Category Archives: heritage

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.

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Opening discussions on a secret valley

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Fancy that! ('fancy' copper-coloured pigeon with feathered legs amongst feral pigeons, Ouseburn).

On the evening of 1st November 2011, I did something extremely unusual for me: I went to a meeting about urban planning issues. It was the start of a community consultation process about the Ouseburn area in Newcastle upon Tyne.

IMG_6162 Blocked-up doorway in brick wall, Ouseburn. Janet E Davis.

Blocked-up doorway in brick wall, Ouseburn.

The Ouseburn (also written as ‘Ouse Burn’) is a small river in a steep valley, and ‘the Ouseburn’ is commonly used to mean the entire valley, or even the whole area. Part of the valley, much of it formerly owned by Lord Armstrong, has been turned into public parks: Paddy Freeman’s Park, Jesmond Dene (‘dene’ means ‘steep, wooded valley’), Armstrong Park, Heaton Park. Then there is the interruption in the valley: City Stadium. The river was put into a culvert, and the valley was used as a rubbish tip. People who knew the area then can remember the smell and vast quantity of flies in the houses around it (many houses were demolished in late 20th century), and tell of smoke (or steam) rising from the ground for years after the tip had been covered over.

The City Council discovered that the land was too unstable to construct the buildings and stands for the planned stadium so it remains as a green amphitheatre with a rough running track and footpaths around the outside. The valley reappears at the southern end of City Stadium, and in grand style as the various bridges and viaducts are revealed. There are sheep and goats bleating, cockerels crowing, pigs oinking, sometimes the clatter of horses’ shoes on cobbles. In spring, the air is filled with birdsong and flurries of feathers as birds rush to gather food and push it into their offspring. A couple of people have told me that they have seen the jewelled flash of kingfishers fishing in the Ouseburn.

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Boats on and by the Ouseburn

This is no rural idyll, however. This was Newcastle’s first modern industrial quarter, starting in the 1600s when it was outside the Town Walls. The valley’s proximity to the heart of Newcastle and the principal transport route of the Tyne made it ideal for developing industry. There was a market in the town for goods produced in Ouseburn, a population to provide labour, and goods could easily be exported from there to further afield.

Industry in the valley during the 1600s to 1900s included a leadworks, glassworks, blacksmithing, flax mill, potteries and a toffee factory. There is still a really interesting mix of people including motor vehicle engineers, architects, craftspeople and artists.

There is a small farm (the Ouseburn Farm) to educate and demonstrate farming and ecology; and the Stepney Bank Stables not only provide riding lessons but also unique personal development work to help people gain confidence and social skills (please look at their website to find out more about their extraordinary charitable work). The livestock and wildlife seems fairly unperturbed by loud rock music produced by some of the music-focused businesses also based in the valley.

At the event we attended, we were asked to write on a note a word that described Ouseburn – “the Ouseburn-ness of Ouseburn.” I wrote several but the one that I especially remember is “gritty.” Apart from the metaphorical grit, there is literally a lot of grit on paths and on the ground surfaces of derelict areas. There is also broken glass, burnt tyres, charred fencing, polystyrene packaging, bits of bicycle and all kinds of discarded things. There are certainly rats. I have seen some of them, and they always look remarkably plump.

I was not sure what to expect of the Community Design Vision Project launch, or what kind of people to expect to meet there. The Design Council and CABE has funded Northern Architecture to work with the Ouseburn Trust on this project. I had heard of it when Northern Architecture had asked me in a tweet if I were coming to it. Such a direct approach was good because it made it very clear that I could be involved. It came at a time when I had started to think that I could and should be involved more directly with my city’s environment in my spare time. Once before, I had expressed willingness to be involved with a council-led environment project but they never contacted me again, which had put me off trying to be involved with such things. This event encouraged me again.

The other community people there, as well as the facilitators, were really interesting and most people were friendly. After going round the activity tables, we chose a table to sit at and discuss issues in a little more depth. The facilitator for each table then summarised his or her table’s discussion for all. Strong themes that emerged from all was the sense of being custodians of the place; and the strong feeling that Ouseburn is our secret, almost a hidden valley.

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Where the Ouseburn and the Tyne meet.

What really fascinated me was the support for the street art and skateboarders. I had intended to speak up about the need to leave space for them, and had been prepared for people to think this was not a good idea, but there seemed to be a lot of agreement that the street art added a vibrancy to the area. Some of the businesses give permission for walls and metal shutters to be painted. I would like to see more space for them. I find the iconography and styles of the paintings fascinating, and clearly many others enjoy them too. There is an energy in the relatively ephemeral nature of these paintings, and the fact that their ephemerality is the result of a social process.

I was going to raise the question about the skateboarders too, but I was very pleased to hear another group talking about it. I wondered if the skateboarders who sneak into the ground that is due to be redeveloped realise that we notice and are sympathetic to their need for suitable space. Then I wondered if we can get them involved in this aspect of the civic space.

At one point, I remember suggesting that Ouseburn could take much more daring new architectural design. I am thinking of quite small buildings, in scale with most of the current buildings. Part of the valley is overlooked by part of the splendid, award-winning (and Listed) Byker Wall by Ralph Erskine. The most recently opened new office space in the valley is the intriging new Toffee Factory, a project in which the architects took a less traditional approach to conserving interesting built heritage.

The meeting seemed to conclude that we do not want to see the Ouseburn preserved in aspic, that we want some raw edges, creativity, energy. We also agreed that although we want to encourage businesses, we do not want to see it taken over by the big corporations. We agreed that there is a delicate balance to be maintained between order and chaos, preservation and development, creative businesses and gentrification.

The subsequent events should prove even more interesting.

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Street art in the Ouseburn area.

Further reading

Ouseburn Trust http://www.ouseburntrust.org.uk/

Community Design Vision Project’s launch, Ouseburn Trust’s website.

Northern Architecture http://www.northernarchitecture.com/

The Design Council and CABE http://www.designcouncil.org.uk/

Street art in Ouseburn (as a slide show on Flickr)