Last week I wrote a piece on Why we need The Arts more than ever. You can read it here.
Now, I highlight some of the best examples of our cultural and artistic heritage.
In the UK there is a great deal of pride felt for the nation’s wide variety of work in the field we collectively call ‘The Arts’. The diverse nature of this field is shown not just by the numerous different forms it takes, such as painting, architecture, or even dance, but by the fact that it is built on a number of rich national histories and traditions. The structure of the UK, with its distinct countries and different social and cultural identities, provides a wealth of material for any number of these artistic platforms.
The recent £1.57billion investment, in the form of emergency grants and loans, by the British government, into ‘cultural, arts, and heritage institutions’ has been welcomed by many as a positive step in ensuring the longevity of the sector and a means to provide employment to the many thousands of freelance and salaried workers who have been impacted by the pandemic. According to gov.uk, “more than 350,000 people in the recreation and leisure sector have been furloughed since the pandemic began”. A large proportion of those have fallen in the Arts arena.
Traditional arts, such as painting, sculpture, and acting might be among the first disciplines to spring to mind, but artistic endeavour and ‘The Arts’ is a broad church, and can be found in many aspects of our lives. All art lives at the beating heart of any culture and those who wish to make radical political and social change have always known to control the artists, the ‘public intellectuals’, is to shape, form, and control not only the present but our relationship to the past, and our vision of the future. Thankfully, this welcome injection of funding has provided some light and positive thinking, to help us find a way forward through what has been the pandemic gloom.
So, where to go now? What delights and treasures can we seek out once the curtain has been lifted? Some Arts establishments have produced online offerings during lockdown, much of which will no doubt remain for those still shielding, and many museums, galleries, and theatres have made their back catalogue of works available. As is often the case, the choice can be overwhelming, even when accessed from the sofa.
Museums have held a place in the UK public’s consciousness for the better part of the last few hundred years. Originally, there were unseen, private collections, but the emergence of the drive to provide education for all eventually brought them to the public eye. However, to best provoke interest, or in order to combine, financially support and preserve exhibits from different families’ archives, there was felt the need to build large and small institutions such as The British Museum, The Pitt-Rivers Museum, and The National Museums in both Scotland and Cardiff (pictured).
Many collections of important historical artefacts are housed in architectural surroundings that are at least as important and iconic as the items themselves. The British Museum was instituted by an Act of Parliament in 1753, for ‘all studious and curious persons’ and became the world’s first free, national, public museum. It was built to house the private collection of Sir Hans Sloane, physician and President of the Royal Society, which was bequeathed to the nation on his death.
The Globe, The Old Vic, The National Theatre, The Royal Opera House. All highly esteemed establishments which have continued to offer the very best in British theatrical production. During the Covid-19 pandemic they have all physically closed but many, such as the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre, have offered free live streaming performances of some of their iconic works such as The Cellist and Amadeaus.
As has been the case with many facets of life during this challenging time there has been an unprecedented merging and use of technology and ‘The Arts’, in order to provide comfort, distraction, conversation, and emotional containment to millions of people. All free of charge. All with genuine goodwill, positivity, and conscious of the role of ‘The Arts’ within humanity’s ongoing narrative. Shakespeare’s Globe has also been offering online education and storytelling and The Old Vic has made it’s archive of past performances available, all of which adds up to an unprecedented amount of open-access (sadly, still dependent on often expensive wifi or mobile network tariffs) body of work.
Finding unfettered time to walk around one of the many outstanding galleries the UK has to offer is a worthwhile use of energy. The broad vistas of past, present and future can be found in the swirling internal landscapes created by our connection with traditional or contemporary painting, sculpture, architecture, and even horticultural landscaping. Beside the usual suspects (The Tate Modern, The National Portrait Gallery, and The Royal Academy of Arts) which can be found in the capital, the UK is filled with opportunities for the sort of sensory delight which can be found within their grounds. Many of these establishments are reopening, following their Covid-19 pandemic closures, and are keen to welcome visitors.
The Whitworth, part of the University of Manchester, houses work by William Blake, Picasso, Rossetti, and Van Gough, alongside travelling exhibitions and events. The Ashmolean Museum, in Oxford, has offered online exhibitions and expert videos showcasing its focus on ‘art and archaeology’, most recently “Young Rembrandt”. The Walker Art Gallery is part of National Museums Liverpool, focussing on painting, sculpture and ‘the decorative arts’, with a large collection of Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque art alongside contemporary artists such as Linda McCartney, whose photography features in a major new retrospective.
The focus on ‘The Arts’ and continued funding of its varied incarnations has been acknowledged as a social and cultural necessity, one which feeds the psychological and emotional wellbeing of a nation as food feeds its body. The British Museum maintains that they house, care for, and make accessible and relatable “two million years of human history and culture”. For this there is surely unanimous agreement, that their portion of £1.57billion is a worthwhile investment indeed. In fact, this may well be the only time when a cliche is permissible and when many would in fact, rightly, say that what they and ‘The Arts’ as a whole offers is truly beyond price.
NB: Following the closure during and subsequent reopening after the 2020 UK Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, many establishments are offering timed booking and limited numbers to their galleries. Please check the individual establishment’s website for details prior to travelling.