Covent Garden, the Southbank, the National Theatre, the Tate Modern. The British capital is a microcosm of artistic talent and cultural immersion, full to the brim with creative juices. London is the go-to place for British culture. It is no surprise then, that a recent investigation conducted by Countryfile revealed that the funding allocated to London by England’s art fund sits at a sizeable £18 per head; the cultural machine is well-fuelled by government subsidy.
There is no denying it, Londoners have a wealth of resources at their finger-tips, poised and ready for any number of artistic experiences. Yet, whilst nearly 9 million of England’s 55 million inhabitants reside in the capital, the 12 million who live in rural areas are being left high and dry. The England Arts Council allocates £5.50 per head to those living in the English countryside. Although London’s artistic heritage is prolific, its monopoly on cultural excursions is a persistent reality. Albeit steps are being made, such as the rampant success of National Theatre Live, but even then, not all cinemas are reached, and a number of communities are left untouched by the superb theatre this country has to offer.
The renowned performance artist, Marina Abramović, puts it this way; “Art must be life – it must belong to everybody”. Art should be democratic, accessible to all, created by all. Rural communities make up a comprehensive chunk of the English population, yet the recognition of this fact within the English cultural landscape is evidently lacking. Yes, life in pastures green moves at a slower pace to the urban existence. Some would say there is more time to think and consider, away from the pressure of an environment that moves at break-neck speed. Art is perhaps a good escape route from the pressurised excitement of city dwelling.
Regardless, pastoral communities thrive when engaged with an artistic cause. Take the village panto as a prime example, bringing people from all ages and walks of life under the same roof to share in the same experience. Or even the local library, the town gallery or a community arts and crafts group, all serve a magnanimous purpose in encouraging collective growth, development and wellbeing. They provide creative outlets for young talent, important opportunities for educational growth and a safe haven of imagination for the elderly, the disabled or the lonely. An increase in arts funding to rural communities is essential.
Hampshire Cultural Trust has recognised the benefits of a cultural purpose around which the community can gather to foster a united sense of collective inspiration. Between 5 July and 29 September, Hampshire’s county town, Winchester, will play host to a marvellous exercise in artistic democratisation. The Sistine Chapel, one of the most revered works of art, created by one of Italy’s most prodigious artists is now readily available to the people of Hampshire and the surrounding areas. The chapel’s spectacular decor has been photographed and reproduced in high-resolution with fragments of the immense artwork housed over three venues across the city. A visit to the exhibition leaves one with an abundance of knowledge, from the brush strokes, to the vibrant colours or the intricate details drawn together to form the chapel’s immense narrative. The level of detail offered in this exhibition is one a visit to the authentic chapel could never afford.
The exhibition has brought the wonders of the Sistine Chapel to a vaster, wider and more diverse audience. Although Winchester itself is not inherently rural, the surrounding area plays host to a number of pastoral towns and villages, now with access to one of the greatest masterpieces in European art. Instantly the wonders of the Sistine Chapel are accessible to those who – for a wide range of reasons – may not have been able to travel to the Vatican to see the spectacular frescos painted over 600 years ago. The chapel has been transferred from its pedestal of high-brow virtuosity and is freely available to a denser, more diverse plethora of opinions. Relocated from Rome to Winchester, its influence becomes even more tangible.
The British countryside deserves more of these exhibitions. Why not take Picasso’s Guernica to the Yorkshire Dales or Klimt’s the Kiss to the Isle of Skye? Art is not something that should be confined to the city or to the urban way of life. Travelling to London, to Rome or to Paris should not be a mandatory condition of the observation and participation in extraordinary works of art. The British Arts Council, now more than ever, must provide an equal spread of opportunities regardless of location. As Samuel West conveyed, particularly poignantly in a dialogue with Countryfile, art “brings us together and it makes us happier, healthier and more human.” So, why should that humanity be confined to the city? Let’s bring it out to all four corners of this green and pleasant land.