but initial research shows more than 35 new businesses have opened in the Old Town, with dozens of new jobs either created by Turner Contemporary or directly resulting from it. It was the regenerative effect, as much as the art and architecture, which led to the Queen's visit last month. Southeastern trains have registered a 30% increase in passengers on the route even before the opening of Turner and the Elements, the gallery's first major show of the painter's work. This will be followed by the first show of Tracey Emin's new works in her home town, and Margate will feature on the Today programme on Wednesday morning, which Emin is guest-editing.

So what are the broader lessons to be learned here? Clearly, in the new world of austerity, cultural institutions have to fight hard just to survive. But in some ways the chill is salutary. Artistic and other third-sector bodies should not rely on being "helped" or "saved" by the state just because they are, or think they are, "doing good". In broad terms, Darwinian rules should apply. The best will survive and thrive, if they have the right combination of excellence, inclusiveness, education and a strong business model. Those mired in an old-fashioned sense of entitlement are much more likely to fail. A mix of private and public funding should not be beyond the reach of institutions with ambition, wherever they are based and whether large or small.

Many more dynamic regional arts organisations are collaborating. Joint programming – in which galleries share the same or similar shows in consecutive seasons – is increasingly common. Sharing back office services is useful but its merits can be overstated; far more important is informal collaboration between directors, curators, finance managers and boards, now happening as a matter of course – some under the umbrella of a network called Plus Tate, some under the Arts Council, and some ad hoc. Galleries regularly cross-market: there is no competition for visitors between institutions in, say, the north-east and south-west. The biggest challenge, given the London-centric media, is to make sure potential tourists know of these galleries' existence – and success.

Hard-headed planning for long-term investment and benefit is one thing; short-term and short-sighted monetising is quite another. A key to bringing people into galleries, particularly new audiences, is free admission. It is, as Nick Serota, the director of the Tate, puts it, one of the signs of a civilised culture. British galleries and museums are, he adds, "uniquely egalitarian spaces" – unlike in many equivalent countries.

So are Turner, the Hepworth and FirstSite the last in a generation? The real problem is going to be the funding for capital projects in the future. With local authority budgets being slashed, and the Arts Council having to operate on lower budgets, the prospect for investment in new-build is slim. Yet the social and economic case for ambitious, culture-led regeneration has surely been made. To abandon the approach now, in its prime, would be a tragedy, particularly for those parts of the UK that many decision-makers struggle to reach.


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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 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 31 2011

Art, poems and pop-up proms

Tracey Emin and Thomas Hirschhorn among top artists to harness the spirit of the Games for a giant public festival in 2012

The Hayward Gallery in London is to be turned into a giant art school next summer, with classes for the public held by artists including Tracey Emin and Turner prize winners Mark Wallinger, Martin Creed and Jeremy Deller, as well as famous international names such as Thomas Hirschhorn and Marlene Dumas. Artists will hold lectures and workshops, and the event will culminate in an exhibition of work produced by the public in the gallery.

"It's going to be crazy," said Patrick Brill, who makes art under the name Bob and Roberta Smith. "The idea is to make it a great big sandpit of ideas." Southbank's artistic director, Jude Kelly, said: "It will be open for anyone from the public for a month to learn not just art, but anything else that the artists want to teach."

The Hayward's Wide Open School is one of the expected highlights of Southbank Centre's Festival of the World, which runs next summer from 1 June to 9 September, to coincide with the London Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Other highlights will involve the largest-ever gathering of poets, spearheaded by Simon Armitage; a residency by the Venezuelan Simón Bolívar Orchestra and its chief conductor Gustavo Dudamel; an African strand led by Senegalese musician Baaba Maal; and a four-day celebration of Wales led by the renowned bass baritone Bryn Terfel, regarded as the greatest British singer of his generation.

There will also be a programme led by disabled and deaf artists, including Graeae Theatre and Candoco Dance – the largest such event, aiming to provide a parallel to the Paralympic Games.

The festival is inspired by the conviction of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Olympic movement, that every young person has an Olympian spark of talent waiting to be drawn out – not just on the track or field, said Kelly.

The festival's focus will not be art being "done" for audiences, but audiences getting involved in making art.

According to the Hayward gallery's director, Ralph Rugoff: "Wide Open School grew out of a response to the Olympics, as being the moment when for three weeks most of us become couch potatoes and watch people with glorious bodies do things we could never ever do in a million years – and we become passive. So I began to think what kind of offer we can make that's going to flip that on its head. We are going to ask people to become much more active and to make work themselves."

Armitage's project, Poetry Parnassus, will invite more than 200 poets to gather at the Southbank for readings and workshops, including a final gala event with all the writers.

He said: "The dream is to bring a poet from every country participating in the Olympics to the Southbank and to make the Southbank a great community of poets."

Each writer will also contribute to an anthology called The World Record, to be published by Bloodaxe Books, celebrating poetry in translation. The event will look to the spirit of the ancient Olympics, in which poets competed, and composed victory odes to successful athletes – Pindar's Olympian Odes being the most famous case.

The Simón Bolívar Orchestra, which has always proved a crowd-puller on the Southbank and at the Proms for the committed musicianship and passion of its young players, will return for a four-day residency.

This year, they will create pop-up concert halls and will be on hand for teaching sessions for young British players. There will be a children's concert and musicians will set up a fiesta of Latin music.

Baaba Maal's Africa Utopia will be a series of talks, debates and concerts focusing on what the African continent can offer the rest of the world.

A number of younger people will be joined by "elders" – African musicians, artists, writers and activists – to debate social change in the context of African examples.


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Reposted bycheg00 cheg00

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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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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May 16 2011

Tracey Emin: 'Tories are only hope for the arts'

She used to upset the establishment, now the artist risks upsetting the left with her strident support for Conservative arts policy

We know that Tracey Emin voted Tory because she's told us. And we know that she's had dinner at Number 10 on the invitation of David Cameron. What I hadn't realised - dumb me, perhaps - is quite how much a cheerleader she is for Conservative arts policy.

Emin was speaking at the press preview of her big new show at the Hayward Gallery in London - a mid-career retrospective which she described as her most important show to date. If you get chance, do visit. It is a terrific exhibition.

As well as talking about the art, she spoke of her support for the Conservative party, a subject she first tackled on Radio 4's Today programme in an interview with John Humphrys.

Emin told me it was the Tory arts policy which led to her vote. She said:

"There's no money, the country is bankrupt so the arts is going to be bottom of the list on everyone's agenda except that the Tories have an amazing arts minister in Ed Vaizey who is particularly protective and defensive of the arts.

"Also the arts cuts, they are less than they were eight years ago with the Labour government. In the present climate its amazing that there's any money for the arts at all.

"And remember, Tory people are massive collectors of the arts. For a lot of my friends, who think I'm crazy voting for the Tories - I want to know who buys their work? Who are the biggest philanthropists? I promise you, it's not Labour voters."
Emin has attended functions at both number 10 and 11 Downing Street, she said, and was asked her opinion on arts policy by both Vaizey and culture secretary Jeremy Hunt. "At the moment, I want to protect the arts - art and culture is the soul of a country," she said.

Coming out as a Tory had brought hostility, she conceded.

"People shouldn't be hostile. We live in a democracy. People in Sierra Leone get their hands cut off for voting. At the moment there is a government that actually likes the arts, appreciates the arts and appreciates culture."
So is she right?


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May 07 2011

The race to save digital art

Pioneers of computer art are in danger of becoming the lost generation of our cultural heritage because scientists are unable to preserve their work

A race is on against the fast pace of technological change as scientists search for ways to preserve today's most innovative artworks.

A team of experts is warning that some of Britain's contemporary artistic landmarks will be no more than memories within a decade unless conservationists can effectively archive digital works and stop them degrading.

"The threat is very real that, unless we do something, we will have a 'lost generation' in terms of our cultural heritage," said Dr David Anderson, who, together with his colleague Dr Janet Delve at the School of Creative Technologies at the University of Portsmouth, is leading efforts to save the more complex artworks of the digital age from oblivion.

"Past generations captured who they were and what they did via museums and books," Anderson said, "but the pace of technological development in the digital age has now outstripped our capacity for preservation."

At the same time as the visual artist Hilary Lloyd is nominated for this year's Turner Prize for her inventive work in film and video, "digital preservationists" are campaigning for more shared research and have organised the first of a series of symposiums to be held at King's College London and Cambridge next month.

The fast pace by which technology changes means that many of the earliest works of art created on computer are in danger of being lost, or are already impossible to read, while new interactive digital artworks, such as 3D visualisations and video games, are so complex that scientists are not yet capable of faithfully preserving them.

"Digital preservation is desperately important," said Anderson. "In technology little things change all the time. Over the course of a 20- or 30-year working life, the software we use is updated or made obsolete all the time, but most of us aren't really bothered by the changes. But in terms of science and art, digital preservation is increasingly important."

Preserving today's works of art poses more of a challenge to science than continued efforts to restore and conserve the great oil paintings and sculptures of the past, Anderson and Delve argue.

It is a problem already faced by collectors and contemporary art galleries, as formats are updated and CDs, DVDs and digital recordings degrade.

Lloyd, 48, from Halifax, creates innovative work that poses typical problems for conservators. Her recent film and video footage, previously on display at the Raven Row gallery in London, was put together in a way that subverts expectations of art. A piece that initially appeared to be a still life, for example, turned out to be in perpetual motion. Projectors and monitors formed a part of the work itself.

"In digital art, the key is to find ways of preserving the colour and visual aspects of a piece of art. If we don't preserve the digital art made today, it could be like walking into a world-famous gallery and seeing nothing on the walls, that no art has survived some global meltdown," said Anderson.

A new digital art gallery is to launch on Monday in the centre of Cambridge. The vaulted section, set up by Anglia Ruskin University inside the Ruskin Gallery, which was opened by the art critic John Ruskin in 1858, has been fitted with cutting-edge 3D plasma screens to enable digital artists to experiment.

But the preservation of this kind of work, in contrast, is still a work in progress.

Dr Simon Payne, a digital video artist and senior lecturer in film and media at Anglia Ruskin University, who will be exhibiting at the gallery, points out that many contemporary artists are happy for their work to have a short lifespan, or at least can accept that its temporary nature is a key part of the experience for viewers.

"Some artists who make digital art that is ephemeral, who are almost like performance artists, are dedicated to the idea that it will not last.

"But from an academic point of view, of course, you want to be able to recreate the culture of the past and to show it to students."

Payne's own work is what he describes as "perceptual", playing with what the viewer can see, such as the Op Art movement of the 60s and 70s.

"It is designed with the idea of creating a discrete physical effect on the viewer and for me, ideally, it should be shown in the context of a cinema, so I don't know how you would ever preserve it effectively."

Ironically, an artwork made or recorded on celluloid, or even on videotape, is more likely to survive the test of time than more recent work created or archived digitally, Payne added.


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May 05 2011

Art Uncut's creative opposition to cuts can reach a broader audience | Philip Goff

We believe that a society with well-funded arts, well-funded public services and a redistribution of wealth is a better society

Some arguments between left and right are pragmatic. In these cases, there is agreement about the desired goal but a disagreement about how to achieve it; for example, it might be that both agree that we want developing countries to become richer, but disagree over whether deregulating markets is the way to achieve that goal. But some other arguments between left and right concern principle.

The day that the government's austerity measures hit arts, a debate about the issue was hosted by Channel 4 News. The participant speaking in support of the cuts to arts had a simple argument, grounded not in evidence but in principle: it's not right to take people's money off them against their volition (ie through taxation) in order to spend it on the arts. Such opinions are not uncommon these days: "it's our money, so it's wrong to take it off us." Implicit in this attitude is a belief in sacred and inviolable property rights, which any decision about how to shape society ought to respect. This view was taken to its logical conclusion by the 20th century American philosopher Robert Nozick, who held that the state ought to let the poor die rather than fund a welfare state, as this would require infringing "consenting acts of capitalism".

This belief in property rights is superstitious and primitive. It is founded in a moral conviction – akin to the belief in vengeance or honour – which humans naturally gravitate towards, but which is grounded in sentiment rather than reason. This is not to say that people don't have property rights. But whatever rights people have to "their property" are grounded in legal choices, which reflect the kind of society we choose to have. Property rights should be shaped by, rather than shape, the kind of society we want to live in.

Putting things this way round changes everything. If there are no sacrosanct rights of property, which we are duty bound to respect in our law, then we should really be focusing on what kind of society we want. Is it better to have a society in which our cultural diet is entirely determined by market forces, in which only art that has commercial value, or that happens to be favoured by the whims of the wealthy? Or is it preferable to have a society in which a fractional reduction in individuals' spending power protects the arts we collectively value and enjoy? When the choice is put so starkly, it is difficult to deny that publicly funding the arts leads to a net gain in human flourishing.

Art Uncut is founded on this principle, a belief about the kind of societal model that we believe to be better: a society with well-funded arts, well-funded public services, and where there is a certain amount of redistribution so that the gap between rich and poor does not get too wide. We began as a small group of artists and musicians involved in UK Uncut actions, but hope now to open up the anti-cuts movement to a broader audience: to those who are not temperamentally inclined to protest, or perhaps haven't made their minds up yet. If we are serious about building a broad, sustained coalition of opposition with the potential for political influence, we need to reach out.

A week before the March for the Alternative on 26 March, Art Uncut staged a sell-out creative preliminary for the march: a night of music, comedy and short talks, headlined by UK Uncut, Josie Long and The Agitator. On the day, Art Uncut and UK Uncut jointly occupied BHS on Oxford Street, turning it into an artistic space with musicians, half a dozen poets and a performance from the actors Sam and Timothy West. Moving forward, we have planned a series of events in London, and we hope to encourage others around the country to set up their own events of creative opposition.

As the cuts start to bite, the anti-cuts movement is evolving. It has not been easy so far. We have received hostility from most of the media and some of the police. But we're very determined, and have a conviction grounded in firm principles and sound economics. Let's hope that's enough.


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April 10 2011

British art schools: Class dismissed

The art schools that trained students from Tracey Emin to MIA are heavily targeted for cuts. What effect will that have on tomorrow's artists?

It's just after eight on a wet Wednesday evening, and a police van is hovering outside Sotheby's in London. Several dozen protesters are staging a mock auction beside the entrance. "Who wants our education system?" shouts a man dressed as a slick auctioneer. "Sold to the highest bidder!" Another protester stands in an empty picture frame held by two women in silver wigs. "Arts against cuts!" the crowd roars, as the two policemen come forward to move the auctioneer gently but firmly away.

This protest – mounted recently by art students, artists and anti-cuts activists – raised burning questions about the future of art education in the UK. What do the cuts to higher education funding, announced in the wake of an extensive review by the former BP chief Lord Browne, mean for art schools? Arts and humanities subjects will be particularly badly hit – Browne's review recommended replacing their teaching grants with higher student tutition fees, leading Paul Thompson, rector of London's Royal College of Art, to say that the government had "swung a sledgehammer" at arts teaching.

Art schools are the lifeblood of Britain's arts scene, training painters, sculptors and conceptual artists, many of whom, like Damien Hirst (who studied at Leeds College of Art, and London's Goldsmiths) and Tracey Emin (Maidstone Art College and the Royal College of Art), go on to have major international reputations. Others – from Keith Richards and the Clash to Malcolm McLaren, Franz Ferdinand and MIA – channel their artistic education into other areas, such as music. "The experience of just being at art school gave me a lot to draw on – Pulp's most famous song [Common People] is about something that happened there," says Jarvis Cocker, who famously studied film at Central St Martins in London. "But on a deeper level I was taught to think about things in a non-lateral way."

"The great thing about art schools," says Patrick Brill, aka artist Bob and Roberta Smith, who studied at Reading University and Goldsmiths, "is that they're like the room Virginia Woolf talks about in A Room of One's Own. They give people the space to grow up and work out what art they want to make."

So what knock-on effects might these changes have on the artists of this country? Inside art schools, there's considerable anxiety. Of the four I contacted – Goldsmiths (part of the University of London); Chelsea College of Art and Design (part of London's University of the Arts); Cardiff School of Art and Design (part of the University of Wales Institute); and Leeds College of Art – only Chelsea was happy for me to visit. "Emotions are running high," explained Cardiff's dean, Professor Gaynor Kavanagh. University funding in Wales has been cut by 12%, and the school has already announced plans to scrap four undergraduate degrees (in interior architecture, media and visual culture, and two music technology courses) from next September, and to reduce student numbers from just under 1,400 to 1,000.

Chelsea have no plans to scrap courses or reduce numbers – yet. Nevertheless, dean David Garcia is concerned about the government's funding decisions. "I do think they fail to recognise two things," he says. "One, the importance of this sector to GDP, and to national wellbeing. And two, thinking that art courses are inexpensive to run. If our students are to continue to contribute to leading-edge art and design, we need the right kit – like looms and digital printers. And it is not cheap."

In one of the college's workshops, I watch these looms in action: a small group of third-year undergraduate textiles students are weaving deftly, sending multicoloured fabrics spilling from their machines. Their tutor, Lorna Bircham, has taught at Chelsea for 30 years. "Replacing equipment is a major issue," she says. "The old looms aren't really good enough – it takes a long time to learn on them – but new ones cost between £8,000 and £10,000. The other issue is time – this isn't a subject that can be taught en masse; it has to be one-to-one. Over the years I've taught here, I've seen student numbers creep up, while the staffing has decreased. I can't take a day off sick. I pedal harder and harder, but there will be a time when the chain will break."

Several of the textiles students tell me that their finances are similarly stretched. Like all English students, they currently pay £3,290 a year towards their tuition, but on top of that they have to find the money for all their materials and equipment. "There are lots of costs on top of the fees," says 21-year-old Nichola Schofield. "The other day, I spent £64 on six digital prints for a project. Every day, you have to make decisions – like if I make those prints, can I afford to eat tonight?"

Carey Ellis, 21, shows me a series of photographs she's taken of street graffiti, pinned to a board above her desk; she plans to turn these into fabric designs. She voices the warning – shared by many of the student protesters, some of whom picketed the Turner prize-giving last year – that a hike in tuition fees, whether to the £6,000 recommended by the government, or the maximum of £9,000, could put many students off going to university. (Chelsea, like other art schools, has not yet announced its fees for 2012-13, but a spokeswoman tells me that they are expecting to charge "in excess of £6,000".)

"If the fees go up," Ellis says, "it's going to stop a ridiculous number of people from coming. It's already affecting my own decisions about the future. I want to do an MA. I'd rather get more experience in the industry first, but if I delay going by a year, the fees will have gone up, and I won't be able to afford it."

In an adjacent building, a group of third-year graphic design students are hunched over their laptops, working on short films based around the Sky Arts logo, which they're planning to pitch to the channel. Craig Sharp, 21, shows me his film, in which the camera pans across a dense web of trees until settling on brass letters that spell the word "arts", embedded among glossy leaves.

"My parents discouraged me from going to art school," he tells me. "I pay for everything – fees, rent, food – with loans and grants, and the money I've earned doing freelance graphic design. If the fees had been as much [as £9,000], I would never have been able to come."

At the Sotheby's protest, I meet Deborah, an 18-year-old foundation-year student at Camberwell College of Arts. "I really think that if the fees were kicking in during 2011 and 2012, I would be on a different life path," she says. "My family are African, and they really disapprove of the idea of me getting into debt. I think if I went to them and said, 'This course is going to cost me £9,000 a year,' they would laugh."

The government recognises the possibility that less well-off students could be put off applying to university, and has a number of measures planned to address this – from maintenance grants and bursaries, to university-run schemes working with state schools in deprived areas. As under the current system, students won't have to pay fees upfront, but can take out loans which they will then begin to replay once they're earning more than £21,000 (admittedly, a wage which is a remote possibility for most artists). But in art schools, the issue is particuarly pertinent. Unlike mainstream academic institutions, they have always drawn in a high number of students from working-class backgrounds – from John Lennon to David Hockney. Of the undergraduates currently at the University of the Arts London, for instance, 92% are from state schools who can ill afford the estimated £36,000 of debt resulting from a three-year course.

So what will happen if poorer students are unable to afford to go to art school? Could a body of art students drawn predominantly from wealthy backgrounds actually lead to a change in the nature of the art we see produced? "The possible effect," says David Burrows, an artist and lecturer in fine art at the Slade, "is that the sort of art we will see being made will be narrower, a lot less interesting, and a lot less vital and relevant to people."

Bob and Roberta Smith takes this idea even further. "What you'll get," he tells me firmly, "is art made by the very wealthy for the very wealthy, becoming more and more disconnected from real culture. The question is, do we want a culture comprised solely of wealthy artists? Or do we want to see artists coming through like Emin and Hirst, who have an axe to grind? Isn't their art much more interesting than what's produced by the privileged few?"


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February 23 2011

Which galleries top the tourist trail?

Visits to Britain's major tourist attractions are surviving the recession. Find out which galleries, museums and stately homes are getting how many people
Get the data

Visits to major British tourist attractions held steady last year, despite the recession, bad weather and the Icelandic volcanic eruption, according to figures from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, with locations featured in films and television series featuring strongly.

The British Museum topped the visitor numbers for the fourth year running, boosted by the BBC Radio 4 series on A History of the World in 100 Objects presented by its director Neil MacGregor.

Second came Tate Modern and third, the National Gallery. Antony, a National Trust 18thC mansion in Cornwall, saw its visitor numbers quadruple following Tim Burton's movie Alice in Wonderland, which was filmed there.

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February 03 2011

How British culture turned Tory

British culture is going through a blue period, with actors, musicians and artists all happily admitting that they're privately educated Conservative toffs. What happened?

You may have missed it, but early last month, a very telling photograph appeared in the newspapers. Snapped on New Year's Day by a couple out for a walk on Coombe Hill in the Chilterns, it featured a party of eight – including David and Samantha Cameron, education secretary Michael Gove, film director Tim Burton, and the latter's extremely posh other half Helena Bonham Carter. According to subsequent gossip, the latter couple had been introduced to the Camerons by Bonham Carter's one-time Westminster school contemporary Nick Clegg. Others suggest that the two couples have been friends for years.

The group had reportedly stayed at Chequers, the prime minister's country retreat, on New Year's Eve – where the conversation doubtless turned to Bonham Carter's role in The King's Speech, the most accomplished example to date of our new appetite for tales of troubled bluebloods and intrigue on country estates. In its own way, then, this was an image of the New Britain as telling as Tony Blair's famous Downing Street encounter with Noel Gallagher: proof of a new blurring of Tory politics and popular culture that speaks volumes about our times.

Other examples abound. There is surely a deeply zeitgeisty aptness to the fact that Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, has recently become a working Tory peer. Though whispers about her own arrival in the upper house have died down, TV's aristo homebuyer and make-and-mend guru Kirstie Allsopp remains an equally fervent supporter of the Conservatives. And what about Gilbert & George, apparently enthusiastic Tories whose civil partnership and combination of tweedy tradition and metropolitan urbanity surely make them honorary Cameroons? "We admire Margaret Thatcher greatly," George said in 2009. "She did a lot for art. Socialism wants everyone to be equal. We want to be different."

Last year, Tracey Emin came good on pre-election talk about her pro-Tory leanings – sparked by her loud opposition to Labour's 50p tax rate – by claiming Britain now had "the best government we've ever had". On the campaign trail, David Cameron launched Tory plans for a new National Citizen Service with Michael Caine, and a proposed national "School stars" talent contest in the company of Take That's Gary Barlow. "There's no one more with-it than David," the latter assured an audience in Nantwich, Cheshire; by way of returning the compliment, Cameron hailed Take That as "Britain's best ever boyband".

For sure, there remain plenty of celebrity Tory endorsers who do not push quite the same A-list buttons, and instead suggest a time-honoured mixture of seaside summer seasons, golf jumpers and ITV: Cilla Black, Ronnie Corbett, William "Ken Barlow" Roache, Joan Collins, the ex-pop star and I'm A Celebrity contestant David Van Day. Pulses did not exactly quicken when they were joined by such names as Matt Willis, an erstwhile member of the teen-pop trio Busted, and Spandau Ballet's Tony Hadley.

Yet the main point is inarguable: there is a whiff of stardust around the Tories that would once have been unthinkable. It's easily forgotten now, but there were very serious rumours about Mark Ronson DJing at the 2009 Tory conference, and giving Cameron a public endorsement. Now, in a twist no one would have seen coming, Courtney Love recently attended a "Port and Policy" debate organised by Oxford University's Conservative Association, and was given the post of "non-executive officer for rock'n'roll". Photos of the accompanying revellers show Love – who is dating Kirstie Allsopp's art dealer brother, Henry – dutifully posing in front of a union flag with a mostly-male array of student Tories, who look about as non-rock'n'roll as you might imagine. What Kurt Cobain would have made of it all is anyone's guess.

There is, then, something afoot: a waning of the old stigma that got in the way of "creatives" backing the Tories, and resulted in any who did facing loud ridicule. Consider the case of the synth-pop icon Gary Numan – these days a name it's perfectly OK to drop, with a dependable cult following. Back in the 1980s, his public statements of support for the Thatcher government made him a music press pariah, and played some role in his fall (as late as 2003, however, he was unrepentant: "Thatcher had a clear idea about everything and seemed to be massively pro-British against the rest of the world," he said). In 2010, by contrast, the other Gary's campaigning for the Tories caused no career damage whatsoever: it simply stood as an above-average photo opportunity, crashlanded on the evening news, and was promptly forgotten.

So what has changed? Cameron's diligent attempts to rebrand his party by affecting the role of the modern, bike-riding urban dad and paying endless tributes to his favourite rock bands have undoubtedly helped. The same applies to the feting of his supposedly switched-on wife.

Much more important, though, is the wider context. Whether austerity will bring a renewed ideological charge to the relationship between politics and culture is an interesting point: certainly, the famous names who have protested about arts cuts and library closures suggest that very familiar battle-lines are already reappearing. That said, we still largely live in the post-Blair age, in which the right-left divide is not nearly as entrenched as it once was, and people's political preferences count for much less. Whisper it, then – but after decades of ignominy, it might just be OK to be a pop-culture Conservative.

In any case, the arts are aligning themselves with the Tories in ways much more subtle and insidious than simple endorsements. Just as New Labour managed to slot itself into the wider moment known as Cool Britannia, so there are lines that can be drawn from musicians, actors, film-makers and novelists to people at the top of government. Here, the arriviste likes of Barlow are less important than a new elite who speak with the same accents as people at the top, and attest to a simple fact: the privately educated seem to be newly dominant, and a sharp change of tone and taste stretches from politics, to the arts, and beyond.

The demotic affectations – glottal stops, photo-ops in greasy spoon cafes, an affected love of football – that were obligatory 15 years ago have completely disappeared. Last year, there was a flurry of news coverage when the Word magazine discovered that during one week in October, 60% of the acts in the UK charts came from privately educated backgrounds. When this story was revived last week in an item on the Today programme it brought a furious emailed response from one Jane Blount, better known as the mother of that renowned Harrow alumnus James Blunt.

Barely a day goes past, it seems, when you cannot pick up a newspaper and find the latest sensation in music, or film, or literature, expounding on an early life of dormitories, tuck shops and "prep". Take, for example, the actor Dominic West – AKA Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, and just cast in an ITV drama as the serial killer Fred West. He went to Eton, his wife is a former countess, he has a daughter from a relationship with a member of the Astor dynasty, and he is – but of course – a friend of the Camerons. He is also said to have once had a soft spot for the prime minister's wife. When asked, he has occasionally seemed uneasy about his background, though he has tended to end up sounding much the same rather questionable notes as the Old Etonians in government. "It probably helps that we now live in a meritocracy," he mused two years ago, "so we don't need to worry where people came from."

Earlier this month, the Daily Mail roundly ignored such sentiments, and captured the new mood in a list of "Britain's 50 most powerful posh people under 30": they included Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine, the rather irksome comedian Jack Whitehall, two members of the "nu-folk" sensations Mumford & Sons, and Sophie Winkleman, better known as Big Suze from Peep Show.

Accompanying the list was a piece by Dylan Jones, the long-standing editor of GQ, another supporter of the Tories, and the author of the in-his-own words book Cameron On Cameron. "Privately educated scions of the great and the good no longer feel that everyone is against them," he wrote.

"What is more, they are happy to proclaim their status and to exploit it. Look around you. So many fields of public life are now dominated by those with, at the very least, a private education, [and] in many cases wealth and in a few instances a title. In the arts, sport, television, fashion, music, nightlife and, of course, politics, it's positively Brideshead Revisited Revisited."

Or, if you prefer, Born To Rule Britannia.


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November 11 2010

Coalition spends £20,000 on office art

Cool Britannia is out and 16th century battle scenes are in, but the cost of ministers' art in 'austere times' draws MPs' criticism

Coalition ministers have ejected the "BritArt" image of their Labour predecessors and are now attempting to cast themselves as traditionalists – at least according to the artwork they have selected to adorn their office walls. Cool Britannia is out, and 16th-century battle scenes are in.

Almost six months after the coalition was formed the government has disclosed, after a freedom of information request, the works of art that the new ministers have selected from the government art collection to hang in their offices, giving an insight into the artistic preferences of the coalition. They have also spent nearly £20,000 to cover the cost of transporting and hanging the work – drawing criticism from opposition MPs who say the cost runs counter to the cuts they are demanding across Whitehall.

Battle scenes hang on the walls of several cabinet ministers' offices, most prominently in the Department for Work and Pensions offices of Iain Duncan Smith, who opted for five depictions of war. Portraits of Benjamin Disraeli are popular – but in keeping with the coalition William Gladstone is popular too.

Prominent frontbenchers buck that trend, however. George Osborne has eclectic taste with a mix of a painting by war artist Paul Nash, sculpture by Barbara Hepworth and Elisabeth Frink and an etching by the Turner prize winner Grayson Perry, titled Print for a Politician and depicting life in a war zone.

Perry also features in the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt's collection, while two Tracy Emins – Margate 1 Sand and Still Love You Margate – hang in the culture minister Ed Vaizey's office. The Margate influence comes from Emin's childhood living in the town. It's understood that the chancellor spent childhood holidays there with his aunt.

In total, £19,652 has been spent on transporting, installing and removing works of art from government departments since the coalition took office. The value of the stash is unknown, as each piece is listed with its original value when donated to the govenrment art collection.

Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the treasury, opted for highland scenes to remind him of home and a portrait of Gladstone.

Tom Watson, a Labour member of the Commons culture committee, obtained the information under the Freedom of Information Act. "This shows that Cool Britannia is out and famous battlescenes are back," he said. "It shows a mixed taste amongst the coalition ministers – but most is purely expensive. Should we be spending £20,000 hanging paintings in these austere times? Shouldn't all these collections of art be hanging on walls for the public to see instead of waiting in government offices?

"My personal view is that Francis Maude has the most tasteful. Defence minister Andrew Robathan's is the least tasteful."

Robathan's collection includes images of the Duke of Wellington, Horatio Nelson, a Mezzotint of attack on the Armada, an engraving of the Battle of the Nile, and a photograph of Horatio Herbert Kitchener. Maude, the cabinet office minister, has 20th century paintings by English artists including Carel Weight, Philip Sutton and Jeffery Camp. In the Ministry of Justice, Ken Clarke has more historical tastes with a Robert Peake portrait, and 16th century portraits of William Cecil, the lord high treasurer, and Queen Elizabeth I. Duncan Smith's choices feature a series of domineering 17th century battle scenes. The health secretary, Andrew Lansley, has a Gilbert and George collage.

Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, has artworks of the Liberal prime minister Gladstoneand the Tory Disraeli – perhaps a reference to the coalition he now serves. Pickles, who has declared war on waste in the public sector, also spent £256.64 of taxpayers money hanging a new print of a photo of the Queen in his office reception.


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November 09 2010

Arts cuts: D-day in Somerset

Today, arts groups in Somerset will find out if the council's proposed 100% cut to their grants will go ahead. Could the rest of the country follow?

It's a Monday morning in the Somerset town of Taunton. White-haired women are chatting over teacakes in the Flying Aubergine West Country cafe. The river Tone is flowing prettily past a car park. And inside the Brewhouse theatre, actor Caroline Horton is on stage, wearing a silver-and-white dress that's twice as long as her body. On her head is what looks like an icicle. "Shall I do my white witch face?" she says.

Horton is starring in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, this year's Christmas production at this thriving theatre and arts centre, described last year by the Guardian's Lyn Gardner as "a crucial part of both the local and national theatre ecology". This is the first day of rehearsals, and the actors are in an excitable mood. The financial outlook for the Brewhouse, however, and for arts organisations across Somerset, is not nearly so buoyant. This south-western county, best known for rolling fields, scrumpy and picturesque market towns, is today likely to become the first in the UK to scrap outright a major portion of its arts funding.

Last week, a group of Somerset councillors proposed ending all the direct grants, totalling almost £160,000, that the council currently gives to 10 arts organisations – including the Brewhouse, other busy theatres in Frome and Strode, and Somerset Film, a production company in Bridgwater. This figure is close to half its total arts spending: the rest of the money goes towards "supporting creative industries", although the council seems vague about exactly how this is spent. The final decision on the cut will be made at a full council meeting today.

This is more than a local matter: if the cut goes ahead, and it looks likely, it could have major implications for arts organisations around the country. Many – theatres, dance groups, galleries, concert halls – depend, to some degree, on money from local councils, as well as from the regional arts councils (which are themselves having to tighten their belts: one, Arts Council England, had its budget cut by 30% in the government's comprehensive spending review). If Somerset goes ahead with such a cut, councils around the country could follow suit.

Horton, who grew up in Staffordshire, can't believe the council could cut funding to such an active local theatre like the Brewhouse, which programmes homemade productions alongside innovative touring shows. "I didn't have anything like this near me when I was growing up – if I had, it would have been so exciting. The arts is a subsidised form, yes – but that doesn't mean it's not valuable."

The councillors proposing the cut admit it could see arts groups fail – but they argue this is a necessary evil, and small beer given the council's wider, £43.6m cutbacks, under which 1,500 workers could lose their jobs over three years. Christine Lawrence, the Conservative councillor with responsibility for the arts, says they plan to let arts organisations bid for a share of the other £160,000. So these 10 arts groups would find themselves competing with each other, and with other organisations, for cash they might not get. This will make financial planning difficult, if not impossible.

"How else," says Lawrence, "are we to save money? Take it away from services for vulnerable young people? Or from the thousands of older people who come to Somerset to retire?"

For the many people opposed to the cut – and several hundred protestors turned up at the council last week, including the actor Samuel West and the conductor Charles Hazlewood – the question is one of proportion. Local government spending was slashed in the comprehensive spending review by 26%, so these companies were braced for cuts. But the protesters argue that they should be in the region of 30%, in line with that overall reduction.

"The cut they're proposing," says Hazlewood, who lives in the area, "is just 0.0004% of the council's total spend. And yet those 10 companies bring in more than £3.5m in revenue to the county. It's just horrifying: there isn't enough going on arts-wise in the West Country as it is."

West is passionate about protecting the theatre scene outside London, which is not only where some top-class touring and producing companies – such as Kneehigh and Paines Plough – are based, but is also where many young fringe companies cut their teeth. "Not everyone in theatre started in Somerset," West says, "but everyone started somewhere. You take out one brick, and the rest of the structure can so easily fall."

At the Flying Aubergine, local residents, including 43-year-old priests Bob and Julia Hicks, share these concerns. "We were just talking about the cuts in the car," Julia says. "We're very worried about what they might mean for the region." Bob adds that they often go to the Brewhouse. "They do great Shakespeare productions, and bring in big names in comedy. The arts are so important, especially to a rural community. They're like the light in your life – they make life better."

Robert Miles, the Brewhouse's artistic director, says the £27,300 grant the venue stands to lose won't directly cause its fall – but he is concerned it could lead other funding bodies to lose confidence in the theatre. "Our great worry," he says, "is that we lose the leverage the council's funding gives us with other funding partners, like Arts Council England. This could be the start of death by a thousand cuts."

The cut could force Miles to reduce the variety and quality of programming – a great loss to the local audience, many of whom, he says, don't have the money or the inclination to drive to larger theatres in Bristol or London.

In a church hall in South Petherton, a group of parents and children seem to agree. They are taking part in a dance workshop for under-fives, organised by dancer Hannah Lefeuvre, and commissioned by Take Art, a countywide arts agency, based in a converted barn. The children rush around, clutching cuddly owls and crawling under their mothers' legs as if through a dark forest.

But Take Art might soon have to reduce the number of schemes like this, as it's facing a £49,300 cut. Kirstin Len, who has been bringing her three-year-old Tessa for more than a year, is horrified. "This class is a bit of magic for Tessa," she says, "and such an important part of her development. I've lived in Paris and Berlin and I've never found anything like this class. It's horrendous to think it could be taken away."

Ralph Lister, the agency's director, emphasises Take Art won't go under: the council funding is a relatively small part of its budget (Arts Council England is its main provider). But the company might, he says, be forced to reduce the number and quality of performances they organise in villages. "For lots of people," he says, "this might be the only experience of the arts they have all year. We're not talking high art – this is art as entertainment. But in rural communities, it can make a difference to people's lives."

Touring fringe productions and amateur dramatics societies regularly play the 166-seat theatre at Bridgwater Arts Centre. It also boasts a gallery showing work by local and emerging artists, an art room for classes, and a colourful bar that hosts live music. It's clearly run on a shoestring: the gallery carpet is old and stained. Marketing and development officer Rachel Hill is unsure how they will budget for a loss of £10,400. "We already run a tight ship," she says. "We'd probably have to reduce the number of classes. But the sad thing is that this is what many local people want to access."

On the high street is Somerset Film, whose offices – dubbed the Engine Room – house an internet cafe and film production drop-in centre. "The town seems to appreciate us," says Phil Shepherd, with a smile. "Our offices haven't been burned out yet." It stands to lose £11,500, which would put a severe strain on what it offers. Those who use its three weekly drop-in sessions and film-making classes range from teenagers to the retired, as well as people with learning difficulties. One young company, Film Tank, started out here; they are showing a 10-minute film about Bridgwater's annual carnival on BBC1 later that evening. Another user with learning difficulties has started shooting his first short film.

"The value of a place like this," says Shepherd, "is that it gives people a sense of identity – people who are isolated and disenfranchised because they live in a rural county, with no big cities or university towns. We have people who come in here, learn how to make films, and change their lives. That's why this cut, if it goes ahead, would be such a body blow."


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October 20 2010

Arts cuts in the spending review: have your say

Our arts correspondent will be here this afternoon to answer your questions about what the spending review will mean for the industry. Post them, and your comments, below

The announcement of today's comprehensive spending review has seen cuts of roughly 30% being levied on the arts. The Arts Council of England is expected to make cuts, in real terms, of around £350m in the next four years.

That's the headline number, but hundreds of smaller cuts will be required to make up this figure. Our arts correspondent, Mark Brown, will be on this thread this afternoon to take your questions and try to find some answers about the forthcoming cuts. If you work in the arts and have your own concerns or queries, here is the place to post them.

Later today we will have updates from our chief arts writer, Charlotte Higgins, whose initial take on events is here. There is also, of course, full coverage of the spending review here, which you can consult too.


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