A Deeper Look into ‘Artgate’

You are probably aware that the University has furnished the Palatine Centre and adjacent buildings with some rather expensive artwork; the £1.4 million bill has caused much home and press reaction, with the Daily Mail dubbing it a ‘spending spree’ and DSU president Archie Dallas saying that the money was “blown” on art, something which he did not deem as worthwhile as say student facilities or bursaries.

Though the cost does at first seem overwhelmingly large, it is important to look at it in context – what proportion of the University’s total expenditure are we considering (although a million pounds is a large sum to any individual, universities have significantly more to spend) and why was art chosen over other possible investments such as student amenities? In particular (something which the newspaper articles were very brief on), what artwork was purchased and how is it a benefit to the University, in particular to us, the students? How is graphic art an advantage (to the observer) in general?

According to the annual financial statement from the academic year 2010/2011, the surplus expenditure (i.e. the money to spend once staff and other operating costs have been deducted) was £16.1 million. Hence the £1.4 million, which was a one-off purchase considering that artwork is permanent and will last indefinitely, still makes up less than ten percent of the surplus money over a single year for the University. Also, the amount is small in comparison to the approximately £5 – £6 million which is spent, not once, but every year, refurbishing student accommodation and facilities; over 50 years the university might splash out £250 million pounds on new buildings and services but the expenditure will have only been of magnitude £1 million on art, something which, by its very nature, does not need updating because it captures a certain moment, or the view of the artist at a certain space and time.

Number-crunching aside, why is art worthy of even a small percentage of the University’s funds? It is sad to say, but many people simply do not notice the advantages because art takes some effort to appreciate.

But once you get the knack of interpreting and assessing, it becomes obvious that art is more than mere decoration; it can communicate things which cannot otherwise be perceived, such as another person’s imaginative thoughts or their experiences, it can entertain by telling a story and it can be thought-provoking, challenging you to utilise your creativity in order to look at it in different ways and questioning your discernment of beauty and ugliness. In a university environment, students are hopefully, in general, aiming to expand their minds and to learn new things – investigating art does this in a similar way to reading a book. Indeed, it can give us an insight into other times, places and cultures, especially before the age of photography.

There is plenty of evidence of such benefits in the artwork that was purchased. Sandra Blow’s work employs geometric shapes to force us to reconsider balance and proportion and ‘The Sphere of Redemption’ by Fay Pomerance tells us the tale of the angel Lucifer in the form of an intricate storm of colour painted onto a globe. The history of an entire continent is hidden within the wooden sculptures and other works of the African collection.

Of course, art is an umbrella term and not all items that are referred to as “art” may be worthy of being purchased by the university. Ideally, there would be a diverse selection of all styles and forms of art, however we need to bear in mind that some pieces, such as those by Picasso or Warhol (artists whose work was in fact purchased) or other so-called ‘greats’, are very expensive compared to the rest. Durham boasts “the leading collection of 20th century art of any university in the UK” which suggests that there is an emphasis on modern art. Another issue is the placement; nobody can appreciate visual art if they can’t see it and unfortunately some of the art has been positioned on upper-floors and in rooms where it is only accessible on weekly tours (but luckily these tours are free.)

Is the £1.4 million art purchase justified? For someone who can appreciate the merit of art and has been doing so for much of my life, I believe that the spend was largely worthwhile, assuming we all take the time to consider it. However I can identify that there are many people who do not put as much value on art and for whom the money will have been better spent on, say, accommodation. Accordingly, here is the advice I would give the University: spend money only on artwork by local artists that celebrates the surrounding area and art from other cultures and ages that educates us, avoiding those very costly pieces by long-dead Western masters that belong in art galleries. Then display these works all around the University for students and staff to enjoy instead of hiding some of them away in a select few buildings and on upper floors where they can only be seen on a booking-only weekly tour. By doing this, not only would the University need to forfeit a much smaller amount of its funds towards visual art, but students, staff and visitors would get to see the pieces, react to them and hopefully, as they come to appreciate the value of art for themselves, not be as quick to dismiss it as worthless.

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