Previous Posts: March 2014

Art history ads (ctd.)

March 20 2014

Image of Art history ads (ctd.)

Picture: Beretta, via GWG Club

Following my report earlier this week of an Italian minister complaining about the use of Michelangelo's David for a US gun advert, a reader sends me the above, and writes:

But it’s OK when an Italian gun maker does it…

Send more examples!

Hurrah for the Telegraph*

March 19 2014

Image of Hurrah for the Telegraph*

Picture: Telegraph

Here's a lovely story - a scrap metal dealer who bought the above jewelled egg for just £8,000 discovered it was a highly important lost Faberge egg after finding a Telegraph article online. It is in fact worth $20m! More here

* And Google, presumably.


March 19 2014

Image of Guffwatch

Picture: Northumbria University

Here's one to make your brain ache. It's a PhD application at Northumbria University combining science and contemporary art, and comes via Alan Davies on Twitter. Brace yourself:

PhD Research Project: Abstract Geology - Critically Engaged Fine Art Practices of the post human within a new geologic era

This practice led Fine Art studentship is offered in the context of trans disciplinary engagement with the Anthropocene (or proposition that the impact of humanity upon the Earth’s ecosystems has triggered a new terrestrial epoch) and the ‘geological turn’ within contemporary thought that this has prompted. 

A preoccupation with surface might be said to have characterised 19th century geographies of expansion and colonialism and the aerial - visual technologies of surveillance etc. – to form the vector of the 20th. The Anthropocene demands engagement with depth – mining, extraction, fracking, undersea prospecting, fossil fuel economies and the collapse of visual distance and propulsion towards new tactile imaginaries to which this gives rise. 

This studentship will explore appropriate strategies and vocabularies for formulating new critically engaged fine art practices of the Earth and addressing the material legacy of the human in geologic terms. It will compliment and gain from investigations being conducted by Fine Art staff affiliated to the new ‘Cultural Negotiation of Science’ research group, along with the extensive external networks with which they are affiliated, as well as cross faculty enquiry into different constructions and representations of landscape. 

Additional benefits include attachment to the innovative BxNU Institute of Contemporary Art (in partnership with the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art) and by negotiation access to Geographic /Architectural expertise, as related to the Built and Natural Environment, within the Faculty of Engineering and Environment. 

Potential areas of investigation include but are not limited to: 

Post Human/Post Nature - political / physical geographies 

Nature as event / activations of geologic materiality 

Socio/physical morphologies 

Dynamic earth processes and political formations. 

Landscapes of the Anthropocene 

The legacies of Land Art 


Sign up here if you fancy three years of that.

Update - a reader writes:

I have just finished a three year teaching job in a university and if my experience is anything to go by this torturing of the English language appears to be standard practice. Heaven knows what students are supposed to make of it. Whilst I am in principle against the death penalty I would be prepared to make an exception for trafficking in this sort of drivel.


March 18 2014

Image of Veronese

Picture: BG

I went briefly to a preview of the Veronese show at the National Gallery this afternoon. It's an epic exhibition, so do go. The more august art writers must have gone yesterday or last week, for the main reviews are already published. Richard Dorment has a thoughtful and well-considered take in The Telegraph:

Precisely because of Veronese’s tendency to reuse and repeat figures, this show has its ups and downs. Although his later religious pictures may be very beautiful, they feel like conventional products of the Counter Reformation. As we know from Veronese’s famous encounter with the Inquisition, he was an artist who needed to give his imagination free rein. If, in a subject like the Adoration of the Magi or the Resurrection, such invention was out of the question, some ineffable connection between the artist and his subject isn’t there. It’s not that he paints on autopilot, like so many Roman painters at this time, but that the creative spark is missing.

But when it’s there, what a painter he is. You see it in his huge altarpiece from the church of San Giorgio in Braida, Verona [above], which shows the patron saint of England in the moments before his martyrdom. The subject is rare in art, so there was no preordained way to show it. I wonder too whether a commission to depict the beheading of an English martyr may have fired the artist’s imagination at a time when Catholic Europe was all too aware that Elizabeth I was about to create new martyrs. Whatever the answer, his performance here is electrifying.

Dorment gives the show four stars out of five.

In The Guardian, however, Jonathan Jones gives the show a full five stars:

How can an art gallery do justice to a painter who specialised in decorating the walls and ceilings of palaces, and in painting epic banquets so big they dwarf the rooms they are in?

What it must do is what the National Gallery has done for its greatest exhibition since its Leonardo da Vinci blockbuster a few years ago. A whole suite of the gallery's most beautiful rooms, usually filled by its permanent collection, have been cleared so Paolo Veronese's palatial paintings can have the space and light they deserve. The result is an utter joy. Veronese is an artist of abundant, irrepressible life. He is as expansive and theatrical as Shakespeare, who was 24 when the artist died in 1588.

Meanwhile, Claudia Pritchard in The Independent has this fascinating take on Veronese's use of blue:

No one knew, for example, that another handy blue, smalt, a by-product of Venice’s glass industry, would leave a gloomy legacy. “Smalt is almost as intense as ultramarine,” explains Salomon. “What no one knew at the time is that after 50 or 100 years, smalt changes colour because it reacts with the linseed oil. When you see an overcast sky in a Veronese painting, you can be sure that it was meant to be blue. This was not known until 15 or 20 years ago. People were praising Veronese’s subtle, grey skies.”

To this chemical reaction add temptation, and the mix can become even muddier. “In some cases, Veronese used all three blues – smalt, azurite and ultramarine. I don’t want to cast any doubt on Veronese himself, but where a patron is paying for a certain amount of ultramarine, he is not to know whether all of that was used in his painting, or whether the artist was able to keep some back ….”

As we like to say here on AHN, the history of art is the history of what survives. 

I'll post some more personal thoughts on the show tomorrow, but I need to rush off now.

Update - the Grumpy Art Historian has been to see the show, and likes it (mainly).

Blockbusters - are they worth it?

March 18 2014

Image of Blockbusters - are they worth it?

Picture: Telegraph

There's a very interesting piece in The Telegraph by Alistair Sooke on blockbuster exhibitions. He talked to both the current and previous directors of the National Gallery to get their views. First, Nicholas Penny:

“At the moment, there are far too many loan exhibitions in the world,” he says. “I would like there to be fewer for sure.” Why? “Because I think they have disrupted the balance between enjoying works of art on a repeated basis, [i.e.] enjoying the sense of a permanent collection, and the special exhibition where you understand a particular artist in depth. It’s a very difficult balance to keep. There’s always an excitement about a loan exhibition, but the exhibition mentality pushes art towards theatre.”

Today we take so-called “blockbuster” exhibitions for granted – yet, as Penny is keen to point out, it is only relatively recently that the National Gallery began to stage them with regularity, following the construction of the Sainsbury Wing, which opened in 1991. Moreover, he says, “the majority of our visitors actually come to see the permanent collection – so it would be crazy of us to compromise its character by turning it into a kind of loan bank whereby we could just get more and more great pictures [for temporary exhibitions] from other institutions by lending our own. But if you don’t lend, you don’t borrow – that’s now quite clear.”

Has he taken any steps to remedy the situation? “Yes,” Penny replies, his eyes shining. “When I became Director in 2008, we stopped having three big loan exhibitions per annum and went down to two. They were putting a tremendous strain on the institution.”

Then its the turn of former director Charles Saumarez Smith:

“There is an argument that big exhibitions consume a great deal of time, energy and resource, and that they take away from the presentation of a permanent collection,” he tells me. “But I like exhibitions. I’ve always been a bit sceptical of the argument that curators would be producing big catalogue raisonnés if only they weren’t concentrating on ephemeral exhibitions, because I think a great deal of scholarship and research goes into exhibitions.”

Of course, you could say that the man running the Royal Academy would argue this, since the institution has a much smaller permanent collection than the National Gallery, as well as an abundance of exhibition space, which it needs to fill. “In some ways,” Saumarez Smith says, “the Royal Academy is the home of the blockbuster exhibition. When we did The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters [in 2010], it got more than 410,000 visitors. It was a blockbuster. But it also had a deeply serious purpose. I believe you get a different order of understanding of an artist by seeing their works together. I’m sure there are people who can go from place to place making comparisons by virtue of training and visual memory – but I prefer to see two works next door to one another.”

Both directors then disagree over the hazards of transporting works of art:

 “We do send works of art by air freight,” says Penny, “but apart from the risks of aeroplanes crashing, which we all know about, with air travel, because of the security arrangements at airports, it is becoming more and more difficult to have exact control over what happens within cargo sheds and when works of art are put on the plane.”

Saumarez Smith disagrees. “Works of art can be travelled extremely safely,” he says. “There are people who are anxious about the risk, and it is always said that it only requires one aeroplane to go down with a large number of Poussins and the whole ecology of the blockbuster exhibition will change – but so far that hasn’t happened.”

While I'm probably with Penny on wishing to reduce the number of mega exhibitions, because of the disruption they have on permanent collections and displays, I'm firmly on Saumarez Smith's side when it comes to being handling works of art. There are risks, yes, but damage happens so rarely that shipping concerns shouldn't be a reason not to have good blockbuster shows. 

Stolen Klimt case re-opened

March 17 2014

Image of Stolen Klimt case re-opened

Picture: Guardian

DNA testing of the frame around a Klimt stolen in 1997 may yield clues over its disappearance, reports The Guardian:

More than 17 years since it was stolen from a gallery in northern Italy, Gustav Klimt's Portrait of a Woman [detail, above] is reportedly once again the subject of a police investigation after technological advances allowed for the case to be reopened.

The oil painting, believed to date from 1916-1917, was stolen from the Ricci-Oddi gallery in Piacenza in February 1997 and disappeared without a trace.

Now, thanks to more sophisticated testing of the frame, investigators are hoping that new test results will provide a DNA match with one or more suspects, the Italian news agency Ansa reported.

Gurlitt - is he in the clear?

March 17 2014

Image of Gurlitt - is he in the clear?

Picture: Paris Match

Yes, says one of the court-appointed art historians tasked with looking into his collection (writes David Charter):

One of the few independent experts to have seen the entire collection has now decided to speak out in Gurlitt’s defence. “Cornelius Gurlitt has not done anything wrong,” says Dr Sibylle Ehringhaus, an expert in 19th-century art and a provenance investigator based in Berlin. She reflects a German view that the sins of the father should not be visited on the son. “The pictures belong to him — the entire collection must be returned to him as soon as possible. The State has made a big mistake and it must admit it — and make up for it.”

Ehringhaus was one of three experts who received a telephone call in March 2012 from the authorities in Bavaria asking them to participate in a top-secret mission. A private collection of artworks had been discovered in the Schwabing district of northern Munich by tax inspectors investigating a routine VAT case. Would she come and take a look? Ehringhaus, who rarely gets the chance to see private collections as a whole, jumped at the chance.

The trio of experts was given just 48 hours to look though the entire treasure trove. “It was very well kept,” Dr Ehringhaus says. “Usually we know the museum collections and they are used, they are not as fresh, but here the quality is brilliant and fresh because it was in this private collection for 60 years. The heart certainly beat a little faster.” This contradicts the image presented by Focus, the German news magazine that broke the story in November of a collection rescued from a run-down apartment where it was stashed in folders and boxes on the same shelves as tins of food.

More here.

Cezanne at the Ashmolean

March 17 2014

Video: Ashmolean Museum

This looks like it's worth a visit - an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford of works from the Pearlman Collection, including 24 works by Cezanne. Says the Ashmolean:

The exhibition includes twenty-four works by Cézanne: six oils; two drawings; and sixteen watercolours which constitute one of the finest and best-preserved groups of his watercolours in the world. The majority of these are Provençal landscapes, while others depict characteristic Cézanne motifs including a skull, female bathers, and his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire.

Cézanne and the Modern also explores the history of twentieth-century private collections of this type. Key to the Pearlman Collection is Henry Pearlman’s own tastes. He collected pictures and sculptures that he liked and his thrill at discovering unknown masterpieces is evident throughout. Star pictures include a colourful and unusual composition by Vincent Van Gogh, Tarascon Diligence (1888); Amedeo Modigliani’s celebrated portrait of Jean Cocteau (1916–17); and among the sculptures are three bronzes by Jacques Lipchitz and one by Wilhelm Lehmbruck; and an extraordinary painted relief, Te Fare Amu (1901-2) by Paul Gauguin.

Mr Colin Harrison, Senior Curator of European Art and exhibition curator, Ashmolean, says: “Cézanne and the Modern offers visitors the opportunity to see extraordinary masterpieces by some of the most famous artists of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements. Although individual works have occasionally been included in monographic exhibitions, this is the first time that this most individual collection has been exhibited in Europe. Apart from the amazing paintings and watercolours by Cézanne, it includes wonderful works by artists who are little known in England, notably Chaïm Soutine, who was a particular favourite of the Pearlmans.”

More infor here. Good video by the way.

Overpaint and boats

March 16 2014

Image of Overpaint and boats

Picture: BBC

The Daily Mail has picked up on a story first run by Classic Boat magazine, saying that a painting by Constable featured on 'Fake or Fortune?' was a fake because 'the boats were wrong'. Alas, these maritime experts don't know how to interpret either a Constable sketch or over-paint. Still, I'm sure it made for many long discussions down The Sailor's Arms.

Meyer leaves Sotheby's (ctd.)

March 16 2014

Image of Meyer leaves Sotheby's (ctd.)

Picture: New York Magazine/Sotheby's

There's some interesting info in New York Magazine on Tobias Meyer's recent departure from Sotheby's. The speculation about why he left comes in the context of a long piece by Andrew Price on why the activist investor Daniel Loeb is taking such an interest in Sotheby's:

For more than a decade, Tobias Meyer was Sotheby’s field general in the consignment war. A slight man with a square jaw and a magnificent head of hair, he was an outsize figure and the keeper of some of the house’s most important relationships. [...]

Meyer’s overnight disappearance offers another potential area of intrigue. The timing of his resignation led some to conclude that he and his salary were offered up as a sacrifice to Sotheby’s angry shareholders. Though his compensation was never disclosed, it is believed to have been enormous. “They certainly did invest very heavily in keeping him, and keeping him happy,” says David Nash. But Loeb has denied that Meyer was meant to be the target of his pressure. Though no great administrator, Meyer was an ambitious dealmaker in a company that Loeb says should be making bigger deals, and Loeb has told some that he views the departure as a sign Sotheby’s isn’t capable of retaining top talent.

A source familiar with Meyer’s thinking says he had become frustrated with the public company’s bureaucracy and was attempting to negotiate a more influential place in the hierarchy, something like a creative-director role. But Ruprecht wasn’t interested in giving Meyer the power he wanted. Since leaving, Meyer is said to have expressed a desire to become “invisible,” and he recently put his Manhattan condo on the market, for $17 million. His mental map of the world’s art treasures should serve him well as a private dealer. There are, however, those who think that if Loeb were calling the shots at Sotheby’s, Meyer might return in some sort of rainmaking role.

The rest of the piece is well worth a read.

Connoisseurship conference

March 14 2014

Image of Connoisseurship conference

Picture: Paul Mellon Centre

Here are some more details about the forthcoming conference on connoisseurship I mentioned recently. The conference, to be held at the Paul Mellon Centre in London on Friday 2nd May, is to be called 'The Educated Eye? Connoisseurship Now'. Here's the blurb:

This one-day conference will address the issue of connoisseurship in relation to historic, modern and contemporary British art studies.  Speakers from different sphere - art dealers, museum curators, conservators, art journalists, and academics - will give personal 'position papers' based on their own professional perspectives and experiences of the role and relevance of connoisseurship in today's art world.  Issues to be explored include the question of the 'eye'; the value of technical knowledge and the role of conservation; the role of connoisseurship in the marketplace, including questions of attribution and market value; connoisseurship and collecting; connoisseurship and art theory; connoisseurship and art-historical scholarship; and connoisseurship's relevance to contemporary art.

See here for the full programme and list of speakers. I'll be giving a paper titled 'Why Connoisseurship Matters'.

Art history ads (ctd.)

March 13 2014

Image of Art history ads (ctd.)

Picture: via Time

This one from US gun maker Armalite is causing a hoo ha in Italy. Says Time:

Italy’s culture minister Dario Franceschini said the image was offensive and violated the law, and an official at the Department of Culture in Florence said it has warned the arms producer not to use the image.

Difficult, now that they allow photography in the Accademia...

Anyway, the most telling thing of all is the fact that Armalite felt obliged to add a fig leaf to Michaelangelo's masterpiece. You can sell guns galore in America, but you can't show a penis. Not even a marble one. 

Mona Lisa theory no. 954

March 13 2014

Image of Mona Lisa theory no. 954


They're coming in thick and fast folks... A reader alerts me to this research at Harvard, by Dr. Margaret Livingstone, Professor of Neurobiology. She looks into how the eye processes information:

We are interested in how cells in the visual system process information and in the functional organization of the visual system. We use complementary techniques going from psychophysics, functional MRI, to single unit recording. 

As part of her work, Dr. Livingstone has been looking into how the eye reads paintings:

A side interest in the lab is to use what we know about vision to understand some of the discoveries artists have made about how we see. The separate processing of color and form information has a parallel in artists' idea that color and luminance play very different roles in art (Livingstone, Vision and Art, Abrams Press, 2002). The elusive quality of the Mona Lisa's smile can be explained by the fact that her smile is almost entirely in low spatial frequencies, and so is seen best by your peripheral vision (Science, 290, 1299). These three images show her face filtered to show selectively lowest (left) low (middle) and high (right) spatial frequencies.


So when you look at her eyes or the background, you see a smile like the one on the left, or in the middle, and you think she is smiling. But when you look directly at her mouth, it looks more like the panel on the right, and her smile seems to vanish. The fact that the degree of her smile varies so much with gaze angle makes her expression dynamic, and the fact that her smile vanishes when you look directly at it, makes it seem elusive.

What do readers think when they see the smile in the photo on the right? Does it seem to vanish, as Dr. Livingstone suggests? Doesn't to me. Seems more obvious than ever, in fact. Still, A for effort.

TEFAF opens

March 13 2014

Image of TEFAF opens

Picture: David Koetser/TEFAF

The great art dealing event of the year, The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF), opens today in Maastricht. The Telegraph's Colin Gleadell is there, and reports that this:

[...] Aladdin’s cave of treasures, trophies and discoveries awaits all who travel to Maastricht in the Netherlands over the next two weeks for The European Fine Art Fair (Tefaf). It is that sense of impending discovery that explains why this is one of the fairs best attended by museum directors and wealthy private collectors, from Dutch burghers and Middle Eastern sheikhs to American philanthropists looking to endow a museum with something special.

Colin also has news of discoveries to be unveiled:

Tefaf is a place for dealers to upstage the salerooms, particularly by demonstrating their superior knowledge and wisdom; they are constantly outsmarting the auction rooms. Last year, Old Master dealer and Rubens specialist Fergus Hall spotted a red chalk drawing of a putto or cherub on the website of a small auction room in Dorset catalogued as “Dutch School” and with an estimate of £1,000. “I had a confident hunch that it was a Rubens,” says Hall.

Someone else also had a hunch, but it was not as confident as Hall’s, and Hall ended up paying £23,000 for it. He then showed the drawing to several Rubens experts, including Christopher Brown at the Ashmolean, Jane Turner at the Rijksmuseum, and David Jaffe at the National Gallery, and all concurred that it was a study from circa 1618 for a Rubens painting of the Virgin and Child surrounded by the Holy Innocents in the Louvre Museum. Only very few such studies have survived, says Hall, who is now asking £150,000 for it.

I don't think I'll have the time to go this year alas, though it is always good fun. From the excellent TEFAF website, I spot several highlights on offer from the Old Master selection: a version of The Beggar's Opera, by William Hogarth (with the Fine Art Society); a sitting trumpeter by Theodore Gericault (with Jean-Francois Heim); and my favourite (of course) is one of Van Dyck's most important early English works, his Portrait of Sir George Villiers and Lady Katherine Manners as Adonis and Venus (above, with David Koetser). If you click the 'full page' link at the bottom of the TEFAF links you can zoom right in. 


March 12 2014

Video: Getty

The LA Times reports that the recent conservation of Jackson Pollock's 'Mural'has disproved the theory, posed in 2009 by Henry Adams, that Pollock hid his name inside the picture:

Contributing editor Henry Adams, a Case Western Reserve University specialist in 19th century American art but an admirer of the Modern painter’s work, had an idea. In an article promoting the imminent publication of his 2009 book, “Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock,” he suggested that, in effect, the name’s the thing.

In "Decoding Jackson Pollock," Adams wrote, “I'm now convinced that Pollock wrote his name in large letters on the canvas — indeed, arranged the whole painting around his name.”

He wasn’t referring to the artist’s signature at the lower left, which Pollock added almost four years after he finished “Mural.” Instead, inspired by an observation first made by Adams' wife, art historian Marianne Berardi, he went on to show where the letters of the artist’s first and last names could be detected — in proper order — beneath the roiling shapes and colors all across the densely painted field.

“It may not be possible to answer the question definitively unless scientists use X-ray scanning or some other method to trace which pigments were put down first,” Adams observed.

Now that Getty conservators have done exactly that (and more), it seemed to be worth checking in on what they found. Does Pollock’s name appear in the under-painting of the canvas, either as a compositional motif or otherwise?

The Getty Museum’s Yvonne Szafran said no. So did the Getty Conservation Institute’s Tom Learner.

“We knew about the proposal but found no evidence supporting it,” Szafran said in an email. Added Learner, “None of the scanning techniques employed (X-ray fluorescence and hyper spectral imaging) detected anything resembling his name.”

French government returns Nazi loot

March 12 2014

Image of French government returns Nazi loot

Picture: AFP/Getty/LA Times

With great fanfare, and just a day before The Monuments Men* opens in France, the French Government has declared that it is returning three paintings stolen by the Nazis to their various owners. More here in the LA Times.

Update - a reader writes:

Bendor.... good to see the French government returning paintings looted during World War Two, now it must be time to return some of Napoleons trinkets.

*N'allez pas. C'est une dinde.

In the US, gender bias in museum pay

March 12 2014

Jerome Weeks at artandseek highlights an awkward new survey from the the US National Center for Arts Research on gender disparities in museum salaries:

Fewer than 43 percent of art museum directors are women. And the female directors, on average, are paid less than their male counterparts. These are the results of a joint study done by SMU’s NCAR and the Association of Art Museum Directors. It found that female directors at museums with budgets of more than $15 million earn 71 cents for every $1 male directors earn. At the same time, women who run art museums with smaller budgets do earn more than their male counterparts – annually, they earn 2 cents more.

Averaging both groups, though, still leaves a gender gap for female directors of 79 cents for every dollar male directors earn.

I don't know if we have the same problem here in the UK. But I do know, as I've said before, that we don't have enough women museum directors to start with. 

How do we value 'the arts'?

March 12 2014

A long time ago, when I was working as a political adviser on cultural and heritage policy, I had to deal endlessly with the 'how do we value the arts?' question. In other words, if we are to pay for them, in part, with public money, what do we pay them for?

And my God what a tedious question it is. The problem is, those in 'the arts' can never stop talking about it. On and on they go, desperate to find a way to reassure the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the day that they deserve taxpayer's money. In the early 2000s, the new Labour government was all for funding the arts for their 'instrumental' value; that is, exposing people to culture means they will be less likely to commit crime, or need to see a doctor. Really. And then there was a reaction, happily, and we began to swing back to the 'intrinsic' case; we fund the arts because we believe in them, and in protecting our national heritage. 

Now, however, post-recession, the buzz is all about 'growth'. The arts should be funded because they can contribute towards our GDP. The Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, recently incurred AHN's wrath for appearing to rely too much on this point. So - and at last I get to the point - I was interested to see the Chairman of the Arts Fund, David Verey, agreeing with Ms Miller and making the same case:

The idea that art is valuable is something that underpins everything we do at the Art Fund. It is a fundamental belief that access for everyone to great art is something worth funding, and worth fighting for. A recent report by Fiammetta Rocco for The Economist showed that globally the number of museums has nearly doubled in the last 20 years, reaching 55,000 across the world. China in particular is building more and more to meet a growing demand from an increasingly educated and culturally hungry nation. Here at home, a record number – over half the population of UK adults – visited a museum in 2013.

But to ensure that the government, businesses and individuals continue to invest in the arts, we need hard statistics as well as warm words, which is why it is encouraging to see that so much work is taking place to bring together – in evidenced-based terms – a tangible understanding of the value of culture. What the Treasury needs to understand – and embrace – is that investing in culture is an important economic activity and part of the growth agenda of this country. Above all else, it makes economic sense to invest in museums.

From the Commission on the Future of Cultural Value at Warwick University to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s ongoing work with the Arts and Humanities Research Council on the holistic value of culture, and the Arts Council’s work with the Centre for Economic and Business Research on the economic value of art, there is much debate on how we can demonstrate the financial value of culture. We at the Art Fund are working hard to understand these complex models, from gross value-added calculations to life satisfaction equations: but it is also vital to remember that whatever the monetary value of culture, its real worth is something entirely unquantifiable.

A recent survey by Barclays of the very wealthy suggested that while there are 30 art investment funds in the world, only a minority of people would buy art purely in the hope of turning a profit. This view was echoed at a packed talk at the London Art Fair in January. But we are all too aware, as my fellow trustees and I decide which works of art we are able to help museums purchase, that the price of art is rocketing and that the art market is, in investment terms, in a healthy position.

The truth of the matter is that no activity is beyond the reach of value and we must ask again ‘what is the real and irreducible value of the arts in our lives?’ In an ideal world it would not be necessary to state the need for something so fundamental to an enjoyable, fulfilled life. But if the argument does need to be made – and funds produced – we stand ready to make the case.

I wonder if this is anything to do with the recent critique of the government's funding cuts by Art Fund director, Stephan Deuchar. Still, Verey is at least right on the rocketing value of the best quality paintings, both old and modern. And it may be that therein lies a simple answer to our question of how and why do we value art? Because people like it?

Update - a reader writes:

Reading the dismal account of David Verey’s speech I could only think of Théophile Gautier’s “art for art’s sake” principle. And then I remembered a splendid metaphor in Michael Levey’s biography of Walter Pater: “It was the equivalent of finding one’s tutor recommending in place of some study of Greek syntax Mademoiselle de Maupin.” Sadly I think we can only expect more irregular verbs from politicians and those involved in arts administration.

And another adds:

As an economist I have been called upon to calculate the economic benefit of various government programs over many years.  Some deserved testing their economic benefit or rate of return.  Art as a tourist attraction has a benefit, hence the invests of Las Vegas casinos in creating small galleries.  But is has additional benefits.

Ultimately, government investment in culture broadly makes a society richer in ways that aren't measured on financial statements, but that are recognized in historical perspective.  We remember ancient Greece, the Sumerians, and other societies for their cultures and how their cultures enriched life in those societies and ours rather than their GDP that funded the culture.

In the case of art, Philadelphia for its the most disadvantaged and dangerous neighborhoods created The Mural Arts Program which supports artists, has improved life, and is a source of local pride in areas where pride is in short supply.

The city lured the Barnes Foundation and its extraordinary collection to town from a suburban location with great public and private contributions in total exceeding $ 100 million in order to build its position as an art destination and its prestige.  Indeed that in part an economic investment much like adding another attraction at a theme park, but there is more benefit if you build a critical mass.

The reason most wealthy individuals buy art are for enjoyment, prestige, and as a store of value, often chosen in the opposite order.  Governments invest in art funding for two of the same reasons.  Given that governments spend vast amounts on prestige and enjoyment, like funding Olympic games lavishly and well beyond their economic return, buying long term prestige with art institutions is consistent with established government policy in developed countries.  And smaller or newly wealthy countries invest in art to increase their social standing among nations. 

Investing in cultural activities is both consumption and investment like buying and furnishing a residence, but the consumption is part of sustenance as well as of pleasure.  It should be treated as a matter of public policy, at whatever level is chosen, as a stable expenditure with long and short term benefits rather than an annually fluctuating budget item.  It is part of building and maintaining a society.

How to get the Scots to stay

March 11 2014

Image of How to get the Scots to stay


A reader and I have been in discussion about what might happen to the Union flag if the Scots vote to leave the UK.* The above suggestion was made at the time of Act of Union in about 1707, but didn't catch on. Should we now resuscitate it, and say to the Scots: stay with us, and we'll promote you to the front? 

*Now that I live there, I have a vested interest...

How to write an art historical dictionary

March 11 2014

Image of How to write an art historical dictionary

Picture: Unicorn Press/Neill Jeffares

On his blog, the compiler of the invaluable Dictionary of Pastellists, Neil Jeffares, relays tales from his lexicographical past. Well worth reading.

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