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 This is top-down approach is outdated and incredibly hierarchic.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.

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