Will Gompertz on the arts, museum closures and THAT hairdo
“I don’t think I would have got my job without my hair.”
Not many people can say that with any conviction. Michael Bolton? Sure. Limahl from Kajagoogoo? Definitely. Everyone in Bon Jovi. And the young lad who served me in PC World this morning. He had the most extraordinary barnet I’ve ever seen. It seemed impolitic to take a photo but if I describe it as an unholy alliance between Donald Trump, Whitney Houston in the I Wanna Dance With Somebody video and Anish Kapoor’s Olympic Park sculpture then you’ll have some approximation of what I was looking at.
Then there’s Will Gompertz. For the past six years, Gompertz has been the BBC‘s arts editor. His flowing blond locks, which are apt to take on a life of their own if there’s a breath of wind, make him one of the most distinctive presenters on the Beeb. And there can’t be many broadcasters – particularly of the male variety – who are asked about their hair in interviews.
When I speak to Gompertz about his new 5 live show on the arts, he brings the subject up first.
“Heat Map is a topical arts show that’s very much in a 5 live vibe so it will be fun. The ambition is to deliver a cross between Andrew Neil’s programme This Week and a dash of David Letterman thrown in. It’s me and three presenter friends discussing the week’s arts news. So for example we might do a feature on hair looking at Donald Trump’s hair, Boris’s hair and my hair and the notion of where hair fits in culture. I don’t think I would have got my job without my hair.”
While it’s unlikely that a trip to the barber’s would strip Gompertz of any Samson-like powers, it’s true that his appointment as arts editor back in 1999 raised a few eyebrows. He was expelled from school at 16, had no previous journalistic experience (Gompertz’s job prior to the BBC was as director of Tate Media at the Tate) and had once described himself as “talentless”. However, he had worked in the arts since he was 18-years-old (starting with jobs such as stage hand at Sadler’s Wells) and founded a successful visual arts publication at the age of 25.
Now Gompertz is a highly respected arts commentator who, during the course of his 5 live show, will write a strategy for saving opera “because the English National Opera has got dwindling audiences, it’s become very conservative – what is it that makes opera so conservative, so detached?”.
Joining him on the show will be journalist Camilla Long, the comedian James Acaster and Paula Byrne “who is a brilliant Scouse academic who specialises in Jane Austen. And so we will pick through the week’s news and there will be a feature as well. We’ll look at things like old formats and the rise of VHS as collectibles. A pristine copy of Raising Arizona on VHS is now worth a lot of money.”
While I ruminate on my decision in the noughties to donate all my video tapes to charity shops, Gompertz adds: “The objective is to break down the barriers between high art and low art and treat it as everyday life. But we’ll be doing it with a light touch and with a twinkle in our eyes at all times.”
That’s the thing about Gompertz, he is a twinkly presence on screen. Accessible and informed, engaging and not afraid to make a tit of himself, there’s a lot more to him than his uncanny resemblance to Bill Nighy. I’m interested in what he thinks about the wholesale closure of museums across the North of England.
“My thoughts are, what on earth is going on? There needs to be a serious look at the disparity in funding between the capital and the rest of the country. Are there not mechanisms which could be put in place which would support the regional museums without the budgets that the London museums enjoy? Or the ability to raise private finance that would support an eco-system which made sure that they not only survive but thrive?”
He adds: “It has to be turned around. You can’t leave towns and cities bereft of culture in the 21st century. And everybody has to try and work out a solution because as we speak the V&A is expanding, the Tate’s got a massive £250 million extension which is in the final stages of being built, the Design Museum is going to a huge new space in London. And there are arguments about having a new concert hall in London. You’ve got all this going on and on the other side of the coin you’ve got museums with leaking roofs, with terrible facilities and some which are closing. It just seems to me inappropriate and just signals bad planning and strategic naivety. There’s clearly money knocking about but is it being spent correctly?”
In addition to the outcry over museum and gallery closures north of the Watford Gap, the decision to move the photography collection of Bradford’s National Media Museum to the V&A has been reviled as ‘vandalism’. Under plans announced in February, some 400,000 objects from the world-famous Royal Photographic Society collection will be shifted permanently to London. What does Gompertz make of this?
“I think it’s odd that there wasn’t an open process. I’m not close enough to it to know whether the decision is ultimately the right or wrong decision but I do think there should have been a public process so all options were openly discussed, aired and people could contribute to a discussion.”
Quite so. And with that thought I reluctantly bid farewell to Will Gompertz. He once said that cutting his hair shorter makes it look like a pair of headphones and cropping it makes him look aggressive, so “this is the least worst it can be.” Don’t change a thing Mr Gompertz, don’t change a thing.
To listen to previous episodes of Will Gompertz’s Heat Map on BBC iPlayer, click here
Heat Map is on Sunday evenings on BBC 5 live at 7.30pm
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Thought for the Day: What's E.T. short for? Because he's only got little legs.