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Second thoughts on the value of the arts

04 April, 2019 — By John Gulliver

Young people who took part in creative workshops at The Arts Gallery

THIS shuttered building wouldn’t catch your eye, I am sure, but it once echoed to the excited voices of young teenagers – many from crowded homes in a built-up area – discovering the magical world of music and the visual arts. They couldn’t wait to work on their canvases, water paints, comic illustrations and graffiti.

Then council officials told the famous art charity that ran the “pop up” for after-school courses for more than 200 children that they had to pay a commercial rent, thought to be £10,000 a year – or close down.

So, last September the shutters came down on the project in Queen’s Crescent.

Council officials, as well as councillors prob­ably saw it in isolation as a place where the income from a commercial rent trumped any other perceived social need.

But all this, you may think, is just another ordinary tale of red tape and muddled paperwork at the Town Hall, set against a background of a cash-strapped authority trying to balance the books.

However, this is also a story with a happy ending because pressure from local residents and councillor Jenny Mulholland has made the council change its mind.

And in a fortnight’s time the doors of this unique project are due to open again, though it will have less space.

What made the council think again – especially, I gather, its leader Georgia Gould? Fear of the growing culture of knife crime, rising crime rates in the Kentish Town area – and the realisation that a project such as the one known as the Sir Hubert von Herkomer Arts Foundation was too good to lose.

Coincidence or not, Debbie Clark, chief executive of the Arts Foundation, told me yesterday that while the project was open from April to September last year knife crime fell in the area.

Minds at the Town Hall were concentrated this week following the murder on Monday evening of a 22-year-old man in Grafton Road just a few hundred yards from the project that stands opposite Queen’s Cres­cent. Attacked by several hooded and masked men, he was knifed to death in a busy street.

Violent crime isn’t a stranger to this part of Kentish Town. In the past few weeks there has been an attack involving a machete and two shoot­ings. People in the neigh­bourhood are shocked.

Words came painfully to one elderly man who had heard shouting in Grafton Road and minutes later saw the body of the dying youngster, people trying to help him, and all of it taking place in minutes before the police arrived. “I was just four or five feet from him . . . it was terrible,” he said.

The campaign to reopen the project drew in residents and activists across the area but it wouldn’t have succeeded if the circumstances hadn’t been right.

Letters flew between Debbie Clark and the council, meetings with officials were held, residents made their opinions heard.

A few weeks ago, the Gospel Oak Labour Party branch sent a letter to council leader Georgia Gould imploring her to help give new life to the project which has now been closed for eight months. Next week members are expected to debate the question at a branch meeting.

On Tuesday councillors, led by Georgia Gould, descended on the area, aware that the surge of knife crime is creating a crisis.

Residents are bound to be pleased that the project – named after a famous 19th-century German artist, Hubert von Herkomer, who came from a poor family – has been saved but equally many may wonder why it took eight months for the council to do a U-turn in such a crime-ridden area.

No sociologist or political thinker would say the provision of a youth facility such as this one can on its own change the face of Queen’s Crescent but few can doubt it opened up new worlds and opportunities for youngsters.

Meanwhile, fear is spreading across the area following the murder in Grafton Road.

A resident told me he was advising neighbours to keep children at home in the evenings: “They come and ask me: How can we fix this? They’re frantic. It’s dangerous here especially in the evening.”

To fix it, we need, among other initiatives, more projects like the Sir Hubert von Herkomer.

Man who inspired the Arts Foundation

Hubert von Herkomer, self-portrait circa 1880

THE man who inspired the creation of the Arts Foundation would have been at home among the youngsters who discovered a new life at the project.

It was named after a great 19th-century German painter Hubert von Herkomer, who knew what it meant to be on the breadline. “I was constantly without money,” he said, describing his family life in Bavaria.

His parents emigrated to the US and then returned to Europe and settled in Southampton. There he studied at the local art school, worked later as an illustrator for a national newspaper but soon his reputation as a wood-engraver and portraitist spread – and honours soon followed.

Hubert von Herkomer’s painting titled On Strike, circa 1891

He was admired for his oils and watercolours. Among his paintings is one of Queen Victoria. In 1907 he was knighted.

He never forgot his poor childhood and when he set up an art school in Bushey in 1883 he made sure poor art students were helped.

Naturally, he became a prominent member of the Royal Academy of Arts and the Royal Watercolour Society. A polymath, he used to produce his own plays and musical compositions and became a pioneering film maker. He died in 1914 at the age of 64.

“He would have supported the ethos and aims of the Arts Foundation,” said its chief executive. Debbie Clark.

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