Mike White, Senior Research Fellow in Arts and Health in the Centre for Medical Humanities at Durham University, writes: The lasting damage from the recent rumpus over Durham’s acquisition of £1.25 million of artworks for its new Palatine Centre lies not in the investment in the art itself but in the public’s perception of the university.   Press and media are not referring to Palatine in its original description as a ‘student services building’, but rather as the headquarters of the university’s executive; a centralised edifice with a name unfortunately defined in my dictionary as ‘a feudal title with royal prerogatives’.  This imposing building, when now associated with the high art purchases of works by Picasso and Warhol, speaks of privilege, power and an elitist aloofness, the sort of ‘blue chip’ credentials more familiar to the boardroom of a multi-national oil company than a seat of knowledge.  The offer of guided tours by appointment of the university’s art treasures (see below) barely satisfies the notion of accessibility and open sharing with the people of the region.

It is a pity that the art commissioning strategy for Palatine, which invited several regional artists to create works specifically for the university, has been eclipsed by the conferred aggrandisement arising from the acquisition of minor works by hard-hitters of 20th century art.  In my own experience of managing public art commissions, it is crucial to promote consistently a story of public engagement in the intentions and realisation of the planned art works.  Student and union representatives should have been involved in the art selection process from the outset.  Otherwise public art becomes simply a brickbat for every dissatisfaction with the organisation’s interface with the public realm, leading to contradictory declamations like the rather ridiculous assertion from student leaders in Durham that “art is crucial…but a waste of money”.  Decision-makers have to justify not hide the expenditure by relating it to vision and mission because an institutionalised art gallery alone is not going to raise aspirations for public collaboration and knowledge transfer.

Perhaps all this bad press will revitalise the university’s aim to raise awareness of the creative ways it engages with the public through its research centres and its music department, as well as its sports facilities, museums and gardens.  In recent decades, the cathedral’s commitment to artist residencies has helped to transform the public’s perception of the role of art in society – remember, for example, the extraordinary digital media installation by Bill Viola in 1996 – and maybe the university could adopt a similar strategy of introducing art that challenges and informs rather than politely bolsters a sense of importance.

The university has boldly adopted a Per Cent For Art strategy that goes beyond the single digit but it needs to be proclaimed as a benefit to the region.  The Vice Chancellor talks on TV of the university needing to address a mix of issues in determining its spending, and environmental considerations are part of that – but an environment that speaks with a misinterpreted accent of commercial art world values is not the best way forward.

Art Tours, Palatine Centre
2pm every Wednesday from 24th April – 19th June
The Palatine Centre, Stockton Road, Durham DH1 3LE
Bookings essential


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