Victorian Futures: Culture, Democracy and the State on the Road to Olympicopolis

On 14 and 15 May 2015 CCW Graduate School, School of Art and Design Middlesex University and the Victoria and Albert Museum will be collaborating on the conference Victorian Futures: Culture, Democracy and the State on the Road to Olympicopolis, held in the Edwardian Rooms at Chelsea College of Arts.

Speaking as one of the conference organisers, Malcolm Quinn, Associate Dean of Research and Director of CCW Graduate School, said, ‘On 29 January 2015, Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, delivered the Sackler Lecture at the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of a series of lectures given in honour of Henry Cole, the founder of the V&A.  In his speech, the Mayor referred to the proposed development of “Olympicopolis”, an arts, education, science and technology quarter in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, as part of the legacy of the 2012 Olympics. University of the Arts London, the V&A and other partners are included in the proposed Olympicopolis development. The word Olympicopolis combines the Olympic Park with a historical reference to “Albertopolis”, the cluster of cultural and academic institutions in South Kensington that was established on a site purchased with the profits of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Prince Albert was the patron of the Great Exhibition and Henry Cole led on its organization and management. Following the success of the Great Exhibition, Cole was asked to “Direct the Art of the Country” as the head of the government Department of Practical Art.

Victorian Futures: Culture, Democracy and the State on the Road to Olympicopolis will examine the intellectual history of the Olympicopolis project, from 1832 to the present and beyond. This conference has been developed by myself, Anne Massey, Professor in Design at Middlesex University and Professor Bill Sherman, Head of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  My own work on this conference has been developed from research that engages with ideas that were foundational for state funded art education in England – utility, taste, wellbeing, cultural prejudice and social equity.  The conference brings together the heads of major UK arts institutions, national cultural leaders, curators, arts practitioners and arts policy makers with academics and doctoral students in art and design. It will begin by examining the national programmes for the elevation of taste and “the education of the eyes of the people” that immediately preceded the Victorian era, following the Reform Act of 1832.  This first “Victorian Future” was being mapped out by political and aesthetic reformers before Queen Victoria came to the throne on 1837.  It was further developed in Albertopolis after 1851 and it was re-imagined again a century later in the Festival of Britain 1951, when a retrospective modernity was combined with an interest in Victorian popular culture.  What were the origins of this dream of public culture and public access? Do contemporary re-imaginings of Victorian Futures connect with the pre-Victorian dream of cultural democracy? The relationship of the as yet unbuilt Olympicopolis to the still unfinished dream of Albertopolis is a strange one; they are linked iterations of a Victorian Future, which used the political landscaping of art, design, culture and industry in Britain in the service of a new settlement between the arts and the state. The Royal Festival Hall is part of the legacy of The Festival of Britain and the V&A, Science Museum, Natural History Museum and the Albert Memorial are familiar landmarks of the topography of Albertopolis, but the history of the ideas and the new ways of thinking about art, design and the state that brought these institutions into being are less well-known.  One of the main aims of our conference is to examine the deeper history of a changed relationship between the arts and the state that is being revisited on the Olympicopolis site. Henry Cole referred to this deeper history when he was made head of the Department of Practical Art: “The Department of Practical Art was formed in February 1852, for the purpose of increasing the efficiency of the Schools of Design which had been established in 1837, upon the recommendation of the Select Committee of the House of Commons, appointed in 1835.”

The Select Committee that Cole was referring to was the Select Committee on Arts and Manufactures of 1835/6, which, following the Reform Act of 1832, sought to survey and grasp the landscape of the arts, art institutions and art education in Britain and across Europe, with the aim of reconfiguring the relationship of art and the state.  The work of this Select Committee is a “source code” for the journey from the Reform Bill to Olympicopolis. Some writers have said that the work of the Select Committee, which often seemed to be groping in the dark with matters of art and culture beyond its ken, constantly provokes the question as to who was competent to make judgements concerning the arts on a national scale. I think that it is actually more important to ask how it is that the question, who is competent to judge the arts on a national scale, came to be asked at all.  For the radicals on the Committee, the introduction of “the people” or “the public” into thinking about art, design and culture put the question of competency in doubt; their claim was that the people could not rely on the institutions of art and culture as they were constituted at that time. With this question in mind, the Select Committee on Arts and Manufactures established the first state funded art school in England, the School of Design, in the first year of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1837. It is important to emphasise that what creates this new dialogue between art and the state is not so much the certainty of political reason, but a moment of doubt about the meaning of aesthetic competency within a democracy. William Ewart thought that these doubts could only begin to be addressed by a national programme of art education, the “opening of all the means by which a knowledge of the Arts was to be acquired”.

Victorian Futures begins by looking back at the middle class, anti-aristocratic radicalism of Ewart and his colleagues in the 1830s and its relationship to the work of Henry Cole and the Great Exhibition.  The next section of the conference addresses the Great Exhibition in 1851 in the light of the “Victorian Future” of the Festival of Britain in 1951.  The final section of the conference has the broadest historical sweep, examining the journey from 1832 to Olympicopolis in the light of the current relationship between the arts and the state.’

Book your place at the conference here.

Image: McNeven, J., The transept from the Grand Entrance, Souvenir of the Great Exhibition , William Simpson (lithographer), Ackermann & Co. (publisher), 1851, V&A

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