A taste of Panama

In the early days of onlinery I wrote a clutch of pieces for The Times about Panama. We went there without any great expectations but absolutely loved the place. Even shared a hotel with a woman who was once accused of romancing Bill Clinton. She had a son with her. Just saying.

Anyway, had one of the great meals at this place:http://panama-mahmad.blogspot.co.uk/2009/05/go-gourmet-in-boquete-panama.html

For the people by the people.

Many of the critics are snotty about the Royal Academy Summer Show but actually it cheers up lots of 'amateur' painters like my local Big Issue seller who tried to enter and raise loadsa for the  RS students.

 Here's piece for the FT.




The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is easy prey for the critics. As far back as 1794, only 26 years after the first exhibition had opened to display works by ‘all Artists of distinguished merit’ disillusionment had set in. The Morning Post attacked it for descending ‘into a parade of the hackneyed and incompetent amongst the little dirty paltry aristocracy of the Royal Academy.’

    More recently critics reported being filled ‘with a profound melancholy and disgust’ or dismissed it as the ‘largest festival of bad art in Europe.’

    None of this deterred Mereliis Rinne, 32, who walked all the way from Dalston with her canvas or Mary Barnes, 70-plus from Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire. They joined the hundreds who carried their paintings and sculptures across the cobbles of the Royal Academy courtyard a few week’s ago to offer their work for the show which opens next week/tomorrow (June 13 - August 30). Nor did it daunt a young Eileen Cooper, who as a student in the 70s, had her first work accepted and hung in the main gallery. 

    This year she is the coordinator of the hanging committee, which includes Academicians, Ann Christopher, Fiona Rae and Farshic Moussavi, who is curating the architecture section. “All amazing women,” says Cooper. “Not that we are marketing it as such. It is just unusual for the RA to be so female centred.” Yinka Sonibare alongside RA stalwarts Gus Cumins and Bill Jacklin redress the balance.

    “I believe in the summer show,” she says. “What I really love and value about it is that if your work gets selected you will be on the wall next to a Ken Howard or Anselm Kiefer or a Barbara Rae.

    “The show’s main purpose is to raise money for the RA schools programme which does not receive any government funding so I think it is churlish to be negative about something that supports the next generation.” 

    She admits it is hard to win the plaudits of the critics, but, says, a little tartly in her still-broad Derbyshire tones: “Artists like a challenge so I don’t see why critics won’t take the challenge too.”

    So what can the 200,000-plus visitors to the 2017 exhibition expect? “We couldn’t think of one slogan to sum it up, which is a real drawback,” she admits. “Our aim is to bring something fresh to the show by finding emerging talent and recruiting more artists from countries as disparate as Congo, Peru, Spain and India as well as Turkey and Kurdistan. 

    “We had to spread the word and get the people who might not send in but whose work we have noticed.”

    The result was 12,000 digital entries which were narrowed down by the committee over one ‘surreal’ week in March to between two to 2,500 and then reduced in one eye - watering day to the 1,200 or so which will make up this year’s show.

    It is these amateurs who give the show its singularity and confuse the critics who perhaps are looking for something more ‘professional’ and more structured. 

    “I think the amateur is a difficult term,” protests Cooper, who is a painter and printmaker as well as the first female Keeper of the RA Schools. “There are some who have been Sunday painters since they retired, others might be teachers or academics who will be working at quite a high level and there are a lot of people, maybe a milkman or a bank clerk, for whom art is very precious but who don’t make a living as an artist.

    “Then there are the graduates. It’s harder and harder for them to find a studio and have the opportunities to show their work.”

    She argues that that the exhibition, which is the oldest open-submission show in the world, is a unique opportunity for people to be included who don’t fit into the mainstream, but often narrow, gallery idea of what contemporary art is. 

    “It is very liberating for them and for the possible buyer there is the reassurance that the works have been selected by the artists on the committee which might well be different to those preferred by a dealer,” says Cooper. “Furthermore it is a good place to buy because the commission is lower than most galleries - 30 per cent compared with, often, 50 per cent.”

    Her plan is to mix all the works together. This year, as well as the Academicians who are always encouraged to show - and sell - in support of the schools, there will be three film makers, including a room for a three-screen installation by Isaac Julien, photography by Gilbert and George, recently appointed Academicians and the first duo to appear, as well as a performance by recent RA school graduate Alana Francis. “Very special,” says Cooper. “She opens herself up massively. You’ll find it very moving.”

    Gallery Three - the main space - is the biggest challenge for any curator because the floor is taken over by a bar to quench the thirst of networkers and sponsors and that leaves no room to stage sculpture as a centre piece.

    “It is really hard to hang,” she admits. “The problem is that you have to have lots of different types of work together. Some fit well together, others, well, it can be difficult.

    “We have a very beautiful, very large, Sean Scully and lots of work by Olwyn Bowey one of our academicians whose work is all about keen observation of the house where she lives. They’re wonderful, rugged, fabulously observed, drawings of plants.” 

    One of the co-curators and major contributor is sculpture Yinka Shonibare and he is every bit as enthusiastic as Cooper to highlight emerging artists.

    “The RA does need to find ways of renewing itself,” he says. “It is a very well established institution but it’s not entirely great to rely on past glories and it is always good to refresh the organisation.

    “Institutions are not easy to break into. You have to go through a number of rituals, ceremonies and all sorts of different levels of initiation rites to get anywhere near these places. There are artists who perhaps who don’t have those opportunities - this is their chance to be seen.”

    Shonibare, who is curating two rooms, invited a diverse group to send in their works. One is Abe Odedina, of Nigerian origin,living in Brixton, south London, who paints dashing scenes based on African folk art 

    “I like the Japanese artist Tomoaki Suzuki,” says Shonibare. “He makes carvings of small figures using traditional Japanese methods and style but in a very contemporary way and Hassan Hajjaj, who isMoroccan-British, and who takes pictures of Muslim women on bikes called Henna Bikers. I like the kind of fun of them.

    “These are not the usual works associated with the RA.”

    Shonibare himself is displaying a new example of his razzle-dazzle Wing series in the courtyard while inside one of his Hybrid Angels will stand by a re-imagining of the classical sculpture, Venus de Medici, which he has decorated with a ‘a load of patterns.’

    Like Cooper he admits the vetting procedure is not entirely rational 

    “I go by gut instinct,” he says. “The selection is not a definite science. There are artists who are quite good but unfortunately if the judges can’t agree on that work it doesn’t mean it is necessarily no good, it just means the judges didn’t like it.”

    Cooper, who is also preparing for an exhibition at Wolfson College, Cambridge, with her distinctive depiction of the female form, admits to one or two ‘sparky discussions’ when it came to the show’s style and content. 

    She says: “Big areas of debate will continue through out the hang because there is so much work to accommodate and people get quite invested in their rooms. If you say you’ve got to hang this they might say I don’t want it there, or I’ve just got this room hanging beautifully I can’t add anything else. So I think I will be trouble shooting around the galleries.

    “It’s wonderful to find work you like and hang it well especially when it is by someone you are discovering. Artists need to show their work and it is fantastic for them to do that here and for me too, it is a great opportunity to use art as a means of communication with a new audience.” 

    Sadly, the determined Meriliis Rinne and her painting “The Danger of the Pink Cloud” did not make the cut but Mary Barnes did.

    “I have been painting for 50 years,” says Mrs Barnes, whose successful entry is a sombre black and work entitled “Alas, Poor Aleppo.” She is just the talented ‘amateur’ Cooper has in mind.

    “There is always a huge diversity on show,” says Mrs Barnes, who has sold five paintings over the years. “The fact that anybody can enter is brilliant.” 


Hepworth, hurrah

I told anyone who would listen that the Hepworth Museum in Wakefield would win this year's £100,000 Art Fund prize. Trouble is no one was listening. I cannot access the FT site for the piece I wrote in April but it went something like this:


What makes a museum a worthy winner of a £100,000 prize? A critically acclaimed exhibition, a new gallery full of light and space? That goes without saying. But how is it possible to compare, say, an internationally celebrated museum with more than three million visitors a year with one tucked away in an unremarkable suburb in south London which attracts a mere 12,000. 

    That is one of the challenges facing the judges of the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2017 as they prepare to announce the shortlist next week (April 27); how to compare unlike with unlike.

    When the Victoria and Albert (internationally celebrated museum) was revealed as the winner last year there was a distinct murmur among the arts world aristocracy gathered in the National History Museum to hear the result. The then MP Tristram Hunt was heard to express his surprise - perhaps not imagining that he would be appointed director of that very institution within a matter of months.  

    Some thought the extra cash would have been more beneficial to any one of the other museums on the shortlist, an eclectic quartet which ranged from the Bethlem Museum of the Mind (underdog from the London suburb), the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol with its bravura contemporary art shows, the sculpture park of Jupiter Artland, near Edinburgh or York Art Gallery, which had been transformed after a two year refurbishment but was struggling financially.     

    Artist Cornelia Parker, who was one of the four judges last year, admits it was a ‘really difficult job.’

    “We had many discussions,” she says delicately. “One of our number suggested we all had big egos - which is fair enough - and it was so close fought that we did not make the decision until the day of the award ceremony. Because we could not agree we gave scores from one to five to each contender and even then one of us did not want the V and A to win.

    “The museums are all so different and there are lots of different criteria but with the runners up there was always one fatal failing whether it was York Museum which had lost one-third of its audience because they had decided to charge visitors or the Bethlem which was in a Portakabin not so long ago but is still at the beginning with its programmes.     

    “The money is a spit in the ocean for the V and A but we were impressed by their decision to take shows on the roads as they used to before they were abandoned in the 70s. And I do believe there is an accolade in being one of five on the list - Jupiter Artland doubled the number of its visitors for example.”

    But an accolade is not quite like winning, as a small, unfashionable museum like the Lightbox in Woking, Surrey, which won in 2008, testifies. The money meant they were able to build a new gallery to house contemporary works and afford to support one show every year by a local talent. 

    As marketing manager Pru Chambers says: “The publicity helped increase audiences from 70,000 to 100,000 and it raised the museums’s profile in terms of its peers so that we suddenly had credibility with other museums such as the Tate or the Courtauld who let us borrow from their collections.

    “The effect was much greater on us than on one of the big hitters like the V and A.”

    But that is to miss the point, as Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund explains: “This is the nub of the problem and also the strength of the Museum of the Year. You cannot compare a small museum with the British Museum or the V and A, they are completely different operations, yet they are put up against each other and the judges have to ask themselves the question; how well does this museum do what it does?

    “In a way that sounds very simple but it’s quite a searching thing to ask. Could the British Museum do better? You might say it could. It has the best collection in the world but is it making most of it? In fact, when the museum won in 2011 it was for the curatorial project, The History of World in 100 Objects, and nothing to do splendour of its galleries or the depth of the collection.

    “You are just as likely to get a brilliantly conceived curatorial idea from somewhere small or an imaginative redesign of an existing museum as we saw in 2012 with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter which won not because of a single showy event but a reworking of what they already had. From that point of view it doesn’t seem quite so absurd to have very small museums up against the big.”

    His reasoning for the V and A victory moves unexpectedly into a reflection about art and elitism in a post-Brexit country.

    “We had the referendum result in June, our prize was to be announced in July. How can we explain this surprising result when the UK was divided, with a metropolitan elite who think in one way and the rest of the country, disenfranchised and forgotten? 

    “To have the decision going to the V and A as the embodiment of that elite rather than Artland, York or Bristol was a great surprise. I think some believed when they came to the dinner to hear the announcement that the V and A was almost certainly not going to win because it would look like another example of elitism but the reality is that we weren’t thinking about the political landscape, we weren’t worrying what kind of decision we should take to make us look good or the museum world look good.

    “We were simply asking; does the museum do what it does well? And we all thought the V and A’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty was one of the outstanding exhibitions of the year as its record - breaking 493,043 visitors testifies.”

    Above all he feels the Art Fund has to defend the ‘purity of the prize’ by not trying to meet the views of a particular constituency but by letting the judges decide.

    Jennifer Scott, who was director of the Holburne Museum in Bath, which was long listed for the prize in 2012, and has recently moved to the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London, shares Deuchar’s vision.  

    “I love the idea that the Art Fund is across the spectrum and that everyone is in the same pot together. For us it is very important that the Art Fund is leading the perception that all museums are equal.”

    Big or small the contenders have to meet the same criteria. This year’s judges, sculptor Richard Deacon, Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum, Munira Mirza former London deputy mayor for Culture and Education and DJ and television presenter, Jo Whiley with Deuchar as chairman will be deciding which museum has created a project which will provide a lasting legacy, whether it has a worthwhile learning programme and if it has done enough to inspire the enthusiasm of its visitors. Their targets this year could include the new Design Museum, the Tate Modern for its much vaunted extension and possibly the less known but constantly creative establishments such as the Holburne, the Pallant in Chichester and the Bowes in County Durham.

    Perhaps what makes the decision making so charged is that the Art Fund prize is not just the most generous but the only financial reward given to a museum in the world. The annual Council of Europe Museum Prize offers prestige and a bronze statuette while the $1 million prize given by the UAE Abraaj Group is split between five artists and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in the USA awards the winner $100,000 plus a solo exhibition. 

    Runners up will win a consolatory £10,000 this year but just being on the short list was a ‘tremendous boost’ for the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, which is dedicated to the history and art of mental health. 

    “We were disappointed not to win but not begrudging,” says museum director Suzie Walker - Millar. “The Art Fund was very supportive and advised us on improving conditions for the disabled. 

    “We could have used the money on more outreach programmes and longer opening hours but the process raised our profile no end and the news of us being on the shortlist gave visitor figures a fillip. Above all, our staff and volunteers were so proud that they were no longer forgotten in the suburbs that they grew a foot taller.”



Far from the crowd

Sri Lanka has the lot. Ancient ruins, wandering elephants, birds of many a feather. The search for wild life can be like the North Circular in rush hour. There is a place to go.

Read more:

His. Not ours

I've been supporting Portsmouth Football Club for more years that I care to admit. It has, by and large, been an unrewarding experience. A few promotions,  a cup win and then a calamitous run of owners which resulted in the club almost disappearing from the league. 

Then, a small miracle; the fans bought the club. The football remained atrocious but it was ours. Miraculously, that's how it seemed the club won the bottom division with almost the last kick of the season. A real moment. Our club; our victory. But no more. The shareholders decided to sell to an American business, one Michael Eisner who used to run Disney. Cue Mickey Mouse club jokes.

It's a sad moment. This is what I wrote at the time. 



In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Jn Bunyan gives his hero a choice. Follow the blandishments of Mr Worldly Wisemen and take the easy way to salvation or take a harder path to the Celestial City.

    Or as Grandmother Willow said in the Disney classic Pocahontas"Sometimes the right path is not the easiest one.”

    This is the dilemma facing the supporters of Portsmouth FC. A new wannabe owner is standing at the crossroads and saying: ‘Come with me.’

    The temptation set out in the Supporter’s Trust info pack is that ‘one hundred per cent ownership is more likely to lead to a faster progression through the leagues - even to the Premier League.’ Ah, the Premier League, the celestial city of 21st century football.

    Maybe. We know something about 100 per cent ownership in Portsmouth. Since 1959 when the club was first relegated that model has resulted in PFC spending a mere 7 to 8 years in the top division. 100 per cent ownership as typified by a series of incompetents, crooks and clever businessmen has guaranteed nothing. In fact, it is the cause of our present financial difficulties and has - happily - resulted in the club being bought and owned by the supporters.

    So what’s on offer here from Mr Worldly Wisemen aka Michael Eisner late of Disney?

    No place for shareholders on the board. No place for shareholders at all except on a Heritage panel which can make three decisions - the club’s colours, its name, and an odd pledge not to move the stadium more than 15 miles from Portsmouth. The latter is a clear indication that a move is afoot. The design of the crest cannot be protected which, frankly, shows a huge misunderstanding of what these emotive symbols mean to a club. I’ll forbear from suggesting Minnie Mouse swinging from a crescent moon as an alternative.

    The offer of forums to discuss club matters is very nice but meaningless. It’s a sop. If you own a club, you own a club and no amount of bleating by the fans will change your plans.


    The money. Here’s the rub. The offer to buy our shares for £5 million and promise to invest £10 million - in an unspecified way - is not impressive. In fact, it’s a knock down bargain and if accepted does little to advance the cause. 


    The stadium.

    We know it’s the albatross left us by previous ‘caring’ owners. It seems we could truck along with current funding but on Page 19 of the statement it says ‘it costs £50 million to build a brand new stadium but there is no commitment by Tornante to carry out this work.’ Nor is it clear whether they want to separate stadium from the company. Haven’t we been there before? We have; a fate narrowly avoided when the fans took the club over.


    The statement also admits the actual requirements and the costings of stadium have yet to be finalised. Do we have to build a new stadium in one go? Can we repair, fix and improve as we go along? Build a new Milton End and work our way referring the North /South stand. In our First Division season of ’87-’88 home crowds rose above 20,000 only three times - we are not a ‘massive’ club we can afford to take time, stay solvent.


    The report also makes it clear that plans are in place to see what the costs are and how they could be covered. Perhaps we need the detail on that before we vote.


    In all this there is an assumption that we could never be an elite club without big investment. Well, see above, we have not been an elite club since the early Fifties. It also makes the point that many clubs in the Championship have debts over £50 million and we know most clubs run a horrendous rates of leverage. Is that what we want? Really? One puff of a wind - maybe a global economic crisis - and would Mr E bail us out like say, Mr Gaydamak, who owned the club when it won the FA Cup (hurrah) but, it transpired, had no actual money (not so good)?


    The assumption is that a wealthy new owner will spur the club through the leagues. Older (much older) fans will be aware of huge investment in players in the 70s. It came to nothing. Younger fans will remember the cynical way one Milan Mandaric bought the club for a knock down price and sold it some years later for ten times the amount without making any serious investment. Then we had the chimera that was Gaydamak. 


    If our model can get us to the Championship in a few years - boosted by share issues, crowdfunding, bond issues, dynamic marketing - then I’ll be content. After all, PFC is the very epitome of the second division side, always has been.    Above all, we have to ask why. Why does he want to buy the club? He wanted to buy Reading. Which other clubs? 


    We know what’s in it for us - what’s in it for him?


    The fans, particularly the shareholders have taken the pilgrim’s straight and narrow path and are in this for the long run. I doubt Mr E is - that’s just not the way it works in today’s football.


    I don’t want to sound too corny but what the club has now is a sense of integrity, decency and community. We won’t be citing image rights over the crest design.


    It’s ours. Don’t let it be his.

It's not just Trump

All right minded people are angered by the Trump ban - attempted and bound to fail - ban on several Muslim countries but It's worth remembering how hard it is for artists from the Middle East to get into this country as this interview with Mahmoud Bakhshi shows. 

Read more in the Gulf News

Valparaiso; how absurd you are...

The Chile port of Valparaiso is a marvel of corrugated iron and colour, one of the oddest, most delightful cities in South America. Share my thoughts on; www.independent.co.uk/travel/americas/valparaiso-city-guide-street-art-tours-and-funicular-rides-a6970096.html


Might - or right?

Artist and Empire” at London’s Tate Britain gallery (until April 10, 2016), sets out to explain how colonial Britain was portrayed from the late 16th century to the swaggering power of the 18th and 19th centuries and on to the present day. Read more.

 Retribution by Edward Armitage

Retribution by Edward Armitage

Really Healey

In the 1980s I commissioned the late Denis Healey to write a piece - and take the photographs - for the Sunday Mirror about a trip he was to take in South Africa. The negotiations over deadline and content were conducted by his ‘secretary’ who had a suspiciously vaudevillian falsetto. It dawned on me eventually that it was the great man himself who perhaps wanted to keep his distance from the sordid business of negotiating a fee (£1,000). He wrote a very perceptive piece on apartheid with pictures to match.

Bitter sweet taste of New Orleans

Ten years on from Hurricane Katrina tearing apart New Orleans I received a note from one Stephen Perry, President andCEO of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, thanking ‘all of you who took us in when we had no place to go, helped us tell our story when we had no voice, helped us rebuild our homes and our city from ruin.’

He doesn’t know me from Adam but it coincided with several stories about the new wave of restaurants and cocktail bars in the city. A sign of regeneration though not a proof - New O is still a complex city of poverty, crime, glamour and music. And food.

My favourites include Bayona’s in the French Quarter, Irene’s and it is hard to resist Galatoires because it represents a past and a history that is woven into the city even if the food is over-rated. Best of all Dooky Chase’s down home cooking and for breakfast - even if the tourists are queuing - Mothers. 

Five years ago I talked to the editor of the Times Picayune, the city’s newspaper which had done so much to reflect the anger and pain which followed in Katrina’s deadly wake. 

This is what he had to say:

A taste of New Orleans

Ten years on from Hurricane Katrina tearing apart New Orleans I received a note from one Stephen Perry, President andCEO of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, thanking ‘all of you who took us in when we had no place to go, helped us tell our story when we had no voice, helped us rebuild our homes and our city from ruin.’

He doesn’t know me from Adam but it coincided with several stories about the new wave of restaurants and cocktail bars in the city. A sign of regeneration though not a proof - New O is still a complex city of poverty, crime, glamour and music. And food.

My favourites include Bayona’s in the French Quarter, Irene’s and it is hard to resist Galatoires because it represents a past and a history that is woven into the city even if the food is over-rated. Best of all Dooky Chase’s down home cooking and for breakfast - even if the tourists are queuing - Mothers. 

Five years ago I talked to the editor of the Times Picayune, the city’s newspaper which had done so much to reflect the anger and pain which followed in Katrina’s deadly wake. 

This is what he had to say: