Monday, July 28, 2014

The unfairness of the North/South cultural divide

Izzy’s bedroom is a mound of waste paper. There are pieces of photographs, bodies with their faces removed, dismembered newspaper adverts, scraps of coloured card, bits of magazines, and half a dozen empty rolls of sellotape. It looks like an earthquake has hit an art studio. 

I blame Matisse. Last week Jo and I decided we should all visit the exhibition at Tate Modern. That’s the best thing about London: you wake up one morning, fancy a bit of culture, and off you go. No planning, no advance purchase tickets, no East Coast Trains – you just hop on the 46 bus.

We were worried about taking our 5-year-old to a big exhibition. What if she were bored and made a scene? So we prepared her. 

"We’re going to a big important art gallery, Izzy," I explained. 

"We’re going to see some lovely colourful paintings by a very famous man. When he was old, he couldn’t really paint anymore so he got a pair of scissors and he started to make pictures by cutting out shapes…” 

“You mean Matisse, Daddy?” she asked, eyes brightening.  “They’re not paintings, they’re cutouts.” 

“How on earth?” And then I twigged why, for the last month, her magazines and photos had been shredded and reassembled into posters, books and cards. 

I just thought I had a particularly creative daughter. But her school had taught her about Matisse. 

“Will we see The Snail?” she asked. “That’s my favourite, though I like the dancers too.” 

They’d projected a film about him on an interactive blackboard. It wasn’t like that in my day at Cullercoats Infants School. 

She loved the exhibition, telling me exactly what I was looking from her perch on my shoulders. 

 “Look, Daddy, that’s under the sea, there’s fish and seaweed and grass skirts.” 

“Grass skirts?” I queried. "Isn’t that more seaweed?" 

Then I saw the caption: Hawaii. OK – it could be grass skirts, I guess. 

Later, as we ate scallops and quail’s eggs in the art gallery’s rooftop restaurant, we looked across St Paul’s Cathedral towards the changing landscape of London, massive cranes constructing yet more skyscrapers for Chinese and Russian billionaires. And I thought of the huge disparity between North and South. 

I thought of how we could visit a different publicly funded arts institution every day of the year while we’re down in London. How people in the capital benefit from a joint government and Arts Council subsidy for their arts that is fourteen times as much as people in the rest of England: around £70 a head for everyone in London, against a fiver for the rest of the population. 

How the Arts Council’s announced earlier this month that it had reduced the number of funded national portfolio organisations by 9 in the capital; but it had also reduced those in the North by 20, which is 10% of its total. They didn’t actually announce it that way, but it’s all there in the small print. 

And I thought, this is just unfair. The taxpayers of Newcastle are actually paying for me to sit here with my family, in the most important exhibition of one of the world’s greatest artists. Izzy’s Reception class is taught Matisse because the school knows families can get on a bus and see his work whenever they like. It would cost hundreds of pounds for a Newcastle family to do the same, and yet their taxes have paid for all this. 

I guess they could pop down to the Baltic to see a few conceptual streaks of coloured light by a Frenchman called Daniel Buren: that should keep the kids amused for 20 seconds, but I doubt they’ll be creating light projections in their bedrooms as a result. 

Meanwhile, as the cranes were building the North/South wall even higher, on the way home, the bus was held up at the roadworks caused by the Crossrail link that’s going to make London’s wealth even more connected. Our local connectivity is via the ancient squeaky carriages of Northern Rail, or the slow coaches of the ironically named Trans-Pennine Express, ambling on its jerky way between our underfunded, underresourced, uncared-for Northern cities. 

It’s simply not fair.

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