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October 11 2011

Bank of England builder goes into administration

Holloway White Allom, the construction firm that rebuilt Threadneedle Street in the 1920s, calls in administrators

The builder that remodelled the Bank of England before the second world war has gone into administration.

Holloway White Allom, which only recently completed a refurbishment of the Victoria & Albert Museum, was put in the hands of KPMG last week, it emerged on Tuesday.

Shortly prior to the administrators' appointment, 175 staff were made redundant.

As well as its rebuilding of the Bank of England – described by architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as the 20th century's "greatest architectural crime" in the City, due to its reconstruction of Sir John Soane's original structure – the firm worked on numerous London landmarks.

In a previous incarnation as Holloway Brothers, it built the Admiralty Buildings on Horse Guards Parade, the Old Bailey in the early 1900s and the fountains in Trafalgar Square. It was also active in civil engineering and constructed several bridges across the Thames, including Hampton Court bridge, Wandsworth bridge and Chelsea bridge, and helped construct the "Mulberry harbours", the floating docks used in the D-day Normandy landings in 1944.

In 1960, Holloway Brothers acquired White Allom, a firm with an equally distinguished history in interior design. As well as doing work on the interior of the Waldorf Astoria, White Allom restored St Donat's castle in Wales for the American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, did extensive work on Buckingham Palace, and worked on the interior of the QE2 ocean liner.

Holloway White Allom was part of the John Laing construction group from the 1960s until 2002, when its managers took it private.

KPMG has confirmed only that it has been appointed administrators.

It is unclear what pushed the firm over the brink, but the economic downturn has seen huge numbers of construction companies in difficulty.

Data from the construction intelligence firm Glenigan showed Holloway White Allom was working on a £4m upgrade of a Chelsea mansion owned by Viscount Macmillan, the great-grandson of former prime minister Harold Macmillan.


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July 01 2011

We don't own modern art – the super-rich do

A record-breaking Sotheby's auction has punctured the boom-time illusion that the art of today is common property

Art is a luxury, the ultimate luxury. Imagine the glory of having an original work of art by a great artist on your wall. It beats the best car, the best helicopter. Art is money and if you want people to know your wealth, you must buy art.

Sorry if this imaginary blurb for the art market seems offensive, but that is kind of the idea. The market in modern art is truly offensive. It is becoming more sickening by the day. This week saw businesses go bust and an entire nation on the edge of the economic abyss. In Britain, famous high street names such as Thorntons and Habitat hit the buffers. In Greece, riot police held back protesters as punitive austerity measures were imposed by parliament.

Meanwhile, a sale of modern art at Sotheby's on Wednesday night made £108.8m, a London record according to the auctioneers. A Bacon went for £8.3m, a Warhol portrait of Deborah Harry for £3.7m. Spectacular sums were also paid for works by German contemporary artists, while a Damien Hirst spot painting topped a million quid, suggesting he is still attractive to the people he needs to be attractive to.

But who are they, these people? I would genuinely like to know. The popular assumption seems to be that today's art collectors are "Russian oligarchs". Certainly the spectacle of Roman Abramovich's yacht drew attention to the oligarchic presence at this year's Venice Biennale. One thing is certain – the big-time buyers of art are people in the financial sector who are weathering our troubled times a lot better than high street businesses, nations picked on by Standard & Poor's, or public sector workers.

And yet, for the last couple of decades, contemporary art has flourished through an alliance of the rich and the not-so-rich. It is the same educated, probably public-sector-employed middle class (many of whom marched this week) that enthusiastically visit galleries and art fairs. It is these fans of modern art who have helped, by their acclaim, to generate the charisma that makes it apparently worth so many millions.

In the 1990s, a credit-fuelled sense of affluence made the excesses of the art market seem fine, even entertaining. Besides, contemporary art has a dual nature. On the one hand it is – like all fine art down the ages – a plaything of the rich. But that is not the whole story. It is also a public art. Spectacular installations, accessible videos such as The Clock, and free display spaces like the Tate Turbine Hall, make the art of today a common property, capable of communicating in exciting ways across nations and generations. It has a utopian aspect.

So spare us the conservative attacks on modern art. I do not think the prices paid for Warhol or Bacon reflect on the artists themselves – as it happens, a lot of good art changed hands at the Sotheby's sale. And for all the fuss over the Abramovich yacht, the reality is that people from all walks of life are visiting the Venice Biennale this summer and finding it, as I did, a stimulating overview of the best new art on the planet.

But how long can this go on? How will the growing, grotesque disparity between our belief that we "own" modern art and the glaring reality that it is bought and sold by the super-rich, survive these times? In 2009, Athens was being touted as a rising contemporary art centre, with collectors, fairs, new galleries. Art is fully globalised, and seems to be operating as a separate world system while all around it crashes. I am not prophesying disaster for it. If people go on believing in it, art may even be a clue to the survival and recovery of world capitalism. On a more local level, if British people keep on loving new art even as the rich carry it home, it probably also means the coalition is destined to a decade or so of power and the left is toast. Or if the times here and elsewhere prove harder to stabilise, if the rocks in the road get bigger – well, the art system will probably still go on. But will we be looking?


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May 05 2010

Remember 1983? I warn you that a Cameron victory will be just as bad | Jonathan Freedland

I would like to make a positive case for Labour, but the hour is late, and now it is Neil Kinnock's famous words that stir me

On the eve of the 1983 election – which, until this year, seemed destined to represent for ever the low watermark of Labour performances – a young member of the party's shadow cabinet delivered what was to be one of his most compelling speeches. Neil Kinnock knew a landslide defeat was imminent so, speaking in Bridgend, he sketched the world to come. "I warn you," he began, addressing a nation about to descend into the bitterest stretch of the Thatcher era. "I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old."

It was a rhetorical masterpiece from a man whose oratory would later be much mocked. But its power was its prescience. Kinnock saw the Thatcherite tsunami that was coming and warned of the deluge that would follow.

This time even the most pessimistic Labourite cannot feel the certainty Kinnock had then: all kinds of permutation are still possible. But if the Labour vote crashes close to, or even below, 1983 levels, then David Cameron in Downing Street is the most likely outcome, whether governing as a minority, in alliance with the Lib Dems, or with a narrow majority of his own. What would he do if he gets there? What cautionary message might a 2010 Kinnock issue? For those still weighing their vote, here are a few salutary thoughts.

I warn you that a chance some have waited for all their adult lives will slip away, perhaps taking another generation to come around again: the chance to reform our rotten, broken electoral system. If Cameron wins, he will not only thwart any move to fairer voting, he will act fast to rig the system in his favour. Even neutrals agree that his plan to cut the number of MPs by 10% – presented as a mere cost-cutting measure – will be one of the grossest acts of gerrymandering in British political history. Cameron will redraw the boundaries so that his rivals lose seats and he gains them, locking in a semi-permanent Conservative majority. Reform of our absurd, unelected second chamber will be postponed indefinitely, enabling Cameron to pack the Lords with his mates and sugar daddies, including perhaps a few more of those businessmen who so obligingly sided with the Conservatives in condemning Labour's plans for national insurance.

If, on the other hand, Cameron is kept from Downing Street courtesy of a Labour vote tomorrow strong enough to make a Lib-Lab coalition plausible, then there's a clear chance for the 55%-plus majority who regularly vote for liberal or left parties to prevail and reform the system – ensuring that, from now on, the Conservatives hold power only as often as their minority status suggests they should. (They were always a minority party, even in the Thatcher heyday.) In other words, the victor tomorrow will get to set the rules for decades to come. This is a winner-takes-all election and the stakes could not be higher.

I warn you that the economy could slide back into despair. Maybe people have not paid attention to this argument because Gordon Brown has been making it, but the danger is real. A sudden shut-off of the public spending tap could well send a frail recovery staggering back into recession: the dreaded double-dip. It's happened elsewhere and could happen here. The US and other economies are seeing the tide turn, but that's because they've kept the public cash coming. Cameron's aim, played down in the rhetoric because it polled so badly, is to cut spending immediately, ushering in what he once proudly trumpeted as an "age of austerity".

If Britain were to return to recession, then brace yourself. For many, this last downturn has not quite felt like the worst since the Great Depression, whatever the economists say. Unemployment, house repossessions and bankruptcies are all fractions of what they were in the 1990s recession. That's not by accident. It's a function of Labour's active interventionism, which has sought to reduce the impact of the downturn on those at the sharpest end. Such state activity clashes with every Conservative instinct. Cameron still describes government as more problem than solution. Last time the Tories were in charge, dealing with a recession that was actually much less severe, the pain was greater and the weakest suffered most. There is nothing in current Tory policy – despite Cameron's final debate plea to the camera that it's "the most vulnerable, the most frail and the poorest" he truly cares about – to suggest it won't be like that again.

Indeed, there are at least three signs that point in a gloomy direction. First, despite all the austerity talk, the Tories have clung to their promise to give an inheritance tax break to the 3,000 richest families in the country. In the words of Nick Clegg, it's the "double-millionaires" Cameron wants to help. And yet, given the hole in the public finances, cash will have to come from somewhere. The obvious source – not that the Conservative leader has ever been challenged on it – is an increase in VAT. That's the most regressive of all taxes, inflicting disproportionate pain on the poorest: pain that will only deepen with the coming Tory assault on tax credits. A third cause for alarm can be expressed in three words: Chancellor George Osborne.

I warn you not to have an urgent need for the NHS. Sure, the Tories say they've ringfenced health spending, but check the small print. They plan to drop Labour's guarantee on waiting times. No longer will any patient be sure to see a cancer specialist within two weeks: under the Tories, that decision will be left to the consultant. Fine for the sharp-elbowed middle class, who are used to barging their way to the front of the queue. Not so good for the poorest who, all the data shows, struggle to get the most from public services.

I warn you not to be a single mother or widow. You'll get less than those who are married. Not that much less – about £3 a week – but just enough to know that the tax system regards you as a second-class citizen and to remind you of how life used to be under the Conservatives, when single parents were a routine target for public mockery and scolding.

I warn you that we will be back to the sterile relationship with Europe of the 1990s, a British government once again on the margins, but aligned this time with homophobes, rank antisemites and assorted apologists for fascism. Prepare within weeks for a Cameron stunt, demanding negotiations to "repatriate" powers back to Westminster. Britain is set once again to become the club bore of the EU, happily swallowing the agenda of economic liberalisation but moaning about sovereignty in the abstract, annoying the other members but never having the courage to up and leave.

Cameron won't have much choice in the matter. He'll be answerable to the newly-strengthened backbench hard right of his party, who will have veto power over his programme: he won't be able to govern without their votes. With their loathing of Europe, their disbelief in man-made climate change and their disproportionate ties to the City and finance, they will ensure Cameron sticks to the right and narrow.

Of course, it would feel better to make a positive case for Labour, echoing its promises on a living wage and a cap on predatory chargecard interest rates or its plans for green jobs. But the hour is late. Tomorrow is the day of decision. And we have been warned.

• More election comment from Cif at the polls


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March 25 2010

Cash for culture

Cultural Capital arts manifesto calls for a small but 'crucial' public investment

Britain should invest in culture to help economic recovery, says an alliance of arts leaders including the National Theatre artistic director, Sir Nicholas Hytner, and Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum.

Speaking at today's launch of the arts manifesto Cultural Capital, MacGregor said: "We want to give politicians the confidence to put on their CVs not what football team they support, but why life without Schubert is impossible.

"Culture works. This is a bit of national life that is extraordinarily efficient and effective. It is a huge employer and the economic activity it generates is ever more important … Culture gives us our place in the world; it reminds us what we are and what we could be."

Alan Davey, the chief executive of Arts Council England, said the arts should not be immune from pressure to give value for money. But he said: "Every day public money is combined with private funds to produce miracles on a shoestring.

"The cost to the public is less than the cost of half a pint of milk. We need to cherish it and not spill it. It shouldn't be thrown away in a fit of absentmindedness."

The alliance argued that the arts were a growth industry that could have a major impact on the economy with the help of a minimal but crucial public investment. They were also crucial to the life of the nation as a whole, and the way it was seen overseas.

The launch, at the British Museum, was accompanied by the brandishing of a variety of placards bearing the slogan "You can bank on culture", designed by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Anish Kapoor and Michael Craig-Martin – a sly reference to the modest public sums spent on the arts and culture compared with the amount poured into banking.

Hytner said the arts were in excellent health because of 15 years of public support which began under the Conservatives, with the creation of the National Lottery by John Major. It then continued with over a decade of sustained funding from the Labour government.

Hytner praised the British model of arts funding, which has traditionally relied on a mixture of public and private money and a lack of direct political interference.

He said: "In theatre, it goes back to the Elizabethan model, where work was dependent on income from the box office, sustained by an interest by the Crown, as it was then, and supported by a healthy dollop of private patronage. This model continues to help us take risks that we wouldn't otherwise be able to entertain.

"The National Theatre's production of War Horse, which is generating a great deal of revenue for both us and the private sector, would have been impossible without sustained investment allowing us to create it over the course of 18 months of workshops."

The West End and Broadway, he said, were dominated by plays created with the help of public investment in Britain's subsidised theatres. The argument for continued investment was being made "because the return we give on a tiny investment is worth looking at. We have no sense of entitlement".

The group praised a gradually increased engagement with culture by politicians: "I don't think I remember hearing such a mature conversation from all three parties," said Jude Kelly, artistic director of Southbank Centre in London.

But they also said that British politicians had on the whole been reticent about talking about British arts and culture. According to MacGregor: "There has been a slowness to understand how important arts and culture are in every part of life, in reshaping society, and in people's personal and imaginative fulfillment."

According to the Cultural Capital manifesto, Britain has five of the 20 most visited museums in the world (more than France or the US). The authors write: "The economic benefits of the UK's major museums and galleries alone are estimated to be £1.5bn per annum."

Music contributes nearly £5bn to the UK economy and the economic impact of theatre is £2.6bn a year. When Liverpool was European capital of culture in 2008, £800m was generated for the local economy and 27% more visitors were attracted than in previous years.


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January 23 2010

ICA warns staff it could close by May

Institute could fall victim to recession with costs needing a £1m trim

In the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London there is a bloodstain on an office wall. This Is Norman's Blood, reads the label – the traces of a fistfight between former ICA curator Sir Norman Rosenthal and actor Keith Allen.

More blood, of the metaphorical variety, is soon to be shed at the institute. Staff members have been told that a financial deficit currently at around £600,000 might rise to £1.2m and if radical steps are not taken the ICA could be closed by May.

Minutes of a sometimes bad-tempered staff meeting held last month have been seen by the Guardian. The meeting was also attended by Alan Yentob, the BBC creative director, and Tessa Ross, Channel 4's head of film and drama, both of whom sit on the ICA's council.

The meeting saw ICA director Ekow Eshun explain that a staff bill of £2.5m will have to be reduced by £1m for the organisation to survive. Without a wholesale restructuring, he argued, the ICA could be the first major British cultural organisation to fall victim to the recession.

The ICA's management is now consulting on staff redundancies, with the process due to be completed by the end of March.

Since its early beginnings just after the war, when the ICA was one of the few institutions to introduce avant garde art to Britain, the organisation has played a significant role in the UK's cultural and intellectual life. But critics believe that it has lost its sense of purpose, particularly when contemporary art is now well represented in London's museums and galleries.

The financial problems emerged, Eshun told the Guardian yesterday, as a result of "a perfect storm of events that all came together".

A fundraising auction of works donated by artists including Damien Hirst in October 2008 failed to raise its estimated £1.3m, instead realising about £673,300.

Over the 2008-9 financial year, the ICA raised only £200,000, or half the projected revenue, from hiring out its premises on The Mall in London for commercial use, a problem put down to the recession.

Eshun said that other traditional streams of income, such as the bookshop and the ICA film distribution arm, also suffered because of the recession.

The ICA has been granted a package of £1.2m over two years by Arts Council England's (ACE) Sustain fund, which is designed to help arts organisations hit by the recession. The total turnover of the ICA is £4.5m, and it receives an annual ACE grant of £1.3m.

But Eshun said the problems at the ICA ran deeper than the current financial climate, and in May last year, even before the scale of the immediate financial problems had emerged, a consultancy firm was commissioned to report on structural problems within the organisation.

Yentob told the Guardian: "We've been managing a programme with a large staff running numerous individual projects. When trouble emerged and financial problems surfaced because of the recession it was as if we had been ambushed from every side."

Instead of several, often competing departments devoted to exhibitions, talks, or films and so on, three larger teams – one devoted to the artistic programme, one to finance and operations, and one to communications – will be created to "deliver a more integrated programme", said Eshun. He said that the organisation's renewed vision would "address the big questions and lead debate and enquiry into culture and the arts ... We are here to bring together artists and audiences to ask questions about who we are and how we live."

The minutes of the meeting seen by the Guardian, compiled informally by staff, report that one attender said he "didn't want to hear the word 'vision' coming from Ekow Eshun again – he had heard it at every staff meeting this year and it meant nothing to him".

Eshun, who has been director of the ICA since 2005, said that he did take "responsibility for the ICA's present and future over the time that I've been here. But it has been going for 60 years. Trying to turn it round isn't straightforward."

According to Yentob: "The ICA council acted nearly a year ago in consultation with the Arts Council, in commissioning the organisational review. Perhaps it could have happened even earlier, but this is a big step with serious consequences for many of our staff, so it was not a decision that could be taken lightly. Everyone on the ICA council believes that these changes will enable the ICA to fulfil its creative brief more effectively."

Art on the edge

The ICA was founded in 1947 by the critic Herbert Read, along with ­artists ­including the surrealist painter ­Roland Penrose and sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. It mounted early shows of pop art and abstract painting, and provided a meeting place for radical artists. It continued at the cutting edge with events such as Mary Kelly's infamous "nappy show", an ­exhibition in 1976 officially called Post Partum Document, which included her baby's dirty nappies. The same year it was among the first venues to host a gig by the Clash. In the 1990s it played host to the first British showings of work by the sculptors Miroslaw Balka and the late Juan Muñoz, both of whom later created installations for Tate Modern's turbine hall. Staff alumni include Sir Norman Rosenthal, the retired ­exhibitions ­secretary of the Royal Academy of Arts; Sandy Nairne, the ­director of the National Portrait ­Gallery; and Iwona Blazwick, the ­director of the Whitechapel Gallery.


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April 05 2009

April 04 2009

Play fullscreen
Obama should save the banks, not the bankers Pt.4

March 30 2009

February 08 2009

Play fullscreen
Two years recession, or ten years of hell? Pt.3

February 07 2009

Play fullscreen
Two years recession, or ten years of hell? Pt.2

February 06 2009

Play fullscreen
Two years recession, or ten years of hell?

December 19 2008

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