It has taken 200 years for one of the pioneers of feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft, to be honoured with a statue. Unfortunately, what renowned sculptor, Maggi Hambling, has created is a clichéd image. Would a celebrated male writer ever be portrayed nude? Yet here is Wollstonecraft depicted as a stereotype of female iconography in art. Statues of men outnumber women by 10 to 1 in London and, following months of debate about which historical figures deserve to be honoured, it is disappointing that such an important figure as Wollstonecraft has been commemorated in this way.
I have just finished watching Art of Persia, a three-part series on the BBC (still available on iPlayer). It is a stunning portrayal of an amazing country and its fabulous historical and cultural treasures and it made me long to go back. Visiting ancient archaeological sites and beautiful mosques and learning about the Sufi poets, Samira Ahmed was the perfect presenter - interested and enquiring, but making her presentation all about the sites she was seeing and not about her. She reveals how narrow the West’s understanding of Persian culture is. Yet, for 3,000 years, Persia has influenced culture across the world. This was one of the few nations to defeat the Roman Empire. Yet, for most of its existence, Persia was isolated, not least because it held on its own language, even when overrun by Islamic, Arabic-speaking, invaders. Even today, Iran is the only non-Arabic speaking country in the Middle East. The ethos of being Persian is still an integral part of Iranian culture today. Whatever your political views, it is a country well-worth visiting and the local people will welcome you with open arms and generous hospitality.
A government taskforce is being set up to help reopen the cultural sector in England. Overseen by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and chaired by a DCMS minister, its responsibilities will include tourism, culture and heritage, libraries, entertainment and sport. The group will be one of five official taskforces helping develop new “Covid-19 secure” guidelines specific to different parts of the economy. The other taskforces will oversee pubs and restaurants, non-essential retail, places of worship and international aviation. Separate sectoral sub-groups will be set up under each taskforce to examine issues specific to that sector. A museums and galleries working group is being set up by the recreation and leisure taskforce. It will work with the museum sector on the possible reopening of institutions in England in stage three of the UK government’s plan for lifting lockdown restrictions. The earliest this could take place is 4 July.
The Cultural Renewal Taskforce panel will be led by Neil Mendoza, the architect of the 2017 Mendoza Review of Museums in England. The other members are:
Part of Mendoza’s brief will be to collaborate with Arts Council England, National Lottery Heritage Fund, Historic England and other sectoral bodies to develop and deliver a strategy fit to support organisations large and small. The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden also announced £200 million in new funding which will be made available for small charities “that are at the heart of their communities”, but without any specific detail on how much of this – if any – would be available for cultural organisations.
The Welsh and Northern Irish governments have published recovery plans where open-air museums will open before other institutions. Museums Galleries Scotland is working with the Scottish government on plans to reopen the museum sector.
Whilst this all sounds very heartening, let’s hope that it’s not too little or too late to help British culture and heritage to rebound from the damaging impacts of the coronavirus lockdown.
This was the stark headline of an article in The Times yesterday (1 May) by its arts correspondent, Richard Morrison. Without the influx of foreign visitors the national museums will suffer. University museums will face funding losses as international students fail to enrol. Many museums and galleries are facing the possibility of permanent closure because of the Coronavirus pandemic and not just the smaller ones: the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth and the Postal Museum in London have already signalled their imminent insolvency. Moreover, the culture secretary seems to be more interested in getting top-level football played again rather than opening any aspect of the arts. As Morrison states, if it’s deemed acceptable for footballers to stand side-by-side in a defensive wall, why shouldn’t dancers be allowed to perform? If we’re allowed to visit supermarkets, why can’t social distancing be applied to our cultural assets? Museums and galleries will need to be creative in what they offer and how they make it available to us. So we must all do our bit to support our cultural heritage once re-opening starts. After all, with the drop in foreign visitors, social distancing will be easier to impose and we’ll be able to enjoy some of our best loved sites without huge crowds. But, above all, we need to lobby government to provide financial support for the hard-pressed smaller museums and galleries that simply may not survive this crisis otherwise.
I was fascinated to read an article in The Times on 7 May that 3-D scanning is being used to produce precise reproductions of cultural objects. Facsimile paintings can be created using the same pigments and canvas as the originals, allowing us to see vivid, unfaded, colours, thus creating the experience intended by the artist and not as we view many artworks today, that have suffered deterioration though age and environment and that have to viewed through glass, in low light, or from some distance away. It also means that artworks can be seen in their original settings. Such a facsimile of Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana has been created for the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, the original commissioner of the work, whilst the original sits in The Louvre in Paris.
When Charles II ascended the throne in 1660 he wasted no time in amassing a formidable art collection which, whilst not as celebrated as that of his father, Charles I, nevertheless included works by Bruegel, Leonardo da Vinci and Titian. He also commissioned a portrait of himself that is almost three metres high. The work, by John Michael Wright, is almost three metres high and depicts the king in parliamentary robes and the newly created regalia, displaying the return of regal power. The portraits and other works from Charles’ collection feature in an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery that runs until 13 May 2018 and provide a counterpoint to the larger exhibition of Charles I’s works at the Royal Academy.
Last night, in New York, a work believed to be by Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, sold for $450 million dollars (including fees), the highest amount paid for a work of art to date. Interestingly, it was placed in a sale of contemporary artwork as it was felt there is more money in that sector than amongst collectors of Old Masters. Christie’s described it as “the greatest art rediscovery of the twentieth century”, yet not all art critics agree: one described the painting’s surface as “inert, varnished, lurid, scrubbed over and repainted so many times that it looks simultaneously new and old”. After all, it sold for just £45 in London in 1958 when it was thought to be by a follower of da Vinci. The buyer(s) is, as yet, unknown, but who would pay so much for a work of questionable attribution…?
Museums were in the news this week with the rumour mill in overdrive that Maria Balshaw is tipped to succeed Nicholas Serota as director of the Tate. They may be big shoes to fill, but she has a great track record in her work at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, and it’s fantastic to hear that a woman might be taking over one of national institutions. Meanwhile, Tristam Hunt, is to leave politics and take over at the V&A, which will, no doubt, have put some curators noses out of joint…
Interesting article in The Economist this week about succession planning in American art museums. Accordingly to a survey of the Association of Art Museum Directors by The Economist, more than a third of directors have reached retirement age. The article focuses on the change in priorities that has taken place over the tenure of some of the longest serving and compares the issues facing them today with the slower pace of life of their early predecessors. For example, since Glenn Lowry, the Head of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), took up his post in 1995 the museum’s footfall has doubled and its endowment has quadrupled to almost $1 million. Modern directors have to be not just curators but also CEOs, responsible for the business side of their institution as well as the collections, including fund raising and advocacy.
Many directors have stayed in post for fear of disrupting the smooth running of the service in difficult times. An influx of new blood at the top, however, would provide opportunities to review the role and question assumptions about the way in which museums are run. The Economist believes that new directors face three challenges: engaging more imaginatively with audiences, addressing America’s changing demographics, and negotiating the ever more delicate balance between wealthy donors and the public. In particular, if museums are to make headway in engaging audiences they need to broaden their appeal. Part of the problem is that the potential pool of new directors does not reflect America’s racial diversity. All these challenges should resonate with the heritage sector in the UK.
Unilever Archives held its second charity art auction on 27 November and it proved to be as successful as the first in 2012. The auction was held in Unilever House and open to all staff. 40 pieces of contemporary artwork, of relatively low value, that no longer fitted with the collecting policy, were displayed on temporary walls in the restaurant for 24 hours before the auction, although the catalogue had been available online for a couple weeks.
I was delighted to have been asked to act as auctioneer and even more delighted to report that everything was sold and £6653 was raised for Unilever’s designated charity, the Oxfam’s UK Clear A Plate campaign.
My thoughts, views and musings about what's happening in the world of archives and records management, information and governance, heritage and culture