Anonymous: Dis-United Kingdom

A terraced house in London costs on average £550,000: that is four times the cost elsewhere in what used to be the United Kingdom.

Since the introduction of the National Lottery and the opening of Tate Modern, the people who can afford to live in London are given a far greater access to contemporary art than those who live elsewhere in England. This economic geography is an unacceptable form of class distinction and cultural depravation. It seriously inhibits the career prospects of artists who do not live in London.

The YBA phenomenon was London based and centred on Goldsmiths College in New Cross. Yet Damien Hirst came from Leeds and Tracey Emin came from Margate. One of the tutors at Goldsmiths, Michael Craig-Martin, was the only artist Trustee of the Tate Gallery for most of the decade leading to the opening of Tate Modern.

I recently bought a copy of VISION: 50 years of British Creativity in an Animal Charity Shop for 50p. It is a massive 30 x 25 x 3.5 cm, 256 page, hardback, glossy coffee table book published in 1999 by Thames and Hudson, the publishing house that represents the flowing together of the rivers on the banks (in both sense of the word) of which the cities of London and New York flourish.

Michael Craig-Martin’s essay 1980s: The Role of Art Education in Britain Since the Sixties, starts promisingly with a mention of “the 40 art schools across the country”. But that is the only mention of anything outside of London. Craig-Martin’s text descends into a shameless self-promotion, mentioning that “the Fine Art department at Goldsmiths College pioneered an approach to art education which remains radical to this day.”

He continues: “I believe that one of the principal reasons the generation of young artists who graduated from Goldsmiths in the late eighties had such an immediate and profound impact on the international perception of British art was that they continued the critical dialogue that had characterized [sic] their education… productive self criticism, self-discipline and self-confidence”. He continues that for a city to become representative nationally and internationally, it needs “substantial and active museums, public exhibition spaces, affordable studios, fabrication facilities, publications, critics, collectors and, of course, art schools. But more than anything else a centre needs artists – a concentration and a diversity of good artists from the country as a whole who in turn attract other artists from around the world… if London is to remain the nationally representative focus for art – as Paris was [sic] in France and New York [is in] the United States…”

Nicholas Serota concurred with his longstanding close friend Craig-Martin. His essay 1990s: The Turner Prize states: “Of course, the attention given to the Turner Prize is only one manifestation of a much wider change in attitudes which has also seen an extraordinary growth in the number of artist-run gallery spaces and an increase in the audiences for contemporary art in other London venues, such as the Serpentine, Hayward, ICA and Whitechapel, not to mention Charles Saatchi’s personal gallery… The Saatchi Gallery, which opened in 1985, has set the pace…”

It seems extraordinary that only fourteen years ago this London-centric perspective was accepted as the Establishment norm. The 64 million in our sadly Dis-United Kingdom are starved of art while the 8.3 million in Greater London have descended into absolute gluttony – artistically, that is.  If we subtract from these figures the 10 million living in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, we are left with the stark statistic that England, minus London, is 46 million people. Serota and Craig-Martin, two very powerful figures in the Contemporary Art Establishment, both public employees, choose to ignore the 46 million people living in their country in favour of the 8.3 million living in what has increasingly come to feel like a Capital of Capitalism. What are the factors that have caused our cultural establishment’s distorted vision?

The Arts Council of England (ACE), then chaired, unpaid, by the Property Developer Peter Palumbo, also swallowed this unacceptable London bias promoted in the 1980s and 1990s by the launch of the National Lottery and Tate Modern.  ACE research continues to show that 50% of visual artists live in London, and that this justifies 50% of Arts Funding being spent in London. Funding should be divided fairly according to the population who pay their taxes. This would represent a move from the 50:50 division of funding to something like 18% for London and 82% for the English Regions.

Public funding of the arts has two strands: firstly Grants to Artists and to Public Galleries through ACE, a ghastly casino-type abbreviation that fits the Lottery funding mentality. ACE has tended to be responsive to the regions, but that is overshadowed by the direct Government Grant in Aid to national museums, most of which are based in London: the National Gallery, the British Museum, the V&A Museum and the two big Tates.

Secondly there are Purchase Grants. This can be seen as Government funding of Public Art Collections almost all of which are headquartered in London: Tate’s National Collection, Tate’s International Collection of Contemporary Art, Arts Council Collection, British Council Collection, Contemporary Art Society, National Arts Collection Fund, Government Art Collection.

Private dealer galleries receive between a third and a half of the selling price as commission on purchases made by Public Collections and this is the reason why they are all clustered in London. The emphasis that Serota’s VISION text gave to the role the Private Collector, Charles Saatchi, was at the time wish fulfilment. In the 1970s and 1980s Private Collectors were an insignificant part of the contemporary art market in comparison to the Public Collections.

The celebration of Private Collectors that took place in the 1990s in the lead up to the opening of Tate Modern, led directly to the situation today where ten of the fourteen Trustees overseeing all four Tate Galleries are millionaire, perhaps billionaire, Property Developers and Bankers. These are not representative of the Tax Payers of England.

If artists are a radical safety valve in the culture, a true avant garde, it is time they began to campaign for a balance between the funding available between London, the defunct 19th Century Imperial Capital of the British Empire, and the mass of the population of England, the “matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs”. If artists campaigned on these issues they could help to restore the social, financial and cultural balance between London and the regions. This could postpone the threat of imminent civil unrest.  Just look around you.

This article was originally part of Pamphlets, a publication by Artquest in 2014, where artists and art world professionals were invited to write anonymously about what’s wrong with the art world.


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