IN/OUT – socially engaged art, UK cultural institutions & The Hunting of the Snark

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There’s a debate within socially engaged arts about whether this unique form of practice should resist incorporation into institutions, galleries, museums, etc. or are these ‘managed’ spaces best placed to support, to provide a home for our work. The debate is taking place in some countries. The US are leading the way. It’s a debate that really cuts to the core of what socially engaged art practice is about. In the US, the arts are less well regulated; instrumentalism rules in the UK.

So how can debates emanating from the US help UK socially engaged artists situate themselves within an arts system that prioritises ‘investment’ in concrete monoliths? No grassroots seeding of diverse cultural ecosystems. UK arts and culture policy believes plonking in new cultural behemoths will stimulate growth. This is top-down approach is outdated and incredibly hierarchic. It is driven by an economics-dominated cultural policy that thinks big, spends on big, and makes big claims for Big Data. This approach is elitist and disproportionate. The expense of building, staffing and maintaining big cultural venues is massive. The thinking is predicated on a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. The thing is most people who don’t currently go to cultural venues won’t come. The same people will come. They will love it. That’s fine.

Soon the new big institutions, like the UK’s longer-in-the-tooth cultural institutions, will start scratching their heads, holding ‘What next?’ meetings over tea and croissants, researching, talking, blogging, tweeting, whatever, wondering ‘How can we engage new audiences? How do make them come?’ The answer is that, perhaps, they never will come. That doesn’t mean they don’t like art or culture or artists or even buildings. They just don’t like going to massive institutions in new powerhouses for some – not them. And, let’s face it, the type of investment in institutions new and old could be used in other ways; ways that could engage more people in the arts in less institutionalised settings or non-arts settings; ways that are perhaps open, community-focused?

Socially engaged art can provide an alternative way of thinking about and doing art. It is non-elitist and traditionally wary of cultural institutions, policy and measurement. Yet, in this field, many socially engaged artists and collectives are enticed into working within institutions; encouraged to sign up to codes and standards of professional practice written without adequate consultation. New academic courses anyone? Social practice? Yes, sir, it’s the latest thing. Work with ‘real’ people. Gritty? Yes. But we’ll teach you how to keep your hands clean. Not cheap, no. Quality counts. Think of the employment opportunities… New state funded ‘participatory arts’ projects in the most disadvantaged areas may not be (necessarily) about ‘bricks and mortar’ investment but they are about creating managerial systems and participatory institutions.

These are examples of why many socially engaged artists see themselves as opposed to cultural institutionalism. It is not the only choice. We can make our own choices. We can work with communities, within communities. We must avoid the temptation to comply. We must question the establishment in all its forms. And, to those institutions who feel they can offer funding and support in exchange for our ability to work differently with different people and be accepted within communities, we must say NO. We must retain our independence.

I believe in a mixed arts ecosystem that recognises new artists, new collectives and fledgling organisations, socially engaged arts practice, communities, people, as well as established and new organisations. We need a debate. Conflict is good. If institutional bureaucracy snuffs out flickering dissent, all that will remain is an incredibly elitist monoculture. It is natural for many policymakers, ‘arts leaders’ and ‘arts professionals’ to cheer and clap whenever something new is unveiled. It is also natural for others to question, criticise and ask for other ways of thinking. Beware of the folly of Hunting of the Snark. It always ends in Boojum.

My contribution to article about socially engaged art for Museums Journal, October 2014

http://www.statoil.com/no/About/ArtProgramme/Perspectives/PublishingImages/Women%20Reading%20Possession%20Order%201997%20tom%20hunter.jpg

I’m very pleased to have been included in an article by Simon Stephens in October’s edition of Museums Journal entitled People Power.  It’s an interesting piece with a range of differing perspectives about social practice.

Click the image above or here to read the PDF.

‘Cultural Value’ and the Economic and Social Impact of the Arts

I attended a workshop at the University of Warwick on 9th July about Co-producing cultural policy.  The day was very, very interesting and frustrating at times.  I was guest blogger.  I wrote this.  It was originally published here: http://coculturalpolicy.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/cultural-value-and-economic-and-social.html

 

A morning of valuing artists, museums as co-producers of ‘social justice’ and cultural value as power, followed with an afternoon workshop about value and impact. The long trip to The University of Warwick was certainly action packed. A day of two halves. A room full of interested and actively probing researchers (and a Director of a National Portfolio Organisation). The day was all about policy: cultural value in the morning; humanities research after lunch. So what happened?

First up was Susan Jones, Director of a-n The Artists Information Company. Susan was, as usual, forthright and focused, delivering the hard facts about the #payingartists campaign; about ‘positive’ mission ‘delivery’; campaigning for fair pay for artists. She pointed out that ‘sometimes artists aren’t even mentioned in cultural policy’ anymore; pay had been reduced significantly in real terms since 1997; and nowadays ‘exhibition budgets exclude the notion of paying artists’. Why? Susan was clear to place responsibility on an increasing ‘shift in focus towards infrastructure’ – in cultural buildings and top-heavy management and administration teams. All great stuff! I firmly believe in this perspective too. But Susan’s emphasis was on exhibitions and galleries ‘because that’s where public funding is going in visual arts’. a-n’s new #payingartists video advertisement reinforced what, for me, seemed a rather narrow way of conceiving artistic practice today. Susan explained, however, that a-n are beginning to ‘look outside galleries – beyond exhibitions’, so, perhaps, there’s some hope of an expanded future scope for this undoubtedly ‘must address’ issue. I have a nagging concern about institutionalising artists’ rights and pay, but that’s for another day…

Director of National Museums Liverpool, David Fleming was incredibly passionate in advocating a more radical approach to museum programming than is often, perhaps, the case. He’s a firm supporter of national infrastructure buildings, ‘so long as the public get something out of it’. His approach is all about people, emotions, inter-generational activities, variety, and, ‘fighting for social justice’ – all with an authentic Liverpool voice (although he was quick to explain he’s from Leeds)! His show reel of ‘social justice’ programming left virtually no stone unturned: gender reconfiguration; queer; children’s cancer; dementia; well-being; Hillsborough; gun crime; slavery – all examples of successful ‘collusion with other bodies’ (NGOs, charities, etc.) because, apparently, ‘activists like working with the establishment’. David was blunt in his dislike of policy directed at numbers in the building, citing London museums as a prime example of government policy and funding decisions based upon ‘how many high spending tourists you can attract’. Nevertheless, his advocacy of the Museum Association’s Museums Change Lives agenda and tick-all-boxes social justice narrative left me feeling a little unsettled. Was this really radicalism or soft reinforcing of a form of, undoubtedly left-of-centre, neoliberal state instrumentalism?

Arts Council England’s Senior Policy and Research Manager, Andrew Mowlah, always had an unenviable task. The mood was set. He rehearsed many of the Arts Council’s new ‘tablets of stone’: the need to ‘reflect instrumental and intrinsic values’; fitting ‘the aesthetic… into cultural policy’; ‘making the best possible case for investment in arts and culture’; ‘metrics’; the ‘economic benefits of the UK culture industry’; ‘the wider benefits of the arts’ (beyond economics and tourism, perhaps?); etc., etc. He was steadfast in his defence of the need to ‘evidence’ culture to persuade government to continue to fund arts and culture, concluding that we shouldn’t ‘discount the value of data and evidence’. Many in the audience wondered whether anyone in government really valued the evidence anyway, no matter what its form. For me, any mention of ‘culture industry’ makes me go all Adorno…

Eleonora Belfiore was last in the morning session. Critical antithesis of Arts Council England’s cultural policy, she breezed through a cutting overview of current cultural value policy. Her assertion that the many who see cultural value as a way of determining ‘real value’ are being ‘over simplistic’ was an antidote to the positivist reductionism abounding in much of social sciences and cultural policy right now. Cultural value, like all things, is socially constructed, political, transient, and never neutral – power is always orchestrating. Ele’s example of Big Fat Gypsy Wedding… clearly demonstrated how economics and ‘fun’ programming has very dark undertones: it humiliates an already oppressed ethnic group, redoubling stereotypes whilst making a great deal of money for the media. It is, as Ele explained, the role of academia and research (and, perhaps, the arts and others) to ‘probe the underbelly of cultural value policy’.

I’m over my word count already, so let’s just summarise an excellent afternoon’s research workshop as follows: ‘Impact is not evil’ but ‘how do you engage someone like James Dyson?’ Solid ‘REF Gold’!