Sunday, October 04, 2020

Coronavirus 38 Arts episode

SARS-CoV-2 is taking its toll on the arts and our cultural heritage.
The wise folk are staying at home, the cultural institutions have lost income and the politicians are allowing the pandemic to decimate the arts.
The Royal Academy, facing its financial implosion, is considering selling its Michelangelo, Taddei Tondo, as a way to make up the shortfall and thereby avoid making 150 staff redundant.

Taddei Tondo or The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John by Michelangelo 
Now we learn that the Royal Opera House is to sell its David Hockney portrait of the late Sir David Webster, who ran the opera house from 1945 to 1970.

Portrait of Sir David Webster by David Hockney, 1971.
Now obviously the art market is bonkers, a lot of money sloshing about looking for somewhere to be invested in that which might be a safe store of value, but that's another story. The urgent issue is that great works of art, currently available to the general public (at least those who go to the opera or the RA) risk disappearing into a rich man's den or a bank's vault. That would be a loss to our culture.
It need not be so.The government, on behalf of the nation, could purchase these works and leave them hanging where they are for public benefit. Using its ability to borrow money at today's record low interest rates, and noting that the cash would enter the economy through the spending of institutions such as the Royal Opera House and the Royal Academy on their wage bills, there would be no net cost to the economy.
Other institutions, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, are looking to cut their costs by making reduncancies, with the accompanying inevitable loss of the public service for culture. In a statement the V&A say "With the furlough scheme now coming to an end, we are sadly in a position where our commercial and charitable revenue sources are still heavily reduced and other options to cover our costs are exhausted. We are left now with no choice but to review our operations and reduce the scale of our organisation overall, as part of ongoing efforts to reduce costs by at least £10m annually going forwards."
There is a political choice. Do we allow the transfer of public art into private hands or do we maintain the value of our publicly available cultural capital? Do we close down our museum services, allowing the pandemic to deprive us of our cultural heritage, or do we invest to limit the virus's damage?
As Bendor Grosvenor put it:
"Our museums must now pay the price for Sunak’s focus only on ‘viable business’. Needless cultural destruction."
Further reading:
Jonathan Jones, The $80m Botticelli: could its auction trigger a Covid-rescue fire sale?
Vanessa Thorpe, Royal Opera House to sell off David Hockney painting in bid to stay afloat

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