Detail from Huntress with Buck by David Chancellor [1st Prize; Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2010]

Art Attack

21st January 2011

It used to be a case of ‘use it or lose it’; now, says Clare Finney, it may well be ‘use it while you can, because you’re going to lose it anyway…’

‘Cut us but don’t kill us’ warned arts leaders last July, when threats of 25% cuts first appeared on the horizon. Terrified that the cuts would strike, to coin Labour’s favourite catchphrase, too soon and too deep, the Arts Council produced a list of possible victims. It makes for disturbing reading. Nearly nine hundred organisations will be affected. Some of these you won’t have heard of, though that doesn’t necessarily lessen their importance to those who have; after all, one man’s trash is another man’s theatre. Look a little closer at this overwhelmingly local list, however, and you’ll find that – in among the Psappha Contemporary Music Ensemble, Punchdrunk Theatrical Experiences, and Whalley Range All Stars – are names that even the most boorish of Britons will know…

National Gallery… British Museum… British Library… Young Vic… Royal Opera House… These are just a few of the cultural strongholds whose government-funding is cut. Universal, timeless and breathtakingly beautiful, these institutions hold the keys to our cultural identity – yet too often they also form part of another, historic list: the list of things we’d see if only we had more time / energy / younger children / older children /a rainy day… a list, lets face it, that most of us would be deeply embarrassed at revealing. October’s cultural spending review has softened the blow (an across-the-board cut of 15% for front line organisations over four years is no pinprick, but it’s a long way from the 40% gash they were braced for), and, for now at least, we are in the eye of the storm. But that’s still no excuse for not making this New Year’s resolution (one which, come 2012, you might not be able to carry out): to jump on the Met Line, get into town, and make the most of those bits of the arts whose fates hang in the budget balance – late night openings, new acquisitions, and special exhibitions that were once open to all for free.

New Collections

Click. Click. ‘No photos, please, ladies’, snaps the guard from within, bringing an abrupt end to Aya’s album of ‘Natsumi with Picasso’. Aya and Natsumi are in the British Museum, surrounded by the works of Picasso to Julie Mehretu; Modern Drawings from the British Museum Collection.

Consisting of more than 70 studies from the Modern movement, this back-to-basics approach to modern art does more than just display: its unique combination of preliminary sketches, prints and informative plaques offers an extraordinary insight into the minds at work behind the masterpieces. Even if, like Natusmi, you’ve ‘just come for Picasso’, the arrangement of the exhibition insists that you consider the names you don’t know, as well as those you can’t fail to have missed. René Magritte rubs shoulders with Giorgio De Chirico. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner is out-sketched by his neighbouring Kentridge. The quality of the range that would be impressive even if it had been born out of borrowing; as it is, it’s the commendable product of British Museum’s buyers who have spent the past 35 years compiling representative pieces of the Modern Age. It may not have the headline acts owned by Getty and Louvre – but then, it hasn’t their funding. As one astute critic put it, “If this is what the British Museum is up to with its collection purchases, one can only say, ‘Good on them’."

By investing in the sketches behind other gallery’s stars, the humble BM has in many ways pre-empted them. Sadly, given the inevitable impact the review will have on their acquisition budget, it might be the last time they do so. “We tend to just expect, you know, if there’s a fantastic Henry the VIIIth prayer book up for grabs, then of course it will be bought for the nation. But if we don’t have the money, we can’t.” Heather Soderlind is Acting Head of Public Programmes at the British Library, one of the few institutions to have actually announced in detail their game plan for the age of austerity. She, along with many others within the arts sector, is worried at what the nation stands to lose should the same fate befall other museums and galleries.

“Already for every acquisition that’s saved for the nation there’s a whole swathe of stuff that we don’t get to hear about that goes elsewhere through committee or we don’t put up the money for,“ explains Louise de Winter, director of Britain’s only independent campaigning organisation for arts, the National Campaign for Arts. Figures from the Museums Association suggest that high profile losses are merely ‘the very tip’ of an iceberg that is far from shrinking. “There’s every chance [displays such as the BM’s] could be one of the last in the line of new acquisition displays”.

And by this I mean the heavyweights. Free entry to a collection of sketches is great, but it’s small fry in comparison to the British Library’s latest offering: a wall-to-wall, word-by-word, interactive tour through the entire development of English Language, starting – rather fittingly – with an 8-10th century bookmark made of bone. ‘God gcath arae hadda thi this wrat’, it informs us in runes. Needless to say, the sense of connection is immediate. Here lies the one of the oldest example of our language – and yet with surprisingly little effort at least three words make sense. With ‘God saves by his mercy, Hadda who wrote this’ we embark on a journey that lasts 1600 years, 130 texts and the entire Paccar Gallery of the British Library. Where did the very first Englishmen come from? How did regional variations come about? Why did authorities like Jonathan Swift (not to mention the BBC) try to create a ‘standard’ – and why did they fail where almost every other language in the world succeeded? These, and many other questions, are answered in an ambitious exhibition that seeks to challenge our preconceptions both of the language, and of the every one of the 400 million people who speak it.

All the big names are here, of course, gleaned from the choicest of the Library’s Brobdingnagian collections. But for me the pièce de résistance was not Shakespeare’s First Folio, nor the only surviving Beowulf manuscript, nor even a dictionary of nineteenth century slang – but a hand-written poem entitled Mr Oxford Don. Written by John Agard (born 1949, in British Guyana), ‘a simple immigrant / from Clapham Common’, this subversive little sonnet is as strong an argument as any for freedom of speech. ‘Me not not Oxford Don’ it begins, before launching into a tirade against those who would ‘want me serve time / for inciting rhyme to riot’. ‘I ent have no gun / I ent have no knife / but mugging de Queen’s English / is the story of my life’ he explains, before concluding ‘I only armed wit mih human breath / but human breath / is a dangerous weapon’.

So, seemingly, is George Osborne’s axe. Come November the British Library will be introducing a ticket price for exhibitions such as these. “Visitors can always can always see the permanent collections for free,” Heather Soderlind explains, “but the major shows – which are really catching on – we’re going to have to charge to see them.” It’s a daunting prospect, not least because allowing free entry to special exhibitions has often proved crucial in drawing crowds to the Library’s more esoteric exploits. “Something like ‘Evolving English’… I don’t think you can really put a price on it. It’s difficult to define. Would you pay £10 to see it? Possibly not. Would you come if it were free? Yes, you’d take a look.”

Louise de Winter, too, is concerned that the necessity to make exhibitions more commercial will have a delimiting effect on their scope. “Until now there’s been a good mix between the two, but in the future I suspect subjects that are easily marketed are going to be favoured over those with less obvious appeal.” Policy makers at DCMS argue that private sponsors and donors will soften this blow, giving institutions the financial support they need to push boundaries.

“Not just more giving, but more effective giving, more planned giving, and more long-term relationships between the arts and their supporters” decreed cultural secretary Jeremy Hunt – to which Colin Tweedy, chief executive of Arts and Business (the organisation responsible for fostering such deals) returned “I don’t know how any of it will be achieved.”

Last October, A&B’s research found that the philanthropy market of High Net Worth (HNW) individuals is saturated, with 97% already philanthropically active. Their conclusion (‘HNW individuals are losing their interest in investing in the arts’), combined with the prediction that this trend will accelerate over the next decade, does not bode well for the future of temporary exhibitions, which are far more expensive to curate than their permanent counterparts. For now the gallery is, like our fine language, open to everyone – but don’t make the mistake of assuming it always will be. More effective giving is all very well, but the arts cannot live by private funding alone.

The jazz band was playing as my mother and I entered National Portrait Gallery’s Late Shift Extra last week; yet as I walked through the warmly lit lobby-cum-cocktail-bar, it wasn’t I'll Be Seeing You echoing through my head, but the ominous warning track of Louise de Winter: “That’s what’s most vulnerable: the hidden bits. The late nights, the talks, the special events – where you are relying on employees to make them happen: that is what you will lose.”

This means cultural mainstays like Late Night at the Tate and Friday Lates (V&A) – but it also means new ventures like this one at the NPG. Here, ever since the start of November, galleries have been opening, live music playing and workshops working to cater for what Louise describes as the country’s “huge appetite for evening cultural events.”

On the night that I went, I saw the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize, the unapologetic collection of photographic portraits that has had jaws dropping since it opened last October. ‘Hard-hitting’ says the Indie; ‘Stunning’ says the Times; “Only two pounds each”, says the nice lady at reception. Yes, the exhibition is wallpapered with corporate branding – but even this cannot take away from cheap thrill of a night out for less than a fiver.

Nor, more importantly, can TW’s logo detract from the haunting, ethereal quality of a teenager struggling with the curse of obesity, the winner of a prison beauty pageant in Brazil, and a photo of a Harry Potter-loving orphan in Rwanda entitled Not even Magic could stop the Genocide. With over 60 intriguing faces to study, it’s unlikely you’ll tire (though if you do, their permanent galleries are scot free, and well worth a peek.). “I can’t think of a better way to spend a grey Thursday in January”, Mum remarked as we left. I, for one, hope we never have to.

Are our days in the cultural sun numbered? Is this as good as it gets? When I approached London’s museums and galleries last month, I met a wall of carefully worded press releases. “Notwithstanding cuts in government funding of 15% in real terms over the next four years, the Natural History Museum (NHM) remains committed to delivering excellent value for money in its front-line services,” said its press office. “With careful management, we will be able to continue with our planned artistic programme for the next year” agreed Southbank. Most press officers simply said it was too soon to say. But with opening hours dwindling, charges increasing and sufficient funds from philanthropists not forthcoming, it would be silly to chance it. After all - London’s only an hour away.

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