Reviewing the Regions

By Kenn Taylor

When Brian Sewell was asked if he was going to see the Gustav Klimt exhibition at Tate Liverpool, he replied: “But that would mean going to Liverpool. Liverpool’s awful. Nothing would get me there. They should dig a trench all round the place and pull it out to sea.”

Sewell is, of course, generally fond of such pathetic outbursts. However it is not an isolated incident when it comes to the media’s view of arts outside of London. The situation is so dire it prompted the then head of Bradford’s National Media Museum, Amanda Nevill to say “We still don’t get talked about or written about nationally. I sometimes think I don’t mind if they tear us apart, as long as they write something about us.” This lack of attention is shocking given the fact the venue attracts over 600,000 visitors a year.

When coverage does happen, more than once, I’ve seen broadsheet reviews give more criticism to the train service north than the show itself. Other alleged reviews are in fact opinion pieces about culture as a regeneration tool or the social and economic problems of any given region. Interesting topics that I have written about myself, but so often the exhibition itself is forgotten, as regions are used as mere fodder by metropolitan writers to peddle one ideology or another. I notice that coverage of shows at Tate Britain or the Serpentine in London does not tend to feature much comment on the latest tube strike or deprivation in Tower Hamlets.

The same goes for the frequently patronising coverage of arts institutions outside London in general. The media has been full of tut-tutting about financial and other issues facing newer regional venues like Gateshead’s Baltic and The Public in West Bromwich, but considerably less on the successes of places like the New Art Gallery in Walsall or Nottingham Contemporary.

Coverage of art in the regions is especially hilarious when it comes to reviewing the cultural festivals of various kinds that have sprung up across the country. When reading reviews from Venice or some other exotic locale, you can almost hear the hack smiling and sipping a glass of vino on expenses, while writing on some sun-drenched terrace. Just as you can hear the bitterness of the journalist typing up a review in Costa Coffee in rain-sodden Manchester, miffed that the other guy got the Lisbon Biennial gig this year. Of course it is easy to be impressed with weather and glamour that Britain can not offer, but what about the actual quality of the shows?

There is perhaps an inevitable ‘chip-on-shoulder’ defensiveness in regional arts institutions when critics attack ‘our’ venues, especially when it is such a struggle to get arts outside of the capital acknowledged at all. Nevertheless, I think most of us regional arts workers are capable of critical distance and our chip-on-shoulder is almost inevitable when consistently faced with such poor examples of journalism.

Not only is it exasperating for those of us who know the quality of some of the work being shown in regional Britain, despite the frequent malaise in the media. With critics often treating the regions as ‘other’, like some colony whose attempts at culture must be picked over anthropologically by the ‘educated outsider’. I think it also unveils something deeper and darker about our media: its lack of understanding of the Britain outside London and the narrow talent pool it so often draws its staff from. Perhaps the BBC move to Salford will shift this a little. We live in hope.

If you want to review art in the regions, commission local writers with better insight, even better, come and criticise, we can take it. But if you want to moan about the train service, write a letter to Network Rail and save the space to tell your readers about the artwork.

This piece appeared on Arts Professional in January 2012.