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Some light drizzle rudely interrupted this column’s annual foray to the south of France to view the wondrous cultural phenomenon that is Stanislas Wawrinka’s topspin backhand at the Monte Carlo Masters tennis tournament.
But help was at hand: the splendour of the Hôtel Negresco on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. The unmistakable pink-domed edifice is one of the landmarks of France’s Mediterranean coast, and seemed the perfect haven in which to spend a languorous hour waiting for the sunshine to reassert itself. I was even ready to overlook the hotel’s weirdly ungrammatical slogan, “Made in French Riviera”, in exchange for a high-end cappuccino and shelter from the storm.
Turns out that grammar was the least of my problems. I went to the reception area, where a kindly member of staff directed me to the hotel’s brasserie, La Rotonde. I jogged around the corner, only to be met by a dark-voiced Charybdis guarding her dominion with improbable zeal.
“Fermé!” she snapped at me. It was eleven o’clock in the morning. “Impossible!” I retorted, as I pointed to the dormant crocodile of my Lacoste shirt, de rigueur in these parts, and mimed that I was here for Wawrinka’s backhand (which made next to no impression, and may even have looked like an attempt at assault).
I trudged away but found fresh hope in spying another imposing building next door: the Villa Massena, complete with its own museum. I poked my head around the corner. Was there a café in the (extremely large) house? The attendant looked at me as though I had asked him to split the atom with me on the beach across the road. “A ticket?” he asked pseudo-helpfully. No, a coffee. We stared at each other for a while. I may have said something unprintable, and certainly ungrammatical. Coffee notwithstanding, I asked him if he had a brochure that explained what was in the museum. He gave me a contemptuous shrug of the shoulders and a curt “Non”.
The crocodile and I left the house and walked forlornly away, unloved, unwanted. They took me by surprise, these sullen reactions. I guess the seemingly inelastic demand for luxury hotels means that they can afford to behave imperiously; indeed, it may even be that such hotels are one of the last bastions of shamelessly non-democratic behaviour in a world that is filling itself with a brand of nouvelle-richesse that was not even dreamt of just a couple of decades ago. But a place of culture?
Without wishing to sound chauvinistic, it is, in my experience, inconceivable for an arts institution in Britain today to behave with anything that smacks of high-handedness. Such has been the near-obsessive concern with the democratisation and accessibility of culture in recent years that it is almost taken for granted. Here is What we now expect: coffee bars, souvenir shops, outreach programmes, interactive spaces, digital strategies, and a degree of politesse (yes, a French word) among customer servicestaff that is, mostly, a genuine pleasure to behold.
Far from making visitors feel uncomfortable, it is the job of today’s cultural institution to reach out to the public in new ways. On June 3, there will be a live broadcast to about 100 UK cinemas, as well as 30 worldwide, of Tate Modern’s new blockbuster exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, following similar initiatives based on the 2012 Leonardo exhibition at London’s National Gallery and last year’s British Museum show on Pompeii.
When you reach out, people reach back in unpredictable ways. The promotional trailer by the British Museum on its current Vikings exhibition is being satirised, I learnt this week, by the Reclaim Shakespeare Company, an environmental group that objects to the exhibition’s being sponsored by BP. Mildly embarrassing for the oil company and for the museum; but terrific for the rest of us, to see important ethical debates bursting out into new and lively forums that can be freely accessed by millions. It is the sign of a robust and confident cultural landscape.
It was only a matter of time, of course, before artists began to comment on this very relationship between the public and private domains of culture. The latest piece of street art by Banksy, “Mobile Lovers”, which appeared in a doorway near Bristol’s Broad Plain Boys’ Club earlier this month, has been the subject of a fascinating tussle between the club and the city council, which has installed it in the Bristol City Museum.
Where does it really belong? Will it end up in an auction house? Banksy is keeping his counsel, understanding that the proprietorial riddles he sets us are a far more sophisticated comment on the world than the rather trite points he makes in the artworks themselves. When art bleeds into the streets, it asks the most important questions of all: Whom should culture belong to? What is it trying to say to us? And where can I get a coffee while I think about it?
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