David Lister: Hirst's £250k (gift)

Sunday 23 October 2011 04:42

There's no need for me to comment on the quality of Damien Hirst's new paintings at London's Wallace Collection. The art critics have delivered their verdict (see Performance Notes below) and it's a damning one. Anyway, I'm rather more interested in – and worried by – what went on behind the scenes to get this particular show on the road. What worries me is the £250,000 that Hirst gave from his own large pockets to the Wallace Collection.

Now, some of this money, it's true, has gone towards the marketing of the show and keeping it free to visitors. And some was spent on changes to the room in which the paintings were exhibited, and some of those changes were specifically for those paintings, and only temporary alterations. For example, £60,000 of the £250,000 went on wall silks, made in Prelles where Marie Antoinette had her wall silks made. They are a backdrop to the Hirst paintings, and such purchases can be seen as part of the installation. You could argue that these costs were, strictly speaking, part of his work, just as the frames around the paintings, or the materials used to execute the paintings. You could hardly expect the Wallace Collection to pay for all that. When the Hirst show departs, so will those expensive extras.

But other changes in the gallery, paid for from the Hirst fortune, are certainly not temporary. For example, he has paid for the refurbishment of the floor, taking off the dark varnish, cleaning, and putting down light varnish. This change is not temporary. In addition, he has paid for gold gilding on the ceiling of the gallery. This change is also not temporary.

It may well have been Hirst's wish to make these changes to enhance the viewing experience for visitors to his exhibition. But when the exhibition closes, substantial changes to the gallery will remain. A permanent improvement to the Wallace Collection building has been paid for by one D Hirst.

So, let's spell it out. The Wallace Collection has accepted a gift of £250,000 for changes to its gallery – some of them remaining in perpetuity – from an artist mounting an exhibition in the gallery, an exhibition which is panned by the critics, most of whom wonder why on earth the Wallace Collection put it on.

I don't for a minute think that Ros Savill, the distinguished director of this distinguished institution, was influenced by the £250,000 in her decision to stage the exhibition of Damien Hirst paintings. But I do think that other artists without £250,000 to spare might feel at a disadvantage in getting an exhibition on at the Wallace Collection. And I do think that Ms Savill has set a most unfortunate, and slightly dangerous, precedent in allowing a financial gift from an artist about to show his works, presumably on merit.

It might only be a perception that there is any sort of link here. But perceptions are important. The Wallace Collection is one of Britain's most distinguished institutions. But this is not a particularly distinguished moment in its history.

A right royal performance

The audience at a performance of War Horse in London's West End was getting ready to enjoy the performance earlier this week when, just before curtain up, the Queen tiptoed in with Prince Philip and joined them. It wasn't an official visit. A Buckingham Palace spokesman said that the Queen does pop to the theatre unannounced from time to time.

That's rather heart-warming, but it does call for a different "performance" from the audience, and a change in the usual theatre-going conversation and etiquette. No weary sighs as this couple push past you to their seats. No interval chit-chat along the lines of "Who on earth allowed this bloke to become Prime Minister anyway?". The usual complaint of "Parking's so difficult in the West End now" would probably get a blank stare. And, it would be a brave man or woman who turned round in the interval and said: "I hope you don't mind me asking, but how much did you pay for your tickets?"

If only all prisons were like Slade

Sir David Attenborough has been lamenting the fact that the BBC does not make programmes like Porridge any more. The BBC's veteran broadcaster and naturalist said: "It entertained and educated, gave you insight into psychology and current affairs, and was the greatest programme we've ever seen."

Now, I feel affectionate about Porridge, and like the rest of the population, I am an admirer of Sir David Attenborough. I'm also an admirer of Porridge's writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais and its star, the late Ronnie Barker. Gosh, there are a lot of saintly people to try not to offend here. But "educational"? That's taking sentiment a little too far.

Clement and La Frenais are two of the best comedy of writers of all time, but to learn about prison life it might be best to look elsewhere. Timid, bumbling prison officers like Mr Barraclough are rather thin on the ground, to take just one example. And even in the 1970s, the prison population was not 99 per cent white, to take another. Sir David has let nostalgia get the better of him.

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