Points of view

November 7, 1997

The visual arts in the UK are making a huge business and social impact. Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton puts developments into an international context.

The economic argument for supporting cultural industries takes centre stage at the turn of the millennium. There needs to be more strategic analysis of the impact of the visual arts in the United Kingdom in the context of international comparators. In the context of new Labour and the new language and platform of a "creative economy", we can no longer afford to ignore the business of the visual arts.

Munster, capital of the German state of Westphalia, this summer saw 500,000 visitors to a contemporary sculpture project that has an international reputation on a par with the Venice Biennale.

The project is organised by the Landesmuseum and the international curator Kasper Konig. It has a budget of Pounds 1.1 million, half of which is donated by sponsors. Works by 76 international artists, including Turner prizewinners Richard Deacon, Douglas Gordon and Rachel Whiteread, are installed in and around the city's parks and lakes. The 22 works retained from earlier Munster projects are now a major visitor attraction. Hotel and restaurants report an 80 per cent increase in income this summer.Business and community attitudes to contemporary art have been transformed.

Munster is but one of the international contemporary art events in Europe that have become not only a cultural but a major economic force. The 47th Venice Biennale, which has a budget Pounds 2.9 million, 15 per cent of which comes from private sponsors and 50 per cent from admission fees, expects a record 265,000 visitors. Documenta, organised every five years since 1955 in the German city of Kassel, has seen visitor figures rise sixfold to 610,000 in 1992. The budget for Documenta X is Pounds 7.3 million - 40 per cent from city, state and federal funds. Nearly 110,000 of the visitors - 18 per cent of those who visited the last Documenta - came from abroad. Income from admission, licences and merchandise meets half the cost of Documenta, while the projected visitor spend overall is DM49 million (Pounds 16.8 million).

The coincidence of Venice, Documenta and Munster in what is an exceptional year for contemporary art, brings into focus the broad social and economic impact of the contemporary visual arts. In the UK, developments over the past ten years include new venues and the now widespread showing of art outside the gallery. The unprecedented media attention has stimulated new publics, especially families and young people.

In 1984 the Arts Council of Great Britain offered a grant from its "Works of art in public places" fund for the International Garden Festival in Liverpool, and in 1988 it launched its Percent for Art campaign; it could not have foreseen the huge appetite for visual art projects whetted by the availability of National Lottery money and the imperative to regenerate impoverished urban and rural environments. Since 1995, more than Pounds 20 million has been awarded, mostly to local authorities, for public art projects. A significant influence is the award-winning Broadgate development in London, which research has shown to be the most used public space in the City: Pounds 6 million was allocated for some 24 works of art, the most controversial being Richard Serra's 55-foot Fulcrum.Development director David Blackburn says: "It is a mark for Broadgate. Broadgate is identified with art. It is recognised as important. Art accelerates business processes. It has given us a competitive advantage."

There is plenty of evidence of fresh thinking on the role and use of art. Artists are being increasingly involved in, for instance, the planning of good public spaces, the design of street furniture, lighting and the use of temporary art works, although the challenge of new technology has yet to be grasped. There is great potential for a shift in thinking on conventional approaches to public art, but the signature work by an artist of international reputation retains the power to court controversy and raise a city's profile. Claus Oldenburg's "Bottle of notes" in Middlesbrough, for example, is an undoubted success.

It is this aspiration to provide landmark buildings and art, driven by urban regeneration strategies, that has prompted ambitious Lottery-funded projects on the scale of Gateshead's Baltic Flour Mills, a new venue for contemporary visual arts, and the commission of Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North. Gateshead's feasibility studies, including economic impact, have been substantiated by the spectacular success of Visual Arts UK, staged by the Northern region in 1996. The Arts Council Collection lent Gormley's extraordinary work "Field for the British Isles", which was shown in a railshed in Gateshead and visited by 25,000 people in ten weeks.According to research by AMCO, attendance over the year at 11 main visual arts venues in the region rose by 340,929, or 70 per cent.

Visual Arts UK was part of the Arts Council's Arts 2000 series and was initiated by a total investment of Pounds 700,000 from the Arts Council. That year, a regionwide celebration of the visual arts in the north of England was promoted by Northern Arts through a partnership company, Northern Sights, which brought together the Northern Development Company, North of England Assembly of Local Authorities, Cumbria and Northumbria Tourist Boards, and the private sector. The value of Visual Arts UK to the north of England has been calculated at over Pounds 75 million. The key outputs are as follows: * A major contribution to a Pounds 60-million capital programme for visual arts, including the Baltic Flour Mills, National Glass Centre, Laing Art Gallery, Sunderland Library and Arts Centre, Hartlepool Gallery and Beacon Gallery.

* 4,000 additional tourist nights generating Pounds 12.6 million (Pounds 29.56 a night) and 316 jobs (one per Pounds 40,000).

* Increased attendance at regional galleries; for instance Laing Art Gallery saw a 250 per cent increase on the previous year; Abbot Hall 300 per cent.

* Increased artist and supply chain employment estimated at 250 full-time equivalents from over Pounds 15 million new investment in visual arts programme.

* Sales of artists' work increased by 30 per cent.

* Since Visual Arts UK, public art projects have been funded with over Pounds 5 million from the Lottery, generating increased employment for artists and supply chains.

Gateshead's Baltic Flour Mills on the South Bank of the Tyne, recently awarded a Lottery grant of Pounds 38 million, will be the largest contemporary art venue outside London. The redesigned high-tech spaces will dramatically take forward Northern Arts' Case for Capital campaign on the needs of the arts in the North, launched by Tony Blair in 1995.

A measure of the potential impact of the Baltic in a region of relatively few arts facilities is the Tate St Ives, opened in June 1993. A first survey by Cornwall County Council in 1994 gives results that compare well with the estimated increase in trade and jobs set out in the European Regional Development Fund grant aid application. In the first half year of opening, there was a 5 per cent overall increase in town centre trade and 38 jobs were created. A further study that assessed the Tate's impact on over 70 craft outlets in Cornwall saw a 7 per cent increase in trade, 19 per cent in St Ives.

Both the Tate St Ives and Tate Liverpool have achieved high visibility; the new Tate Bankside, distinctive in scale and form, fronting the Thames and facing St Paul's, will have a major impact, in particular on the boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth. It is anticipated that Bankside will attract over two million visitors and create 2,400 permanent jobs.

The Policy Studies Institute study Culture as Commodity confirms the significant economic impact in the UK of the overall visual arts sector. One-fifth of the population visits museums and galleries, equivalent to theatre box office. "It is estimated that during 1993 there were 60 million visits to 1,544 museums and 19 million visits to 245 art galleries," the report says. But 90 per cent of public funds (Pounds 620 million in 1993/94) goes to national and local authority collection-based museums and galleries. Funding is disproportionately low for for the practising visual artist and for exhibition spaces such as the Hayward in London, the Ikon in Birmingham, the Arnolfini in Bristol.

National Touring Exhibitions, organised by the Hayward Gallery for the Arts Council, are visited by over one million people each year. Attendances at the Arnolfini are 400,000, the Serpentine 250,000. Despite this phenomenal rise in attendances, business sponsorships for the visual arts sector is less than 20 per cent of the total for all arts and cultural activities. Contemporary art venues are almost wholly reliant on private patrons, sponsorship and foundations for programmes for which they receive little or no subsidy. The charities supported by Diana, Princess of Wales, including the Serpentine Gallery, London, face with her death unforeseen and potentially dramatic financial problems. The Serpentine, funded by the Arts Council, will lose a critical Pounds 300,000 from the cancellation of the gala dinner to mark its refurbishment. Yet it is the Serpentine, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Camden Arts Centre, alongside the Hayward and the new Tate in London, and soon Baltic Flour Mills in the North East that add significantly to the critical mass of cultural attractions in the UK. The international reputation of these and other venues in the regions make them more than culturally significant.

Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton is director, visual arts, at the Arts Council of England.

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments