When you’ve worked in the arts for many years, you might be forgiven for looking a little askance at any new campaign to make the case for arts funding. It’s a cyclical battle that comes round with depressing regularity and the questions it raises never really change.
What language can we use to describe the value of the arts? What constitutes persuasive evidence of public benefit? Do the arts matter for their intrinsic worth or for their instrumental impact? How can we make the economic case? And, crucially, who is best placed to make the arguments? And to whom?
Artists are inveterate collectors and hoarders, with a predisposition for meticulous research, documentation and display. That much was very clear at the latest of our seminars about Artists and Museums at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston, where directory members Lyndall Phelps and Yvette Hawkins both revealed themselves to be obsessed in different ways with the power of museum objects to tell stories and excite our curiosity.
What you might call ‘the museum effect’ in contemporary art is well known. Such artists as Hanne Darboven, Susan Hiller, Mark Dion and Wolfgang Tillmans (naming only a few) have often assumed the role of curator or archivist, investigating ideas, places and natural phenomena through a process of iterative, cumulative classification and display. You can see why so many contemporary artists are eager to work with museum collections.
When the present government came into power, it swiftly consigned the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council to its bonfire of the quangos, deciding that Treasury funding for museums should instead be channelled through Arts Council England.
In many ways it seemed a sad day for museums. But one positive outcome of this re-organisation is the possibility it offers of bringing the arts funding system, and by extension artists, into a closer relationship with museums. And what could be a more natural alignment?
The National Portrait Gallery is one of those London museums that amply repays even a flying visit. As a regular visitor, you know roughly what you will find: awesome Tudor portraits that bristle with the trappings of status and power; politicians, writers, actors, musicians and celebrities galore; glimpses of people long gone and almost forgotten – all brought to life with painstaking verisimilitude or impressionistic bravura. And there are always some surprises too.
I wandered in the other day, taking advantage of a newly acquired Art Fund National Art Pass, which gives you half-price entry to major exhibitions all over the UK and free admission to over 200 museums and galleries, all for a single outlay of £39.75 per year. I didn’t have very long to spare, so I had a swift look at the current Man Ray exhibition and then quickly took in a couple of the permanent collection galleries.
It’s an inevitable aspect of running a website about art that, however much you try to get out and about, much of the contact you have with artists happens remotely by email or on social media. At the London Art Fair in January, however, we found ourselves in the welcome situation of coming face-to-face with Axisweb members and having some really interesting conversations about the kind of things that rarely crop up in our daily communications with artists in the website’s directory.
Over the last month we’ve been busy planning our stand at London Art Fair. We often get asked about how we select the artists we show. With over 2,500 artists in the directory and the possibility of only showing a handful, the short answer is that the selection process is always very difficult and involves much debate amongst the curatorial panel.
The obituary of Roy Shaw, former Director General of the Arts Council, has prompted me to reflect on the differences between our current system of arts funding and the situation 30 years ago.
Born in Sheffield to a poor family, Shaw rose to become the Professor of Adult Education at the University of Keele. It was from this position that he was recruited to run the Arts Council in 1975.
Two things are surprising about this: first of all that he was an educationalist, with a background in Workers’ Education, and secondly (my main point here) that he did not belong to the London arts establishment. Would such an appointment happen now, I wonder?
One of the advantages of being based in Leeds is the presence of the Henry Moore Institute in the city, with its programme of serious and sometimes seriously difficult exhibitions about the nature of sculpture.
I don’t use the word ‘difficult’ in a spirit of criticism. Indeed, I think it’s important that public galleries to stretch our understanding of what artists do. Good art has a quality that can’t be reduced to a ‘words of one syllable’ text panel.
A couple of days ago I had the privilege of glimpsing HMI’s Sarah Lucas exhibition during installation. It’s always a surprise to see an artist you thought you knew in a different light.
Jules and I have spent the last 24 hours on the Isle of Mull filming Adrian and Jane of ‘Strongarbh House‘ in the picture-perfect town of Tobermory, as part of a series of films on collecting for Own Art.
I am ashamed to admit that despite being a quarter Scottish this the furthest north I have ventured. The landscape is utterly captivating and is home to some of Britain’s most spectacular wildlife including fallow deer, mink, otter and if you are lucky enough to spot them – dolphins (in my case not yet!). The dramatic coastal line beckons you to explore so it’s no surprise that landscape is central to much of the artwork in the area.
I am one of a seemingly small minority of art lovers who neither made it to Hockney at the Royal Academy (much as I like his work) nor had the foresight to book advance tickets for Leonardo at the National Gallery.
Lack of forward-planning is only part of the explanation. Like Cara Sutherland, who wrote a recent Rant on the subject, I am naturally suspicious of large, crowd-pleasing exhibitions and instinctively averse to the idea of viewing art in the company of lots of other people.