BBC BLOGS - Gomp/arts

Archives for July 2010

Summer reading

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Will Gompertz | 11:25 UK time, Friday, 30 July 2010

OK: judging by the comments on my last post, you don't like Sky as much as I do. Fair enough. Anyway there'll be no blogs and no telly for the next two weeks while I'm away on holiday. I'll be on a books-only diet.

I'm packing C, Tom McCarthy's follow up to his excellent novel Remainder and Emma Donoghue's Room - both of which are on this year's Man Booker Prize long-list. Plus Dave Eggers' Zeitoun. And a couple of books I missed last year: Legend of a Suicide by David Vann and then to counter that, Gregor Muir's raucous memoir Lucky Kunst about his time hanging out with, and sponging from, those inhabiting the 1990s world of the Young British Artists.

After which I will be fit and ready for the all the festivals that erupt in Edinburgh throughout August.

Sky's hooks

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Will Gompertz | 14:43 UK time, Thursday, 29 July 2010


The Guardian ran an article on Monday about Richard Desmond's acquisition of Five, the TV channel: a 1,700-word piece that took two journalists to write.

Sean Bean playing Eddard Stark in the HBO production of Game of ThronesI'm not surprised. It was probably the only way to get two people's hands working the keyboard, as they were both clearly holding their noses at the time.

Richard Desmond attracts the sort of "Oh gawd, anybody but him" media reaction that used to be the meted out to Rupert Murdoch, the Sun-loving mogul who might not have won over all his critics, but who now has their respect.

So, the news today that Sky has signed a five-year deal with HBO to screen its back-catalogue and future programmes when existing deals expire has caused little consternation and been largely well received.

It strikes me as a canny move. Sky is currently making money and adding subscribers in a tough market and at a rate that few predicted. It has successfully broken the resolve of the middle classes who hide the tell-tale dish behind Aga flues and wisteria and can now watch sport and The Simpsons to their hearts' content while telling their neighbours about the joys of Sky Arts - of which there are many.

Sky is now targeting the next raft of the "I would never give Murdoch a penny of my money" brigade, to do just that. So buying up the rights to HBO's archive which contains some of the best television made in the last decade - with intelligent storylines and exquisite production which provoke intense philosophical chat in the drawing rooms of Hampstead - should help do the trick.

And when they do subscribe, they will find out, like that rest of us, that Sky is good. I think it was Sam Chisholm who was asked, in the early days of Sky, how it was that the broadcaster had transformed the experience of watching sport on television when the BBC and ITV had enjoyed the rights for years but never innovated in the way Sky had. "Oh, that's simple," he is reported as saying, "it's the only thing we had".

Some might say that of the £878m profits reported this morning, more could be invested in original programming, but I suspect that's not really Sky's game.

It is rights management that lies at the heart of Sky's success. Today's reports are suggesting that Sky paid £150m over five years for the rights to the HBO programme base. If that figure is correct, it would seem to be a good piece of business. For that, it's getting five years' worth of guaranteed hits - season eight of Curb Your Enthusiasm is currently being made - that appeals to a demographic the broadcaster wants to grow.

To make new programmes of that quality and quantity, with no guarantee of success, would cost significantly more and wouldn't benefit from the "brand glow" of HBO. What Sky will do, as it has with its treatment of sport and latterly the arts, is to add value through technology, promotion and packaging.

It's a winning formula at the home box office.

UK Film Council: The End?

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Will Gompertz | 18:09 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010


Sticking with films for this afternoon's post, and referencing this morning's thought: if you had taken my advice, embarked on a script about the life of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and got as far as a treatment, you might be disappointed to hear today's news that the government has shouted "Cut!" on the existence of the UK Film Council.

The reason, the government says, is the drive to cut down on unnecessary bureaucracy and costs - a position that Tim Bevan, the chairman of the council, himself took when discussing a potential merger with the British Film Institute earlier this year.

Sides are being taken as I type, with those coming out for and against the proposed abolition - but it seems inevitable that there is risk in changing the ecology of what is a fragile British film industry.

The government is keen to reiterate that it is axing the UK Film Council, not its commitment to continue to financially support the film industry. What's less clear is who will manage the funds if not the Film Council. The government has said it won't be the British Film Institute and it won't create a new agency. So who? The Arts Council? The DCMS itself with film officers? Hardly "arm's length".

The government hopes that this will herald a new era of cost-effective hits, while others worry that the result will be more akin to a disaster movie.

One thing is quite clear, though, for all those with films in some sort of conceptual form as far as any funding option is concerned - the UK Film Council will no longer be an option.

For this government agency, this is The End.


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Will Gompertz | 09:42 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010


If I were a screenwriter, I'd put aside all my pet projects, walk away from the lucrative studio re-write and give up on the 13-part series for HBO about 21st-Century Detroit and instead devote every waking moment, every creative cell, every pulse of energy into a biopic of Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks.

Mix the original Mad Max - single-minded, nomadic, uncompromising, Australian - with Frank Capra's Mr Smith - the little guy versus the system - add the magic ingredient of the man who sticks it to the Man, stir well and serve.

Arts funding: Update

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Will Gompertz | 11:38 UK time, Thursday, 22 July 2010


Lottery ticketI was speaking to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport yesterday about the implications of its much-heralded autumn spending cuts on arts institutions.

I asked if there might be some scope for Lottery money allocated to the arts - which is increasing from the current 16% of the total pot to 18% next year and 20% the year after - to be set aside to help lessen the effect of the cuts on struggling theatres, galleries, arts centres and so on in much the same way as the Arts Council England's Sustain Fund did during the recent credit-crunch-induced recession.

The department said such an initiative might be possible, although it refused to confirm one way or the other, recognising perhaps that hopes of an increase in philanthropy will have their limits - particularly for regional arts bodies.

Worth A Click: Radio 3's world music

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Will Gompertz | 11:22 UK time, Thursday, 22 July 2010


Radio 3 mapBBC Radio 3 has just launched an archive of its world music output.

It's to coincide with the 10th anniversary of its coverage of Womad.

There are over 100 hours of programmes, covering 40 countries. Terrific.

New theatrical talent

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Will Gompertz | 13:42 UK time, Wednesday, 21 July 2010


There's not a system of handicapping in the arts, no concessions given to the young and inexperienced, the poorly funded or to the degree of artistic or technical difficulty.

Everything is judged on the same criteria - is it any good? Which is tough when you are an 18-year-old rookie playwright who has just finished her A-levels and has Tom Stoppard, Terrance Rattigan, Arthur Miller and Shakespeare as benchmarks to be judged against.

All these playwrights have had their plays produced in London in the last couple of months and have enjoyed decent reviews. This is the context into which Anya Reiss finds her work being assessed.

For the critics her play Spur of the Moment, which opened at the Royal Court last night, will be seen in light of everything else they have watched.

This explains why Anya looked a bit tense last night at the premier of her first-ever professionally produced play; a story about a 12-year-old girl who has a crush on the lodger that shares her house with her argumentative parents.

She is a graduate of the Royal Court's remarkable Young Writers Programme, a 12-week evening course that takes wannabe playwrights to the threshold of professional theatre - if they're good enough.

The alumni is impressive: Laura Wade (Posh), Polly Stenham (That Face, Tusk, Tusk), Lucy Prebble (Enron) and Simon Stephens (Harper Regan) among them.

This is a list of successes that puts ever more pressure on Anya, especially as Polly Stenham was at a similar age and stage when she had a huge hit with That Face, her play about the domestic tensions between teens and parents. The productions even share the same director.

So this morning the reviews will start. I'm not a critic but having seen the play last night would have thought Anya has nothing to fear.

As the Guardian's Michael Billington suggests in his review of the play this morning, she has the talent to create scenes that reveal universal truths of the human condition. And that's a gift she shares with all good playwrights from Shakespeare to Stenham.

I made this film for Newsnight recently about the Young Writers Programme that features Anya in pre-production mode for Spur of the Moment.

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How to: Be a street performer

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Will Gompertz | 09:25 UK time, Wednesday, 21 July 2010


Is this any way for two grown men to make a living?

There have been street performers as long as there have been streets. But with the boom in live events, festivals and all things experiential, the ante has been upped.

Giant articulated animals are no longer the sole preserve of Ray Harryhausen movies; they have wandered the streets of Liverpool and London to the amazement and amusement of thousands.

But for every mega-commission such as the Sultan's Elephant, there are thousands of other performers doing their thing. Here, in this film made by colleague Sophie van Brugen, two performers talk about the ins and outs of life in a wheelie shopping basket.

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You can also see my Newsnight interview with Ray Harryhausen, marking his 90th birthday and there's an exhibition called Ray Harryhasuen - Myths and Legends at the London Film Museum.

Worth A Read: Granta 111

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Will Gompertz | 12:22 UK time, Tuesday, 20 July 2010


Mark TwainThis summer's edition of Granta Magazine is worth packing as holiday reading. Themed around the idea of "going back" - returning to a place, loved one and so on - there's a couple of stand-out articles.

Richard Russo writes about being brought up in Gloversville, USA. He mixes nostalgic yearnings for childhood with memories of the writer as a young man determined to escape a post-industrial glove-making town: a case of on the one hand...

And then there's the previously-unpublished autobiographical piece by Mark Twain about his life on a farm. It shows it was at this time that Twain met Huck Finn. He had stipulated that it was not to be published until 100 years after his death - which turned out to be April 1910. The full autobiography is being published by the University of California Press in November.

Arts funding: Where will the cuts be?

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Will Gompertz | 12:29 UK time, Thursday, 15 July 2010


Secretary of State for Culture Jeremy Hunt and Culture Minister Ed Vaizey have an unenviable job. They have inherited the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) portfolio at a time when the coalition government is demanding cuts to be offered up by all departments.

Once termed the Ministry of Fun, Messers Hunt and Vaizey might find it more like a Ministry of Glum as they preside over a period of cutting the funding of state subsidised arts bodies.

Art exhibition at Tate Britain

That won't be pleasant for them, the arts bodies or the public who have responded to what is seen as a golden age of British arts by attending theatres, museums and live events in record numbers.

In fact it must be galling for the new Tory pair as they have watched consecutive Labour DCMS ministers enjoy a period of staunch Treasury support based on a successful National Lottery and healthy public finances that they may regard as an inheritance from John Major's previous Conservative government.

Their heartfelt declaration of love of the arts prior to the election won them many friends across the sector who also appreciated their honesty when they said that cuts were inevitable.

They also strenuously argued that they would do everything in their power to make the cuts as painless as possible, that they would fight toe-to-toe with the Treasury to ensure the arts received a fair hearing.

And it is on that promise that they will be judged by the arts world. It may be bad luck that their time at the DCMS is going to be dominated by trying to solve problems that are largely not of their making but that does not absolve them of taking responsibility for the decisions they and their government are about to make.

My sense is that Jeremy Hunt will go for an early settlement with the Treasury, perhaps as soon as this week or early next week. In a recent letter sent out by the government to their funded bodies they have asked them to prepare for both a 25% and 30% cut.

Arts leaders are appalled by this possibility and are saying such a move could destroy not only large swathes of the successful British arts ecology but also the creative economy they feel the arts does so much to stimulate.

Nicholas HytnerSpeaking to the National Theatre's Nicholas Hytner yesterday, he said he was worried that the DCMS saw the arts through the prism of the Arts Council, who they perceive as being wasteful and bureaucratic, which he says is far from the reality.

According to him the vast majority of arts institutions run on a barely break-even basis, with staff that are paid handsomely in professional fulfilment but poorly in cash.

A 10% cut for them doesn't mean halving the annual champagne bill, it means deciding if the whole operation is viable or not. A 25% cut he says, probably does away with that problem, the operation closes.

Hytner says there is a way of cutting the arts that although damaging would stop what he feels could be a catastrophe. The answer he says is to "back load" any cuts, maybe start with 10% next year and only go beyond that in 2013 when Lottery money becomes available again after having been away on Olympics duty.

Meanwhile the government's hope of encouraging private individuals to plug the gap is being questioned by the country's leading philanthropists who warn that such a plan is overly optimistic. With this in mind they will know that they are under pressure to juggle the needs of the Treasury with an arts sector they have promised to protect.

Nobody expects them to stave off cuts, but the major players in the arts will expect them to at least deliver a settlement that doesn't cut too much, too soon - an outcome they say would cause unnecessary destruction.

The question being asked by the arts sector is will the culture ministers fight the arts' corner as they promised, listen to the sector's concerns and win the argument with the Treasury?

Immersive theatre meets opera

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Will Gompertz | 10:58 UK time, Wednesday, 14 July 2010


I go to the fridge for milk, the garage for petrol and the vet to fix my dog. It's a conventional approach to life, but it works.

If, however, I want to go to see some of the latest and most exciting theatre, I have to spend hours rummaging around for a pair of walking boots, a raincoat with a hood and an up-to-date Ordnance Survey map.

Thus attired I set off, with my copy of Scouting for Boys tucked under my arm, for some God-forsaken location which I can guarantee will be remote, bleak and perishingly difficult to find.

If, and it is always an if, I succeed in tracking down the "found" space in question, there is then the whole palaver of identifying the entrance and once within the "theatrical landscape" of differentiating between players and punters.

This is theatre, but not as Larry knew it. It is the world of immersive theatre, also known as promenade theatre or site-specific theatre; basically theatre that is not taking place inside a theatre.

It's not a new idea, but boy is it popular right now, with both producers and audiences. Such is the proliferation of site-specific theatre that it must be crossing the minds of those who run the Olivier Theatre Awards to add it as a new category.

Claudia Huckle and Andrew Watts

Last night I went to the opening night of The Duchess of Malfi, a new opera by the German composer Torsten Rasch commissioned by the English National Opera (this event is now sold out).

It is a co-production between ENO and Punchdrunk, a theatrical company who specialise in site-specific, immersive theatre.

ENO are supplying musicians and singers, while Punchdrunk provide actors and dancers and direction by their artistic director Felix Barrett.

Felix had said he wanted to challenge the form of opera, to break it open and place the audience at the centre. On this ambition he well and truly delivers. In this production you don't go to the opera, it comes to you.

Exterior of building where the production was stagedThe action takes place inside a characterless disused grey office block situated in a desolate urban landscape at the far easterly end of London City Airport.

At least the office block was characterless before the Punchdrunk crew set their gothic minds to turning it into a dimly lit network of smoke enthused Dickensian spaces in which Count Dracula or Count Basie would have felt equally at home.

Immersive theatre is aptly named. Sitting back in a comfy seat and nodding off 10 minutes into the production is not an option.

Firstly there are no seats and should you be unwise enough to stand still for too long the chances are some peasant will appear from nowhere making you jump and thereafter jumpy.

For this production you are made to wear a white Venetian mask and told quite firmly not to remove it from your face. An instruction that might be bearable for the clear sighted, but those of us with specs it is an impossibility.

Duchess of MalfiEither you wear them outside the mask which means they will fall off and be trodden on, or you put the mask over them which has the same sensation as the school bully spending an evening pushing some hard plastic into your face.

The other problem with the masks is they restrict your peripheral vision to such an extent you end up barging hopelessly into other theatre-goers like a drunk on the train.

Or worse, frankly, they barge into you. So a 1980s jacket with a decent set of shoulder pads and a pair of shin-pads for when you walk into the edge of an unsighted box are advisable.

But once immersed, the whole thing becomes beguiling as you follow the action around an array of ominous corners and floors.

Or it does if you have guile. It is possible, if you are particularly dull, to stand in a space, move occasionally and thus miss out on all the action. Still, you'd go home on top of your e-mails.

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But if you are sensible (follow one of the conductors) the experience, and I choose this word carefully, is thrilling. To be surrounded by some of the most talented musicians in the country, playing a previously unheard score, sung by an excellent cast amid extravagantly weird sets is thrilling.

Unlike an opera in a theatre where the music and singing are the focal point of your attentions with the acting coming a distant second, the Punchdrunk immersive experience relegates the music to something more akin to a soundtrack as the action taking place around you.

Claudia HuckleThe acting and action become the driving forces of the piece, along with the constant need to be on your mettle to ensure the cast doesn't go one way and you the other.

Claudia Huckle is compelling and convincing as the Duchess of Malfi, a role in which she is asked to sing and act in a manner she has not encountered before.

The rest of the cast, at least the ones I saw (there were plenty of others in distant corners acting out accompanying scenes) equipped themselves with poise and presence, especially Andrew Watts playing the Duchess's incestuous twin brother with grotesque glee.

I asked John Berry, ENO's artistic director, if he planned a cast recording of the opera. He didn't. But then went on to say that he could imagine the piece being presented as a straight opera in the Coliseum.

Now, that would be counter to the original concept, but I can see the merit in the idea. Having been totally absorbed by the action last night, I would now like to be given the chance to see the music foregrounded and have the chance to listen to it properly.

But the thought that most struck me last night was where else in the world could this work have been commissioned?

Which other country has an arts scene so confident, adventurous, ambitious and thoughtful that risks such as this production are not only seen through, but executed with such aplomb? The answer in my experience is nowhere, the UK leads the world.

But for how long? According to the ENO it is this sort of avant-garde production that will cease once the coalition government's cuts are made later this year.

Or, as someone put it last night, "this is the end for programming like this, there will never be another season like it." I hope they're wrong.

Prom 47: Cornelius Cardew

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Will Gompertz | 10:03 UK time, Tuesday, 13 July 2010


Last night, I replaced the Gompertz household's Match World Cup 2010 wallchart with the BBC Proms 2010 Plan Your Summer at a Glance wallchart; replacing one set of international stars with another.

The new wallchart struck me in two ways:

(1) Of the 58 photographs of featured performers and conductors, there is only one non-white face: the conductor and organist Wayne Marshall, whose photo sits below left of a - the only - robot. For the "World's Greatest Classical Musical Festival", it was a surprising visual synopsis of the 21st-Century international classical music scene.

(2) Friday 20 August, Prom 47, 2200 BST: Cage, Cardew, Skempton, Feldon with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and John Tilbury on the piano.

This is the Prom for me. Cornelius Cardew was a gifted musician who became enamoured of the music of the German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of many German contemporary composers to renounce all romanticism in favour of the purely intellectual (for which, read experimental). This was in part a reaction to the war, but also a response to technology and Duchampian ideas of chance.

Karlheinz Stockhausen conducting an orchestra

Anyway, Cardew went for it and ended up creating the Scratch Orchestra, which was a group of musicians put together on an ad-hoc basis, of different abilities, with chance being the modus operandi; a sort of 1960s version of flashmob.

But this was far more serious than a latter-day stunt; Cardew was a thoughtful and serious man, the output of his Scratch Orchestra in some ways sublime. Here you can see a re-enactment by an American group called Society for the Activation of Social Space through Art and Sound.

Cardew was interested in the idea of improvisation as a way of reaching something original and truthful - a philosophy that he shared with the AMM Group which continues today with this Prom's British pianist, John Tilbury, among its ranks. Tilbury was a friend and since his death, biographer of Cornelius Cardew and has written knowledgeable essays such as this one.

Cardew eventually rejected Stockhausen and the rest of the avant-garde, seeing them as being just as elitist as those in traditional classical music. He became more and more involved in politics and the left. Such was his commitment to left-wing philosophies that when he was killed in 1981 by a hit-and-run driver while still only in his mid-40s, there were some who suspected the deadly hand of MI5 to be responsible.

Cornelius Cardew was a one-off - as will be this Prom, with John Tilbury playing piano.

A play, La Bete, by rhymes beset

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Will Gompertz | 14:29 UK time, Monday, 12 July 2010


Joanna LumleyRhyming couplets are for me
Of dull plays the epitome

They steal the show and dominate
And that I cannot tolerate

The story's only secondary
To the wordsmith's wizardry

When Shakespeare had a story to tell
He found that blank verse worked quite well

True, at times, he'd resort to rhyme
But, thank the Bard, not all the time

La Bete, 'tis writ in rhyming verse
Which, to me, seems quite perverse

As it was written recently
It really didn't need to be

I know it pastiches Moliere
But about that I do not care

There are other ways to capture his tone
Without resorting to rhyming drone

Mark Rylance was a tour de force
As a playwright, one who could be coarse

So, regardless of the rhyme
He gave us all a real good time

David Hyde Pierce deals with the verse-only diet
Although at times he was too quiet

And Joanna Lumley does a good turn
As a princess with time to burn

But if he wants to hear applause
The modern playwright ought to pause

Before he writes a play in rhyme -
It might not stand the test of time and can be really annoying

All about the subject, and not the artist

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Will Gompertz | 16:00 UK time, Wednesday, 7 July 2010


This morning the National Portrait Gallery launched a campaign to raise money from the public to go towards the total cost of £554,937.50 to buy a portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo. He's hardly a household name, but he is important.

Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman DialloThe painting according to the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) is the first known portrait that honours a named African subject as an individual and an equal, and thereby gives a useful insight into Britain in the 18th Century.

This statement tells you all you need to know about what makes the NPG different from and, from the perspective of social history, more interesting than other art galleries. It makes clear that the sitter is more important than the artist. The NPG doesn't want this painting because it's an exquisite example of 18th Century British art, but because the story of the sitter and its significance is so compelling.

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, or Job ben Solomon as his English friends liked to call him, was a west African slave trader. The phrase "what goes around comes around" probably wasn't in much use in those days but, had it been, perhaps the wealthy Ayuba might have been more on his guard.

One day on a business trip to sell some slaves down the River Gambia, he suffered the indignity of being captured and enslaved himself. He was put onto a British ship bound for Maryland where he was sold to work on a tobacco plantation. An English lawyer and missionary called Thomas Bluett met him and decided he was "no common slave", so in the early 1730s he whisked him off to London and introduced him to high society.

Black, Muslim, highly-educated individuals were not common in those days, leading to Ayuba becoming something of a celebrity. His friends arranged for a portrait to be painted of him and chose the artist William Hoare of Bath, a founding member of the Royal Academy.

Ayuba was a religious man and didn't really go for the idea of a portrait, worrying that people would worship the picture. Or, as Thomas Bluett put it in his memoirs:

"Job's aversion to pictures of all sorts, was exceeding great; insomuch, that it was with great difficulty that he could be brought to sit for his own. We assured him that we never worshipped any picture, and that we wanted his for no other end but to jeep us in mind of him. He at last consented to have it drawn; which was done by Mr Hoare."

In fact it is the earliest known painting by the artist. The picture was painted in 1733 and, apparently at the sitter's request, has him in traditional dress and carrying a copy of the Qur'an around his neck.

And since then, till now, it has not been seen in public. It was thought to be lost and was only known about though Bluett's memoir, but then it turned up at auction in 2009 where it was bought by a private collector who wants to take it abroad. The exports committee stepped in and now it is on show, for all to see at the National Portrait Gallery, while they attempt to raise the funds to secure it for the nation.

It seems likely they will, as they have already raised over £500,000 with contributions from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and the NPG's own contribution.

Back in the mid-1700s the money was raised for Ayuba Suleiman Diallo to be released from slavery and sent back to Africa. Whereupon he started up in business again. As a slave trader.

London's new red light district

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Will Gompertz | 12:55 UK time, Tuesday, 6 July 2010


I am sitting in the middle of Hyde Park in London where a surreal red mist has descended.

Jean Nouvel's Serpentine Gallery Pavilion

Everywhere I look, everyone I can see is red; I am living and breathing redness. It's like being stuck in a deep wound: troubling but at least it's warm.

Jean Nouvel, a 65-year-old French architect, is to blame for this rouge apparition. It is in his newly commissioned Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in which I am sitting.

The entire creation is red: the steel pillars, the dividing curtains, the retractable roof awnings, the chairs, the tables, the bar, the light fittings, the whole caboodle.

Jean NouvelOh, and the chess sets (with half black squares and pieces), the hammocks, the table tennis tables, frisbees, kites...

Arrgh, it's too much, I'm moving towards the natural light...

That's better. My retinas are grateful and I'm thinking heat is the least of the Devil's problems - all that redness, no wonder he is so mixed up.

And no wonder the Italians asked Jean Nouvel to design the Ferrari Factory in Modena, red being the favourite colour of both.

If I remember correctly the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, which he also designed, is replete with red too. Jean Nouvel likes red. But then so did Matisse who said, "things only become what they are when I see them with the colour red."

And that's Nouvel's point too. It is not simply about redness, but how it affects the other colours that are within its glow. The green grass of Hyde Park looks much greener, almost backlit, whereas the grey road is white as is the blue sky. This evening the light effect will be different again - more saturated, like a fauvist painting.

If you stand on the road and look towards the pavilion (at which point your eyes stop fizzing) it cuts a precise, neat shape against the gnarled tress, which has a similar effect to a person in a well tailored suit (red of course) would have walking along Brighton beach on a busy summer weekend. Order, if not restored, is at least present.

This is the tenth Serpentine Gallery Pavilion to be commission. Each year for the past decade they have asked an architect to create a temporary pavilion to sit in front of the main gallery.

Previous architects have included: Rem Koolhaas, Saana, Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid. It's a roll-call of some of the world's greatest architectural talents.

What is remarkable, when you take into account the boom in new arts buildings in the UK over the past decade, is that for each of the architects it was their first completed British commission.

And for that the Serpentine should be congratulated. It's a shame though that the money has not been available to buy each pavilion for the nation at the end of its installation period at the Serpentine Gallery.

They are sold (as a way of financing the projects), but are now either in private collections or abroad.

The nine previous pavilions and now Jean Nouvel's red tenth would have made an excellent collection of contemporary architecture for the country. They could have been installed at somewhere such as the Yorkshire Sculpture Park or spread individually around the country in public parks.

Rammellzee RIP

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Will Gompertz | 11:21 UK time, Monday, 5 July 2010


New York goes through periods when, if you want to stalk the zeitgeist, it is the only place to go hunting. One such moment was the late 1970s and early '80s. The resonance of that period's underground arts scene still infiltrates the output of today's zeitgeisters.

Untitled by Jean-Michel BasquiatRammellzee, who died last week at the age of 49, was at the centre of the action. Involved in the emerging graffiti, hip-hop and neo-expressionist movements, he was a main player in a city of main players that included Nan Goldin, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Jenny Holzer, Charlie Ahearn, Futura 2000 and Grandmaster Flash.

He stole the show in Charlie Ahearn's 1983 movie Wild Style with this performance, produced the stand-out track for the equally influential graf movie Style Wars, was among a stellar line-up on Streetsounds Electro 2 partnering with K-Ron for the 10-minute classic Beat Bop.

The neo-expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was part friend, part foe. But when they worked together, it was good. This video for Toxic shows both parties on form [some language not safe for work].

Basquiat succumbed to the spoils of being at the eye of the creative storm. Julian Schnabel - another prominent member of NYC's neo-expressionist movement, whose art wasn't as accomplished as Basquiat's - became a good movie director starting with a very watchable bio-pic of Basquiat.

Framing much of this scene was Collaborative Projects, known as Colab, a state-funded not-for-profit artists' collective. They put on exhibitions such as The Times Square Show in disused spaces that had a raw energy and passion that is utterly absent in today's champagne and nibbles openings.

Jenny Holzer talks about the scene in this interview. Where now, though, is the happening place? I don't think London or New York. Mexico City, maybe?

Mr Saatchi's surprising offer

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Will Gompertz | 14:11 UK time, Thursday, 1 July 2010


Charles Saatchi has announced today that he is giving artworks worth more than £25m to the nation, plus his gallery. He has also said that he intends to change the name of the gallery to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) when he retires.

The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone LivingThe gallery's statement says that the "Saatchi Gallery is currently in discussion with potential government departments who would own the works on behalf of the nation." What is a "potential government department"? I spoke to the Department for Culture Media and Sport, and it was the first that department had heard of the offer.

In fact, everybody I spoke to was non-plussed by the announcement - including those at Tate, who might consider that they already run the nation's contemporary art museum.

The offer raises several questions, such as: Saatchi might be giving the nation his collection and gallery, but is the nation - the government - accepting it?

I'm off to find out.

Update 1736: A response from Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport:

"Charles Saatchi has built up a collection of huge international importance. His decision to gift these works to the nation is an act of incredible generosity and I'd like to thank him on behalf of the Government. Philanthropy is central to our vision of a thriving cultural sector and this is an outstanding example of how Britain can benefit from individual acts of social responsibility."

What makes the Ulster Museum excellent, original and innovative?

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Will Gompertz | 12:45 UK time, Thursday, 1 July 2010


The Ulster Museum won the Art Fund Prize last night and with it a cheque for £100,000. That's a big win at the best of times, but right now with all this talk of 30% cuts in public subsidy for arts institutions it constitutes a major windfall.

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Excellence, originality and innovation were the judges' criteria. Having visited the Ulster Museum recently, I can vouch that all three were present. As they should be, frankly: the place has been under wraps for the last three years undergoing a £17m redevelopment, turning a dark and dingy turn-off into a bright and airy turn-on.

Or as Tim Cooke, the Museum's director put it: "the old building was designed to keep people out; this one welcomes them in". He's an ebullient, energetic man who is clearly driven by improving the cultural offer in Ulster. He talks a lot of sense, although I was a little disappointed when he told me how he intended to spend his winnings.

He plans to install more digital interactive displays. Museum bosses are very keen on all this stuff, but in my experience audiences are not. If ever I want a quiet contemplative time away from the crowds in a busy museum, I always head for its "digital space", where I can guarantee the only thing that will disturb me is the gentle whir of 30 highly-specked computers resting in "sleep" mode.

The Ulster Museum's redevelopment is impressive and stands comparison with the best. But the concept that seemed to capture the imagination of the visitors was not fancy or digital or expensive. OK, there were one or two computers in the "interactive spaces", but they were used to put bags on. What the visitors raved about was real-life interaction: being given permission to pick up and inspect the objects.

And the feature that had most "visitor engagement" was as low-tech as it gets. A picture window has been incorporated into the new design, which looks out over the botanic gardens. In a moment of real excellence, originality and innovation, somebody came up with the idea of putting a table at the foot of the window. On the table is a sheet of the types of birds you might spot from this vantage point and some binoculars with which to do so.

Genius. And cheap. And not a plug in sight.

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