Sunday, 14 February 2010

You Don’t Design Great Art By Committee

Rosie Millard pondered the failure of the grand Lottery-funded arts projects in the 'Indy' last week:
Ten years on since the great Millennium Lottery rush to turn this country into an all-singing, all-dancing culture-box, the picture is distinctly less sparkly.
What a shocker...
True, there have been the spectacular successes. Tate Modern, the British Museum Great Court, the Ondaatje extension in the National Portrait Gallery, even the wobbly Millennium Bridge – a decade later, these enterprises have artistic integrity, national and international acclaim and look fundamentally at home.
So, of those successdful projects, three are extensions or additions to existing, well established attractions. And one's a bridge.

My stars, how could you fail with a bridge! People aren't likely to say 'Well, I wanted to cross the river, but not on that! I'm going to walk a bit further out of my way and find a nicer one...'. Even the wibbly-wobbly nature at first had its fans...
Even the dreaded Dome is now the world's favourite live-music venue.
You mean, when it was filled with things people actually wanted to go see, rather than earnest exhibitions about Mongolian sheep herder poetry selected by a committee of government quangos and civil servants, it suddenly became popular?

Yet there are so many more which – somewhere down the line – went seriously awry. And when surveyed as a whole, the unpalatable truth is that the Millennium arts projects have not delivered.
And how! The money squandered on them is of Biblical proportions:
It's important to remember just how much capital outlay there was. The Millennium Lottery payola heralded one of the greatest building sprees the British arts world has ever known. A staggering £1.3 billion was spent on 222 projects across the country, of which Arts and Culture grabbed a third (the others being Community and Education). And instead of a glittering web of arts institutions across the land, what we are left with is a series of buildings by "named" architects, many of which are dark, vandalised or which are living in the crepuscular world of free comedy nights and amateur dramatics.
It seems a lot of these were doomed from the start, being the sort of 'worthy' project fawned over by the Islington set, and regarded with baffled contempt by people spending their own money...
"They simply drowned in their own excesses," says arts administrator Keith Khan. He should know. Khan opened Bethnal Green's Rich Mix in London's East End. Rich Mix, which eventually cost £27 million, including £5 million from the Millennium Fund, was going to be "a major international arts centre", designed to bring the white working-class man and the Bangladeshi housewife together in a fantastic cultural pas de deux. Er, not quite. Khan has long departed and Rich Mix? Well, Shoreditch media types go there, but it is certainly not the popular cross-cultural hang-out it was supposed to be, after a wildly delayed opening, political wrangling and a budget overspend of £13 million.
Which is more than can be said for the Bernie Grant Arts Centre, which opened in a blaze of hoopla and a building designed by architect David Adjaye. It was supposed to be a "flagship for cultural diversity" at a cost of £15 million, £6.4 million of which came from the Millennium Fund.
And this 'flagship' is, well, little more than a leaky rowboat:
On calling this week to find out what was on, the friendly woman at the box office could only guide me to a tea dance and a visiting arts troupe.
How very diverse...
Down the road in Deptford, whoops, another blip on the David Adjaye CV and the sunny Millennium roster, namely the £10 million Stephen Lawrence Centre, which Adjaye built with some hopelessly impractical arty windows (with etchings from Chris Ofili). Cost to the Millennium Fund? £4.2 million.

Repeatedly smashed, its glass façade has proved so difficult to replace and insure, that for a long time it was covered in boards.
Maybe the answer is to not name your grandiose project after whatever lefty cause célèbre is in vogue at the time?

Still, at least they are still open, which is not the case for some of those schemes:
Meanwhile, down the road in Sheffield, the £15 million National Centre for Popular Music closed down though utter lack of interest in 2000, and the £55 million Earth Centre in Doncaster also failed to light people's fires, closed in 2004.
And why is this?
There should have been far more stern realism, not only from the press, but also from those in charge. Hard-headedness was replaced with an unseemly rush to grab the money and open the bubble.
Let me see if I’ve got this right – the government was handing out free money with no strings, and all kinds of spivs, chancers, dreamers and diversity remoras rushed to grab a slice?

How unexpected
This is because there were two powerful forces at work. The arts lobby, which perceived itself as having been left out in the cold for the entire Thatcher era, could hardly believe its luck.
It was 'left out in the cold' because no-one in Thatcher's government was dim enough to fork over huge great wodges of taxpayer moolah for something of interest only to three men and a dog in Islington....
Secondly, there was a heady notion that British art – after years of dreary earnestness – was suddenly sexy. Arts grandees saw Damien Hirst on Top of the Pops, pointed to the queues outside Charles Saatchi's Sensation at the Royal Academy and convinced themselves that everyone could have their own little piece of the YBA phenomenon.
Ah, right. Of course.

And we are supposed to be whipped up into a frenzy about the profligacy of the bankers...?


Unknown said...

Spending OTHER peoples money is an art in itself, don't you know...bastards! (And I won fuck all on the lot lot this week, go figure.)

Here's another pocked dipping exercise, the Euro Lot lot now charges £2 instead of £1.50 and tacked on a very long number which could net you a cool mil...with out even asking. When will I ever learn eh?

James Higham said...

In the same way that you don't design an all-crashing aeroplane like Airbus by committee or anything worthwhile at all.

Brian, follower of Deornoth said...

"flagship for cultural diversity"

Who in their right mind would want to visit such a thing, designed by committee or not?

TDK said...

crepuscular world of free comedy nights and amateur dramatics.

crepuscular world of free comedy nights and amateur dramatics.

Gotta love that elitist sneer. People, wait for it, go out at night!

And, please God protect us from "amateur dramatics". The horror of watching your neighbour in "An Inspector Calls" rather than some "educational Arts Council funded project by the likes of the 7:84 theatre company (now sadly expired through over popularity).

Mrs Erdleigh said...

Great post Julia. Loved the reference at the end of the article about the mockery of Noddy Holder who seems to be more successful and liked than all these arty offerings put together.

The offerings at the Bernie Grant centre remain thin:

If ever I win the Euro millions lottery I will invest a small amount in testing out a theory of mine; that I could make a profit by opening up a tourist attraction consisting solely of a high quality tearoom and gift shop in a scenic location, thus stripping down a day out to its essentials.

blueknight said...

To my eternal shame I visited the Millenium Dome. (in truth I was curious)
It was not educational, unlike one of the London Museums. It was not entertaining, unlike Tussauds or Legoland.
There was a large model of a human brain laughing at Tommy Cooper jokes (why?) and a beach scene with deckchairs and litter. There was a also a relaxation zone, a cave with coloured lights. It was all instantly forgettable like a Monty Python sketch without any humour.
What did it for me was a film presentation about life long learning, (I think), which featured a BEECH Tree which for some unexplained reason dropped all its 'seeds of learning' which were not beech nuts but SYCAMORE Maple spinners.
The high spot of the day was the Big Mac meal at the 'Golden Arches' afterwards