Sunday, 22 February 2015

Analyzed in context : Rattle's concert hall for London.

Simon Rattle has called for a new concert hall for London. He's right, in principle, because a city as prominent on the international circuit as London deserves  a concert hall commensurate with its status.  There's a good business case for it. If London is to remain competitive with Berlin and Paris, it needs a long-term strategy, with vision.  We're talking of a project like the Philharmonie, possibly £500 million. I suspect that Rattle wasn't simply talking off the top of his head, but might have an idea of what's best for Britain.

There's far too much "Little Britain" thinking around. There is just no way such a concert hall, any concert hall, would be a sweetener to lure Rattle to London. (See my earlier piece here.)  He'll come if he wants, for reasons of his own. (CBSO might need a new chief soon.) The Simon Rattle Concert Hall, as it deserves to be named, must be done properly, and in the much wider context of a vision for London.  Government planning doesn't happen on a whim (except for foul-ups and white elephants).  Instead, go to the source: The Chancellor George Osborne's Long Term Economic Plan for London.

The strategy identifies six key areas for development - economic growth, jobs, investment in transport infrastructure and housing, new powers for the Mayor, and for the arts, to "make London a centre of the world’s creative and commercial life, with new investment in science, finance, technology and culture. This will include a new feasibility study to develop a world class concert hall for London which will be led by the Barbican Centre.

Notice that the project will be led by the Barbican. Nicholas Kenyon helped to turn the Barbican around from being a soulless hulk to a pretty good venue.  In theory, the South Bank should be Britain's spectacular arts flagship on the Thames, but it's been run into the ground under present management and the arts policies of several governments.  Since the Arts Council England has slashed the Barbican's funding almost as severely as the ENO's, one hopes the new centre won't harm existing organizations, such as the unique Wigmore Hall (which has welcomed the proposals).

The most important thing about the Long Term Economic Plan is that it's for London.  There is just no way around the fact that Britain is a highly centralized country. Millions live within the M25, and millions more commute and visit, not only from the UK but from abroad. Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool are important but London is the Jewel in the Crown, like it or not. politicians are at last addressing reality. Get London right, and from thence good things flow, including to the regions.

Current arts policy derives from the Arts Council's "Great Art and Culture for Everyone" (2010-2020), though its roots go back much further. This updates previous plans like "Achieving Great Art for Everyone"  and "Culture Knowledge and Understanding", three grandiose statements within three years, striking in their use of corporate-speak platitudes. In substance, what they propose is placing "education" above the realities of performance and changing the very nature of the arts  in favour of some theoretical one size fits all.  But the arts aren't like that.  It's an arts policy based on the assumption that ordinary people are too stupid to value the arts without being patronized. But the arts can't ever replace good basic educational policy. Nor  can they simply be "taught": people come to the arts in their own time, and in their own way. Please see my article End the Missionary Position in the Arts.  Indeed, many "educational" measures are counter-productive and end up reinforcing the idea in many that the arts are "not for them". Education is a good thing but it should start from a much wider context, instead of diverting arts organizations from their primary purpose, which is the creation of artistic excellence.

This is also an arts policy that penalizes London, and plays on the negative resentment espoused in some quarters by those who'd like to whip up class and regional resentment. But the fact is that Britain is a highly centralized country, and that London is economically pre-eminent, and has been for hundreds of years.  Downgrading London is madness. The arts are an international business,. If London arts prosper, benefits flow to the rest of the country. It's a complete fallacy to equate audience size in live performance with true audience reach. Furthermore, even those who don't participate in classical music enjoy the wider benefits. The arts are a major industry, with numerous spin-offs. Few other countries have the riches that London has, thanks to visionary Victorians. Why sacrifice a unique heritage on which Britain's prestige is built?  Being a leftist, I'm passionately committed to the idea of readdressing inequality, but the arts are not the weapon by which it will be achieved.

So back to Osborne's Long Term Plan for London. Although it doesn't specify anything else about the arts, at least it acknowledges that London is the key to Britain;'s economic credibility and that the arts are an integral part of the economy, not a luxury to be resented.  In an election year, one must never forget the Tooth Fairy, and politicians of all types love Gravy Trains. However, it's at least an advance over the inept naivety behind current arts policy. There is a huge business case for the arts in Britain, and London should be at the helm.

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