By Kenn Taylor
I can acutely remember my first visit to Tate Liverpool as a child. My mum, not a natural gallery goer, was looking for somewhere free to take me on a day out.
I knew little of famous artists – but one I had heard of was Andy Warhol, and I was deeply impressed to find that an actual thing made by this famous person was in the same room as me. Later I would realise that it was probably not made by him and indeed that was the point, but still, it left an impression.
It was not until much later, when I eventually found myself working in the arts, that I realised how lucky I’d been. Living in Merseyside after Tate Liverpool opened in 1988, I had relatively easy and free access to art works of international calibre. Not every regional city has a Tate.
I thought back to this when I heard that a big chunk of the National Photography Collection – around 400,000 items, currently held in Bradford at the National Media Museum – was to be merged with the V&A museum’s Art Photography Collection and transferred to the V&A’s West London site, thus forming what would be the world’s largest collection of the art of photography.
In the longer term, the merged collection will be transferred to a new “International Photography Resource Centre” at an as yet unidentified location – though the V&A’s planned vast new site in East London must be the most likely contender.
Meanwhile, the National Media Museum, a part of the Science Museum Group, will continue to shift its focus to “STEM” – science, technology, engineering and maths – and “concentrate on inspiring future generations of scientists and engineers in the fields of light and sound, as well as demonstrating the cultural impact of these subjects”. The Bradford site may even change its name, possibly to “Science Museum North”.
There is actually a logic in merging parts of the photography collections of the Science Museum Group and the V&A. The fact that the Science Museum holds the National Collection of Photography is largely down to the snobby historical anachronism amongst our national art museums: in the past, photography wasn’t seen as “real art”.
There is also a logic to the National Media Museum re-imagining itself. It opened in 1983 as the second National Museum outside London (the first was the National Railway Museum in York in 1975, also part of the Science Museum Group). Since then, though, the Bradford museum has been overtaken by rapid changes in culture and technology.
For most of its history the institution was the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television. But it was renamed the National Media Museum in 2006, to reflect the rise in other forms of communication and image-making, and a new internet themed gallery was instituted.
Yet even these moves have barely kept up with the speed of change. So drawing out some of the more fundamental ideas and principles beneath such technologies, and investing in new galleries around these – a £1.5m light and sound gallery will open next year – is undoubtedly a good idea.
Important questions remain though. Why do such new developments have to be at the expense of celebrating the art that is made by these technologies, which remains for many the most engaging thing about them? Also, if these collections are to be merged – and no doubt quite a great deal of capital will have to be invested in creating an International Photography Resource Centre – why does it have to be situated in London?
Why not move the V&A’s photography collection to Bradford, where land is cheaper, and the cost of living for low-paid culture sector workers easier? Or if not Bradford, why not to Sheffield or Birmingham or Newcastle, which so far lack branches of National Museums?
This move doesn’t seem to fit with the noises coming out of the government and its agencies. Those are all about shifting public cultural investment from London to the regions – something that, in terms of museums at least, began with the opening of the Science Museum’s York and Bradford branches. As culture secretary John Whittingdale recently commented: “I do think there is a danger that too much is spent in London and obviously what we want to do is demonstrate that the UK has fantastic cultural offerings right across the country and not just in London.”
Of course, the V&A can point to its investment in the vast new V&A Museum of Design in Dundee as its commitment to displaying its collection of some 2.3m objects in the regions. Elsewhere, huge investment is going into the likes of Manchester’s £110m giant new arts complex “The Factory” and a £5m new South Asia gallery at Manchester Museum which will display collections from the British Museum.
At the same time as these developments, though, Bradford’s collections are moving in the opposite direction – and elsewhere, there is even worse going on. The Museum of Lancashire in Preston, the museum of an entire county, is currently threatened with closure. The Museums Association has estimated that 42 UK museums have closed in the last ten years: the vast majority of these since 2010, and in the regions.
Back in the day, Britain’s regional cities didn’t need London museums to open “branches”. Their industrial wealth, and the patronage and tax base that came from it, paid for museums and collections that once in many ways rivalled those held in London.
The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, for example, has one of the finest collections of art outside of the capital. Yet its ability to continue to buy new work in the later part of the 20th century was curtailed by industrial decline. The same went for other regional museums across the country – if they could stay open at all – hence the need for branches and partnerships with national collections.
Of course, such partnerships and collaborations should be encouraged. But with such severe local authority cuts, must regional cities merely hope to borrow what London can spare? Meanwhile, with the National Media Museum itself under threat of closure as recently as 2013, can even branches be sure to have a secure future?
The problem is cultural investment in the English regions has been sporadic and inconsistent. Vast new grands projets are happening in some places, while much loved institutions are shuttered elsewhere. Some cities are experiencing a cultural boom; others are approaching cutting it off completely.
The classic argument for locating the likes of an International Photography Resource Centre in London of course is that more people will visit it. Hard to argue with that, but it’s not hard to achieve either, when a city has a population of over 8.5m and an endless supply of tourists.
The counter-argument, from Conservative Bradford councillor Simon Cooke, is that it means more to have significant cultural facilities in the regions. “You could – had you had the guts and vision – have based this new resource centre in the north, in Bradford, where they would have been loved and cherished it in a way you in London can never understand.”
If the state funds culture through the taxation of the entire population and through the Lottery, which has a disproportionate number of players in the regions, then surely arts funding should be distributed in a way that ensures maximum benefit to the entire population? Even whilst accepting that a bigger city will generally always have more culture and thus deserve a fair chunk of funding, shouldn’t public funding look to support places where it is less easy to access and find other sources of funding?
No young person interested in photography or media in London will go short of places to find inspiration. In Yorkshire or elsewhere though, they might. As the only person from a family of engineers who works in the arts, I applaud the fact that the government seems finally to want to reverse decades of decline in this area – and indeed, there are many high-tech companies around Bradford who need a new generation of STEM students to be inspired.
But must only the technically inclined be inspired? Computer games, one of Britain’s biggest software sectors, needs artists as well as programmers. Or, is Bradford expected to supply the technicians and London the artists?
What Britain needs is a long-term plan of cultural investment across all of the regions. One that develops and sustains institutions that are geographically accessible to all, provides regular funding that develops and retains talent, and ensures that quality collections are shared across the whole country. Without such a plan, pet projects and grand statements from our leaders about “culture for all” will just be empty gestures.
Whether this will actually happen remains to be seen – but a good start might be locating the International Photography Resource Centre in Bradford. My gut tells me, though, that East London will likely win the day. Because in the end, London always wins.
This piece was published by CityMetric, a New Statesman website, in February 2016.