A bonfire of the vanities: is resilience & sustainability in the arts simply adding new fuel to old fires?

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There are three distinct perspectives about how to sustain systems: make existing structures stronger through a myriad of methods of organisational change; support the development of a limited number of new organisations who will either gently become part of the existing structures or quietly fail; or, like obsolete power stations, demolish the old monolithic structures to make way for a new wave.

The first option is safest.  It’s also a consultant’s dream where endless new changes can be steadily implemented in the hope of encouraging adaptability, mining new philanthropic pockets, securing firm investments, selling like a commercial business and becoming resilient to fickle futures.  It’s about sustaining the system as it currently exists by making the organisations restructure, remodel and rethink their missions. Done well, this can be really positive and new partnerships can arise (although often between other similar organisations.) But it can lead to protectionism, maintaining the status quo and staleness. This approach is a bit like building higher walls, digging a deeper moat and drawing up the gates. It is a siege mentality. Those outside will not survive or will go elsewhere.

Encouraging some new start ups can also be positive. It adds a new little wall around the old wall whilst it is repaired and improved. Trouble is that there can be a tendency to be a bit different from the long-standing organisations but still follow the same models and modes of working as them.  This is partly because there is still a ‘toolkit’ mentality where best is… well… ‘best practice’.  Blueprints, road maps, mentoring, knowledge-sharing, time banking, etc. etc. are all useful for many new (and existing) organisations to collaborate and improve their chances of conserving their positions whilst ‘helping’ new start ups following in their ways – become like them.  The trouble is the old order will support this process safe in the knowledge that they will not (often) be threatened by these little newcomers and will (often) speak on their behalf, maintaining some form of hierarchy.  This is sustainability with a degree of ‘selected openness’ – a managed form of conservation which recognises the need for ‘expanding the stock’ – like planting new forests using tried and tested species.

And these first two perspectives form today’s dominant mode of thought about sustaining the arts in the UK today.  Often supported by central and local government initiatives, Higher Education institutions and especially by new consortia agreements and partnership working between organisations.  It is certainly true that organisational sustainability can be improved by restructuring, sharing resources, joint fundraising, cost-cutting, partnering up, collaboration, increasing philanthropic support, attempting to better measure values, supporting new start ups using old models, etc. etc. but this is sustaining systems that grew up in a different era and have developed into complex organisations that cannot change quickly.  I understand that it is important to have a range of arts providers from individuals to large organisations and to have a mix of new and established organisations and individuals involved in the arts but I see many of today’s attempts to make the arts (and social change) sustainable as inherently unsustainable.  This is because many of those driving ‘change’ want slow, coherent, thoughtful, careful change.  Leaders of many organisations want to maintain hierarchies where artists, audiences, participants, communities – in other words individual people – are at the bottom of a pecking order.  This is natural.  This is how they were created and it worked and still works and should continue to work.  But leaders perhaps need to remember they have a social mission in which they are working for everyone to enjoy art rather than to safeguard institutional wellbeing.

But there needs to be space for new ways of working and this is brings me onto a third way of thinking about sustainability.  This approach is about accepting life cycles.  Old fires will eventually die out.  Adding new fuel to them can keep them going but not indefinitely.  New fires in new places can be worrying – they may spread – they may get out of control!  But I am not suggesting anarchic arson here.  No bonfire of the vanities.  But starting different fires can bring renewal to every part of a system (dare I say ‘ecosystem’).  Indeed, this is how many of today’s established organisations began – as one time radicals who introduced new ways of working.  Obviously, there are many different ways in which new approaches to arts and society can develop and some may be highly threatening and completely unsustainable – further unbridled neoliberalism being a prime example.  This is not what I mean.  I am talking about new ways of working that involve everyone and are for everyone; that do what people want; that might help support and build communities from within.  This is not audience development, this is true participation.  It is a way of being and doing that shares ownership, that listens, that does what people want, that stops doing some things and starts doing other things when people want.  It is a society where art, sport, work, place, play, etc. are all part of social activity.

So perhaps art is most sustainable when it acknowledges life cycles and lets some parts die but supports (and, yes, I mean financially as well as more broadly) new ideas and forms of DIY working, networked non-hierarchies, individual artist initiatives and true participation that can reinvigorate the entire art world.  Perhaps they could share these new structures with old organisations?  Undoubtedly, the new models will (just like their predecessors) the old models, the blueprints, toolkits, et al. of tomorrow.  They will no doubt die at some stage too or reinvent themselves in the wake of other new ways of working we may not even have thought about yet.

And perhaps if art was better integrated into community activities, it would be less threatened and more sustainable too?  We must remember that the constant segregation of ‘things we do’ and ‘creative things we do’ is to some extent a modern construct.  Necessary so our systems of government can measure things, fund things, cut funds to things, etc. – yes – but this can lead to unsustainable approaches to making art driven by economics, social outcomes, aesthetics, etc.  This systematisation of art can separate it from society (or certain sections of society) which, whilst good for some, is not good for most people (artists included).

So perhaps sustainability is about realising things become unsustainable eventually and that only perpetual rebirth and renewal can ensure long-term sustainability?  Lots of new little fires to complement the older bigger fires.  Constant regeneration not catastrophic destruction.  This can be exciting.  It is difficult to measure and predict.  But then so is life (really…)

In terms of my doctoral research question: ‘Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?’  I guess I am suggesting at this point that social change must be sustainable in the sense that it must always seek to keep changing – responding and developing to new challenges life will throw at us – keep renewing itself.  I am also proposing that participatory art, when led by participants and supported by artists and new organic creative structures, can be sustainable as an artistic mode of working because it is specific to the needs and life span of each action.  Perhaps then this way of working can support future social change in positive, time-limited ways so art and creativity again become part of the lives of everyone?

This is not a love song – lessons the arts might learn from football

I'm going over to the other side
I'm happy to have and not to have not
Big business is very wise
I'm inside free enterprise

This is not a love song
This is not a love song
This is not a love song
This is not a love song
This is not a love song
This is not a love song
Not a love song

I'm adaptable, I'm adaptable
I'm adaptable and I like my new role
I'm getting better and better
And I have a new goal
I'm changing my ways where money applies

(This is not a love song, Public Image Limited, 1983)

What can the arts learn from football? A lot about developing a connected culture in which children, amateurs and professionals see clear links and participate/ spectate on every level, Nina Simon wrote recently. The world of football is similar to the arts in many ways: taking part, audiences, celebrity and anonymity, economic and intrinsic benefits/ values, large costly buildings and jumpers for goal posts, health and wellbeing, and more. Oh, and let's not forget finance: public subsidy and big business sponsorship. There's also, at the 'top level', The World Cup and Venice Biennial. Lots of similarities, then. Not all good.

What football does well is undoubtedly present a cultural phenomenon that is accessible at every level. A sport where even the premiership elite are, well, not really that elitist. A game where kids playing in a back lane or park and blokes with hangovers kicking each other as much as the ball are respected. Professionals regularly going into schools for training sessions and awards presentations as well as helping smaller clubs and amateurs fundraise. Football can also be 'viewed' live in world class stadiums or patchy local pitches and watched on TV at home or down the pub. Yes, costs of attending a premiership game are prohibitively high for many people; as is a subscription to Sky Sports. But anyone can take part and you don't hear accusations of amateurism or that's 'not football'. Some may say, 'football is different from art'. Of course, on one level, this is true; yet, on another level, the two activities are similar, essential aspects of our lives.

Like football, the arts is engrained into our daily existence - whether 'high' or 'low' arts. They both have tiered, hierarchical structures too. The problem is that elitism in the arts means that people taking part in the arts at different levels are perceived of very differently - from billionaire art buyers to attendees of exclusive theatre to student art shows to people sitting watching Corrie. Artistic excellence is paramount at almost every level for many in the arts. It is the winning, not the taking part, that matters. There is little space for amateurism, volunteering (except as ways to keep wage bills down), or even socially engaged arts practice. These are the realms of 'not arts' to many within the arts elites (for they are plural, legion). Yet, 'amateur' art, art in schools, community art, voluntary art, social practice, etc. offer great experiences and pleasure to many people. The problem is that there is little option for progression (for many) and derision lurks everywhere.

It is therefore essential that we remember that the arts too were once much more connected to life; less elitist than is the case in our present cultural milieu. Artisans were performers and producers, an integral part of everyday life. Festivals were commonplace and many people who may now feel disenfranchised by much of ‘the arts’ today took part. They were key events in the yearly calendar for everyone in communities – they had special meanings and marked special times. Streets and markets were often venues for free theatre and, even when theatre buildings opened, the ‘groundlings’ still formed a substantial sector of the audience of many Elizabethan plays. Sports, like rugby and football, were also integral to the lives of many people. Our neoliberal consumer society today often forgets its past. So too does much of our contemporary arts world. But sports, like football, tend to hold closer ties to their histories as integral to their on-going narratives.

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The darker side of the arts and football (and many other areas of our contemporary lives) is undoubtedly philanthropy and sponsorship. This is not to say that all giving is bad. It is just a warning of the dangers of ‘tagging-on’ brands to activities for purely commercial gain or, worse still, to deliver marketing messages that directly conflict with the activity being ‘supported’. This will be a topic for another post so, for now, let’s just consider BP’s financial support for Tate and The British Museum or tobacco sponsorship of artist residencies in the Caribbean or investment bank and 2008 financial crash ‘Titan’ Merrill Lynch’s project with Tate aimed at regenerating local areas and making places safer. This type of activity is all about ‘realising corporate responsibility outcomes’ – something Arts and Business are promoting heavily as a means to increase philanthropic giving to the arts at the moment – but it mires the arts in corporate complicity. This is different from professional football’s out-and-out clear marketing-for-money deals, not to mention the often essential small-scale sponsorship of local amateur teams by local small businesses who are happy to support their team in return for a little extra local exposure. However, football sponsorship can be dangerously unethical too. Think about the World Cup 2014 with big corporate sponsors including Budweiser, Coca Cola and MacDonalds. The message: play or watch football - drink alcohol and fizzy drinks and eat unhealthy food. Or Wonga and their shirt sponsorship of Newcastle United – buy your season ticket and pay for it with a thousands of percent loan you might end up never repaying! The danger for the arts is that, not only will the ethical and moral concerns about current big arts sponsors affect the independence and critical essence of the arts, but the drive for philanthropic giving may lead to Wonga sponsoring participatory art projects in ‘disadvantaged’ communities, etc.

Nonetheless, forgetting the similar drives for both the arts and football to become increasingly commercialised (at least at their ‘top’ levels), there are, perhaps, lessons the arts might glean from football. It has retained its grassroots up appeal and ethos. Think of (local Toon legends) Gazza, Peter Beardsley, etc. They, like many other people who managed to become professional footballers, had difficult upbringings but became famous (not always just for footballing achievements). They started out playing at school; they were encouraged by sports teachers and (sometimes) parents. They were developed in volunteer-ran ‘boys clubs’ with little funding but loads of commitment to the young lads having a chance in (footballing) life. Professional clubs went there to find ‘new talent’. The professionals paid their dues, coming back to help raise money for the clubs and to help train new generations of possible future pros. Even those who ‘didn’t make it’ still found new friendships and enjoyment in taking part and trying; some stayed to volunteer to help keep the clubs running. If only the same thing could be said about much (not all) of the fractured ‘arts world’ in the UK right now. As Nina Simon pointed out, until fifty years ago soccer was derided in the US – now it is a sport that is increasingly becoming an important national game. It built itself up through grassroots engagement and commitment to accessibility for all. Perhaps we in the UK now need to think seriously about rebuilding the arts from the roots up?

What might sustainable arts practice look like?

This is the sixth post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my on going PhD research centred around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change?  Previous posts are below.  This is a rough and ready document I just wanted to put out there.  It will be refined.  Some of this literature review material will form a new series of less formal and, quite probably, more critical, blog posts that will be following soon.  Please feel free to comment and criticise…

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Sustainability in terms of arts practice is a confusing arena of competing perspectives and endless recommendations to employ ‘adaptive resilience’, collaborate more, form partnerships with academic institutions, grow audiences, etc. Much discussion is aimed at larger arts and cultural institutions, but what might sustainability of socially engaged practice look like? The section looks at a range of different perspectives in an attempt to situate sustainability within the discourse of social change.

The Paul Hamlyn Foundation ArtWorks conference, Changing the Conversation, explored artistic practice in participatory settings and sustainability was discussed in terms of taking ‘the long view’ – a position linked with the role of universities (Nicholson, 2013, p. 3). Nicholson described sustainability of socially engaged art as follows:

‘Artists working in participatory settings have always sought change, interrogated artistic convention, questioned social orthodoxies and challenged injustice. If this important aspect of our cultural landscape is to survive and flourish, it will be sustained by artists who not only understand the knowledge and skills they bring to each setting, but use their creativity to re-imagine and re-shape the world as they would like it to be’ (Nicholson, 2013, p. 6).

This position is important because it defines sustainability in a rather non-institutionalised manner as an independence of spirit interconnected with social change in similar terms to those used by Gablik and discussed above (Gablik, 1984 & 1992). Tambling also explored sustainable practice but from a much more skills-based and business-focused outlook. She saw universities as playing a pivotal role in developing ‘a genuinely sustainable business model’ in which more artists educated as participatory practitioners could ‘drive up demand’ so that more ‘schools, hospitals, care homes and prisons will allocate their budgets to buying this work’ (Tambling, 2013, pp. 2-5). Tambling’s vision of sustainability chimes with a consumer-driven approach in which the side-effect of an increased ‘market’ for participatory art is more artists getting paid work whilst participants get to take part too – a position directly contrasting with the autonomous role described by Nicholson above. It has an air of ‘corporate instrumentalism’ rather than ‘state instrumentalism’ but their rationales are similar in intention.

An excellent example of an academic approach to the issue of sustaining arts and health projects can be found in White and Robson’s Finding Sustainability (2011), a report that reflects upon the apparently successful Happy Hearts lantern parade in Gateshead which took place annually between 1994 and 2006. The academic authors found sustaining projects in the field of arts and community health for ‘long enough to understand and consolidate the practice and to undertake longitudinal research that can utilise and analyse participants’ testimony in a more rigorous ethnographic framework’ proved a major challenge given the short-term nature of project funding (White & Robson, 2011, p. 5). The lantern project was designed around an ‘asset model’ which, contrary to the traditional ‘deficit model’ previously used for health promotion ‘looks at communities’ capability and capacity to identify problems and activate their own solutions, so building their self-esteem’ (White & Robson, 2011, p. 6). The authors are happy to make claims about evidencing instrumental outcomes that are achievable if participatory art projects are sustained based around the principle that ‘creativity can make committed expressions of public health, simultaneously identifying and addressing the local and specific health needs in a community’ (White & Robson, 2011, p. 8).

Clearly stating the case for arts, community and university partnerships, the report finds that participatory arts can address ‘the social determinants of health’ via ‘a process of engagement that goes beyond the health services themselves and builds alliances for social change’ which creates ‘a significant opportunity for a university to engage meaningfully with its host communities in the development of social capital’ (White & Robson, 2011, p. 8). The authors conclude that long-term sustainability leads to better quality and quantity of documentation as well as better dissemination of an ‘interdisciplinary analysis’ that can create ‘a richly detailed evocation of the process of the work, so that participants’ tales become vital testimony’ which contributes ‘persuasive advocacy for an arts in health project to be sustained through difficult times’ (White & Robson, 2011, p. 17).

Another perspective common in the arts is that of sustainability as being ‘a process or state that can be maintained at a certain level indefinitely or as relating to the length in which human (ecological) systems can be expected to be usefully productive (Paul, 2013); the author here does, however, point out the maintaining the status quo can lead to entropy. The prevailing attitude with many arts and cultural organisations at present is arguably one of sustaining what has already been created. This is a position critically questioned by Ragsdale in a recent conference keynote speech delivered in 2013 entitled Holding Up the Arts. She provocatively states that:

‘Sustainable gets tossed around quite a bit in the non-profit arts world these days, along with words like ecosystem and ecology. But… these terms seem to have become a bit of a panacea. We’re not sure exactly what sustainability of the arts ecosystem means, or how to achieve it…’ (Ragsdale, 2013, pp. 1-2)

Referring to cultural institutions, Ragsdale, suggests the sector may be ‘seeking the “unnatural perpetuation of what might otherwise die”’ whilst neglecting to consider other levels of the arts ecosystem (Ragsdale, 2013, p. 7). The implication here is that, in the fight for ever-reducing funding, large institutions are being sustained at the expense of newer, smaller organisations and individual artists. The danger could be perceived as cutting the arts tree off from its roots. Ragsdale explains this as:

‘an assumption embedded in the logics of foundations, government agencies, boards, donors, service organizations, and leaders of the arts and culture sector that the “supersystem” we are trying to sustain and grow is the infrastructure of existing arts institutions, beginning with the oldest and largest organizations and perhaps working our way down from there’ (Ragsdale, 2013, pp. 7-8).

She fears, perhaps with good justification, that by ‘upholding our institutions’, the sector may be ‘holding up necessary renewal and adaptation in our sector that might lead to more meaningful engagement by the public in the arts’ (Ragsdale, 2013, p. 8). Ragsdale implores arts organisations to drop elitist stances by engaging fully, honestly and openly with everyone in communities; by clearly stating that:

‘We are here to foster empathy, understanding of self, and understanding of other. We are here to gently, or not-so-gently, open people’s eyes to truths they cannot see or choose not to see: suffering and ugliness and their opposites love and beauty’ (Ragsdale, 2013, p. 14).

Ragsdale also warns against arguments in favour of economic impact because ‘[t]he more we use them the more we commodify what we do’, thus making it harder to convince policy-makers that the value of arts and culture does not relate to ‘directly spurring economic growth but in building the social cohesion and trust that underpin civil society and make (among other things) economic trading possible’ (Ragsdale, 2013, p. 14).

Perhaps, then, socially engaged art with its roots in interdisciplinary practice and community activism is or can be at the forefront of an independent mode of working which is inherently flexible and sustainable by a process of constant grassroots renewal?