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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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March 11 2010

Liverpool profited from year as capital of culture

Designation brought in millions of extra visitors and pounds in 2008, says research

It may not have been an unalloyed critical triumph, but Liverpool's year as European capital of culture earned the city bumper visitor numbers and a multimillion-pound boost to its economy, academics have found.

A five-year research programme published today analysed the social, economic and cultural impact of the 2008 title and found that the festival year saw 9.7m visitors to the city, an increase of 34%, and generated £753.8m for the economy.

Media coverage of Liverpool's cultural attractions doubled and for the first time in decades, positive stories outweighed negative ones focusing on social issues.

It found 85% of Liverpool residents agreed that it was a better place to live than before.

Dr Beatriz Garcia, director of the research programme, Impacts 08, said: "We found that general opinion of Liverpool was informed by very dated images of the city, which ranged from positive but fixed associations with the Beatles in the 1960s to more negative views of social deprivation in the 1980s."

She said it presented a richer picture of the city as a modern, multi-faceted place with a vibrant cultural life that reaches far beyond music and football.

"We also found, however, that the levels of enthusiasm generated by the bid led to unrealistic expectations and a feeling of uncertainty in the years preceding 2008.

"This resulted in the expectation, by some residents and stakeholders, that capital of culture [status] would single-handedly redress acute long-term inequalities between Liverpool and other UK cities, from unemployment to low income and poor health."

The report noted a 10% rise each year in arts audiences across Liverpool and higher levels of interest in museums and galleries. Visitor numbers at the seven largest attractions peaked at 5.5 million in 2008. Throughout that year, visitor numbers increased by 34%. Of the visitors surveyed 99% said they liked the general atmosphere and 97% felt welcome.

The study, by Liverpool University academics, found the local population initially had increasingly mixed views in the lead-up to the capital of culture year, which persisted until the end of 2007.

"Their concerns related in particular to the possibility that the expected positive change might not spread beyond the city centre and that it might not impact on their neighbourhoods or on 'ordinary people'," said Garcia.

But these trends were reversed during 2008 itself, showing a more optimistic view appearing by late 2008, when the latest survey took place.


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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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