Published  29/11/2006

Boom or clunk?

Boom or clunk?

The latest press speculation that the National Lottery will be expected to transfer massive funding to bail out the 2012 Olympic Games has ramifications that extend far and wide in the sponsorship field, not least to the Heritage Lottery Fund

There appears to be no fiscal 'model' linking together all the required inputs and outcomes, and the many begging bowls in the alleyway of 'dependenti' that underpin the existence of the museums and galleries throughout Britain.

However, as with any contemporary economic model, external factors loom large and threatening. It is the political class on both sides that seems to be strongly in denial of the major risks entailed in this intricately linked galaxy; a system of dynamic economic performers, or non-performers, which can have individually tragic effects to institutions, but collectively generate a massive chain reaction of economic disaster. At the moment, the portents of change are deceptive.

At the recent Museums Association Conference in Bournemouth, Carole Souter, Director of the Heritage Lottery Fund, announced that £3 million would be aimed specifically at assisting the acquisitions budgets in a situation where budgets have had to be frozen, or cut down to nothing over the past couple of years. In this neck of the woods, the situation has been nothing less than a crisis. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, Charles Saumarez Smith, Director of the National Gallery, and Mark Jones, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, have been jointly campaigning for aid for acquisitions, on behalf of the Museums Association. Their particular plea is well substantiated; that lacking extra funding, they would not be able to meet the challenge placed upon them, which is to develop by 2012 a full, cultural 'world-class' programme, to balance the hubris and energy generated by the Olympic Games themselves.

However, increasingly, the £3 million fund is being dwarfed by the largesse being lavished on the Olympic event, which is demanding ever more subsidies, as building costs, such as the global price of steel, rise dramatically. It is well known that Olympic costs are going ballistic. It is only the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, and the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell, who seem blithely in denial. More tellingly still, it has to be recognised that Ms Jowell is in a cleft stick with this combined ministerial brief. She may do her best over the Olympics, but her other responsibility, culture, looks increasingly threatened.

As the press speculated last month, a major work, such as Titian's 'Portrait of a Young Man', which the Earl of Halifax has decided to sell off, will be way beyond their resources at over £55 million. The Heritage Lottery Fund was traditionally the recourse for funds in such a situation. No longer can this be remotely the case. Which goes to show that the offer of the £3 million subsidy by the Heritage Lottery Fund could be interpreted as a 'sop' to the Museums Association, a tiny handout to an already crisis-ridden arts sector, irrelevant to the stakes in the big game. Ms Jowell - just when her estranged husband is summoned for fraud charges in Italy - could well be confronted by more than bush fires back home, in a massively compromised, ministerial conflict. Just then, too, the Prime Minister may be observed setting off-stage discreetly (it's that long goodbye), leaving who else but Britain's decade-long Treasury expert, the present Chancellor, to face the music. He, for one, is not given to self-denial, but will bring a 'clunky' sweep to lesser preoccupations such as the arts portfolio.

In the meantime, the art markets are booming. This is a world where new factors are also in play. Jackson Pollock's 'No 5, 1948' just changed hands for $140 million, a less than perfect example of the genre when compared with the Australian National Gallery's bold purchase of Pollock's 'Blue Poles', which was acquired in 1973 for $1.3 million US dollars. Other factors are also sweeping the field. Fraud and theft are plaguing the heritage collections of small nations, such as Mexico, where it is reported that over 1,000 works have been lost since 1999. The world wide web is playing its part in facilitating disposals: a 16th-century carved wooden altarpiece of St Francis of Assisi was posted online for $225,000, no questions asked. The 'art boom' is unusual this time round in the way that buyers are entering the salerooms for the first time, from Asia, the Middle East and of course from Russia. Picasso's 'Dora Maar au Chat', sold for a cool $95.2 million (£52 million) in May 2005 to a Russian buyer. In China, America, Britain and the Middle East, buyers proliferate in a super-rich 'mushrooming' effect, a spin-off of globalism. Frieze Art Fair itself exemplifies that exuberance back at home. Many buyers are buying major art on a one-off basis, not as 'collectors' but to bolster their life-style image. An artist like Damien Hirst doesn't demand much connoisseurship - just a degree of success identification. Dealers of one generation believe the boom will go on for ever, claiming that the new 'global' market provides for greater stability than before. However, there is always a counteraction, a parallel galactic fall. This is the possibility that most participants are in denial over.

Returning to the Olympics, the government is, of course, carrying the can. This means that the British taxpayer can end up being penalised, especially if 'Clunky G' is still around. We can see all the arguments being set out: 'National Honour and Prestige', 'Big Transformation for the East Side of London' (remember the Dome?) and 'Generational Transformation for UK Sport of a Generation'. Where are the arts and museums left in all this? Relying upon the art market. And what if the art market collapses? The next Depression will not be like the dot com market collapse. It will be the mutual, cataclysmic, cataleptic1 plunge of markets of both West and East. It may be predicted as long term, but the recovery will be one that eventuates in the East. The West may take longer.

Michael Spens

1. Catalepsy: a disease characterised by a seizure or trance with suspension of sensation and consciousness. (Shorter Oxford Dictionary, 3rd edn, vol 1. Oxford: OUP, 1983.)

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