The British artist Ian Berry, formerly known as Denimu, was born in Netherton in 1984 and has built an international reputation working exclusively with denim and in 2013 was listed as one of the world’s most influential artists by US magazine Art Business News.
Having seen the argument raging over whether to sell Kirklees’ Francis Bacon painting, he felt compelled to write this open letter.
I understand there will be different views, opinions and passions on both sides - and good arguments can be put forward either way. When I first saw the story about the painting I’ll admit there was an initial outrage. Then, away from the headlines, I realised that it’s there for discussion and, unlike previously, it is suggested any money made from a sale could be spent on preserving or, I wish, enhancing the cultural good of Kirklees. This has not quite yet swayed me; while I don’t begrudge those with strong reasons to sell, I totally, really understand.
I’d lose any argument that was ‘this money could help save lives and provide public services and that it’s only a painting’. However, is that really the question or the choice? Is it just the black and white financial aspect of what it could bring in that one time and what it could pay for? We’ll always have keyboard warriors and individuals wanting to make political points. Too many people in our day and age base opinions on little information or reflection.
But I make this point, and it may go over many people because it is very hard to quantify:
What does it say about us? What does it say about the town/area? Over the last years I have certainly thought about the messages coming out from people in authority in Huddersfield and, via many of the comments I see in forums, how people see art and culture in the area. I seem to remember that Huddersfield wanted to be labelled a ‘creative town’. I was turned off from coming back to have an exhibition there, I’ll admit, because of this same debate a couple of years ago. Perhaps people need more art and it needs to be felt to be accessible to more. A positive sidenote on this latest debate is that more people now know ‘we’ have this Bacon in ‘our’ collection.
My main point is that it isn’t just about the obvious financial aspect of this - what it could sell for - it’s the hidden cost. Already I have seen articles in the national and international press referring to ‘cash-strapped council’ and ‘another northern town’. Is this how we want to be spoken about? Let me not gloss over this: people outside our area rarely know its good points and that is a crying shame. I get the impression many think we all still work in t’mill and almost imagine the area in black and white. This sale (and more so if it reached the higher amount) would be spoken of around the world. Seriously, it would. Is this the way ‘brand Huddersfield’ or ‘brand Kirklees’ wants to be seen?
(Yes, I hear you cry. Who cares about the brand if people are struggling?)
Let me put it another way. Before the Olympics the naysayers looked directly at the costs of it. Afterwards, and after the success of it, we heard more of the term ‘soft power’, and ‘brand London’ and ‘brand UK’ gained a lot from it. It is hard to quantify just how much it gained, but it did. Selling the Bacon painting could have a negative effect on our area’s soft power. What financial impact could that have? Will a pre-conceived image of the town be formed by articles about selling off the family silver? Will it affect business decisions, relocating or coming to Kirklees? Will it affect out of town visitors? The currency of soft power is culture and politics. To use another example, it’s like a town with a premiership football team being regarded as better than one in the third division. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Hull has started to thrive with the fortunes improving on the pitch. You can name many more places, but when wanting to attract business to an area, the initial image is good: “Oh, yeah. I read about your town. You were bankrupt or something, weren’t you?” Hardly a success story.
I see other stories about having a new gallery space in the town centre, which would be great as long as it isn’t a compromise, a half-hearted job. Look at what art has done for Wakefield, or Margate with the new Turner Contemporary. Then there is the amount of people who tell me they’ve been to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. These are people who come from far away from the region to visit.
It’s not just in the UK, I saw first-hand how culture brought a declining Newcastle, Australia, back to life. It’s now a thriving, cool town. It’s the same story in so many places. I know San Francisco well and it was the artists that kept the city going and brought new life to it, Now the tech money is there and they are having to move out. But rather than allow empty, run-down places the creatives kept things moving and exciting, not empty and boarded up. This brings other business in and then more business, and therefore jobs and prosperity.
I’ll be honest, as a possible target to be labelled ‘Londoncentric metropolitan elite’ as I’m not there on a day to day basis in the area, I actually see things changing from London. People are moving out of London, especially the creatives. It is the creatives that made London what it is in many ways and without them it will be much less of a city. Artists are looking at other places to move to and I really do hope they spread out; we need a stronger country, not just London. Creatives take over empty places taking advantage of cheap rent (think the state of Huddersfield high street) but with so much good things starting to happen in the north there could actually be something in doing things to attract young creatives to the area. I know artists have moved to Birmingham and Manchester and Leeds. Why not Kirklees?
We are surrounded by amazing places and beautiful scenery. We have amazing listed buildings with cheap rents (compared to many places) and great factory buildings. We should encourage creativity, not look down on it.
Imagine a new gallery in Huddersfield, with Figure Study II, the Lowrys, the Henry Moore taking centre stage with a contemporary art space showing new work. Something fresh would bring people in. These pieces are an envy to many other places and there is a reason why the Bacon could be worth so much! The council would certainly not be able to buy it. After selling it, would they have another artist willing to donate their work?
Then there is the issue of whether the council is allowed to sell it or not. As far as I know it isn’t. The painting is secured by a restrictive covenant that allegedly prevents it from being sold and if it was the council could lose accreditation and also Arts Council funding. Do we want to be classed with Bury or Northampton?
Francis Bacon was one of the leading artists of the 20th century. Our area has a piece in its collection. Let’s celebrate it. I remember going into the art gallery as a 12-year-old, looking at a piece of work and saying to an assistant, ‘Is that the real thing?’ They said, ‘Of course. All the work is.’ I was amazed to be standing in front of it, there in Huddersfield. Everything has a price but what price is there in inspiring our next generation?
As if I haven’t said enough, I truly believe a bigger issue with this is the branding of our area. For one thing I’m grateful for is that the national press articles shamed KIRKLEES. Nobody knows where that is! It is a stupid name and it is wrong we have been lumped all together. And I know this full well knowing that it was Batley that was given this painting. The title ‘Kirklees’ dilutes our names and that of the heavy woollen towns too. We should have a Huddersfield Council, a place people have heard of and can point to on the map. I feel the council has to compromise over all the towns. We need to bring back a lot of civic pride.
Yes, people first. We need to make sure everyone is able to be living in a better society, but short termism isn’t the only way. As a town and an area we need to work out ways to help it be more prosperous and successful, making everyone’s lives better. Better for the next generations. Those same people who are wanting to sell it now will possibly be the same people to criticise the council for selling it in 20 years’ time when it is worth £150 million.
I’m not blasting the council for talking about it, far from it. It is an interesting discussion. I feel too many people slam councils and those in authority and judge everyone too quickly, even though mistakes are made. I don’t know the ins and outs of it, or even how much the insurance is but what about giving local businesses the chance to sponsor things, bringing in different companies and events? A local success story is the football club and how they work with local and regional businesses and connect people. Perhaps this has already been talked about.
And as a footnote, the debate about selling the Francis Bacon painting has helped my own feelings and thoughts. I said earlier about not wanting to come back a few years ago for an exhibition because there didn’t seem to be the energy or appetite toward the arts. I’m now angry towards myself, I have worked with schools and even TV shows for young people and this is what I am interested in. I have seen first-hand how I have gone in and helped to bring an interest in art to kids. So what if you don’t get the crowds you get in capital cities? If I can do something for the town I am so proud of, even if it was to give one little kid from Netherton a belief of what is possible, then it would be worth it.