Something eggstra in intoxicating Mexico

I'm too lazy to put this on the main page and anyway the rigours of the FT paywall means there is nothing to see. This is the result of a stimulating whiz around some of the many terrific galleries that are making Mexico City buzz. And what about Guadalajara? Just as creative without the traffic jams.

 

How better to launch a show than with an egg throwing party? All that yolk streaking down a pristine white wall. Like a Monet, murmured the hostess.

    Add the frolicsome British artist Sarah Lucas, clutching a glass of mezcal and sporting a woolly penis, several men in beards and frocks, and that was the scene last month (April) at the Kurimanzutto Gallery in Mexcio City. Not at all like Monet. 

    Twenty years ago Kurimanzutto was run from a flat with a telephone. Now it is housed in a glamorous space in a placid Mexico City suburb - all flowers and light - and is not just one of the best known galleries in the country but a player in the global market. Hence Sarah Lucas with her show, “Dame Zero” which ends next week (ie May 5). (Star exhibit: a mangled car picked out with her trademark cigarettes). 

    “There has been an increase interest in art from Mexico, South and Latin America over the past decade” says London gallerist Sadie Coles, who represents Lucas and was at the opening. Fundamentally this is because the deep history of modernism in Mexico has engendered the current generation of outstanding contemporary artists. 

    “Serious galleries like Kurimanzutto, OMR,  Proyectos Monclova, House of Gaga and many others have given a platform to these artists that extends beyond their immediate geographical location, through a presence at some of the major international fairs. 

    “The current generation in Mexico are very active internationally, and have aided their careers by not seeing themselves as ‘local’ artists, just as their galleries have never functioned merely as ‘local’ galleries. The endeavour is more sophisticated and ambitious than that - there is commitment and authenticity and a generous desire to educate.”

    As evidence of that in the next few months Mexican artists and galleries will be showing in Buenos Aires, in Dallas, in Saskatoon and Singapore, they will feature at Art Basel and São Paulo but none of the city’s galleries will be gracing Frieze New York.

    As one gallerist put it: “It’s too cramped, too crowded and too much like hard work having to dash around the city to catch up with outside events.”

    Kurimanzutto, for example, is going its own way by setting up a small project space on New York’s East 65th Street with Abraham Cruzvillegas, whose grid of soil-filled wooden triangles won the Hyundai Commission for the Tate’s Turbine Hall in 2015. In New York he will present an installation “Autoconstruccion,” which draws on the random and inventive way people build their homes. 

    “It’s the way we have always done things,” says as Mónica Manzutto, half of an elegant double act with her husband José Kuri who own Kurimanzutto. “The space recreates the spirit we had in the 90s when Mexico was very different from today. There were almost no galleries, almost no museums showing contemporary art and a very small group of collectors, two or three, no more than that.

    “Our gallery was nowhere and everywhere. We would rent a market stall for one day or a cinema where we’d show video programmes. There was no money at stake, we had no children so we were free to travel a lot and bring the work of the artists to curators and collectors.”

    The gallery was born out an ‘incredible synergy’. The couple were in New York studying for their masters when they were approached by an old friend, the artist Gabriel Orozco. Fresh from a successful show at The Armory, he suggested they got together to open a space back home.

    They teamed up with Damián Ortega, José’s brother Gabriel Kuri, Abraham Cruzvillegas and Jerónimo López Ramírez, better known as tattoo artist Dr Lakra.

    They are still together, still a family, maintaining the original spirit of collaboration and careful anarchy but significant names such as Daniel Guzman and the highly political Minerva Cuevas have been added. Oversea recruits include the Vietnamese Danh Vô and Korea’s Haegue Yang, who is currently showing at the Ludwig Museum, Cologne, Germany. And of course, Sarah Lucas. 

    Now they meet in the gallery, an old timber yard acquired nine years ago, which radiates professional élan - there is a bar and even rings for sale in the swirls and curves of Orozco’s Samurai Trees series.

    “There has been a boom since the early 2000s,” says Manzutto. “We continued surfing beyond this wave and we have succeeded in building up our market here and internationally.”

    Some commentators judged sales at the annual art fair Zona Maco this February, as ‘subdued,’ blaming the Mexico’s tricky economic relations with the United States while others point to the shadow of the drug cartels and more than 29,000 murders in 2017, including several journalists. 

    “It is a moment which demands artists to be involved,” admits Kuri. “In the six years of this president (Enrique Nieto) the drugs war has worsened. Our social fabric has been changed. 

    “But that did not affect us at Zona Maco. It was great for us.” He laughs, embarrassed. “I feel bad about it. Guilty.”

    Another major player is Galeria OMR, and they too had “one of the best fairs in our history” says the gallery’s director Kerstin Erdman. 

    “We have to be patient but many collectors and some galleries have been around for maybe only ten years and it takes time to build up a reputation. The collector scene is strong with about 70 per cent international, many from the US, London, Belgium and Paris.”

    She says prices ranged from $15,000 to $50,000. A solo show by Sol Lewitt saw works selling for between $300,000 to $600,000 while one of their roster of talent, James Turrell of the Light and Space Movement, can fetch a million.

    “But,” she admits. “That’s not happening every day.”

    OMR, once a record store and now a space of natural light with a terrace overlooking the busy Roma district, is currently showing the intriguingly engineered sculptures of Jose Dávila. Popular among their roll call of artists, are sculptor and painter Pia Camil, with her bold textiles and sculptures and Julieta Aranda, the first female Mexican artist to appear at the Guggenheim, New York, with “e-flux Video Rental” an archive of artists’ videos.

    Erdman has seen a dramatic change since she arrived from her home in Germany in 2003.

    “There are many more artist-run spaces, five times the galleries and more art fairs, Before Zona Maco we have Material which is an experimental space for young artists with some daring programming.”

    The boom is not contained to the capital. The city of Guadalajara is the home to several galleries, including Travesia Cuatro which is going to Frieze, and many successful artists.

    Alexandra Garcia Waldman relaunched Páramo Gallery in the city five years ago and has recently opened a branch in New York. 

    “I want to recreate the intimacy of Mexico City in the 90s when things were done with no real reason, just because people wanted it to be done, and have the freedom to produce projects that are not solely intended for commercial use.

    “New York is completely different from Mexico City. It is very market driven but the art world in Mexico is based very strongly on relationships. People and the artists love coming to Guadalajara for the pre-Maco fair because of the lunches, the dinners and the museums.” 

    Her next show which will be held in her home on the East Side to coincide with Frieze will feature Naama Tsabar, an Israeli musician, painter and sculptor whose act involves playing eight guitars until each one is broken.

    Perhaps it is the lunches and dinners that make Guadalajara popular with artists such as Jorge Méndez-Blake, fresh from an ambitious project in Hong Kong in which he created a steel pavilion decorated with his characteristic random lettering and set around a centre piece by James Turrell and a contribution by Jose Dávila

    Lesser known perhaps but every bit as talented is another Guadalajara-based artist Gonzalo Lebrija. 

    A cricket admirer - he went to school in England - he is a sculptor, painter and musician. This May in a splendid flight of fancy at the Soluna Festival, Dallas, he will present a 16-strong, all-female Mariachi band performing, improbably, Richard Wagner.

    He also takes striking photographs such as “Brief History of Time,” in which he captured a car at the precise moment before it plunged into a lake - a witty illustration of an upsurge of interest in photography which had slumped since a boom in the 80s and 90s. 

    It was given a boost by the revival of the Zona Maco photo fair in 2015 and by galleries such as Almanaque. In a first for the gallery and for Photo London (From May 17) the gallery will present the work of three generations of Mexican artists including a new documentary-style work by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio entitled “Border's Walls, Tijuana” which captures the precariousness of life in a city where 1,744 were killed last year. In contrasting style, Jesús León, depicts the often dark side of  Mexico sub culture with “Domestic Fine Arts.”

    “Mexico is an intoxicating place for artists,” says Sadie Coles says: “It is clear that Mexico is regarded – both in terms of its modern artistic heritage and dynamic contemporary scene – as one of the epicentres of the Latin American art world.”  

 

 Lebrija's diving car

Lebrija's diving car

 Gabriel Orozco

Gabriel Orozco

 Pia Camil

Pia Camil

Fight the tyranny of the blockbuster

 

James Bradburne on the art of running a museum

The head of Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera is on a mission to get galleries to raise their game

Picture on the front shows James Bradburne before 'St Mark Preaching in Alexandria' at the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

 Museum director James Bradburne fears for his profession. He is perturbed by the way some museums treat their visitors. He is dismayed by the “drug” of the blockbuster exhibition.

“We are killing museums,” says Bradburne, head of Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera. “I really believe that. We are killing the things we love. “We lost our way in the ’80s when directors were forced to use blockbusters to drive a museum’s economy by increasing visitor numbers. Now they have become a drug because without them a museum won’t be able to survive, but that betrays the very nature of our stewardship of the collections.”

A baroque figure sporting round specs and prone to exotic waistcoats — for this interview a teaming of floral patterns, plaid and cord with disparate buttons — Bradburne has been in London to help oversee an exhibition of modernist Italian art at the Estorick Collection in north London. Until recently he was head of the Strozzi Gallery in Florence, where he produced highly acclaimed exhibitions such as Bronzino, Money and Beauty and Pontormo & Rosso Fiorentino.

Now he is revitalising the Brera, as one of the 20 new museum directors appointed in 2016 by Italy’s then prime minister Matteo Renzi as part of a shake-up of the country’s state-owned — and, some considered, moribund — cultural sector.

A British-Canadian, he was one of seven non-Italians to be chosen. “The Strozzi was like driving a Ferrari,” he says. “A state museum is like driving a 1930s Bentley because the machine is not adapted to its function very well. I am taking on the beast, a museum run as a department of a department of a Soviet-style state bureaucracy.” It does have its advantages, however — chiefly an enviable 74 per cent state funding.

The Brera was founded in 1809 by Napoleon as the Louvre of Italy and has 500 works by the likes of Raphael, Mantegna, Bellini, Tintoretto and Veronese, as well as “The Supper at Emmaus” by Caravaggio. Modigliani's 'Head of a Young Lady' (1915) is among the works in the Estorick Collection show There is also a substantial collection of Italian modernist art that was amassed and then donated to the Brera by Emilio and Maria Jesi.

The paintings and sculptures have been “squashed into a corridor”, but they will be found a new home nearby in 2019. It is a selection of those works that make up the Estorick’s show, The Enchanted Room: Modern Works from the Pinacoteca di Brera, opening this week. Artists include Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini and Mario Sironi, with metaphysical paintings by Carlo Carrà and works by Giorgio de Chirico, Giorgio Morandi and Filippo De Pisis.

“This is one of the great collections of Italian modern art and it’s the first time it will be seen in Britain,” says Bradburne. “The Estorick is a symbol of excellence with arguably the best collection of Italian modern art outside of MoMA — even as good as MoMA.” For him the Estorick and the Brera represent what museums should be about, true to their core identity, eschewing the lure of boosting visitor figures.

Works from the Brera Gallery such as Gino Severini's 'Le nord sud' (1912) make up the Estorick Collection's new exhibition He argues that after the war too many European museums neglected “playing” their collections but instead became fixated on protecting the works.

“Taking care is fundamental but if it is the central aim it means you don’t have to give a damn about who is looking at the stuff. It’s totally self-referential. Yes, you are doing your job as an art historian, as a museum director, but that means you don’t have to worry if young people, old people, teenagers, a handicapped kid or someone with Alzheimer’s can’t get in or if there are no labels.

“In Italy people confuse an excellent collection with an excellent museum. Italy has superlative collections but very bad museums, while Cincinnati, Cleveland and Denver in the USA, for example, have far better museums than any in Italy but they don’t have such good collections. The Getty collection is second-rate — sorry if I offend my friends — but it’s a great museum. They do things with the collection that we are barely imagining.

“It is the difference between having the score of Mozart and playing it. The museum is the performance of the stuff in your collection, not the collection per se.” The average time people look at a painting is 15 seconds. If anyone thinks that is enough I don’t know which profession I am in Bradburne is particularly exercised by what he calls the tyranny of the blockbuster.

These mega-shows, he says, are “cannibalising” the great galleries: “Research demonstrates that if visitor numbers to temporary shows are subtracted, the permanent collections are, in fact, losing business.” It is an argument, however, which ignores the challenges facing museums that have only modest collections — or none at all — and have to rely on one-off shows for revenue, such as the Baltic in Gateshead, the Turner Gallery in Margate, the Royal Academy and even Tate Modern. The Dulwich Picture Gallery, currently showing the works of Moomins creator Tove Jansson, receives no regular public funding at all.

Indeed, the Strozzi itself exists only as a venue for short-term displays, but Bradburne insists: “We turned down a lot of the obvious blockbusters. We didn’t do ‘Sunflowers’, we didn’t do ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, we did very interesting, experimental exhibitions of high emotional power which aimed to create new knowledge.” Mario Sironi, 'Urban Landscape with Chimney' (1930) Now, at the Brera, with that cushion of state cash, he has the opportunity to practise what he preaches and prove himself a worthy steward of a great collection — without recourse to anything as tyrannical as a blockbuster.

“I am running a museum where I have the instruments to produce — and the pun works — not ex-hibitions but in-hibitions, bringing in select works and putting them with our permanent exhibits as a way of learning new things about them.” At the Brera, for example, one of the museum’s treasures, Andrea Mantegna’s “Lamentation Over the Dead Christ”, is currently being contrasted with later paintings of the same scene by Annibale Carracci and Orazio Borgianni.

The way they are presented illustrates Bradburne’s enthusiasm for backdrops of strong reds and blues and labels, big readable labels, for which he has commissioned contributions from writers such as Ali Smith, Tim Parks, Orhan Pamuk and Sarah Dunant.

“The painting has all the answers but you need to get people to look at it,” he says. “The average time people look at a painting is 15 seconds. Fifteen seconds! If anyone thinks that is enough I don’t know which profession I am in.”

As we have met in the week when the Art Fund launched its annual quest for the Museum of the Year 2018, conversation turns to what makes a winner worthy of the £100,000 prize. Last year it was won by the Hepworth in Wakefield, which plays to its nucleus of works by Ben Nicholson, L.S. Lowry, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and in 2016 by the Victoria and Albert, which won predominantly on the strength of Savage Beauty, its blockbuster about fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

“The museum worth £100K is the one that works for the greatest, the widest, most diverse series of publics,” he says. “You know what the goal is — to get people to see more, to look longer. “Above all, we need a Copernican revolution in which you put the museum at the heart of the community and visitors at the centre of the museum.” Carlo Carrà, 'The Metaphysical Muse' (1917) He rattles off some of the museums that meet his criteria — the Frick in New York, “a masterpiece in its own right”, the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands, and for intellectual stimulation the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles.

“The Estorick show is a small gem. Every picture is there for a reason. I bet you the [number of] people who have an emotional experience is far higher here because they will have seen something new and discovered an artist they never heard of.”

He quotes the late cultural commentator Kenneth Hudson, who suggested that the museums that survive the 21st century will have either charm or chairs. “If you want people to look longer and see more, you give them something to sit on because nobody learns standing up,” says Bradburne. “I have just ordered 150 portable stools for the Brera.”

So there you have it: a museum needs charm, chairs and readable labels. A Caravaggio is a bonus. January 24-April 8, estorickcollection.com

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.”

 

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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.

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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

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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: