Tell me again, why do arts organisations (really) want to work in communities?

Tell me again, why do you want to work in Stockton? asks ARC Stockton chief executive Annabel Turpin.  Of course, this question could apply anywhere and, I argue here, it could also be applied more deeply, perhaps.

Annabel Turpin’s blog about the invasion of London arts organisations in ‘the regions’ reflects a growing sense of frustration within regional arts organisations who feel they are not treated as equals in many such ‘partnerships’.  I argue here that the same thing is in fact happening within the regions – that large Arts Council England funded ‘local’ arts organisations are going into their communities with the same lack of understanding and for the same reasons.

The Hunting of the Snark, Mervyn Peake, 1941.

‘Our London-based ‘national’ organisations … driven by the funding agenda … [have shifted their focus] to working in the regions’.  Anabel hits the nail on the head here and in the following quote: ‘ARC … seem[s] to be a magnet for organisations looking to develop partnerships outside London’.  This is unsurprising. ARC, Stockton, ‘the North’ all tick important boxes for funders.

And yet, this, I argue, is not solely a ‘London versus the regions’ problem.  This is not to negate the points made by Annabel.  London and other ‘National’ organisations are required by funders, particularly Arts Council England, to ‘go to the regions’, to seek out those most in need of their ‘excellence’, their ‘quality’.  This is another case of the arts being used as missionaries for state-sanctioned culture.  In this case, the missionaries come from the temples and citadels of the English arts establishment, rather than the local monasteries (or perhaps, garrisons) – the (larger) arts organisations based in the regions.  These guardians of the inner-sanctum are, of course, completely ill-equipped to preach their civilising messages that ‘(high) art is good for you’ and can help you fulfil your national duty – your ‘civic role’ – directly to the ‘great unwashed’.

So, seeking to work in a manner appropriate to their long-standing cultural heritage based on hierarchy, patronage and privilege, they plot lines from the centre of the establishment to its ‘peripheries’ – regional art centres and larger, Arts Council funded arts organisations, preferably National Portfolio Organisations.  These places offer sanctuary, local knowledge and, sometimes, local voices that can help spread their message – the state message – to people they regard as ‘culturally bereft’.  This is classic top-down, state- then funder-initiated democratisation of culture, delivered in the name of the Father – the paternalistic, white, male, middle-class, elitist English State - and its coterie of bourgeois servants.  They come as colonisers and seek local support (like ARC Stockton) to translate their wishes into local tongues.  This group of some of the least diverse representatives of our society have the audacity to preach the message of diversity!  They see no irony.  They know what they are doing.  This is cultural orthodoxy.  It must not be resisted.

Ah, but perhaps the cultural monasteries in the regions are becoming restless?  Perhaps they wish to revolt against the increasing waves of London-based and National arts organisations who have been reluctantly pushed to ‘go forth and spread the message’?  Perhaps the regions, led by large arts organisations, are massing to revolt under the battle flag of devolution?  There’s nothing wrong with that, perhaps.

But, I think that the question, “Tell me again, why do you want to work in Stockton?” masks the fact that larger arts organisations in the regions are themselves being pushed to work in communities by the very same sources (the state, Arts Council England) that are pushing those at the centre of English cultural orthodoxy to visit the regions.  I’m not suggesting ARC Stockton are one such organisation as they have always sought to work with and within their local communities.  However, many large arts organisations (often National Portfolio Organisations) have been quick to move into communities to tick boxes and, most importantly, because they must justify their National Lottery funding!  The allocation of significant amounts of lottery funding to National Portfolio Organisations and, of course, the increasing cacophony of academics, artists and, in some cases, local people, who feel too much money goes to the elites, to orthodox cultural pursuits, has led to a situation in which everyone is ‘community-’ or ‘socially-engaged’ nowadays.  Of course, this in turn leads to missionaries being sent from all corners of the English Art Empire to ‘work in’ communities of ‘low engagement’.  And, I argue, this leads to artists and, more importantly, local people becoming even more disenfranchised and disempowered by the often patronising, middle-class attempts to ‘engage’ with these cultural outcasts.

So perhaps Annabel’s question could be broadened to question why big local National Portfolio Organisations and, in some cases, Creative People and Places projects, really want to work in communities.  Is this a mission to extoll the virtues of ‘great art’, ‘excellence’, ‘quality’, ‘diversity’ (and on and on)?  Is this a sudden desire within art’s orthodoxy for emancipation, for social justice?  Or, is this the result of tick-box cultural policy?  Or, is this an attempt to destroy local, independent and self-organised art produced together with and by autonomous individuals that might produce works of dissent, that might not want orthodoxy forced down their throats, that might refuse to tick the boxes, that might not even want funding?

I’m not entirely sure.

However, I argue that Annabel’s question could become even more pointed by rewriting it:

Tell me again, why do arts organisation (really) want to work in communities?

I do not believe that this question has been adequately answered, nor has it been adequately and openly discussed, and nor has it been properly researched.

It is quite possible then, I suggest, to read Anabel’s honest and valuable blog post in a different, more localised light by simply changing, for example, “London” to “[Your City]” and “regions” to “local communities”.