London can’t keep sucking up the nation’s culture for itself

The Government’s Northern Powerhouse rhetoric, it turns out, does not apply to culture

A study by Sussex University and the London School of Ecnomics (LSE) has come up with a list of the 33 things that make people happy. Yes, 33. If you’re the kind of person who finds round numbers cheering, this list is not for you. Researchers asked 20,000 people to download an app that buzzed them at various times of day and asked them to record their “happiness levels” and what they were doing at the time; they received more than a million responses.

The results are quite surprising. The top three activities for happiness are 1. Intimacy/making love (14.2 per cent); 2. Going to theatre/dance/concert (9.29 per cent); and 3. Going to an exhibition/museum/library (8.77 per cent). So there it is: academic(ish) proof that the arts make people happy. Happier, in fact, than drinking (5.73 per cent), playing with one’s children (4.1 per cent), shopping (2.74 per cent), watching TV (2.55 per cent) or browsing the internet (0.59 per cent). 

No wonder, then, that the people of Bradford are feeling less than happy this week. A slice of culture they have been able to enjoy on their doorstep for the past 13 years has just shifted some 200 miles to the south. In a move hailed as “historic” by the Victoria & Albert Museum, and branded an “appalling act of cultural vandalism” by a Bradford councillor, 400,000 objects from the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) collection at Bradford’s National Media Museum are soon to be transferred to the V&A in London. 

That represents 10 per cent of the northern museum’s holdings. Now, if Bradfordians or anyone who lives in the area want to see works by British pioneers of photography such as William Henry Fox Talbot or Julia Margaret Cameron, or the moonlit New Mexican landscapes of Ansel Adams, Angus McBean’s surreal Audrey Hepburn framed by classical columns or Steve McCurry’s green-eyed Afghan Girl, they will have to get in a car and drive for four hours, or alternatively buy a monstrously expensive train ticket.

In London, the RPS collection will form the backbone of a new “International Photography Resource Centre”, which you might think would be quite a good thing to house in the National Media Museum (the clue’s in the name). Not so. “We don’t have much up here and it fills me with a kind of sad rage that you felt able to visit this act of cultural rape on my city,” said Simon Cooke, the leader of the Conservatives on Bradford council. A poor choice of phrase, perhaps, but he is right to let emotions run high, to talk about “metropolitan cultural fascism”. It’s very hard to see this transfer of assets in any other way. 

When it opened in 1983 – with great fanfare and, incidentally, the first permanent Imax theatre in Europe – the point of the National Media Museum was to be a building dedicated to the art and science of the image. Why Bradford? Because it has a rich cinematic history, one that runs from the first black-and-white film screenings in 1897, some 13 years ahead of Hollywood, to Billy Liar and Slumdog Millionaire. In 2009 it was made the world’s first Unesco City of Film. 

The museum is a specialist site and the RPS has expressed concern that there will no longer be a single institution with the expertise and remit to collect and research all aspects of photography. Instead, the valuable collection of images will now be absorbed by a metropolitan museum that already has 2,278,183 objects (of which less than a quarter are on display) and where it will be one of many highlights among furniture, ceramics and shows dedicated to Kylie’s hotpants.

The NMM, meanwhile, is to turn its focus to science and the technology of light and sound, opening a new interactive gallery in spring 2017. This is a bit depressing, too. It suggests the space can only make its case for staying open if it focuses on something “useful” like tech, rather than art. There are fears that this is only the beginning of the dismantling, the ominous first stagger on the path to closure. The museum almost went under in 2013, but was saved. If its treasures are taken away, visitors and funding will surely follow suit. And that will be that.

In London, the 400,000 photographs will, according to the museums, be more accessible – both geographically (for Londoners) and in terms of the resources the V&A can provide for public viewing and research. In other words, an institution in the north doesn’t have the money to curate the collection as it needs to be curated, but one in London does. 

If only there was some kind of national governing body who could work out how to balance the books, to ensure that regional arts organisations get the funding and support they deserve. Oh, hang on, there is. It’s called the Arts Council.

London already has world-class culture in every area; Bradford does not. And while that’s not argument enough for keeping a museum going – especially not if it’s a little-visited moneypit, as some are – the NMM had a world-class collection in the shape of these photographs, and now it does not. Moving a jewel of its collection to the capital is unnecessary and incendiary. It emphasises the regional divide. 

It also makes a mockery of the Government’s Northern Powerhouse rhetoric, which not only goes a bit soggy in the floods, but also, it turns out, does not apply to culture. The north has artistic wonders of course, tons of them: Tate Liverpool, Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery, The Hepworth in Wakefield, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Abbot Hall in Kendal and Middlesborough’s Mima, to name just a few. But London cannot be allowed to cherry-pick the best of it, to suck up culture and make it a purely metropolitan pleasure. Not least because the capital gives so little back to the regions. It has a heavily subsidised English National Opera and National Theatre that rarely tour (except via cinema screens) and a Royal Ballet that only leaves Covent Garden to go to glitzy international galas. 

The arts are for everyone, but in Britain, London art-lovers are more equal than others. 

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