I had a conversation with fellow artist Martin Daws back in 2016. He had a great idea. imagine if artists were employed, full-time to work in communities? We worked on it. Martin then wrote a guest blog here in 2017.

This article sets out how we could easily and relatively cheaply employ artists in everyday community and how such a simple, yet radical system would create just the sort of transformative cultural change that is at the heart of Arts Council England’s new 10-year strategy, Let’s Create.

I’d love to create a working group to develop this idea and hopefully trial it as a participatory action research project somewhere. So get in touch if you’re interested.

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Imagine a country “transformed by culture” – a nation that recognises the “most important” way to do this by “dissolving” the “barriers between artists and the audiences with whom they interact”? This is what Let’s Create – Arts Council England’s new 10-year strategy – proudly shouts out. These are the words of Arts Council England Chair, Sir Nicholas Serota

Ok, so the notion of “artists” and “audiences” is clearly too limited and outmoded, but, hey, it’s in keeping with the rest of the strategy document to infer that audiences really means everyone in our communities whether watching, making, taking part, doing, thinking, selling things, whatever.

So, let’s imagine communities everywhere in which artists and people of all backgrounds and walks of life co-exist and cooperate. Let’s think about what existing “barriers” might stand in the way of artists and communities coming together to really be creative together in ways that can rebuild and reconnect communities, can nurture new artists and new participants and new audiences, and can help seed a generation of new ideas and new cultural workers and creative communities in ways that can create a genuinely solid, flourishing creative economy at every scale – from hyperlocal to international.

Some of these obstacles can be said to be cultural and community and civic gatekeepers: arts institutions, big charities, local authorities, central government. The obstacles tend to be bureaucratic and about who has a say in what is “culture” and what is “fundable”, and who decides who has access to the means of artistic and cultural and social production. Too often, these “glass ceilings” act to almost invisibly form walls around entrenched power. Yet these ceilings are strong, the walls insurmountable.

Imagine if these “barriers” were removed. This doesn’t mean removing existing infrastructures and institutions. It means also opening routes for the grassroots (artists, community members, local third sector organisations, local businesses, etc.) to access and determine its own forms of artistic and cultural and social production – its own ways of being and living together creatively. Removing of the bureaucratic obstacles can flip our world on its head: for example, artists and communities working on their own terms and asking for assistance from the gatekeepers when needed. Removing bureaucracy and opening up creativity also is about trusting artists and communities to do interesting things, things that they can see will work for them locally. And removing bureaucracy can also save significant amounts of money.

So, let’s create a new way to “transform” our communities and the working lives of artists – a way that dissolves barriers between communities and artists. Let’s employ local artists and visiting artists to work full-time in their communities. Let’s make a simple system that’s totally scalable, relatively inexpensive (in comparison to big art buildings and big public art commissions), and that will provide significant impact and interesting new outcomes for local communities, the arts and cultural sector, and the nation. (I mean artists in the broadest sense of the word, including writers, poets, musicians, theatre makers, filmmakers, visual artists, community artists, etc., etc.)

Imagine, for example, if the £9 million allocated by central government as a “contribution” towards the annual running costs of The Factory in Manchester was replicated by a £9 million investment in paying artists to live and work in communities across Greater Manchester…

Well, if we work on the assumption of artists being paid an annual salary of £25,000 full-time (some would obviously be part-time, job shares too) with 30 days holiday and sick pay, etc. Then £9 million a year could employ 360 full-time (or equivalent) artists across Greater Manchester.

There are 287 electoral wards in Greater Manchester. So, let’s imagine that each ward got one artist full-time. That’s an annual cost of £7.175 million. That leaves more than enough for administration, curators, materials budgets for artists and communities, etc. There are 2.8 million people living in Greater Manchester, so the expenditure suggested above equates to £2.56 per person.

Imagine 287 artists in each of the 287 electoral wards across Greater Manchester. Imagine how that would break down barriers and be completely transformative. All for less than £8 million per year. Imagine how 287 artists would have full-time employment with increased income and less precarity of lifestyle. Imagine how much of the money paid to the artists would be spent in the Greater Manchester economy. Imagine how much social and cultural capital would be generated across communities. Imagine how many new arts and community groups and organisations might grow from such a transformative and simple approach to embedding arts and culture at hyperlocal levels. Imagine how easily inequity can be reduced and arts and culture will truly reflect diversity. Imagine how the health and wellbeing of the entire area could be improved. Imagine how many new businesses might open and be sustained. Imagine the expansion of the cultural workforce in the area. Imagine how Greater Manchester could rebrand itself as a truly cultural city region.

This is easily achievable… if those in power have the will to try out a system that is completely aligned with Arts Council England’s new strategy. It is also a way to begin trying out more culturally democratic ways of supporting arts and cultural activities at local levels.

It needs to be tested in some areas: perhaps in a number of city wards first as well as in villages and towns, etc. It needs to be researched. This is a truly action research programme. It could be rooted in the principles of critical participatory action research, so communities would co-produce their own research, gaining valuable skills and insight into their own lives in so doing. There are many other things to iron out, but this is not a risky undertaking.

I will be working more on this and welcome others to join me in making this “artists in every area” idea into a reality – a genuinely transformative reality.

So, to end, here’s a few more examples:

1) An artist in a village/ rural area: £25,000 a year. (The area of Dene Valley and Eldon in County Durham has a population of around 3,000 people, so that would equate to about £8.33 per person.)

2) An artist in every ward in Newcastle upon Tyne (where I live): 25 wards x £25,000 a year = £625,000. (There are just over 268,000 people living in Newcastle, so that equates to around £2.33 per person.)

3) An artist in every ward in the county of Northumberland (next door to where I live): 66 wards x £25,000 = £1,650,000. (There are just over 320,000 people living in Northumberland, so that equates to about £5.15 per person per year.)

There are many different ways to make this idea work. It is relatively cheap. A lot cheaper than big new arts centres.

Surely now is the time to try it out?

So, let’s create transformative cultural change in every community and let’s start now.

2 thoughts on “Let’s Create An Artist in Every Community (and let’s create it now)…

  1. The 32 months that Toby Lloyd and I spent living in South Leeds, undertaking a long term live/work residency, from an otherwise empty Council House, is perhaps an example of what you are pointing at here. It’s not straight forward and obviously comes with many practical hurdles, but I’d be happy to share any insight I have from this experience into the pot.
    I would say tho, there are I imagine many artists living within many of these communities you talk about … and perhaps what they might need is the ‘space’ often related to time, but often literal too, and the peer support networks necessary (we are encouraged to ‘stand-out’, but none of us can do very much alone).
    Anyway, i’m keen to hear more of where this goes.

  2. François Matarasso says:

    I admire the passion and simplicity of the idea, and obviously I welcome the vision of a fairer and more democratic cultural life. But I’m not clear to whom the artists would be accountable for their work – the Arts Council (surely not), the community (how and on what basis?), their peers (surely not), themselves? My own starting point would be different. I’ve long advocated allocating cultural resources directly to community organisations, as of right, because I’ve seen it done, and I’ve seen it work (though not in the UK). That might seem a radical step, but it’s only returning lottery funds to the people who provide it.

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