Thursday, 4 February 2016

A bad week for culture in Bradford (and The North)

It has been a lousy week for culture in Bradford. First we had the announcement that the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) collection of art in photography would be transplanted from Bradford to a new 'centre' somewhere in London. And then today we got a second bombshell as the National Media Museum pulled out of the Bradford International Film Festival.

My view of all this is that it underlines the utter and complete domination of arts and culture by a narrow, London-focused elite. The Trustees of the V&A are all based in London and it wouldn't surprise me to discover that many of them, while they've visited Paris, Venice and New York haven't visited Bradford, Gateshead or Wolverhampton. For this elite such places are for talking about - you know 'deprivation', 'poverty', 'the underclass', gritty Northern films on a left-wing theme - rather than visiting. For the London elite the best that can be said is that some of them consider the North somewhere to be patronised - not in a physical way but by appearing on late night arts shows and saying how important it for the North to be recognised culturally (just so long as we don't have to go there).

There's nothing new with this problem - it remains perhaps the biggest challenge facing England. We talk a lot about the imbalance between London and 'The North' - indeed the Arts Council spends most of it's briefing pages on funding trying to demonstrate that it really does care about 'The North' and that most of the money doesn't go to London. It remains the case that roughly twice as much money goes to London that to the whole of the North. And let's remember that The North's population is around double that of London. meaning that per capita Londoners get four times as much arts funding as Bradfordians.

More to the point, London is also much richer with more access to the private sector funding that being one of the world's great cities brings. And this means that the wider infrastructure of arts and culture - commercial theatre, art markets, music and so forth - is much stronger (or at least appears that way). So while the efforts of the Arts Council, Heritage Lottery Fund and others to redress the imbalance is welcome it doesn't get close to the heart of the problem.

This heart - the central challenge - is the assumption that major national institutions have to be based in London. This was the essential problem with the decision by the Science Museum to hand over the RPS collection to the V&A. Not that a new 'centre' for art in photography isn't a great idea but rather that the centre could only be created in London. It seems that the Trustees of the Science Museum Group, at their meetings in London, didn't even consider suggesting to their new partners at the V&A that locating the new centre in the North might be the right idea (we can't be sure because the minutes of this almost entirely publicly funded organisation are not public).

So the RPS collection goes to London, which is sad. But worse than this, there's nothing but a gap left behind. Bradford no longer has that inspiring collection and nothing will replace it (a new 'interactive gallery' at the National Media Museum doesn't work since it's not really new and isn't really culture). The decision is a narrow one driven by a combination of cost pressures on the Science Museum Group (mostly being resolved by cutting the budgets of its three Northern museums) and the in-built bias towards London.

The actual decision was taken - without engaging with stakeholders in Bradford so far as I can tell - back in July 2015 with the time since then presumably spent thrashing out the details with the V&A. I don't know when the second decision, sacking the Bradford International Film Festival, was taken but it's announcement in the same week at the RPS collection decision suggests either a similar timetable or else a desire to get all the bad news out in one week. And now the museum, from being to go-to place for the culture of photography, film and TV, has become a mere adjunct of the science museum proper, a place of buttons and levers dedicated solely to showing off science stuff rather than curating the artifacts and the content of these classic media.

What's missing - from the V&A as well as the Science Museum - is any sense of the damage these decisions are doing to Bradford as a city. London is awash with film festivals whereas Bradford had just three - all now gone or under threat. All killed off by the narrowing of the National Media Museum's focus and by the blind ignorance of that London elite running the museums. The closure of a gallery or reconfiguration of a museum in London may be agitating but it does little real damage to that city's arts and culture infrastructure. Here in Bradford - just as almost everywhere in the North - the decisions made by the Science Museum to withdraw from involvement in culture has left a raw, bloody gash in the UK's only UNESCO City of Film.

It's true that Bradford people will pick themselves up, will gather together and put what pressure they can on government, on the Arts Council on the museums. And maybe a few conciliatory crumbs will come our way as a result, doubtless loudly trumpeted by those London institutions as great news for poor old Bradford. Of a considered approach to that bloody gash in Bradford's cultural life there will be none. The big arts and culture institutions won't set up a group to work on mending the wound their decisions have made, instead they'll spin what little (and it is vanishingly tiny) they've done until such a time as the national media stop taking any notice.

Even more, without some sort of big stick from government there's no way for us 'stakeholders' in Bradford's culture to influence the decisions made by that rich London-based elite that makes the decisions about how England's arts and culture infrastructure should be developed. I'd like them to visit Bradford - let us ask some questions of them. Not just about why everything has to be in London but about how they can support those of us who want to create a cultural heart for the North of England, who want to see the arts infrastructure developed and who are fed up with being supplicants to grand men and women in London who have - as we've seen in Bradford - the power to thoughtlessly tear great chunks from the cultural life of Northern cities.