And if the problem is in the title, then so is the solution.
The Arts Council is asking us what we think of their future plans and strategy. I urge fellow arts-makers AND arts-users to engage with this proposal – yes, being asked what we think is often a sop and answers may well be ignored, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and put our trust in the maybe.
Maybe they will listen.
Maybe Treasury will allow them to listen AND to act.
Maybe we will have an Arts Council in ten years time.
I think there are several things wrong with the way arts funding currently works in the UK, and welcome the possibility that alternative views might be considered.
My own view is the ‘great art for everyone‘ is an incorrect wording of a laudable and vital mission around inclusion and engagement, and if the wording is wrong, then the actions that follow will also be wrong.
- Supporting art instead of supporting artists. When the Arts Council was founded, as CEMA, the brief was originally intended to support ARTISTS (not just ART) – whether they were professional or amateur. Keynes’ idea was to help those returning from WW2, to support people who used/worked in/’did’ arts to return to their communities, to support the continuing creation of arts in Britain by supporting artists. (I suspect the fact that Keynes’ wife was a ballet dancer had something to do with his awareness of the precariousness of an artist’s life.)
- Over-professionalisation. The increasing professionalisation of the arts (so much so that I meet despairing young artists who believe they are not ‘artists’ because they are not earning a full-time living from their art work – Van Gogh, anyone? Not to mention that Trollope, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov had full time jobs …) means that there are an inordinate amount of people graduating with degrees in writing, directing, acting, fine arts etc – far more than there is demand for, and we will NEVER be able to employ all of these young/new hopefuls. At least not in the trad artist/audience arts culture that we have now (which basically translates as “I make, you sit in the stalls and shut up and applaud when I’m done”) – more on that dichotomy later.
- ‘Great’ – whose definition? Currently we use a definition created maybe 150 years ago, almost entirely by white men, almost entirely rich white men, likely straight, rich, white men. That definition states that the fine art that makes it to the big (aka ‘respected’) galleries is great. It believes that ballet, opera, large orchestras and Shakespeare are great. And yet the Warwick Report’s often-quoted 8% tells us that 92% of the nation don’t access these arts. This DOESN’T mean they don’t engage with the arts, nor that the arts they engage with are not great arts. It might mean that those arts currently seen as ‘great’ (and I say this as a lover of dance, ballet especially) might not be ‘great’ to the vast majority of British people. If we were to include spoken word, street art, television, film, crafts, street dance (and so much else) – might we not be able to say that 100% of the nation engage in culture? Certainly our experience with Fun Palaces suggests that many more people want to engage with arts and culture, on a community level, than is usually understood (check the demographics/figures on pages 4, 5 & 10 especially). We desperately need to allow our time-worn definition of ‘great art’ to change to include all of these active, engaged, and passionate people. (nb, for ‘great’ we can also substitute the equally problematic words ‘excellence’ and ‘quality’ – again, it is vital we ask where/when/who are these definitions coming from?)
- The hierarchy of ‘for’. And an instrumentalist hierarchy at that, suggesting arts are ‘good for’ people, and that some people do arts and pass them on to others who don’t do them. This dichotomy is underlined by the over-professionalisation mentioned above, suggesting only some people do arts and others are there to receive our arts. That we (artists) make arts ‘for’ them (non-artists). REAL engagement would mean arts for and by and with all, entirely blurring that split and (finally!) allowing for full engagement, full inclusion and the diversity in our arts we all so desperately want and need.
- Big buildings = ‘great’. ‘Great’, in the way we use it now, all too often means big buildings, aka a ‘power house’. What about arts and culture where we live? What about making arts by, for and with the people right where we are? Every time we spend another many millions on another shiny glass and concrete city-centre arts building (gallery, library, museum, theatre, concert hall etc) we reinforce the notion that arts are something to be traveled to, something we make a pilgrimage to. This reinforces the hierarchy, the notion of those within the building and those without – which is rubbish for people inside and outside buildings. As Daniel Evans, Sheffield Theatres Fun Palaces, says at 02:23 here “We wanted to reach everyone in the city, and make sure that everyone in city and our city region felt that this was also their building, that they belonged here and they have a place here and this is also their home.” Our arts buildings are all too often dauntingly large and city-based – no matter how welcoming we try to make them. When we make buildings to scale, on a community level, for use by/for/with community, then we know we are actually building to include everyone.
- Funder as quality mark. To all too many people, a funder’s logo implies a mark of merit, of quality. If the Arts Council says they fund ‘great’ art, then the implication is that the work they fund must be ‘great’. (Taking us back to 3 and the problem of whose definition of ‘great’ we are to use.)
So, how do we right/re-write the wrong wording?
EASY! (And no, it’s not just Fun Palaces, though it is a bit, and the more we do, the more I see people creating all of the below for themselves and their communities and the more I think they desperately need our support, support that is, currently, far more likely to be focused on what is perceived as ‘great’ art.)
Let’s try : Arts for, by and with everyone.
Arts – the widest possible range, not the stuff that is called (capital A) Art only. That too, but not only.
Arts for everyone, but without the ‘great’ before it, allowing that those who consume, enjoy, engage with, attend, avail themselves of the art to be the judge, not a centralised body who – with the best will in the world – will never be able to know what all of the people want, all of the time.
Arts by everyone. Let them all in, as makers, as creators, as crafters, as do-ers. Who knows how many Mozarts we are denying ourselves by limiting arts-creation to a privileged few? (That’s right, I don’t believe in talent.)
Arts with everyone. Stop with the big buildings! A moratorium on new buildings. We have plenty of buildings, we don’t use them well enough, we don’t fill them often enough, we don’t SHARE them enough. let’s better share the resources we already have, make them available for all, all of the time, make the with matter.
Of course I don’t think that changing the wording will fix all of the problems (especially not in a ‘austerity’ climate where local government is being hit so very hard and noting the massive effect that has on front-line arts providers like local libraries and local museums and local arts centres) but changing the wording would change the emphasis, from a specialist elite to everyone. And that’s well worth a try. It will be much harder for this government to kill off arts provision if we can genuinely say that our work is for, by and with all.
What do you think?
Feel free to tell me here, but PLEASE, tell the Arts Council. Add your voice. Be loud. Be heard. Step up. (The questions are specific, but there is plenty of room to add your own thoughts and you don’t need to answer them all.)