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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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May 19 2010

Hunt: arts cuts to be offset by lottery boost

Tory minister's inaugural speech woos arts community with promise of increased lottery cash – but admits the numbers don't add up

Maev Kennedy

The new culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has promised the arts unqualified love, more lottery money and a major drive to increase philanthropic giving – but spending cuts are almost inevitable, he admitted.

In his first public speech since taking up the post, delivered to invited representatives of quangos, museums, theatres and arts organisations at London's Roundhouse, the only solid promise of new money came from a commitment that arts, heritage and grassroots sport would receive an increased share of lottery profits, back to the levels they received when the lottery was founded in 1994. In return, all grant-givers, including the Arts Council, English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund, would be expected to spend no more than 5% of their budget on administration costs.

Although he stressed repeatedly the limitations of what could be achieved in the current financial environment, Hunt reassured those in the arts community who feared disproportionate cuts. "What I can promise you is this," he said. "Culture will not be singled out as a soft target."

Another strand of Hunt's thinking emerged yesterday, when many arts organisations were surprised to get phonecalls from the department asking for the names of their top donors. Today Hunt revealed he would be writing personally to the biggest 200 philanthropists, in and outside Britain, thanking them for their support, urging them to continue, and asking for their ideas.

He also promised reform of the Gift Aid scheme, to make it simpler and less restrictive. But tax breaks for philanthropic giving, recommended years ago in the Goodison report, will almost certainly have to wait. There would be tough negotiations with the Treasury, Hunt said, but he admitted: "There isn't the money there for tax breaks now."

He also conceded that the likelihood of cuts in DCMS spending – and with it to the grant in aid to the Arts Council, English Heritage and the directly funded museums and galleries – would result in a gap in funding. "It is entirely possible that we won't be able to bridge the gap this year," he said.

Hunt's personal relish for his new brief was beyond question. "It is the most incredible privilege to do what I am doing," he said, adding: "I want you to know that this government's commitment to the arts goes right to the top." In his first five minutes he name-checked Picasso, quoted a poem by the Russian dissident Osip Mandelstam – not, he hoped, any relation of Lord Mandelson – and raved about both the play Jerusalem, and the anarchic cabaret La Clique, a show he saw at the Roundhouse.

"I wasn't thinking about creative exports or leveraged investment," he said. "I was enjoying artistic excellence. Art for art's sake. That is my starting point as secretary of state for culture."

He cited Jerusalem, which began at the small, subsidised Royal Court, went on to become a big money-earner in the West End and is to transfer to Broadway, as "a perfect example of how subsidising our cultural life is one of the best investments we can make".

He ended with words from the artist Grayson Perry, and also quoted the Guardian's chief arts writer, Charlotte Higgins, who threatened to break his legs if he hurt the arts – only hurt wasn't precisely the word she used. He promised he wouldn't.

Hunt also reassured many with a personal commitment to free museum admission – singling out the Labour secretary who introduced it, Chris Smith, for praise – and to the free public library network.

Hunt's ambition, he said, was to build more stable long-term funding for the arts.

Alistair Spalding, director of Sadlers Wells theatre, no doubt spoke for many in the room when he said to Hunt: "I am in a bit of a state of shock, because I more or less agree with everything you said."


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December 27 2009

Enlightened age is cast into shadow

A decade of unprecedented investment in galleries and museums is ending and a return to the dark days of closures, entry charges and pandering to the familiar looms

It is a space dedicated to the fruits of patronage. Against whitewashed walls and beneath a startling glass canopy, the Leonardos and Donatellos, the choir screens and sculptures, the tapestries and caskets speak to an age of extraordinary wealth and aesthetic ambition. But the newly opened medieval and renaissance galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum also testify to the fact that our own epoch of remarkable cultural investment – like Florence after the Medici – is shuddering to a halt.

The fear is that a collapse in private philanthropy combined with a political arms race of expenditure cuts and quango-bashing could soon return our galleries and museums to the dark days of charges, closures and pandering to the familiar. Nothing less than the democratic capacity of British culture – the ability both to fund great art and open up life chances – is what is at stake.

It began a decade ago with the relaunch of the Royal Opera House following its £178m refit and has concluded with the re-engineered V&A and the equally stunning transformation of the Ashmolean in Oxford. Crumbling Victorian edifices have undergone architectural open-heart surgery and fusty old collections have been taken into the 21st century. Indeed, the Noughties marked a period of unprecedented postwar cultural prowess.

Of course, modernisation was never without its controversies. The great chunks of National Lottery and Arts Council cash swallowed up by the ROH set the mark for over-ambitious and poorly managed projects, a view only endorsed by the millions who watched the BBC documentary, The House, chronicling Sir Jeremy Isaacs' rumbustious attempts to manage Covent Garden. But few today, enjoying the acoustics and surviving the crush of the once derelict Floral Hall, would deny the transformative effect of the redevelopment on the opera house fabric and its artistic capacity.

With the new build came a new philosophy. The intervention of philanthropist Paul Hamlyn inspired a markedly more activist approach to audience development, with deprived schools and then Sun readers targeted for subsidised opera tickets. For this has been the mantra in arts and heritage over the past decade. Public money for modernised galleries meant access and inclusion had to change.

The culture shift began with free entry to museums and has developed down the years to force once standoffish institutions to engage with wider School trips, outreach and working with diverse communities have come to rank as highly as research and fundraising. audiences. "Most museums can no longer afford to blithely concentrate on their collections at the expense of their visitors," as a recent study puts it.

It is the move from a museum being about something to being for somebody. The families and groups now wandering through Kelvingrove museum in Glasgow or Middlesbrough's Institute of Modern Art are very different to what they were 10 years ago.

Of course, there has been some guerrilla resistance by curators concerned more with restoration than education. A leading fine art director, Philippe de Montebello, spoke for many of his peers when he revealed: "To me, audiences are second… Our primary responsibility is to works of art." But the combination of social activism and public funding tied to popular engagement meant that such disdain could never be sustained.

With growing audiences has come the appreciation that museums can rebuild urban economies. Once this was christened the "Bilbao effect" in homage to the impact that Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum had on urban renewal, economic expansion and local pride in the decaying, northern Spanish port. But the problem with Bilbao is that no one goes back. A culture-led programme of civic regeneration needs to be about much more than the kind of single iconic building dispatched by the studios of Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and Santiago Calatrava.

Instead, it has to offer numerous competing cultural attractions which bring in not only tourists and culture vultures but the kind of young professionals and knowledge-workers attracted to high-end civic environments. Manchester – with the Whitworth and City art galleries, the Imperial War Museum North and the People's History Museum – has been doing just that.

When in 1966 the young German critic WG Sebald arrived to take up a post at Manchester University, he found a city that seemed to "have long since been deserted, and was now left as a necropolis or a museum". Once "one of the 19th century's miracle cities, it was now almost hollow to the core".

Today, after a decade of cultural investment, it is that sense for the past – in its museums and cultural institutions – which has helped Manchester recover from its post-industrial nadir. So too in Liverpool, where the Tate Gallery at Albert Dock, the International Slavery Museum and the European Capital of Culture events have all helped to kick-start urban regeneration. And in the northeast, the Newcastle-Gateshead quayside redevelopment – including the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, the Sage Gateshead music centre and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge – have revived this district as a social space and powerfully updated Tyneside's urban identity. For with the revitalisation of museums there usually follows a broader appreciation of the historic fabric, as warehouses, wharfs and factories come to be valued as purveyors of civic sensibility rather than obstacles to economic development.

But Britain's museums have done more than gentrify the urban core. Over the past 10 years they have provided cosmopolitan spaces in our multicultural society, offering a vehicle for a shared socialunderstanding. In the face of mass-migration and stark, post-9/11 and 7/7 religious tensions, Britain's great conurbations have mostly remained free of communal violence. Our civic institutions have played an important role in that by offering settings for transcultural dialogues. "The museum is about the world," according to American curator James Cuno, with a social purpose "to breed greater familiarity with the rich diversity of the world's cultures". And from the 2007 bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade to the exhibitions charting Iranian heritage at the British Museum, our cultural institutions have done just that.

Of course, some ventures have not succeeded. The National Football Museum in Preston expensively confirmed that fans are far more committed to individual clubs than the game's history. Sheffield's National Centre for Popular Music lasted 15 months, while it is fair to say that The Public in West Bromwich has still to prove itself. But intellectually and socially, our artistic and heritage institutions display a far more confident sense of themselves than when the ROH went dark.

As such, they have been part of a broader shift in political and cultural activity. With nosediving membership of the mainstream political parties and church pews sitting empty, the British public have taken to exploring ideological and aesthetic issues in book festivals, ideas weekends and evening debates in unprecedented numbers. It is a secular, almost Enlightenment vision of citizenship and public life which marks a passion for culture in its broadest sense quite unheard of two decades ago.

When Tony Blair sought to connect his premiership with this artistic revival in a 2007 speech at Tate Modern, Sir Nicholas Serota stressed just how important government funding had been to this process. What was more, "Tony's commitment not to return to the stop-and-start economy in the arts is crucial".

Two years on, with seismic cuts to Arts Council budgets and the Olympics succubus swallowing ever greater Lottery funds, such certainty already feels dated. Benefactors are burying their cheque books, endowments are plummeting, builders are going bankrupt and government departments are working out where to inflict 15-20% cuts. At the very moment when, after the big build, our museums and galleries need secure revenue streams, they will be confronting a funding crisis.

Things might be even worse under a prospective Conservative government with little feel for the cultural fabric. In the past, Tory frontbenchers have mooted the return of museum charging; now they talk in anodyne terms of quango savings. But numerous arts projects are already looking in jeopardy. In theory, new funds for the British Film Institute archives and the Tate Modern extension are safe, but I wouldn't bet my Jackson Pollock on it. Meanwhile, in Manchester, plans for a Royal Opera North look ambitious, while the British Museum will struggle to finance its new wing. None of which is to suggest that great art cannot emerge during eras of austerity, but the democratic capacity of culture certainly takes a hit when acquisitions falter and education departments close.

Of course, there is another way. The Dutch government has decided to protect the culture budget during the downturn. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has lent £31bn to the nation's universities and museums to safeguard the "cultural heritage". Sadly, Britain cannot afford such largesse. The great boom of the art years was – like Medici Florence – closely and painfully wedded to the financial services bubble. And the effect of the Lehman Brothers crash in September 2008 will continue to be felt in even the most modest local gallery.

All we can do is retreat to the glorious V&A galleries and bask in the afterglow of this decade's astonishing cultural rejuvenation. As we do so our gaze might alight on Sir Paul Pindar's house: the beautiful, timber-framed Jacobean frontage of a 17th-century Bishopsgate home which at one point contained this Stuart merchant's extensive cultural collection. Now, for all its elegance, it is just a facade.


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