BBC BLOGS - Gomp/arts

Archives for October 2010

Arts cuts: An 'interesting situation'

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Will Gompertz | 09:18 UK time, Thursday, 21 October 2010


The immediate response from the arts community to the government cuts in arts spending is interesting.

Arts masks


On the one hand, the museums appear happy. They feared a blitzkrieg and ended up with a much-better-than-expected 15% cut. They had in their darkest moments contemplated 40%. The tone of their statements has been magnanimous - one of acceptance that they too must share the cuts pain and of thanks to the government for recognising their work.

On the other hand, they're quite cross. Particularly Arts Council England (ACE) and the arts bodies it funds, the funding body having taken a cut of nearly 30% with an additional stipulation to reduce its administrative costs by 50%.

Alistair Spalding, the CEO and Artistic Director at Sadler's Wells said it was "bad news for the arts". And this from the National Theatre's Nick Hytner:

"By any measure, the 30% cut to the Arts Council grant is dismaying. A large number of immensely valuable enterprises will stop stone dead. Obviously, in the context of massive cuts to public spending across the board, we must put our heads down and work with a 15% cut to the Arts Council's regularly funded organisations, if the Arts Council is able to achieve this. However, it would be foolish to underestimate how tough the challenge will be for many excellent companies."

As he says, the government wants ACE to mirror its decision with museums and impose only a 15% cut on the "Regularly Funded Organisations" it oversees. By doing so, it will fulfil the government's ambition of capping the cut to all "front-line" arts organisations at 15%.

The request raises two issues. First, it leaves the ACE pot for projects such as the Manchester International Festival truncated while putting the organisation itself under severe pressure. Second, it calls into question the "arm's-length" principle that has long been held between the government and the quango.

So is the government asking or insisting? Some within the DCMS are saying that they have asked but not insisted that ACE does not cut front-line arts organisations such as subsidised theatres, orchestras and dance companies by more than 15%. And I understand that is the basis on which conversations have taken place between the two parties.

But when I was talking to Minister for Culture Ed Vaizey yesterday afternoon, he said it was contingent on their settlement. When asked what would happen if ACE disobeyed, he replied it would lead to an "interesting situation".

He was also quick to stress the high regard in which he holds the leadership of ACE, and that the demand to cut 50% in administration costs did not reflect a belief that the place was being badly run.

But it's hardly a vote of confidence and it will no doubt require yet another organisational review for ACE at a time when it seems likely the government will want the organisation to inherit some of the duties previously undertaken by the abolished Film Council and Museum and Libraries Council.

How are the arts funded in the UK?

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Will Gompertz | 08:27 UK time, Wednesday, 20 October 2010


The government's Spending Review is due to be announced very shortly. As yet we do not know the details, but the arts sector is primed for cuts.

Man and woman watching art installation


It will take several days for the effects of any cuts to become clear, but in the meantime here's a brief overview of public arts funding in the UK. 

How are the arts funded in the UK?

The arts in the UK are funded from a variety of sources but a significant amount - around £900m - comes from central government via the Department of Culture, Media and Sport led by the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. The DCMS directly funds some of the bigger museums and galleries - such as Tate and the British Museum - with other money distributed on its behalf by quangos such as Arts Council, England (ACE).

What are the other sources of funding?

Many regional theatres and galleries receive funding from local government - the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills also funds some university museums. Lottery money is distributed by ACE as well as other quangos such as the Heritage Lottery Fund. The BBC is one of the UK's biggest arts bodies, with several orchestras and a film investment arm - it's funded by the licence fee.

Are the arts funded differently across the UK?

The devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland decide how much money is spent on the arts from their settlements agreed by Westminster. In Scotland, for example, most money is distributed by Creative Scotland from a budget provided by the Scottish government - but projects in these nations are also allowed to apply for funding from UK organisations for projects such as film production.

Who decides how the money is spent?

In England the Arts Council decides how it spends its £450m but this has been more of a contested area under the coalition government with Jeremy Hunt questioning whether the government should take a more strategic role in deciding how the money is spent.

How do arts bodies bid for money?

The big organisations talk directly with the government before every Spending Review. Bids for lottery money are made to fund major projects such as the expansion of the British Museum. Smaller bodies apply for Arts Council money by bidding for one-off project funding or by becoming a regularly funded organisation (RFO). There are 850 RFOs which receive £350m of ACE's £450m budget - they range from the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Compamy to small artist-led projects like Hofesh Schecters's dance company.

What could the planned cut mean?

The DCMS has pledged to cut 50% of its running costs - some of that cut could happen after the 2012 Olympics. Some quangos including the UK Film Council and Museums, Libraries and Archives Council are being abolished. The DCMS has asked all other organisations it funds to prepare for 25-40% cuts in the money it gives them over the next four years. Arts Council England has warned this could lead to a withdrawal of funding for the equivalent of 200 organisations - depending on the extent and speed of the implementation of the cuts - how much and how fast.

Will free museums start charging for entrance?

Unlikely - the government has stated that it wishes to retain free entrance to national museums and has asked those bodies to make their savings elsewhere.

Could I lose my local theatre?

Yes - regional bodies are particularly susceptible to the double whammy of reductions in both central and local government funding - which could lead to some theatres closing or going dark for some parts of the year.

Simon Garfield: A man of letters

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Will Gompertz | 09:54 UK time, Monday, 18 October 2010


Simon Garfield's book Just My Type is published on Thursday. It's a well-written, anecdote-filled romp through the highs and lows of fontdom from the writer of The Nation's Favourite all about the Radio 1 of the 1990s.

Courier typeface


In a short section at the back, he lists some pertinent websites, including Pentagram's amusing type-casting pop-psychology quiz replete with a Freudian host asking and assessing from a pastiche Zurich design studio.

My type is Courier, apparently. The website tells me Courier was designed for IBM in 1955 and follows the rhythmical insistence and open spacing of a typewriter. In type terms, the font prof describes it as a thoroughly modern everyman.

The book is written for the everyman from the perspective of where type meets life, in a Bill Brysonish sort of way. Still, if a whole book on typography is a bit too much for you, Simon Garfield wrote this taster article published yesterday in the Observer.

Talking to Andy Warhol's 'ghost'

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Will Gompertz | 13:17 UK time, Friday, 15 October 2010


Leonardo da Vinci, who died in 1519, is spending this lunchtime fielding questions at the Frieze Art Fair in London. Or so suggests American artist Jeffrey Vallance, who has convened a panel of mediums such that da Vinci can talk about art in the afterlife and other matters, along with Jackson Pollock, Frida Kahlo, Marcel Duchamp and Vincent van Gogh.

Andy Warhol exhibition


I asked Jeffrey if he could arrange for me an interview with Andy Warhol, which became momentarily fractious and which you can hear below.

I also had a couple of questions for Jeffrey himself, such as "what makes this art?" and "do you think Andy Warhol was really answering my questions?".

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Keep off the art

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Will Gompertz | 11:56 UK time, Friday, 15 October 2010


Earlier this week, I wrote about Ai Weiwei's installation at Tate's Turbine Hall; visitors were being invited to walk across 100 million porcelain replicas of sunflower seeds.

A few days in, and visitors may now kneel beside the seeds, and possibly touch them - but may not walk across the piece because of concerns about the dust they might inhale.

A major point of this installation was the individual's reaction to moving their feet over it and the thoughts aroused by possibly crushing objects which have been individually hand-made and hand-painted by Chinese workers.

Standing or kneeling at the rim will be a bit like looking at an empty picture frame instead of one that actually has a picture in it.

When objects speak

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Will Gompertz | 10:59 UK time, Thursday, 14 October 2010


A solar-powered lamp and mobile-phone charger kit is the object that's most representative of the world we live in today. At least that is what we are being told by the British Museum's Neil MacGregor and his curatorial team behind BBC Radio 4's A History of the World in 100 Objects.

Solar-powered lamp

They say it was chosen as the 100th object in the series because:

"It represents a global preoccupation. The search for an affordable and sustainable power source is of importance to today's global population as well as affecting future generations in both environmental terms as well as economic."

Fair enough - although one person to whom I spoke scoffed and said it was the sort of thing one finds in those Innovations catalogues that come free with the Sunday papers. And there is something of the gimmick about it.

Not the object so much, but the selecting of any object from today to sit within a grand and scholarly history of the world. It is perhaps the job of history and future generations to decide which of today's objects warrant special attention, not the current crop of curators at the British Museum.

It seems an odd note on which to finish what has been a terrific series. There have been over 10 million downloads of the programmes, about half of which have been from abroad. Hundreds of other museums from around the country have taken part, as have individuals and schools.

It is an excellent example of two public institutions - the BBC and the British Museum - coming together in a partnership that delivers to the public valuable content that either organisation working on its own could not have supplied and distributed.

The series has been compared with, Kenneth Clarke's late-1960s BBC series of the history of art. There are similarities: both MacGregor and Clark are distinguished academics that have run major British cultural institutions including the National Gallery. Both are significant BBC production projects. And both are dominated by the authorial voice of the individual academic.

There is one very big difference. Civilisation was a television series, while History of the World in 100 Objects has been broadcast on radio. Given the way that technology developed, you might have thought it would be the other way round. But radio has served the MacGregor series very well.

Neil McGregor with the then controller of Radio 4 Mark Damazer, November 2009

Neil McGregor with the then controller of Radio 4 Mark Damazer, November 2009

First and foremost it foregrounds his excellent scripts. It is a challenge to tell a complex story on radio without having pictures to help carry the load. Such is MacGregor's skill as a writer that there were times when I found his sentence structure, precision of language and seamless shifting from one thought to another more compelling than the object he was describing. It is a masterclass in writing for radio.

And radio was the ideal medium for his message. The objects that he was describing were merely props. We did not need to see them. His real purpose was to tell the stories locked inside the things. The history of the world is not best told through pre-existing books or verifiable accounts. Even where such documents exist, they are partial and subjective.

Objects are much more reliable story-tellers. They will not favour the winner of a battle over the loser or a master over his slave. As McGregor says, "objects bring a voice to the voiceless".

And MacGregor has brought a voice to them.

Booker Prize goes to the outsider

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Will Gompertz | 09:19 UK time, Wednesday, 13 October 2010


"What are people saying about the Howard Jacobson novel?" Melvyn Bragg asked me recently after I had interviewed him about Ted Hughes' poem Last Letter. He was interested to know how his friend's chances were being rated among the media.

Howard Jacobson


"They're not," I replied, in as much as nobody is discussing his book, The Finkler Question. Around me all the chatter had been about Tom McCarthy's C. Was it really an experimental novel? What's so different about it? Wasn't his last book, Remainder both more experimental and, frankly better?

Or the talk was about Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America. Could it complete the hat-trick for the Australian-born, American-domiciled author? Or it was Emma Donoghue's Room and her use of a five-year-old voice to narrate her story.

And once those books had been discussed came Damon Galgut's In a Strange Room. Is it a memoir or a novel? And anyway, wasn't it published in three parts in the Paris Review, suggesting it is not one piece, but three and therefore ineligible for the Booker?

But of the Finkler Question - nothing. The bookies were equally uninterested, with one leading bookmaker having it down as the least favourite. Well, as we now know, they were wrong.

Howard Jacobson's book is the first comic novel to win the Man Booker Prize and, in doing so, goes some way to dispel criticism of the award that it is a "genre prize", interested only in literary fiction and sniffy about thriller writing, science fiction and the comic novel.

I understand it was a very tight decision with Peter Carey running Jacobson a very close second - the judges eventually voting 3/2 in the Englishman's favour after an hour-long deliberation.

Judging from his acceptance speech, winning it meant a lot to Howard Jacobson, as did only making it to the long-list on two previous occasions. Now I suspect he feels a sense of legitimacy for his style of writing, which could open the way for the Man Booker Prize to further broaden its stylistic horizons in future years.

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They don't do this on Strictly

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Will Gompertz | 10:28 UK time, Tuesday, 12 October 2010


"Choreographing You".

Why 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds?

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Will Gompertz | 10:50 UK time, Monday, 11 October 2010


Slides, spiders, cracks and a giant reflected sun: all "art-ertainments" that have amused hordes of visitors to the cavernous Turbine Hall of London's Tate Modern.

The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson


In terms of popularity and public impact they are some of the most successful contemporary art commissions of this century, but they have come at a price. The space was conceived as a sculpture gallery, but has become more of a public playground.

Children seemingly levitate on their heelies above the slope from the hall's western entrance; others play tag. Adults pose for snaps and press their noses against the window of the colourful shop; others chomp on sandwiches as they queue for tickets to the latest exhibition.

None of which matters until an artist makes a work that is not playful but serious, as happened last year when the Polish artist Miroslaw Balka installed a vast steel chamber into the far end of the hall. As you walked up a ramp into the structure it quickly became pitch black, causing you to lose your bearings.

The artist intended the work to be a comment on internment; he wanted it to generate feelings of apprehension and intrigue. The public just wanted to have fun. Camera-phones would light up the space and ruin the effect, prompting couples hiding at the back to break into fits of giggles.

This year's commission, by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (from tomorrow until 2 May 2011), is another work laced with serious symbolism. He has covered the east end of the Turbine Hall with a 10cm-thick bed of sunflower seeds. There are over 100 million.

Except they are not sunflower seeds at all, but individually hand-crafted pieces of porcelain, every one of which has also been hand-painted. He wants the visitor to walk on his work, to grind his or her heels into the efforts of the 1,600 Chinese workers who made the tiny pieces.

His message is one of scale - when was the last time you saw 100 million hand-crafted objects? - and a comment on the population of China. It is also about individuality, the idea that all these objects look the same but are all in fact different. The sunflower represents the role of the people in the time of Chairman Mao: he was the sun; they were the sunflowers turning to face him.

And as the people starved, so they ate and shared out sunflower seeds. The porcelain is not an arbitrary choice of material either; it has historically been a major export of China.

Ai Weiwei is a substantial artist with plenty to say. The profile I made for Newsnight last week is below - he is a fascinating man.

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Who knows how successful this installation will be? Historically the artworks that have existed only in the far end of the hall - as is the case here - have failed to capture the public imagination in the same way as those that have infiltrated the whole space.

But for the visitors who do make it past the shop and the queue and walk upon the serene landscape that Ai Weiwei has created it will be an enjoyable interaction, provoking the feeling of walking along a shingle beach. I suspect many will also be moved by what the artist is saying with the piece.

If that happens and this helps reclaim the Turbine Hall in the public mind for serious artworks, it would, in a way, be the most successful installation yet in Tate's hangar-like space.

Roman helmet: Will it go on public view?

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Will Gompertz | 12:19 UK time, Friday, 8 October 2010


As Reg insists in Monty Python's Life of Brian: "Alright - but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"

Well, there's also the buried treasure: coins, swords, jewels and helmets. What the Romans seem to have failed to leave us is much common sense - which has led to an exquisite example of a ceremonial helmet, found on a farm in Cumbria by a man with a metal detector, ending up not in Carlisle's Tullie House Museum as many hoped, but with a private bidder.


If the buyer is from the UK, as per this morning's rumours, that's not necessarily good news for those who hope the helmet will go on public view. A foreign buyer would probably try to take it abroad, at which point the Department of Culture's Export Committee would step in and give the Tullie House Museum six months to match the price; if successful, the museum would then take charge of the property.



With a UK buyer there is nothing that can be done; the chance has gone. Perhaps the buyer will lend it to the museum, perhaps they won't: it is his or her prerogative. All this could have been easily avoided, according to Roger Bland at the Portable Antiquities Scheme if the Treasure Act had been updated in 2007 as had been planned.

If this had happened, he says, it is likely that its definition of treasure would have been extended to include Roman finds of base-metal objects - not just gold and silver. A similar extension regarding pre-historic finds was made to the act in 2003.

When a find is deemed to be treasure, it immediately becomes the property of the Crown. At this point, an independent committee makes a valuation and gives interested public museums four months in which to raise the money. This was the case recently with the Staffordshire Hoard.

Christie's set the pre-sale estimate at between £200,000 and £300,000, yet the Tullie House Museum, not a wealthy organisation, managed to stay in the bidding game until the price exceeded £1.7m - which demonstrates a determination to buy the helmet for public display on the part of the museum and of members of the public, who were donating money right to the end.

The helmet clearly struck a chord; the museum and the public failed in their campaign because, they say, they were failed by the laws of the land. The Romans would not have been so slack.

Poetry Days

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Will Gompertz | 10:20 UK time, Thursday, 7 October 2010


National Poetry Day is today, although yesterday tried hard to steal the show with news of the publication (in today's New Statesman) of Last Letter, a previously-unseen Ted Hughes poem that makes a significant addition to his Birthday Letters volume of poetic letters about his relationship with and marriage to the American poet Sylvia Plath, which I covered on last night's BBC news.

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And anyway, the people behind National Poetry Day made their own tactical announcement the evening before with the award of the £10,000 Forward Poetry Prize (both the prize and NPD were conceived by the William Sieghart), which this year went to Seamus Heaney for his collection of stroke-inspired poems, Human Chains.

So it seems a good time to mention Torture, the remarkable poem by the 87-year-old Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who was the Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 1996; this year's winner will be announced at lunchtime today.

Wit of Wisdom

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Will Gompertz | 09:25 UK time, Tuesday, 5 October 2010


For those who grew up with Norman Wisdom, with his high-pitched absurdist characters, with his slapstick schtick, with his sparkling eyes radiating innocence and vulnerability, today is a sad day.

Norman Wisdom


With his passing goes a piece of personal history for those that watched him through the second half of the 20th Century. Of gloomy winter days when he'd pop up in the afternoon movie and transport the viewer into his world of fast farce.

And of his chat-show performances - which were always performances, such as this appearance on the BBC's Pebble Mill.

He was the cheeky chappie; the working-class lad whose naivety neutralised upper-class pomposity; the actor who could bring wafer-thin plotlines alive, as he does with the classic cut of a budget British flick.

He was a product of his time and background, a unique performer whose heir is not apparent.

Autumn Frieze

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Will Gompertz | 10:29 UK time, Monday, 4 October 2010


London's contemporary art season is officially under way; the press view for this year's Turner Prize is going on as I write. The opening of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's Turbine Hall commission next Monday at Tate Modern will follow.

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei receiving the Kassel Prize, 26 September 2010

The next 10 days will see shows opening across the capital in private galleries and public buildings, creating a contemporary art fest to match any in the world. October has long heralded a new art season, but the last eight years have seen an explosion in activity quite unlike anything before.

The reason is simple: the Frieze Art Fair, founded by the entrepreneurial publishers of the eponymous magazine, whose confidence that London could sustain an art trade show to match those in Basel and New York has been fully vindicated.

For four windy, autumnal days in North London's Regent's Park, expensive German cars inhabited by lookalikes from a Tarantino movie descend on the capital. The art world has arrived: curators, artists, dealers and collectors.

Money is the season's lingua franca. The collectors want to spend it; the dealers and artists are happy to help them. And then there are the curators. They tread a delicate path, especially if they work for a public institution.

The curators and public institutions want the collectors' money too - and quite often their collections as well, to show in exhibitions or as a gift when the collector dies or tires of their bounty. So they are happy to cosy up, happy to "advise" in an informal "have you seen so-and-so's installation in Bloggs' gallery?" sort of way. But they know that the collectors have something to gain too.

Frieze Art Fair

Frieze Art Fair, 2009

Collectors want the reassurance and independence only a respected curator can provide. They also calculate that if the curator likes an artwork or an artist, the chances are he or she will include their work in a show or better still, present a monographic exhibition of the artist's output. This increases the value and reputation of the artist. It suits them very well to know what the curator is thinking.

Each year at the Frieze Art Fair there is a fund of around £100,000 made up of smaller donations by a group of collectors called the Outset Group. The money is given to the Tate Gallery to spend at the fair. So, before anyone else has seen what's on offer, Tate curators (plus a high-profile guest curator) go on a supermarket sweep and spend the money on a variety of artists (one of the conditions of the gift). These works are then put on show at the gallery the following day.

I am told that some of the Outset Group collectors who provide the money join the Tate curators for their early-bird private view.

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Vesturport + Nick Cave + Faust =

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Will Gompertz | 09:42 UK time, Friday, 1 October 2010


The Icelandic theatre company Vesturport is not widely known, but for the last 10 years, it has been packing out houses across the world with high-octane productions of Romeo + Juliette, Metamorphosis and Woyzeck.

Now its innovative approach has been rewarded with one of the most prestigious accolades in theatre, The European Theatre Prize, which has been won by such luminaries as Peter Brook, Pina Bausch, Robert Lepage and Harold Pinter. The company will receive the award at a ceremony next April.

Now, for the third time, Vesturport is teeming up with Nick Cave and his fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis in a new production based on Goethe's epic work Faust, which the great German polymath is reported as saying was unstageable.

Gisli Gardarsson


I went to visit rehearsals at London's Young Vic, and to meet Gisli Gardarsson, the ex-gymnast who is the creative force behind the company.

He shares Goethe's work ethic. When he's not creating or performing in Vesturport productions, he is producing movies. And when he's not doing that, he's acting in them - most recently in Prince of Persia alongside Jake Gyllenhaal.

My interview with him was broadcast on the Today programme this morning.

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