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Archives for September 2010


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Will Gompertz | 10:45 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010


The interview took place in a subterranean recording studio on Great Titchfield Street in London, which probably once housed a thriving clothes warehouse back in the days when the area was a centre for the rag trade.

A steep, narrow staircase, similar to those found in Amsterdam townhouses, led down to a small room in which a full-size recording desk had been installed along with a large black leather sofa upon which sat a diverse group of casually-clothed music PRs, pop-star minders and studio runners.

They were all big; none appeared to have anything to do. It made for the sort of mildly intimidating, slightly surreal atmosphere laced with an air of criminality that Guy Richie so loves to evoke.

There was no welcome, no civilities: just perfunctory instructions stating that the interview would take no longer than a quarter of an hour and that their sound man, not the BBC's, would record the conversation.

Two sets of glass doors were discreetly tucked away around the corner like an en-suite bathroom in a tiny one-bedroom flat. They led into a cupboard-sized room with a small round table, two chairs and two microphones.

Carlos Santana


At the far side of the table, wearing a peaked cap and sporting his trademark moustache sat the Mexican-born, guitar-playing 63-year-old rock legend, Carlos Santana.

On the table in front of him were two empty bottles of beer, an empty bottle of Coke, a page-long printed list of all the interviews he was doing during that afternoon and a square pink sticky note with a few words scribbled in biro.

Carlos Santana was welcoming, in the way a polite homeowner is welcoming after being doorstepped by a Jehovah's Witness. He was courteous, but clear that he owned the conversational threshold and would not allow it to be breached.

He talked about his moment of arrival into the public's consciousness at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. And about his first three albums, Santana I, II and III. He discussed the creative necessity to continually hire and fire musicians and of his influences from BB King to Robert Plant.

He reeled off lists of names as if calling out a school register: Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Eric Clapton, plus producers, drummers and other assorted band-members and individuals that made up the scene in the 1970s and '80s.

Sometimes he would prefix a person's name with the word "brother". At first it seemed a random gesture and not a title he was bestowing on a person to whom he was close or that he considered possessed a particular talent or humanity. But after a while it became clear it was a lyrical gesture: adding the word so that the soundscape of his sentence flowed.

He happily answered all the questions, packaging his replies with well-rehearsed anecdotes as all celebrities do after being interviewed many thousands of times. His responses fell into a recognisable pattern.

The first sentence or two was a direct reaction to the question; the beginnings of a normal conversation. Then he caught himself and bought time by reeling off a list of people, songs or places. And then he glanced at his pink sticky note and its scrawled contents. At which point he would talk about love and peace and understanding: without fail, every time and for several minutes.

He was constructing the conversation like one of his songs: a bit of jamming at the beginning followed by a verse, before a quick look down as a reminder of the words and then straight into the chorus. He was far more interested in promoting his world-view than he was his new album of rock guitar covers called Guitar Heaven.

Which was both heartening and sad. Does anyone want anything more from Carlos Santana other than his music? As with the opening of the Gauguin exhibition at Tate Modern this week, there has been much talk of that artist's character.

But faced with the magnificence of his work and achievements, who cares? Is it not what an artist does - not what they say or how they behave - that is important?

Carlos Santana finished with an anecdote about Eric Clapton charging $1 to play on his 1999 album, Supernatural, which went on to sell over 20 million units and return Santana back into the limelight after several years in the shade.

And then the glass doors opened; the interview finished. One of the burly men ushered a 20-something, clean-cut, bespectacled music journalist into the booth.

Climbing back up the steep stairs the speakers from the studio relayed the next interview. Santana answered the first question with an off-the-cuff sentence, paused, recited a list of people he had worked with, paused again, and then in his softly-spoken, rhythmical way, talked about the need for peace, love and understanding.

This extract of my conversation with Carlos Santana was broadcast on the Today programme this morning.

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Gauguin: An artist for today

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Will Gompertz | 11:23 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010


Say what you like about Paul Gauguin - the egotistical, self-publicising, ruthless, philandering lothario with a penchant for young girls - the man could paint. And sculpt. And draw. And write.

Painting by Gauguin

Tate Modern's retrospective of the French post-impressionist opens on Thursday and features all these aspects of his work. Unsurprisingly, it is the sizeable collection of his paintings that lights up the show.

Seeing them at close quarters, you realise how influenced he was by Degas: the photographic crops; the thick black outlines; the fascination with young women.

In fact, when Gauguin was doing a stint as a stockbroker - a job Jeff Koons did at a similar age and stage roughly 100 years later - he acquired an artwork by Degas, who then returned the compliment when Gauguin started out by buying ten of his.

It is not really possible to appreciate what a brilliant colourist he was - as is also the case with Francis Bacon - until a roomful of evidence is before your eyes.

Or to witness just how influential he was. And not only on the expressionism of Van Gogh (who called him "the master") or on the saturated colours of the fauves (Derain, Matisse), but with his fantastical narrative imaginings that foreshadowed the work of the surrealists some 30 years later. The most unexpected outcome of seeing an early preview of the exhibition, though, was how contemporary Gauguin feels.

He left Paris for an artists' colony in Brittany because he was fed up with city life and its capitalism, greed and obsession with technology.

He yearned for another way of living and harboured romantic ideals that resonate in today's nu-folk movement. And his otherworldly imaginings, designed to escape the pervading doctrine of realism, can be seen in the resurgence of interest in vampires, science fiction and the Other.

And his work continues to influence artists today. Chris Ofili, Peter Doig and Fiona Rae are all signed-up members of the Gauguin Appreciation Society. But there is one big difference.

Contemporary artists nowadays, even those on the B-list, are able to make a handsome living out of their craft. Those on the A-list are millionaires. Van Gogh famously died penniless and Gauguin wasn't that much better off.

Here's my report on the Gauguin exhibition for last night's news:

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And an interview with Gauguin's great-grand-daughter as well as the curator of the show for this morning's Today programme:

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Raphael rap from Brit Met chap

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Will Gompertz | 08:56 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010


A picture of him is currently hanging in the National Portrait Gallery. He is the director of one of the world's most prestigious and revered arts institutions. He has cleared the highest of career hurdles: he's a Brit who has made it in New York.

Thomas P Campbell of the Met

Yet the chances are you have never heard of Thomas Campbell, the boss of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He took over 18 months ago having joined the Met in 1995 as a curator with expertise in tapestries.

In many ways he is the typical museum director, dressed in a well-cut suit, wearing highly-polished shoes and hair arranged with a definite side parting - he would not look out of place in an officers' mess or an upscale estate agency.

But beneath the conservative attire and caressed vowels lurks a man with a mission and refreshing directness. The Raphael tapestries currently hanging alongside the V&A's cartoons of the same are poorly hung, he says.

In the exhibition they have been risen six feet off the ground, although they were designed by Raphael to brush the floor of the Sistine Chapel. To hang them floating in the air denies the visitor the chance to see the artworks in all their glory, says Campbell. He doesn't think they are lit terribly well either.


He is equally forthright about his own position. He is only the ninth director of the Met since it opened, his predecessor having stayed in post for over 30 years. He says that if he had thought about how the staff might react to a new boss and the weight of public expectation, he would not have accepted the job.

He also suspects the offer only came his way once the British Museum's Neil MacGregor had turned it down, but that this has never been confirmed or denied to him.

Given that he is in charge, though, he has a clear plan: extend the reach of the Met to those communities that surround the museum but do not visit. He thinks the answer lies in judicious use of the internet and new technology.

Before he could start on Operation Diversity, he had to sort out the museum he inherited, reeling after the credit crunch, which caused its finances to shrink by 10%. In this interview with me for the Today programme he explains how he sorted out the problems and says that we - that is, Europeans - don't know how lucky we are.

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Strawberry Hill re-opens

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Will Gompertz | 11:21 UK time, Thursday, 23 September 2010


It stands out like Lady Gaga in a school choir.

Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole's villa in Twickenham, inspired a European-wide gothic revival.

Great Cloister, Strawberry Hill

The Great Cloister in 2009, halfway through restoration

On 2 October, having been closed for extensive renovation, it opens once again to the public.

This morning I was given an early preview of the "fantasy castle" by curator and chair of the Strawberry Hill Trust, Michael Snodin.

Afterwards I talked to former cabinet minister William Waldegrave, whose family took ownership of the house after Walpole died in 1797. They too left their mark.


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The new reality

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Will Gompertz | 08:47 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010


Last Friday afternoon, mid-way down Portobello Road in London, a thin middle-aged man with a rockabilly quiff was standing on the outer edge of the busy pavement, animatedly waving his arms at a young girl holding a lead, attached to which was a small jaunty dog.

The street was lit by an early autumn sunshine that added a luminosity to the girl's 50s-style frock. Her hair looked nice. The thin man shouted, the young girl moved, the small dog trotted on.

Dog in a Salon


A bulky bloke with a large television camera placed on his shoulder like a chronically overweight budgie ducked and dived and recorded the action as it took place.

It was a scene that would have turned heads in most parts of the country, but on this street in Notting Hill, next to the ultra hip Electric Cinema, it was unremarkable.

The thin man is a hairdresser, who leases a shop on Portobello Road for his salon. He has been there for some time, accompanied by the small dog that became a fixture after he had volunteered to look after it for a weekend as a favour for a stallholder across the street twelve years ago.

The young girl is a friend of the hairdresser's who had offered to model for him in a fashion show he was planning for this week. The cameraman is there at the behest of Channel 4.

The hairdresser's name is John. Into his slight frame is packed an ebullient character that commands the space around him with constant camp chatter delivered as a stream-of-consciousness monologue. He appears delighted to have the prying eye of the camera for company.

Which is good, because he has signed-up to become a 'contributor' to Channel 4's latest documentary-cum-soap-cum-reality TV show. For the next eight weeks, along with about 25 other participants, John will be a member of the cast of Seven Days, an hour-long weekly programme that will be broadcast at primetime on Wednesday nights.

Seven Days promotional poster


Seven Days will launch less than a month after the broadcaster's final fling with Big Brother and is being presented as part of their renewed creative approach. The press release for the show is not circumspect.

It proclaims "a new kind of documentary series" on "TV's biggest reality set" where "the old rules of reality TV are being broken."

It goes on to say that the show will combine the best of documentary film-making with the speed of reality TV editing, and will allow the public to interact with the show's characters online.

The show is devised by TV producer Stephen Lambert the man behind Faking It, Wife Swap and the infamous 'Queengate' BBC programme trailer.

Over the last 18 months, Lambert and his team have been stalking the streets of Notting Hill, seeking potential candidates to take part in the show: ordinary(ish) people who are willing to have a camera follow them around day and night, documenting their lives and recording their conversations.

To date they have signed-up about 25 people, who the TV executives describe as contributors. The contributors are not paid (actually they are paid £1 to effect a contract). The intention has been to include a range of people from different backgrounds who, between them, give a reasonably accurate representation of the inhabitants of Notting Hill.

The promotional material for the show does indeed present a range of individuals, albeit seemingly more caricatures than characters, at least one of which had applied to be a contestant on Big Brother.

Each weekly one-hour documentary is the result of the previous seven days of filming, creating a social document the producers hope will also serve partially as a current affairs show; the national news and incidents of the week filtered through the brains and mouths of the Seven Days cast.

The producers insist the show isn't about giving a bunch of wannabes their chance of C-list stardom, but an attempt at a new kind of documentary film-making, that includes encouraging the public to interact with the cast via a specially designed website.

They say that, unlike many reality shows, there is not the inherent jeopardy in Seven Days where the public votes off contestants each week. Indeed, the jeopardy they have introduced to this show is much greater.

There are six cameras available to follow the lives of at least 25 people. To make a coherent programme means concentrating on three or four stories each week, meaning many of the cast will be left out. Assuming the participants have signed up because they want to be on TV, it seems likely they will be disappointed not to be featured.

The answer would be to make their lives more interesting to a television audience thereby attracting the cameras like moths to a light. Easy enough to do; spice up your life with a crisis or two, become increasingly gobby or morph into a grotesque version of your former self.

The producers say if they think contributors stop being 'true to themselves' they will drop them from the show. This is not a vehicle for fame-seekers.

And it is true John the hairdresser gave an impassioned speech about his motivations for signing up to Seven Days. He wants to show the real Notting Hill to the public, not the sanitised version portrayed in the Richard Curtis film. And he wants to use any newly found public recognition as a way of promoting and saving his salon, which isn't going terribly well. The council want him to hand his lease back.

But what if the show made him a star and LA beckoned, would he be off?

"Oh yes," he replied without missing a beat, "wouldn't you."

The true motivation of the contestants and the producers will become apparent over time. Like Big Brother, this programme is setting out with the high-minded purpose of creating a social document within an experimental new format.

Although Big Brother ended up descending into what some have called a freak show; it did ultimately succeed in achieving its original aim: it was a decade-defining show.

It is possible Seven Days could play a similar role for this decade, or fizzle out after eight weeks having been a ratings failure. It is an intriguing prospect.

Monet grabbing

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Will Gompertz | 13:55 UK time, Tuesday, 21 September 2010


"Show them the Monet" is an order issued to curators by gallery bosses the world over wanting to pull in the punters.

People passing a Monet painting at an exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris


And the new Claude Monet show at the Grand Palais in Paris that opens tomorrow will be no exception. By 1500 yesterday afternoon, they had already pre-sold a staggering 83,000 tickets. To put that into context, Tate Modern's Gauguin show, which opens next Wednesday and is expected to be the big London exhibition blockbuster this season, has only pre-sold around 10,000.

Over its 16-week run it is anticipated that over 700,000 people will visit the Monet exhibition. How much they will actually see is another question. To accommodate that sort of number, many of whom will be in front of a single picture for several minutes listening to an audio-guide, will mean that for some visitors, Monet's great 19th-Century landscapes will be newly populated with dozens of 21st-Century heads.

The way the show is laid out in the Grand Palais heightens the sense of being swept through the exhibition rather like of one those spiralling slides in a public swimming pool. Corner turns and steep staircases make doubling back a daunting undertaking.

But for the French curators and Guy Cogeval, the head of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, there is more to this show than a booming box office and the lucrative Monet merchandise. They want to reclaim the intellectual high ground they feel Paris has ceded to London and New York around the subject of French impressionism.

Woman looking at Monet paintings at an exhibition in Grand Palais, Paris


When in 2008 Cogeval took over the Musee d'Orsay - the home for French impressionism - he said that in order for this ambition to be achieved there must be a Monet show mounted that is comprehensive, authoritative and ambitious. Two years later, he has done just that.

The way in which they have structured the show, with a little help from Professor Richard Thomson of the University of Edinburgh, is intriguing. Up until 1890, when Monet was 50, it is broadly chronological and focuses solely on his landscapes.

Thereafter the show takes on the role of making two main curatorial points. The first, illustrated by a very striking display, is that Monet was not just a landscape specialist; he was also a decent figurative painter.

The second point being made is how Monet changed from painting many different landscapes, to painting the same landscape over and over again. He moved from the singular to series.

The reason for this, they say, was the artist's obsession with light. As Paul Cezanne had painted Mont Sainte-Victoire on multiple occasions to try and understand structure and form, so Monet did with haystacks or rocks and his exploration of light. The effect in this show, with several series displayed over three rooms, is spectacular.

According to Richard Thomson, Monet changed the notion of a landscape painting - first by developing the painterly style now known as impressionism with artist friends such as Edouard Manet and then with his famous water lily paintings. With these, Monet was not looking up at a view, but down into the depths with the sky just a reflection. As for a horizon, there is none.

Inevitably in a show of this size with over 180 paintings, nearly 10% of his entire output over 60-odd years, there are failures as well as successes as he challenged the orthodoxies of the day. But by using their own stock of Monet paintings and supplementing them with loans from around the world, the French have put on a show nobody else could. And in the process they have reclaimed Monet as their own.

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Joaquin Phoenix and the truth

Will Gompertz | 11:57 UK time, Friday, 17 September 2010


Suckers. He was faking it all along. The monosyllabic, bearded, totally spaced-out Joaquin Phoenix has been exposed as a fraud by his brother-in-law and co-conspirator Casey Affleck.

Joaquin Phoenix


The change of persona from responsible Phoenix to far-out Phoenix was first presented to the public in this surreal appearance on Letterman in February. Although it failed to convince Gwyneth Paltrow, the performance succeeded in fooling most - including, it seems, Letterman.

This was followed by the documentary I'm Still Here being shown at this year's Venice and Toronto film festivals before going on general release. It is directed by Affleck and records the absurd life and ambition of Phoenix as he attempts a career change from accomplished actor to wannabe hip hop star.

Affleck had insisted at all the press junkets that the film was for real, a true account of a man in crisis/hippy heaven. But he has now admitted that the whole thing was a stunt, and that the film is in fact a mockumentary in the spirit of previous spoofs which sit on a spectrum between Spinal Tap and Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat.

(On which subjects - that is, music films, character observation and Baron Cohen - the man who became Ali G, Borat and Bruno is now to become Freddie Mercury in a new biopic of the Queen frontman currently being written by Peter Morgan, he of Last King of Scotland and Frost/Nixon.)

In all of these cases - fake Phoenix, for-real Ali G, flamboyant Freddie biopic - the central conceit is for the performer to convince others that the human being they are watching really does or has existed. They are not presented as a fictional person within a story, but as genuine inhabitants of our world.

Their currency is truth. Borat and Ali G worked because Baron Cohen was able to convince the real people in the real world with whom he was interacting that he too was real. And a bio-pic relies on the audience believing that what it is being told is true.

They are, broadly speaking, documentaries: chronicles of life. And yet they are all made up, false, pretence. But then does any documentary, in whatever form, ever tell the whole truth? The hour or 90 minutes you see is of course an edited version of events, constructed in such a way as to tell the story the director wishes to tell. It is necessarily subjective.

Joaquin Phoenix and Sacha Baron Cohen have, in their way, both been probing and questioning the truth of documentary - as I will be doing in greater detail next week.

Arts budget: Devil is in the detail

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Will Gompertz | 09:58 UK time, Wednesday, 15 September 2010


The Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was asked on Tuesday as he sat before the culture, media and sport select committee if he was an "eager assassin".

Jeremy Hunt

The minister smiled and said he was not. The catalyst for the question, posed by the Labour MP Paul Farrelly, suggested that there had been an unseemly alacrity with which the newly installed minister set about his task of delivering to the Treasury their bounty: a cut in his department's budget of 25%.

Jeremy Hunt's starting point was to look first to his own department's overheads with the intention of "protecting frontline services." He immediately introduced a scrappage scheme for DCMS ministerial cars and shortly afterwards announced a target of 50% departmental savings to be achieved over a four-year period.

He was asked about the consequences of his decision. What, for instance, was the range of money set aside for redundancies? Neither he nor his permanent secretary knew. It was an awkward moment.

Jeremy Hunt is a successful businessman with a first class honours degree from Oxford. Such achievements require not just intelligence but also the ability to pay attention to the details. For it is in the minutiae that the devil resides, hoping not to be spotted before wreaking havoc.

The eagerness with which the new ministerial team at the DCMS has gone about their cost-cutting business has taken many by surprise, especially as it started while their platitudinous words of love and protection towards the arts still hung in the air from pre-election hustings.

Ed Vaizey said shortly before the election that his position would be to advocate to his colleagues not to cut the arts because in the great scheme of things the budget was tiny and it wouldn't be worth the hassle.

The tiny argument clearly failed to convince and cuts came and more will shortly follow. But the concept of tiny is still important. There is some concern that decisions already taken, such as abolishing the UK Film Council, and others being discussed at the moment are being made without the necessary due diligence.

The Chaos Theory holds true for the arts. A small regional theatre forced to close due to cuts in Arts Council and regional government funding not only impacts on the local community but eventually on the National Theatre, which then impacts on the whole sector, tourism, the creative industries and so on.

There is wastage in the arts. Systems could be improved. It is not unreasonable to seek to effect change on behalf of the public who is funding the activity. But to come to the right conclusions and to make the right decisions requires the skill of a key-hole surgeon.

Precise measures brought about by deep understanding of actions and consequences could take the arts in Britain to the next level. But a ham-fisted, ill-considered botched job could leave them crippled.

These are big decisions that need to be predicated on small details. And that, I suspect, takes time.

Another hit for the Royal Court

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Will Gompertz | 13:01 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010


The Royal Court in London is currently presenting Clybourne Park, a play by Bruce Norris, an American writer who had a hit at the same venue with the same director (the Royal Court's artistic director, Dominic Cooke) in 2007 with his play The Pain and the Itch. Clybourne Park is an excellent play that has been superbly produced as these reviews testify (Telegraph, What's On Stage, The Stage, Guardian, Evening Standard, Financial Times).

Not surprisingly given the length of the run, the size of the venue and the quality of the production, the show has sold out. But don't despair. I understand that the Royal Court is very close to completing discussions with commercial producers to take the show into the West End.

It will follow the successful West End transfers of Jerusalem, Enron and That Face, all of which occurred under the artistic eye of Dominic Cooke. The extra money that these transfers generate for the theatre help support their Young Writers Programme; a course for new talent about which I made a film for Newsnight recently.

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Worth A Watch: David Foster Wallace webcast

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Will Gompertz | 08:38 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010


David Foster Wallace

Fans of the late writer David Foster Wallace, take note: today the University of Texas - which recently acquired his archive containing manuscript materials for his novels, as well as essays, jottings and journalism - will webcast a series of readings from the collection.

The session is called Consider the Archive: An Evening of David Foster Wallace. It's also worth taking a look at the "annotations" the author and essayist made in his copies of books by Cormac McCarthy, John Updike and Don DeLillo.

Arts philanthropy: It's all right for some

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Will Gompertz | 09:59 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010


John Sainsbury's philanthropic gift of £25m to the British Museum is very welcome <small>[see update below]</small>. The museum's director Neil MacGregor and the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt will be particularly pleased.

MacGregor is undertaking a piece of work for Hunt on the potential of philanthropic giving in the UK, in order to provide the minister with some arts-grandee-endorsed research to back up a widely-declaimed desire by the coalition government to increase individual charitable donations to the arts.

So securing one of the largest donations ever made in the country for his own institution is tantamount to handing in your homework early. But, other than it being quite a lot of money, the gift is unexceptional.

The Sainsbury family has been a generous benefactor to the arts for many years and is known to like capital projects - that is, new buildings - on which what are known as "naming rights" are available. Nor is the British Museum as beneficiary of such largesse remarkable.

Sir Hans Sloane

Sir Hans Sloane

The museum, the first national public museum in the world, was founded after an act of philanthropy. The physician, naturalist and inventor of drinking chocolate Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed his collection of over 71,000 objects to King George II in return for a £20,000 payment to his heirs. The deal was concluded in 1753, the year of Sloane's death.

Other recipients of Sainsbury money such as the Tate Gallery, the National Gallery and the Ashmolean museum were all founded on substantial philanthropic gifts. And they have continued to attract sizeable donations. According to Tate's Nicholas Serota, his institution will follow up the British Museum announcement with its own news of a multi-million pound individual contribution to the extension of Tate Modern in the near future.

These institutions form part of the upper echelons of the British establishment, which is where major philanthropists want to play and to be seen playing. The leaders of the institutions are routinely knighted, and add a great dollop of intellectual credibility at the drinks and dinner parties of the super-rich.

The directors of our major museums are expert fund-raisers who are all on first-name terms with the country's 20-or-so major arts-minded philanthropists. Although the urbane charm of each certainly helps ease a philanthropist's chequebook from attache case to desktop, it is the building he or she manages that is the real pull.

Sainsbury Wing

Having a Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, a great and globally respected institution, is always going to be more alluring to the donor than a Sainsbury Wing at say, the Watershed in Bristol.

And that's the problem. This latest gift will be pointed to as evidence that there is plenty of private money knocking about to prop up the arts in their time of need. And there is - if you are one of the very big boys. Not so if you're the avant-garde arts centre in South Yorkshire.

The artistic directors of regional theatres and galleries don't move in the same circles as the their knighted colleagues from the national museums. Nor do they run world-famous buildings on which a name could be engraved, or possess a back room of fund-raising staff to arrange private in-gallery tours and backstage meet-and-greets.

And it is likely to be those in "the regions" that are hit hardest by the forthcoming cuts. Take England: they are facing the prospect of their Arts Council subsidy being cut as well as their local government subsidy. Regional museums and galleries are also likely to see a reduction of their Renaissance in the Regions money, the central-government-funded programme of rejuvenation of tired buildings and working practices that has seen audiences grow by over 40%.

There is little prospect of these regional arts institutions raising 1% of John Sainsbury's recent gift to the British Museum - probably not even 0.1%.

But maybe they could, if they tried a new approach. What if, say, all the major regional arts institutions grouped together as one entity for fund-raising purposes: "The Arts Alliance"?

Donation box

Between them, they could afford a decent fund-raiser or two who would work at the highest level and develop a fundable programme like Renaissance in the Regions, with naming rights available for a philanthropist. It would be of a size and scale to demand media and political attention.

Or such a central fund could be made up of lots of smaller donations, which might include a contribution from the national institutions. Nick Hytner, the National Theatre's artistic director, said recently that every director, producer and actor who works in his theatre had benefited from working in regional theatre.

So what if 5% of every ticket sale at, say, the National Theatre, British Museum and National Gallery went towards a regional fund? Or that these institutions used their vast footfall and reception areas to put out fund-raising boxes not only for themselves but for a regional fund too?

Update 14 September: I've been sent a note from the British Museum about how this story was reported across the media, which I'm very happy to append:

The Linbury Trust, a charitable trust established by Lord Sainsbury in the 1970s, has agreed a grant of £12.5 million to the British Museum to be paid over the next 3 years. Similarly the Monument Trust, a trust established by Lord Sainsbury's late brother Simon, has made a grant of £12.5 million to the British Museum, thus creating a combined gift of £25 million for the Museum's much-needed extension.

Deglamorizing war

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Will Gompertz | 16:49 UK time, Thursday, 9 September 2010


The central atrium of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London houses a display of some of the most powerful military hardware made in the last 100 years.

The protruding gun of an armoured tank nods towards an erect V2 rocket 15 metres away while fighter planes hover overhead, watching from above. The effect is dramatic and exciting and alluring, in the way an exhibition of racing cars can be, or a harbour full of million-dollar yachts.

But there is a concern within the IWM that the display serves to glamorize these weapons of mass destruction. An effect that Roger Tolson, the museum's Head of Collections, feels is contrary to the institution's role to explore the nature of conflict and its consequences.

This morning the IWM took a step towards countering the celebratory nature of the weaponry display by introducing a new exhibit: a contoured, mangled mass of steel that was once an everyday saloon car. The message is clear: this is what happens when the sort of weapons surrounding it are put to use.

The wreckage is the result of a bomb that was detonated in a Baghdad street on 5 March 2007. The street contained a book market and many civilians. Thirty-eight people were killed; several more were wounded.

Bombed out car

The destroyed car has been given to the IWM by Jeremy Deller, the Turner Prize-winning artist. Deller had first proposed that it should be placed on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, but after lengthy consideration the idea was rejected. Meanwhile he toured the bomb-blasted car around America, recording people's responses as he went.

Although Deller is an artist he says the bombed-out car is not a work of art. It is what it is - a bombed-out car. He does talk about it in metaphorical terms; that it represents the charred remains of people that cannot be shown.

He also says it highlights that it is civilians and not soldiers who are increasing the victims of conflict. The facts bare this out. At the beginning of the 20th Century 10% of all casualties in conflict were civilians, now that figure is 90%.

But why is an artist involved in acquiring such a specimen? The answer Deller gives is direct and thought provoking: "Because as an artist I can," he says. His view is that artists currently have a unique place in society where they are given the space, the time and the permission to question and comment where most others are not. And they will be listened to.

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Roger Tolson agrees and thinks it is a particularly valuable position when helping us understand the nature of conflict. He thinks that reportage and journalism is mainly concerned with capturing the moment, the facts and the story.

But he says, artists are not hidebound by the need for such literal representation. They can express a thought, encapsulated in an artwork, which contains a universal idea or feeling that transmits another level of understanding to a general audience.

Which is why the IWM continue to commission contemporary artists such as Steve McQueen who made the work Queen and Country, to go to war zones and make work in response to what they see and experience.

The metal carcass sitting in the IWM's grand atrium does change the nature of the space, and as visitors enter the building their eyes and bodies are drawn towards the rusty heap. For years the museum could have sourced a similar exhibit that would have had the same effect, but didn't.

It took an artist to do that.

If you like this...

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Will Gompertz | 08:25 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010


Congratulations to The xx on their Mercury Prize win. If you're a fan of their indie atmospherics you might want to lend Yuck your ears. Go to Automatic for stripped back or Georgia for wall-of-sound.

Good year for the Man Booker Prize

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Will Gompertz | 14:26 UK time, Tuesday, 7 September 2010


It's a good year for the Man Booker Prize. The longlist generated significant press coverage and sales, with The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas doing particularly good trade.

But, like a giddy thoroughbred in the Grand National, Tsiolkas has fallen at the shortlist hurdle along with David Mitchell, Lisa Moore, Alan Warner, Rose Tremain and Paul Murray.

Man Booker prize shortlist 2010

That leaves Peter Carey (Parrot and Olivier in America), Tom McCarthy (C) Emma Donoghue (Room) Damon Galgut (In a Strange Room) Howard Jacobson (The Finkler Question) and Andrea Levy (The Long Song) in the running for the prize with its attendant £50,000 and sales surge.

All are good books; intelligent, well-crafted, captivating stories. And none would look inappropriately dressed if adorned with a Man Booker Prize Winner 2010 sticker. So, as ever with these things, the decision will come down to the taste of the judges, which is necessarily subjective. My suggestion would be to read them all and make your own mind up.

Much has been made of Tom McCarthy's novel C, which has been described as experimental and has been praised for its willingness to challenge the form. I wonder how many of those who have commented had read his previous novel Remainder? It struck me as a much more experimental book, at once both annoying and alluring, like reading Catch 22 with a John Cage CD playing in the background.

If there were ever a Man Booker Prize for overlooked novels, Remainder would get onto my shortlist.

Changing tracks

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Will Gompertz | 08:34 UK time, Tuesday, 7 September 2010


Can't get that song out of your head? It's driving you mad? Help is at hand.

Reading: A solitary pleasure?

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Will Gompertz | 09:06 UK time, Monday, 6 September 2010


At the end of this month a book is being published by Chatto & Windus called A Little Aloud: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry for Reading Aloud to Someone You Care For.

The blurb on the inside cover suggests a list of people you might consider reading aloud to: your partner, an elderly relative, a sick parent or child. Frankly I can only see a mixture of dismay and disgust upon the face of any of the above should I hove around the corner, book in hand, reciting lustily for their benefit.

After the age of eight or so reading becomes a solitary pleasure. A chance to escape into another world or to have a thought articulated in such a way that the author instantly becomes someone with whom you assume great affinity.

Television, music, theatre and movies tend to be improved by the shared experience. Books and art are generally ill served by participation en masse.

At least that is what I had always thought, but this book is making me re-evaluate my position on the subject. The publisher is donating all royalties from the book to the Reader Organisation, a charity that promotes reading aloud for the good of your health.

Eastendes' book club

They advance the argument that hearing stories read aloud can aid recuperation, improve mental health and bring great literature to sections of society who have hitherto found it inaccessible.


They promote their aims well enough on their website (although the blog about Milo the cat seemed erroneous), but it is in the book that their theories on reading aloud start to persuade. At the end of each short thematic section there is a brief entry called Reading Notes.

These are not, as you might imagine, useful academic pointers elucidating on the just-read texts, but recorded comments from discussions that have taken place after a reading-aloud session overseen by The Reader Group.

The comments do not provide any great insights into the stories and poems, but they do give a sense of the work of The Reader Group. Some comments are naive, others amusing, but all are heartfelt. The groups, captivated by the literature, were having a good time.

A much better time in fact, as I have been led to believe, than many who attend book groups. The main complaint I hear from friends who are members of book groups is that nobody ever wants to discuss the set book. Instead they want to talk about schools, or houses or how long it took to reduce the delicious tomato and basil sauce being served. Or worse; the group is dominated by some self-appointed literary critic who bores and bullies in equal measure.

Maybe it would be better then to have a reading group, where the host chooses the book / poem, reads a passage out and then chairs a conversation? At the end of the year the group could publish an anthology of everything they have read to each other and post it on the net for friends to share.

If their selections were anywhere near as good as those chosen by Angela Macmillan for A little Aloud - Chekhov, Lessing, Heaney, Dickens - then their friends would be in for a very pleasant surprise.

Now, is everyone sitting comfortably?

The bigger the name, the bigger the price

Will Gompertz | 15:50 UK time, Thursday, 2 September 2010


One lazy Sunday afternoon, you tag along with a friend on a time-wasting, energy-sapping, tat-tastic trip to a car-boot-sale, where, would you believe it, you happen upon a lost masterpiece for £40. This notion is, of course, a cliche.

But it does happen - rarely, for sure, but often enough to give Antiques Roadshow and Cash in the Attic their appeal. As the big finger in the original National Lottery ads pointed out, "It could be you".

The American painter and collector Rick Norsigian thought it was him when he bought 65 glass-plate negatives for $45 (£29) at a Fresno garage sale in 2000. "Hmm," he must have thought to himself, "is this not the 'lost' collection of that great American photographer Ansel Adams?"

Keen to turn his newly-found cache into cash, Norisigian went about trying to authenticate the negatives as the work of Adams. He succeeded, after enlisting the help of some people he considered to be experts.

But his claims have been refuted by the Adams Family Trust, which says the pictures were not taken by Ansel Adams. Others agree: perhaps the most damaging dissenting voice is that of Wyoming-based art consultant Robert C Moeller III, who had been on Norsigian's original list of expert authenticators.

The dispute will now be settled in court. But Norsigian is not to be deterred by such a minor inconvenience; he's selling them as prints anyway. You can buy them on his website.

But first you have to agree to a pop-up disclaimer that reads:


Now that is unusual. The punter is being asked to pay a price based on the prints being authentic; but, should they prove not to be the work of Adams, too bad. Isn't the point of buying art from a dealer that they have done the legwork and authenticated the provenance of the artwork? And if it turns out not to be by who they said it was by, isn't it money-back time?

The value of an artwork is entirely dependent on who created it: the bigger the name, the bigger the price. Which makes authentication crucial and adds dramatic spice to any art purchased from a third party. It is often difficult to be 100% sure. It is a risky business which makes for good stories, whether that's in the recent series of Sherlock Holmes or at the National Gallery, where this show of fakes and attribution errors is currently on.

A Good Idea: Ask A Curator Day

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Will Gompertz | 08:46 UK time, Wednesday, 1 September 2010


Ever walked around a museum or gallery and been baffled or intrigued by an exhibit, only to find your intellectual curiosity thwarted by the lack of an appropriately learned person to ask? If so, today is your day.

Ask A CuratorBecause today is Ask a Curator Day on Twitter (hashtag: #askacurator). The boffs have come out to play in 23 countries including the UK, the USA, Australia, Chile, Spain and Sri Lanka.

In the UK, you can quiz the brains behind the the shows at the British Museum, Fife Libraries and Museums, the Barbican, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Tate and the BFI - or for more specialist tastes, there's the National Football Museum or the National Space Centre (yes we do).

Ask a Curator is devised by Museum Marketing, a blog seeking to connect audiences and museums via technology. In February it ran the successful initiative, Follow A Museum.

It's a good idea.

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