Why blingy bashes are no cause for celebration

Extravagant arts events are out of place in a recession

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The Independent Culture

Arts parties are a funny business. There was a time when they involved nothing more glamorous than warm wine, soggy peanuts and an overheated crowd of artists packed into an airless gallery, whose most eye-catching personality was Grayson Perry in a baby-doll dress.

Princess Diana changed all that. Or the clever people who drew up the guest-list for the Serpentine Gallery summer party in 1994. She arrived in a killer black dress, on the same day that Prince Charles discussed the collapse of their marriage in a Jonathan Dimbleby interview.

Perhaps not a great day for the Royals, but one that transformed the face of the arts party. Suddenly, every A-, B- and C-lister was lining up to get into the party in Hyde Park. Last week's annual shindig drew Mischa Barton and a glittering shoal of models.

The event inspired other galleries to do the same – to reach out beyond their own industry's stars. As summer parties begin to kick off across the arts sector, we can perhaps expect the same extravagance.

And yet, the blingy "big event" arts party is beginning to feel inappropriately flashy in our current climate. Call my complaint sour grapes – I didn't get my Serpentine Gallery invitation this year – but then, I remember feeling uncomfortable there last year, and the year before that.

Of course, the gallery should be congratulated for bringing bling to the arts, on one level. It is a very networky and American way of doing business, by drawing rich potential philanthropists, sponsors, donors, to their doors.

Yet now, in this climate of double-dip recessions and government cuts to arts funding (with the prospect of more cuts forever looming), this kind of hot ticket seems like a celebration of money, power, and fame, while the "arts" bit of the "arts party" is drowned out.

Three years ago, when the recession sledgehammer first hit the arts, I was at the Cannes Film Festival and noticed that the film industry toned down its Cannes parties, which had always been the blingest of the bling. The industry did not give up schmoozing, or searching for film funding. The paring down was a symbolic gesture that acknowledged the larger economic environment, and hailed a new, non "conspicuous consumption" era.

The Serpentine manages to do better than most to pull in major private sponsorship, and Julia Peyton-Jones, its director, clearly knows how to tub-thump for money, but two years ago, even she warned that private philanthropy cannot fill the gap that any reduction in government arts funding leaves behind.

And does a high-voltage party send an unsavoury message out to the arts world? To have an arts event morph into a starry fashion and showbiz event too means it has, in some ways, become a prisoner of its success. Burberry sponsored last year's summer party and had its chequered umbrellas everywhere. This year, the fashion designer, Leon Max, sponsored the party.

The books industry has kept it far more purist. You get the occasional celebrity at a books party but they have a reason to be there – they've just written a memoir, or brought out a cookbook – but even so, these "outsider celebrities" are like lesser-spotted Welsh snow leopards when we compare their numbers to those in the visual arts. Only insiders are invited as a rule, more so in our economically straitened times, when book launches are not half as common as they used to be.

Over the last 10 years, there has been a significant diminution of publishing parties. There are still some grand ones, and when they're grand, they're really very grand: Bloomsbury pulls out all the stops in its annual Bloomsbury Square party, which always makes a splash. But what's different about it is that the stars of the party, and other parties like it, are the authors, whereas the star of this year's Serpentine Gallery party was, arguably, Mischa Barton.

Bring back the warm wine, I say.