St David’s Day today and time to reflect on the month that was February, this year with its additional leap day.
Unfortunately, the latter part of the month saw me bed-ridden for a week with a proper dose of ‘flu. It really knocked the stuffing out of me – I still feel tired even though I’ve been out of bed slowly getting better for a week now. I seemed to suffer from every ailment in the book: cough, cold, tonsillitis, conjunctivitis, sickness, diarrhoea, bloodshot eyes – very miserable. University work has suffered as I haven’t read or written anything and had to postpone my supervision.
But perhaps it was because I spent the first part of February rushing around like a lunatic, not only with domestic things (new bathroom fitting), and the commute to Leicester, but of course also with museum and gallery visits and exhibitions.
And spectacular exhibitions they were too… I arranged two visits for PhD colleagues from Leicester to come to Sheffield and visit Weston Park Museum, the Graves Gallery and the Millennium Gallery. WPM currently has a wonderful touring exhibition from the British Museum: China, Journey to the East. I think I’d already seen it in York, but I loved the objects and was reminded of some of the ivories in Sheffield’s collection, as well as seeing many things from the BM, Manchester Museum and other places – in particular a piece of the Great Wall of China complete with paper label and hand-written notes from Ancoats (I think). I liked the interactive elements – a Chinese Zodiac puppet show, and some great old film footage, and interesting Chinese musical instrument sounds. At the Graves, whose parque floor was terribly damaged by water, and had risen so much that Marc Quinn’s ‘Kiss’ had had to be moved elsewhere down the gallery, there was the Blk Art Group exhibition – not my cup of tea, but I was pleased to see it so busy with diverse visitors. I was also struck by how much the gallery had acquired during the 1980s – a shame that there’s no longer the budget for new works to be collected. The Family in British Art was on at the Millennium Gallery – a great show, part of the Great British Art Debate, and curated by the wonderful team from Norwich (who developed the Art at the Rockface exhibition I worked on a few years ago). The Under the Sea show in the Gallery of Craft & Design was fun too – full of families.
I suppose I should reflect a little here on Museums Sheffield’s situation: having not been selected to be recipients of the new Renaissance funding from ACE, they are having to make tough cuts – 45 job losses expected, with exhibitions and education being particularly badly hit. It is devastating for the city and for all those staff who work so passionately to bring the collections to life for visitors. I can’t say that I am surprised though: the region is incredibly ‘well-museumed’: York and Leeds (who were successful) have wonderful collections and do some really innovative work. Sheffield does of course too, but according to ACE lacks the financial ‘resilience’, perhaps having been sullied by over-spending and being somewhat reckless/over-ambitious/even arrogant in the recent past. There are many ironies and paradoxes at play in the (local and national) media coverage, in ACE coverage, in Museums Sheffield’s own coverage, and indeed in my own opinion – while I think ‘I could have told you so’ and know many others who share my views, nevertheless, I am incredibly sad for the city… It remains to be seen what will happen now the CEO and Finance Director have taken voluntary redundancy. I have my hopes.
In addition to visits close to home, I also went to London to see Grayson Perry’s Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British Museum. Grayson did not disappoint. What a wonderful exhibition – humour and irony, subtle commentary (and not so subtle) on the gallery-going public, on museum collections, on collecting, on objects and their (unknown) makers. What I hadn’t realised was that GP selected objects from the British Museum which resonated with things he’d made, and not the other way around. So this was really innovative, and slightly different from the MAG project and the Arts Council/Lincolnshire ones I think: starting with the artist, not with the collection. I loved it. I laughed, explored, wondered and wandered. It was a shame there wasn’t more space, that there were far too many people, and that some objects couldn’t be seen from all angles. It could have been spread across a larger area. But on the whole, it was the cleverest showing of objects I have seen for a very long time. The book (cheaper on Amazon) has a great essay in it too. Highly recommended, and my strategy of noting at the start of the year which exhibitions I wanted to see, and writing the closure date in my diary, has really helped pinpoint and not miss out.
After this, I had some time when Sam had gone to his lecture, to visit the David Hockney at the Royal Academy. I hadn’t really known what to expect. I thought I might be disappointed with repetition and too much primary colour. But I was wrong. I loved this exhibition too: a bit like Monet’s insistence in following places by times and season, Hockney had painstakingly painted the same view over a year, or over a day – stunning visual sense of the English countryside. It really was the ‘Bigger Picture’ of its title – and will really make me look at trees, woods and wood anew. What I was less impressed by were his iPad paintings blown up – while these worked wonderfully on the iPads themselves – a quick impression – when enlarged and printed to full-scale, some of the immediacy of his paintwork disappeared into oblivion, leaving a 2D image, with none of the juiciness of a real 3D oil painting. I liked his films though – and the innovation with which he’d rigged up film cameras onto his landrover to get a sense of driving slowly down a country road. Very clever. His work has really grown on me. I also liked one really early painting from Cartwright Hall in Bradford (I have seen it there, I’m sure) – quite a kitchen-sinky type of landscape. I might indulge in the book, but it’s a bit pricey.
My final trip in February took place in the same week (no wonder I was ill with all this rushing about)… Temple Newsam in Leeds. An amazing council-owned and run stately home. Stunning furniture, incredibly picture gallery and library, beautifully kept, amazing wallpapers, deserted, only £3 to enter or something, bowled over by the sheer volume and number of rooms that were open to the public, by the number of small changing displays, by the clear collecting that is still taking place. Amazing. No wonder Leeds will be getting ACE funding. I was incredibly impressed, and look forward to visiting again. The farm was also fantastic: goats, sheep, pregnant donkeys. Wonderful. A really lovely family day out, and a real hidden gem in Yorkshire. I must tell more people about it.