Two new reports were recently released about how the arts and creativity might engage with society and communities in more meaningful ways. The first was Rethinking Relationships – an enquiry into the civic role of arts organisations commissioned by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation; the second was Towards cultural democracy, commissioned by Kings College London. Both reveal, for me, different and yet loosely interrelated attempts to find new ways to advocate for the arts or “everyday creativity”. This is the first of two blog posts in which I begin to critically examine the reports. The focus here is on Rethinking Relationships.Read More
This was my prosecution witness statement from the excellent Participation on Trial event organised by the lovely Chrissie Tiller and Goldsmiths from May 2015.
I think it remains as relevant to me as it did more than a year ago but I would say that I was a little over-generous in my support for socially engaged art - a term now so completely appropriated by the Institution of Art that it effectively is THE SAME AS participatory art. Perhaps my views have hardened? Anyway, I now have claimed socially engaged art is DEAD - twice! Undoubtedly, I will do so again...
The (eventual) verdict was “GUILTY – BUT WHO CARES?” Do you care?Read More
I went along to What Next? Newcastle Gateshead's The future of culture in the North East: What, Who, When? event at Dance City in Newcastle last Friday (11th December 2015). I have been attending some of their weekly meetings and have felt that, like the North East Cultural Partnership, the agendas are always set and dominated by large arts institutions. The afternoon's events led me from optimism (at Chi Onwurah's honest and engaging opening speech) to sarcasm to disappointment to angry dejection. This blog is a brief attempt at a catharsis of sorts.
Let's quickly frame proceedings.
The event was described as follows:
How culture is thought about and delivered regionally and nationally is undergoing profound changes. It is a crucial time to understand what these changes are, who is responsible for them and what they will mean.
What Next? Newcastle Gateshead has invited key regional and national policy makers to share their perspectives on the future of cultural policy, programmes, structures and resources in the North East.
What Next? Newcastle Gateshead’s The future of culture in the North East: What, Who, When? offers everyone working in or interested in culture in the region the opportunity to learn more and consider the future together.
Quite clearly a policy-heavy meeting then. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Depends how such an event is curated and how capable the speakers are at addressing a mixed audience that included many non-policy wonks or arts management geeks. Oh, and there were artists there too; quite a lot of artists.
The event also had a strong focus on the impacts of impending regional devolution on arts and culture.
At the start of the event we were told that the eight speakers would each talk for 10 minutes with breaks at appropriate moments. I think that must have meant breaks because the event proceeded non-stop into what quickly became a barrage of tedious presentations interspersed with pre-selected "questions" mainly delivered by people from "senior" positions within the local arts and culture sector.
The exception was Chi Onwurah, the first speaker, local Labour MP and Shadow Minister for Culture. Chi was down-to-earth and honest about the role of policy and (perhaps more pertinently) politics within both local and national situations. She was critical of Tory cuts to local government and emphasised the need for a rebalancing of funding. She also seemed to recognise that there must be a balance between big name cultural attractions and grassroots cultural activities for everyone. 'I've never been a culture professional,' she said at the start of her talk. Hurray - thank goodness! (I thought.)
The rest of the presentations were from the DCMS, CCS, ACE, Heritage Lottery, NECP, NECA, NELEP. Look them up. I won't describe each presentation as that's not the point of this post. Let's just say that it was pretty much (although in the cases of Pauline Tambling and Jane Tarr not entirely) text book stuff.
So what was wrong? Well, for me, the future of culture in the North East can be summed up as NOT THIS - something far less bureaucratic and at times dictatorial!
Now my own feelings (perhaps a rant of sorts)...
The event was, for me (and many other artists, freelancers and Artists Union England members present), a very difficult experience; akin to ACE RFO/ local council meetings of 10 years ago. What Next? Newcastle Gateshead for some unknown reason constructed one of the worst conference formats I've ever known and the speakers (excepting Chi) were dismal to the point of embarrassing. They lacked contexts outside of their own fields of "expertise", completely failed to provide any provocations or critical thinking or theoretical backgrounds or arguments. The summing up at the end was simply belittling, biased and incorrect. Some responses to questions were deeply arrogant and dismissive to the point of offensiveness. We (the audience) had little chance to interact other than with the panel at the end.
This could have been so different. A chance to open up discussions about potentialities where new ideas could be proposed and disagreements aired. Policy can be interesting but this bombardment reinforced the gulf between many of those who "make" policy "for" others and the rest who are all too often forced to comply.
Instead, this event revealed the divide decisively. THEY pat backs and smirk at their dominance. "ONE VOICE," they chant - message betraying their authoritarianism. THEIR technocratic language kills creative thoughts; stifles our sector. Artists are barely ever mentioned other than under the apparent new descriptors: Micro Enterprises or Micro Businesses. WHAT? This is ludicrous. Another perhaps inevitable consequence of the creeping neoliberalism ushered in with New Labour before becoming cast concrete in the recent "shift" to an all-encompassing "The Creative Industries". There is something deeply worrying when WE are told by THEM that there MUST be consensus; there MUST be one voice. A threateningly authoritarian tone. Who's voice will this "one voice" represent? What's wrong with many voices rather than the falseness of univocal communication? For me, disagreement is good - sometimes. Consensus always favours the strongest, most powerful voices.
So, if the future of North East culture is consensus, I fear that the voices of artists, collectives, small organisations and people interested (or not) in arts and culture will be squashed under the thumb of those who wish to protect their positions of power within our deeply unequal cultural sector. I'm not sure What Next? (Nationally or Newcastle Gateshead) offers any future potentialities outside of the narrow and nepotistic status quo falsely constructed by New Labour. THINGS CAN ONLY GET BETTER become THINGS ARE FAR, FAR WORSE! We know THEIR game: "Partnerships" construct jobs for friends and old acquaintances/ colleagues; monopolistic practices; platitudes for the rest! Nonsense. Thinly veiled arrogance. NO!
Let's fight this sh*t. Now! We risk a devolved future even less democratic than the totally administered centralist system we unfortunately navigate today...
The art world’s such a fickle place. Buzzword after buzzword follows business metaphor upon business metaphor. Right now, the UK arts and cultural world is apparently ‘waking up’ to inequality. The art world’s unequal THEY say. We need diversity THEY say.
Academics wonder if this inequity is a class, race, gender thing. Politicians and policy makers enthusiastically call for fairer opportunities. Some say: Art for everyone. DCMS trumpets the need for diversity then appoints an all male, white and middle aged committee.
I’m bemused. We all knew state and market-driven arts and culture was highly hierarchical, didn’t we? We know it still is, don’t we? Even voluntary or the deeply derogatory ‘amateur’ arts often have hierarchies of one sort or another. So is inequality in arts and culture really as simple as an issue of social class, gender, race, etc? On many levels, it’s true that social status opens doors or slams them in our faces. Arts organisations up and down the land are staffed by graduates, led by middle class arts administrators and filled with well-meaning middle (perhaps even upper) class trustees and board members. Not all. The bigger the organisation, the more likely that opportunities narrow. Smaller organisations tend to be more open. These are, of course, generalisations.
But big London and national organisations are different. Their boards are full of wealthy and uber-wealthy people - some are government appointed. They are sponsored by wealthy banks, hedge funds, etc. They receive large amounts of state funding. And now these same organisations and the same people leading them are branching out. They are setting up all sorts of Creative Industries groups, partnerships and federations. Others in the field suggest we join them. Why? I’m not sure.
THEY ARE ALL THE SAME FEW PEOPLE. UPPER CLASS BANKERS AND SUPER RICH. THEY give to the arts of their choice. They are capitalists. They are often part of the 1%. Their calls for greater equality in the arts are hypocritical.
THEY cannot lead the revolution needed to make arts and culture more equal. THEY do not want to. Not really. They are neoliberals. They band together to create an even more inequitable arts and cultural field. THEY influence decisions.
People like me are not from their world. Never will be. WE see through their nicely presented thin veneers. WE can only nip at their heels. Sometimes they like what we do. Sometimes they tolerate us. Sometimes they silently squeeze us into line. Sometimes they quietly attempt to cut us off. That’s fine. That’s THEIR game.
But we are many. Dark matter, as Gregory Sholette often describes those outside of the system. Only a truly culturally democratic world of arts and culture can begin to offer fairness and equality (or equity) for all. This means ending deeply entrenched status quos, not tinkering around the edges.
The art world is frightening for people like us. But we cannot stay quiet. We must say NO. We must organise however we see fit.
IF WE TRULY BELIEVE IN EQUALITY IN ARTS AND CULTURE, WE MUST STRUGGLE TO MAKE THIS HAPPEN.
We must unearth the roots of inequality in arts and culture, starting with those in the know and their (in)vested interests. Just as we must do the same in all areas of our deeply unequal neoliberal societies.
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?