Not so much a dogwhistle as a flogwhistle for our museums

by Simon Tait
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The Royal Academy is famously our one world class art venue that is independent. It gets no subsidy and relies entirely on sponsorship, box office and what it can earn, and runs an art school for which it charges no fee (because that’s what society did 250 years ago). So if museums and galleries are in trouble, you can say that again for the RA.
Do I hear the thin, mournful wail of a dogwhistle?
The RA was once described by a former chief executive as a £100m a year business, to emphasise to the artists who run it that art isn’t everything, even in art. As it is, this venerable 252-year-old institution has been shattered by the lockdown and must save £8m from its annual budget or lose 150 members of staff. Or…
The RA doesn’t hold much of a collection but what it has is valuable and it’s hardly surprising that under the straitened circumstances the less romantic RAs are casting their eyes towards the most valuable object it does own, the Taddei Tondo.
This is an unfinished sculpture, left to the Royal Academy Schools in the 1820s as a teaching aid, which is now on display in the RA’s new Burlington Gardens building. It is also the only Michelangelo in this country and could be worth around £100m. I know the RA’s new president is dead against selling, but the notion comes up from time to time in lean periods, and she may have to combat a stronger argument than ever if it comes up again at the RA’s council now, in the leanest time of them all.

If the RA is contemplating selling, museums and galleries up and down the country of all dimensions must be going through the same tortuous agonising – what have we got that’s valuable, what’s valuable enough to sell, what’s too valuable to sell, was it donated and would the donor care or doesn’t that matter? Most only reopened in August, some not even then, and according to the official Heritage Sector Briefing to the government they have reported an initial loss of between 75% to 80% of their income. The RA is at least 50% down.
Without going over old ground, these days the difference between the independent and the subsidised is blurred, and capitalising on a museum’s assets has long been a cause of serious conflict among museums and their funders. The official word for flogging off objects from collections is “de-accessioning”, and its unofficial umpire has been the Museums Association ever since it took it upon itself to draw up a Code of Ethics in 1977. 
Number Two in its code under the heading “Stewardship of collections” says primly that museums should “treat museum collections as cultural, scientific or historic assets, not financial assets”, and it goes into details saying that museums should “refuse to mortgage collections or offer them as security for a loan. Ensure the financial viability of the museum is not dependent on any monetary valuation placed on items in its collections. Resist placing a commercial value on the collections unless there is a compelling reason to do so, and for collections management purposes only”. The last bit is a reference to getting rid of unnecessary duplicates. In other words, though shalt not flog off.
The Arts Council took on responsibility for state funded non-national museums in 2012, and clearly times have changed. It’s OK to off-load now, but usually only to other accredited museums and not normally for cash. Even so, says ACE’s official advice (leaning heavily on the MA’s code), “On occasion a museum may wish to sell an item for financial reasons”, warning “This is a high risk area”. It goes on to refer the reader to a 30-page “toolkit” on why and why not to do it, and if you do how to ethically go about it. And what is saleable.
They can be items (ACE prefers “item” to the more museumy “object”) that fall outside the core collection, duplicates, underused items, items for which the museum cannot care properly, items beyond the museum’s capability to repair, unprovenanced items, items that pose a threat to health and safety. Then the toolkit gets onto dodgy ground: you could sell something in order to buy a better example, or items “selected for their potential to generate income”.
“There is a high level of risk involved in this course of action and it should only take place after extensive consultation with the MA and other sector bodies. Museums considering this course of action should follow the detailed guidance on financially motivated disposal in Appendix 4”. If anything was ever devised to put you off deaccessioning Appendix 4 is it, and if you feel obliged to go there you really are in trouble – there are 16 sub-clauses on consultation alone. 
ACE’s sanction to those who don’t go through the proper procedure is to withdraw official accreditation, which may seem a rather blunt claw but can have serious implications if a museum is looking for loans of objects, support from trusts and foundations, sponsorship, not to mention co-operation with other institutions or help from ACE.  The RA is accredited.
In the US the custodian of the code of ethics is the Association of Art Museum Directors, and woe betide a museum that steps out of line. Two years ago the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., sold more than 20 works of art ranging from a Benjamin West to an Alexander Calder to pay for a renovation and was, according to the Washington Post’s art critic Sebastian Smee, “censured, sanctioned and publicly shamed”. Now as a result of Covid, says Smee, the AAMD has relaxed its guidelines and museums may now “use the proceeds from deaccessioned works of art … to support the direct care” of their collection. “There’s no doubt” writes Smee. “This represents a major departure, and a recognition that many art museums are in financial free fall”.
Could it happen here? It already has. Remember Northampton Museum, which belongs to the borough council, and its 4,000 Egyptian Sekhemka statue? It was sold by the borough amid a press and media storm for £16m in 2014 partly to pay for a £6.7m refurb for the museum, which duly lost its accreditation; the work was delayed by four years and the museum, finally scheduled to reopen in June, still hasn’t. 
Since 1949 Hertfordshire County Council had been compiling a School Loan Collection of modern paintings, by the likes of John Minton, Carel Weight and Keith Vaughan. This year it decided to send 450 to auction because they “had little relevance to the county” to realise almost £500,000. It was condemned by a group of MPs concerned with arts education as “a major cultural loss” and its chair wrote to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, that “this decision will have far-reaching consequences for many years to come”. 
The RA is not expected to sanction the Tondo’s sale, but the genie is out of the bottle. The government’s and ACE’s rescue packages have helped some museums over the hump of the immediate effects of the lockdown (still waiting to hear what’s happening to the £1.57bn, open to the subsidised and non-subsidised)), but they are staring at a blank future with drastically reduced income, little resources available from charities, much smaller staffs and fewer exhibitions to attract visitors. 
Many might think they have no choice but to test the rigours of Appendix 4 in the hope of surviving what looks to them like an oncoming post-nuclear winter.

“There’s something eerily Gothick about the New River Head engine house, a delight for illustrators and an image that would send Mervyn Peake on a maelstrom of weird invention. No wonder Quentin Blake fell for it.
This is the Gormenghast that will become the Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration in two years’ time, 20 years after he conceived the House of Illustration and eight after it opened in cramped but strategic space rented from the Art Fund in Granary Square, King’s Cross. 
That the £8m transition and transformation is being announced this week is a pointer that Covid isn’t only closing things, it’s allowing them to develop.
The House of Illustration started when the designer Joanna Carey and the illustrator Emma Chichester Clark had dinner with the first Children’s Laureate during which they discovered the mountainous collection of his own work the man who drew Dahl had accumulated over his long life, and kept. He’s 87, a knight, and still makes around 100 drawings a week. They wanted a Blake Museum; he wanted a gallery devoted to the history of illustration. “Illustration has been one of the most distinctive strands in the history of British art" he said when the place opened in 2014 next to Central St Martins. “It's one of the things that the British are good at – we don’t say that often enough”.
The question was, did we not say it often enough because we actually weren’t very interested in “illustration” as opposed to conventional art or, say, cartoons (the subject of a whole other museum)? “Illustration is all around us everywhere, but what I hope is that here you will stop and think about it" Blake said. And the conundrum was how to make a place that satisfied the research needs of professional illustrators as well as a curious public, and his point on all counts was made by the 250,000 people who have come every year since. In its first year the House of Illustration had exhibitions comparing Daumier and Paula Rego, Mad Men, a profile of the 50s commercial image-maker Mac Conner and to start the whole thing off Inside Stories devoted to the work of, who else, Quentin Blake.
Since then there have been graphic illustrations, pardon me, of why this is an art form and why it is important: Designed in Cuba: Cold War GraphicsJohn Veron Lord: Illustrating Carroll and JoyceGerald Scarfe: Stage and ScreenE H Shepard: An Illustrator’s WarLadybird by Design; Posy Simmonds: A Retrospective; and most recently the timely W E B Dubois: Charting Black Lives. And of course, various Blake exhibitions drawn from his archive of 40,000 items.
Then came Covid and closure, and as an unsubsidised institution the House was largely left to its own devices. The permanent posts of 16 shrank to 12 and all 13 casual staff had to go. The House of Illustration is closed for ever. 
“It was very grim, very sad” says Olivia Armad the artistic director, who has been with the project from the start and is acting director after the departure of Colin McKenzie in May. “But we stay online with our education work, and we knew we had a longer term plan to cling on to”. They could bring forward their gallery design, their business planning, their fundraising – they already have £3m.

Two years ago word of mouth had brought an extraordinary collection of four buildings in their own grounds to Blake’s notice at a place in Clerkenwell called New River Head, with the engine house at its centre. This had been the point where in the early 17th century clean water was first brought by a 40-mile conduit from Hertfordshire called New River to supply most of London, and 80 years later a spring was discovered next to it where Richard Sadler built a music house. In 1913 the Metropolitan Water Board made its HQ there and in 1973 it passed to Thames Water which now co-owns it with the House (thanks to £1m from the Architectural Heritage Fund). 
The old engine house with its characteristic black-yellow London brick was built in 1768 and remodelled, extended and added to in the ensuing century or so. It’s listed Grade II and in its recent life has been used for storage. The architect Tim Ronalds, who transformed an old electricity station in Shoreditch into Circus Space and created Grange Park’s “Opera House in the Woods” at West Horsley, is designing the conversion on which work starts next spring.
“When working with old buildings we think most about the experience of buildings, the sense of time and memory they contain – the combination of new work and old buildings can be magical” he says. “New River Head is an important historic site, and the engine house a fascinating and atmospheric building. The ingredients are there to make a new cultural space of great significance.”
It’ll have four times the public area of the Granary Square building, space for Blake’s entire archive plus a gallery devoted to showing it, four temporary exhibition galleries, an education centre, offices and those vital elements missing previously, a café and a shop. 
Will it work? It is the world’s only museum devoted to illustration, and no-one expected much of it six years ago. Blake had the material and connections to have made a charming but essentially solipsistic 3D autobiography visited mostly by followers of Matilda and the BFG, but instead has created what he calls an “international home for an art which I know and love… for artists who speak in a myriad of visual languages, but are understood by all”. 
It’s in Rosebery Avenue near Islington’s Upper Street and Clerkenwell’s Farringdon Road, sits in half an acre whose landscaping is in the budget, so the prospect of open air performances by the next door neighbour is beguiling. 
Would it be happening without Covid? Of course, says Armad, but not so soon. And in the week when the government has announced some details of its £1.57bn rescue plan for the arts, though not enough, knowing that enterprise in the arts is alive and planning for expansion is a welcome tonic.

“If you can’t come to art then art will come to you” says the artist Sam Harris, and never has that been truer than in this eerie Covid envelope in history. 

Artists, producers, actors, designers, poets - even archaeologists - are making culture come to you, and it might change the way we access and support the arts for ever. 

Theatres, galleries, museums, concert halls, bookshops, are shut, causing untold financial nightmares, and yet the resourcefulness of the cultural world has never been more evident - or more valuable – in equal measure with its generosity. What aren’t shut are the airways, audial, televisual and digital. 

So just to cheer us up artists such as Quentin Blake, Michael Craig-Martin, Gilbert & George and Damien Hirst have created downloadable posters, some specifically in support of the NHS. At every turn there’s a free concert online, a virtual exhibition tour, a live-streamed theatrical performance, all for free, or mostly, and many of them ask for participation so that there’s an active involvement. 

The National Theatre Live’s latest recordings, of Tamsin Greig’s Twelfth Night and Polly Findlay’s production of Treasure Islandwent out last night via YouTube from National Theatre at Home And yesterday the RSC marked Shakespeare’s 456th birthday with its largest ever audience by persuading people online to perform a speech, bake a cake, paint a picture, even serenade a neighbour over the garden fence in Shakespearean theme, and over 1,000 did video here. Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre has an annual inter-generational show by its resident Young Company and Elders Company, and the show will go on despite the lockdown, but bigger and better. Instead of the planned show, twice the number of people expected are involved in what is being called Connect Fest, “a theatre show, music festival and soap opera rolled into one”, 40 participants aged 14 to 82 getting together for a show that will be released daily on the Royal Exchange website between May 11 and May 15. It may be the model for the future.

The National Gallery already has a vast digital audience, but it grew by 2,000% after lockdown with a tour of the gallery’s pictures which has an emphasis on images of domestic life by staff speaking from their own homes. Artists are teaching, too, with special tutorials on the radio for home-bound kids. And heritage: other museums and galleries are open to those who log-on, with Historic England teaming up with the Council for British Archaeology and the University of Lincoln to offer Dig School, a series of free archaeology workshops helping families and children explore the past through their lap-tops

An important part of what’s been going on in the last month or so has been to do with supporting arts workers in their straits, despite a less than helpful attitude from the Treasury – the latest reflex twitch of its malevolent tail is to tell museums and galleries getting government grants they can’t offer top-ups to furloughed workers in the Job Retention Scheme which gives them 80% of salary, which is often basic national minimum
The BBC was one of the first to step forward with its Culture in Quarantine initiative to commission new work for The Space that it runs with the Arts Council The Sam Harris of the opening paragraph has just launched the Online Art Show website to help sell the art for artists whose exhibitions have been cancelled. In a more catholic spirit, the German Turner winner Wolfgang Tillmans is selling posters of his artwork for £50 to support music venues and arts spaces at risk of going out of business because of Covid, and he’s recruited 40 other artists – including Andreas Gursky, Marlene Dumas and Betty Tompkins – to step in with his campaign “where a lack of audience is causing an existential threat”, and Tillmans is paying for the printing and shipping of posters.

But the TaitMail prize for the best initiative that not only keeps the art in the public eye but at the same time adds some financial relief to artists goes to a scheme dreamed up by a working painter in which artists can help themselves. This is Artist Support Pledge, devised in his Sussex studio by Matthew Burrows and aimed not at the Hirsts, Gurskys and Craig-Martins but the lesser mortals, the more than competent professional painters who survive by selling their work and whose livelihood has been cancelled by a germ. One of the artists, Elizabeth Hannaford emails: “We post five pieces of work at £200 or less each (incl in my case 10% to Mind) using the hashtag #ArtistSupportPledge and when we’ve sold 5 for £1,000 we pledge to buy another’s work for £200. I was thrilled that two framed postcard-sized w’colours sold within hours - to very good homes”.  There are no enforcements, it’s based on trust. 

And it has gone, to coin a phrase, viral. It started on March 17 and in its first week got 9,000 pledges, worth around £9m. “After about four days it went absolutely crazy and I didn't really have a lot of choice but to run with it because it was too big a wave to duck under” says Burrows. “The goodwill has been unbelievable from everywhere in the world—from El Salvador, to America, Germany, New Zealand, Italy and Australia”.

Alongside, and with his friend Keith Tyson, Burrows has created another Instagram outlet for what he calls “artist-on-artist generosity”, Isolation Art School It’s free home-based projects for everyone, old and young, ranging from how to make table sculptures by Henry Ward to Isobel Smith making a wearable elephant’s head from  old newspaper, and to come there is flower arranging, painting with varnish, jewellery making to name a few, from the likes of Matt Collishaw, Nigel Cook and Sarah Pickstone. There is even a course for A level students whose schools are closed.

“I want to create an environment and a culture that has human beings attached to it. Not just this anonymous digital thing” says Burrows, and there’s nothing in it for him more than for any of the other artists. “What we are putting out into the world is a movement not a business. The formula is simple: you give generously, you receive gratefully and you give back. That’s it.”

And for the section allowing #ArtistsSupportPledge beneficiaries to give to a nominated charity (the first has been is Hospital Rooms, which commissions artworks for secure NHS mental health units) he has given a label that could be for all the gratis arts offering that has burgeoned in this blight: "The Gifted Keep Giving". 


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