Wednesday, 2 November 2016




I visited the New Art Gallery in Walsall recently and was disturbed to hear that its continued existence is threatened. It wasn’t the fact of the art works having to be rehoused, an expensive and insurance-demanding exercise, since the Garman Ryan collection is housed in several small rooms on the ground floor and could be found a site elsewhere, but the vast empty walls and spaces the gallery contains and the sheer expense of maintaining such large heated spaces. What will happen to them?

The building won awards for the architects Caruso St John and cost 21 million to build. Much of this was public funding. It opened in Jan 2000, so it was very much a Millenium project. Sixteen years later it seems set to close, or change from a gallery into – what?  
When I visited there were thirty staff employed, they told me, which outnumbered the visitors by three to one. We visited midweek, during a school holiday, and all the people there seemed to be in the coffee shop. In the atrium, a vast, unused space, I had a feeling the place was already closing down. The architects made a feature of the lofty proportions of their design but I saw only a huge waste of space.
The exhibits occupy only a tiny amount of the wall and exhibition space. Cosy it’s not, but I didn’t expect that. I did expect to be able to find my way round the galleries, and was irritated to find that the stair bypasses the second-floor gallery (or was it the first floor?)
Either way, I found it confusing and impersonal, under used and having little to say to the local population. I’m told that students do use it, and so they should, for the Garman-Ryan collection alone, which has some very fine Epsteins as well as Sally Ryan’s beautiful bronzes and artifacts from all over the world. It also contains work by Freud, Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Modigliani, Turner, and Degas among others.

But it needs more. The atrium is underused, I’d say, and maybe health and safety would object to items suspended from the ceiling, but surely a mobile or two or a neon installation might make the place seem less dead.   Minimalism has had its day, I’d say. Let’s bring a bit of life back to Art – maybe even humour, texture, content – and see what happens. I saw nothing there that would make me want to come back for a second look, beyond the central collection. 
I hope this white elephant can be saved from the knacker’s yard, but I fear the worst.

HUBRIS and its companion, LITOST

HUBRIS   and its companion,  LITOST

Radio 4 had an excellent item on hubris today, exploring how the mighty and self important people of the world;  those with an unshakeable belief and confidence in themselves and their power,  create empires, structures and monuments to their own pride.    Sadat's statue, Trump Tower, Nicolae Ceausescu's palace, a referendum that you rashly believe will give you the result you want; these are outstanding monuments to hubris, and are doomed to fail in the end.  Their enemies rejoice at this, naturally.  Looking at this from another viewpoint, the hubris that needs to create this personal empire is often that of a person with basic insecurity and a need to control his environment. I say 'his' because although I can think of a few females exhibiting hubris, there aren't many. Imelda Marcos springs to mind, but that's all. 

Pride goes before a fall, the old saying tells us, and like Ozymandias' statue, ruined parts may be all that's left, as 'the lone and level sands stretch far away'  into the future. Then we are left with a mess, a mess of sort-of -academy schools, sort-of-High Speed Rail proposals, sort-of- energy solutions.

LITOST comes when the the crash comes. It's a Czech word for the feeling you have when a miserable, shaming loss of face is experienced when plans go badly wrong.  We experience it at second hand when we witness a powerful world leader being made to account for his actions in The Hague, or leaving Downing Street in a hurry. It's not pleasant to witness, even taking into account what the Germans call Schadenfreude, or pleasure in another's downfall. But it's human.

Loss of face and shame have to be carefully handled, I believe, since they accompany emotions of loss, anger and a desire for revenge. How you treat your enemies may be more important than how you treat your friends in the long run.

Something to ponder on there.