Artworks can be spectacular tourist attractions. Gormley’s Angel of the North is iconic. Even kitsch like the Manneken Pis can do wonders for a city’s image. But how often do spectacular tourist attractions make for great works of art?
The Artists Taking the Lead scheme waved hopefully from the window while the London Olympics paraded obliviously by, with £500,000 budgets for high-impact events in each of the English regions plus Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. ATTL has already been, shall we say, not uncontroversial. After investigating themselves, Arts Council England also cleared themselves of impropriety in the awarding of the Yorkshire commission, following accusations to the contrary from the public.
The North West’s commission, Column by Anthony McCall – ‘a slender, sinuous, spinning column of cloud rising into the sky from the surface of the water in Merseyside’ – has so far failed to arrive at all. A recent Independent article lists a catalogue of cock-ups. McCall is a distinguished artist with a long track record, but it’s hard to have much sympathy for what seems an inherently dodgy idea granted £500,000 over two years ago, with not a single puff of cloud yet. It’s almost like a right wing newspaper’s bitter parody of a publicly-funded art project.
I’ve applied for – and on occasion been grateful to receive – relatively small grants from Arts Council England, so I speak from boring experience of their paperwork when I say that (at least) two of their tenets have been violated by the North West ATTL project: I don’t know how often the organisation follows through on the threat, but its grant offers are clear that not delivering as proposed – or at all – means they reserve the right to ask for their money back, and so they should. Secondly, how is providing a vague, ephemeral spectacle ‘delivering great art for everyone’? Yes, everyone within a certain radius might be able to see it, but that’s not the same as having meaningful access to contemporary art.
I suspect if McCall had blown £500,000 of his own money on a quixotic folly like this then the British might, as is their wont, regard him and his undelivered project with a certain affection. But we shouldn’t fall into the Daily Mail trap of fulminating that if this public money wasn’t apparently being fed to a black hole – never to emerge again in our universe – then it would go instead to hospitals, or even as £10,000 grants to 50 North West artists so they can “take risks”, as Moira Sinclair, executive director of ACE, says she wants them to. Cuts of considerably smaller sums over the last two years have devasted some arts organisations, while the art behemoths have won increases, so we can already guess that ACE has internalised the same ‘too small to fight back/too big to fail’ economics that are doing their ugly work throughout Europe’s communities, commerce and culture.
The erroneous starting assumption with ATTL is that you can commission ‘spectacular’ or ‘risky’ and have it delivered neatly and fuss-free. You can’t, not in contemporary art anyway. You need to come down out of the clouds and think about what artists and audiences can achieve together. Audiences make a work of art spectacular and beloved; the artist can only aim there. Sometimes artists don’t even know where the hell they’re going, so it can be unwise to have them take the lead. With all their rhetoric about benefits to audiences, did nobody at Arts Council England ever ask themselves how the public builds a relationship with a vortex of water vapour in the sky, especially when it never even arrives?