Thursday, 11 September 2008

Art and recession

This is "stodgy" Cheltenham House (Pevsner's description), in Clarence Street, Cheltenham. "Offices to let" signs are up; and despite it being mid-afternoon of a weekday (today), no traffic is to be seen along this, the Cheltenham inner ring road. Yes, we are in a recession.

Built in 1972 for the HQ of what was then the Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society, Cheltenham House cruelly conceals the town's only mediaeval building, the neglected and not-at-all-stodgy St Mary's Church. Barbara Hepworth's sculpture Theme and Variations, attached to Cheltenham House, provides some compensation for this: it is Cheltenham's most prestigious (though hardly most conspicuous) piece of public art.

The C&G left Cheltenham for Barnwood, near Gloucester, abour two decades ago, since when parts of Cheltenham House seem to have been more or less continuously vacant. What hope is there now, therefore, that someone will ring DTZ to say "Yes please, I would like to become your new office tenant," as the advertising boards invite us to do?

Actually, I feel that Pevsner is a bit hard on Cheltenham House: I rather like the building's gentle curve, its ashlar facing and copper-coloured window trim: it's just in the wrong place. And those five hideous posters completely overpower Theme and Variations.

And so does recession compromise art. It puts artists and craftsmen out of work: commissions are stalled, even cancelled. There is less ready money to ensure great works of art - particularly historic buildings - can be adequately maintained. Craftsmen builders, picture restorers, musicians all find their skills untreasured.

The paradox is that recession brings unemployment, meaning more time for those who, having lost mindless but well-paid jobs, seek to develop hidden talents by creating new works of art, notwithstanding there may be no present market for it. And doesn't hardship so often bring out the best?

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