Category Archives: culture

Love culture, love community

Ouseburn Open Studios, Biscuit Tin Studios - LOVE

Ouseburn Open Studios, Biscuit Tin Studios - LOVE (by at least 2 different artists).

Valentine’s Day came around again this week. The shops and the Web were full of love…for some lucky people.

I do not like this day. The only valentines I have ever had have been from friends who wanted to console me for never having a romantic valentine…oh, and one that was theoretically for me but I never believed was (and, in retrospect, I think my doubts were correct). Valentine’s Day is usually just a reminder of how romance has steered clear of me.

My love of culture has sustained me through the years and, appropriately for the week, one of the big public culture events of the year was also happening: the Arts Council for England’s State of the Arts conference. Consequently, there was much discussion about the state of arts and culture policy (or lack thereof) in my tweetstream. I also saw a number of tweets from people at the conference indicating that they felt some passion for culture was missing from the conference. It was probably just as well that I could not go to the event.

I am dismayed and angry at times when even the people who work within culture in the UK are defeatist in tone when discussing its importance. Yes, it can be difficult to be positive and rational when culture comes under such constant attack in the public sphere. Yes, it is frustrating to have to try to ‘prove’ its value constantly. Banks, car manufacturers and the construction industry do not seem to be under the same pressure to argue for their right to exist, even when they are struggling to keep going. Surely we love our culture and our communities enough to keep encouraging others to understand?

Last night, I was at the second of three workshops about local people getting involved with future planning issues relating to a specific area. The idea is that there will be a group of residents, people who work in the area, and other interested people who live nearby and visit frequently, who can look at developer’s proposals with an informed eye. It is an area with a special character, not quaint in a traditional sense but with a long industrial past. It has become increasingly diverse with a vibrant creative spirit in amongst current industry; green areas rich with wildlife (kingfishers have been seen along the river); and the sound of bands echoing off cobbled streets and walls covered in lively spray-painted art. There are an increasing number of buildings that have been converted into studios for artists, craftspeople, architects, designers and other creative businesses.

The talks at last night’s workshop were about how quality of design can be assessed in more objective ways. Infographics showing how people worked better and crime was less in well-designed places showed us the bright possibilities when design works well. People are healthier, work and study better when they have good quality culture. One study showed that psychiatric patients recover faster in a well-designed building. Love of a well-designed environment can help communities to form and be sustainable. This is not a new idea, of course. Idealists have been building places that would function better, look better, and foster community love, for hundreds of years.

Something that I had noticed at an initial project meeting was the enthusiasm that people generally had for the street art in the area. There are several locations where building owners have given permission for their walls to be covered in art. One building has a notice on it with a polite request that street artists do not paste on or paint certain parts of the building. This seems to have been respected, and there are two good pieces pasted on temporary window covers on it. It is this kind of response that makes me hope that culture and community love will continue to make that area very special.

People (especially, it seems, politicians) underestimate how much culture is the glue that keeps society together. The North East has been using culture for decades as a means to stop decline of post-industrial areas and to kickstart regeneration. Sometimes the culture initiatives come from the community, sometimes they are led by the local authorities or the universities. Some extraordinary love of culture has become apparent.

If you get a chance, go and see the Pitmen Painters play (it may cause a tear in the eye), or read the book by William Feaver, and go to see the pitmen’s paintings. They wanted to study art. They learned through painting and documented their own community along the way.

Baltic Mill near the end of the Turner Prize Show in 2012. JED2_72_020655

Baltic Mill near the end of the Turner Prize Show in 2012. Copyright Janet E Davis.

At the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012, the Turner Prize show came to the Baltic for the first time. The queues for it were lengthy, the audience very varied. There was even a long queue to see it on the last weekend. One of the local newspapers, The Journal, could not disguise its trumphant tone: “Turner Prize visitor figures at Baltic put London to shame.” Not all the record-breaking number of visitors were from the North East, but many were. The North East needs more of these major contemporary exhibitions. There was an immense sense of pride that the North East was hosting one of the big annual visual arts events. It is a pity that the North East does not have something like the John Moores Painting Prize because there would almost certainly be an enthusiastic audience for such a show.

The North East retained a remarkably relatively positive attitude through decades of industrial decline in the 20th century. It is an area with a very strong regional cultural identity that goes way beyond the sentimental stereotype of the flat-capped bloke who is accompanied to allotment and pub by his whippet. It is an area that also embraces national and international culture, from the Royal Shakespeare Company to the Tall Ships Race and everything in between. There is a warm spirit in the crowd, a sense of community, at such events.

For a culture professional, the best place to live is London because it has most of the best culture jobs in the UK. The love of culture in the rest of the country is at least as strong, however, and helps to sustain through the difficult times and to rebuild or remodel commnunities as circumstances change. Culture is about people. Love culture, love communities. That sounds like idealistic, sentimental mush but is, in fact, a true love that works.

'Euromarket' street art on Lime Street. Photograph © Janet E Davis.

'Euromarket' street art on Lime Street. Photograph © Janet E Davis.

High art for the masses

Fountain, Trafalgar Square © Janet E Davis

Fountain with National Gallery entrance in background, Trafalgar Square © Janet E Davis

Often, I would be one of the first to defend the right of public cultural institutions to charge for special exhibitions, or even a modest cost for entry (provided there are appropriate exceptions and concessions). They need to have money to open to the public, and temporary exhibitions of work mostly borrowed from others has been one way of also making more money. I should also state at this point that I knew a lot about the costs and income of such places at one time because I was involved in the monitoring of expenditure and income for, and in project planning of, about 140 heritage sites.

I was interested to read Charles Saatchi’s piece in the Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’ section: ‘£20 for an exhibition – are museums fooling the public, or themselves?’ especially his statement:

But even London’s leading museums, admirable in so many ways, only earn about 7% of their annual costs from ticket sales – the rest being provided by the public purse, and sponsorship.

It would be interesting to see if this relatively low proportion is at the same sort of level at provincial museums. His assertion that it would be easier to attract sponsors to provide more funding if the special exhibitions were free to all may be true in London. I do wonder whether it would help to encourage sponsors elsewhere in the country.

I do agree with Charles Saatchi that exhibitions should be free, but I am not yet convinced that they could find ways of filling in the income gap beyond London. If it were that easy, we would not have had museums closing or having to reduce their opening hours to save money.

The principle of people having access to experience some of the finest achievements of culture and knowledge was well-established by the late 19th century. Successful industrialists set up museums and libraries in towns and cities throughout Britain. Many libraries were founded on collections donated by earlier, 18th century benefactors who believed that it would benefit all to have access to culture.

Henry Cole had argued for the importance of educating everyone about good art and design. He pushed for the founding of the V&A Museum (Victoria & Albert Museum) and set it up to:

  1. inspire designers
  2. educate ordinary people about art and design
  3. encourage industrialists to manufacture well-designed products that could compete with any from elsewhere in the world.

Henry Cole could see clearly the connection between good design and the country’s commercial success. He understood that by educating everyone about what good art and design is, not only does the country get better designers and makers, but also better-educated customers who expect better design.

One of the most exciting developments of the last 200 years has been the increasing opening up of the best of cultural heritage in our public museums, galleries and historic properties to almost everybody in the UK for free, or at a reasonably affordable price. The best art and design, including architecture, has been produced for the rich. Traditionally in Britain for many centuries, this meant mostly for the Church, royalty, aristocrats and the wealthiest of the upper middle class.

By the early 19th century, the government of the day was sufficiently concerned by the standard of Britain’s designers to have set up the Government School of Design in 1837. This became the National Art Training School in 1853 (and usually called the South Kensington Schools in the later 19th century). Bursaries enabled the best students from from less affluent families and from elsewhere in Britain to study there. The students were able to study some of the best art and design in the world in the South Kensington Museum (later renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum).

Although the South Kensington Schools were intended to train young men and women to become designers or art teachers, many went on to be professional fine artists. During the 1860s and 1870s, many of the graphic artists who worked on the rapidly proliferating illustrated journals and newspapers were those students as they emerged into full-time professional work. These publications were the Web of the day. They went into homes throughout the United Kingdom, and the illustrations (including those in holiday and other special supplements) were cut out and pinned to the walls in even the poorest labourer’s cottage.

Fast-forward to 1960s Britain: art and design is at the heart of a  post-war contemporary culture renaissance. Art schools produce some of the great rock and pop bands as well as some of the most challenging artists and coolest of designers.  Many in the rest of the world want what Britain creates. Meanwhile, Woolworth’s stock framed pictures for the masses: clowns crying, a herd of white horses galloping out of the waves, mediterranean waifs with huge eyes crying, Constable’s Suffolk idylls, Tretchikoff’s ‘Chinese Girl’ (more usually known as the ‘Green Lady’).

The British masses also had access to some of the greatest art and design in the world in their public museums and galleries. There were grants to enable the talented from any socio-economic level to go to art school. The art schools produced designers so talented that companies from elsewhere in the world snapped them up (sometimes offering places before they had graduated). One of the most successful companies in the world (at the time of writing) which has had most influence on design so far in the 21st century has a design team headed by a British designer.

It is vitally important to our society both culturally and economically that all have access to see and learn about the finest art and design. The UK is a special place where for centuries there has been cultural stability and flux simultaneously as trade and political connections bring different cultural influences from everywhere else in the world.  This provides a great environment in which creativity can flourish if people have access to it.

We need our public museums and galleries, and we need to keep the free ones free to encourage future generations to continue the superb British tradition of creativity. This is especially important in an age when tuition fees are likely to deter many potential talented people from studying at university. Both our culture and our country’s economy would be badly affected if only the wealthy had access to the best of art and design. We need the masses to access and understand ‘high’ art.

Further reading

Charles Saatchi, ‘£20 for an exhibition – are museums fooling the public, or themselves?’ Comment is Free, The Guardian, Monday 30th January 2012 14:30 GMT.

<http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/30/museums-free-admission-art-exhibitions?CMP=twt_fd&gt; last accessed 8th February 2012.

Javier Pes, ‘Ten years of free entry, but can it last?’ The Art Newspaper, 1st February, 2012.

<http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Ten-years-of-free-entry-but-can-it-last/25518&gt; last accessed 8th February 2012.