Artists offered NO PAY for 5 months of ‘Art workshops for people with learning disabilities’!

We all know times are tough for everyone and this includes artists.  We all know the ideology of austerity is a lie (I hope!)  It’s becoming increasingly difficult for artists to be paid the very reasonable £260 per day for an artist with more than 5 years experience recommended by Artists’ Union England.  Why?  Not because commissioning institutions can’t afford to pay artists adequately for their work; rather they choose not to pay artists properly.  Arts organisations make budgetary decisions that do not value the essential role artists play in creating arts and culture.  For some organisations (dot to dot active arts included), paying artists properly is always the first line on our budget for projects and commissions; for others paying artists comes very low down on the list of ‘costs’.  As Bev Adams wrote earlier this year, ‘… artists always seem to end up at the bottom of the food chain with consortia and governmental organisations snaffling up the cash, leaving artists to scrabble over poorly conceived and poorly paid commissions.’  So when I was alerted to an ‘opportunity’ that offered a very low ‘fee’ indeed for what appeared to be a challenging commission backed by some very big arts institutions by the ever vigilant Aidan Moesby a couple of weeks ago, I was appalled at what I read.  I decided to stay quiet but, after speaking to a number of fellow artists, I decided I needed to say something.  This blog post attempts to explain why, as artists in precarious positions, we must remember that we have a right to ask questions of institutions, a right to critique their practices, a right to say NO!

Before I begin I must make clear this post is in no way related to my PhD research at Northumbria University but reflects my views as an artist, activist for social justice, and member of Artists’ Union England.

Ok.  Now back on track.

The ‘Artists Callout’ comes from Venture Arts who have received funding from Arts Council England to lead on a partnership with BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Arts, Castlefield Gallery and the Contemporary Visual Arts Network which they describe in their callout as ‘an exciting, experimental, collaborative visual arts project that will bring together learning disabled and non-learning disabled artists to develop shared ideas and new contemporary work.’  The trouble is that the callout originally suggested the artist’s fee would be £1,000 (plus a ‘free studio space’) for 5 months working for between one and two days per week with a learning disabled person.  We quickly pointed out that at best this equated to a day rate of £50 for one day per week or £25 for two days.  The free studio offer is not a real on-cost to the organisations and many artists may already have a studio space anyway.  Clearly, this fee is terribly low.  Or should I say, was terribly low because, after artist and fellow founding director of dot to dot active arts Yvette Hawkins enquired about the commission, Venture Arts changed the wording of their callout to say (as it does now):

All successful artists will receive £1000 artist bursary and given a free studio space for five months (February – July 2016) coming together for 1-2 day(s) per week to share their studio with a learning disabled artist involved in the project. The bursary is intended for artists to use in the production of their own work.

So, the ‘fee’ became a ‘bursary’ to be used towards the costs of producing the project.  Yvette and many other artists became even more angry.  They wanted artists to express interest in a five month commitment for NO PAY!  Nothing.  ZERO!

This would be understandable perhaps if advertised by a struggling local community organisation looking for artists to volunteer to help support them (which often happens), but this is a partnership of big arts organisations funded by Arts Council England!  I would like to be clear at this point that I respect the rights of artists and arts institutions and recognise the various roles institutions play in creating certain forms of cultural value.  But I do wonder whether they sometimes forget to consider the rights of artists to be paid for their work.

To me, the OutsiderXchangeS project could have been a great opportunity to develop artists whether classified as ‘learning disabled’ or not and to pay all the artists no matter of categorisation a fair and recognised minimum day rate for the project as well as offering reasonable expenses for materials required during the collaborative making process.  A really good example of institutional practice that Emma Thomas (BALTIC Head of Learning and Engagement) describes in the project press release as being at ‘the heart of our approach to the Creative Case.’  As it stands, it would appear that this high-profile partnership project does not the labour value of any of the artists who will take part in and c0-produce this project.  It is unclear whether the lead project artist will be paid or not but I would imagine she (rightly) will be paid adequately.  I also wonder about the other project overhead costs and how these are apportioned between the various partner organisations.

Nonetheless, I am concerned that ‘opportunities’ can be conceived of, funded and advertised without any consideration of the rights of artists to receive adequate payment for their labour.  I hope that common sense prevails in the near future and arts institutions begin respecting artists in the same way as we respect your position within our common field of work.

I am not alone in venting my frustration, there has been a healthy discussion on Twitter and Yvette Hawkins wrote a brilliant response on her Facebook page that was widely shared and commented upon.

Finally, I am pleased to say that Artists’ Union England are taking up the matter early in the New Year…

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What Next for North East arts & culture? Democracy NOT technocracy

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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…

 

Art, oil, politics & empire: #Deadline Festival shatters democratic facade of arts institution

There have been many brilliant interventions at major UK arts institutions recently primarily focusing on fossil fuel funding.  Collectives like Art not Oil, Liberate Tate, Reclaim the Bard and many more have created (and will no doubt continue to create) a host of spectacularly Platform London powerful, often sublimely beautiful acts of resistance  against the involvement of fossil fuel corporations such as BP and Shell in and around some of the country’s biggest cultural institutions.  Tate, Royal Opera House, British Museum, The V&A, National Gallery, Edinburgh Festival, British Film Institute, National Portrait Gallery, Southbank Centre, Royal Shakespeare Company, and many others are prime targets for their carefully coordinated interventions.  Members of Platform London are often directly or indirectly involved in these actions too.

Deadline Festival was different from these often shorter forms of intervention.  The idea was to host an unauthorised three-day arts festival in the public spaces inside Tate Modern, occupying and reclaiming the space for a packed programme of installation, exhibition, poetry, theatre, performance, workshops, films, debates and participatory intervention.  The festival was produced and curated by Platform London.  It’s programme was announced in advance.  (I will not discuss the programme in detail here.  Click to see it in full.)  I helped gather and organise a team of super-committed and deeply passionate volunteers from afar in the weeks and days before the festival and helped out at Tate Modern on the last day as an act of practice and research: praxis.

There are no false notions of neutrality or ‘disinterest’ in my approach.  I firmly believe arts and cultural (indeed all) organisations must divest themselves of any sponsorship by fossil fuel magnates.  I am also deeply suspicious of any attempt to corral arts and culture together under the neoliberal semiotic The Creative Industries.  Furthermore, I also find the broader sponsorship, patronage and board-level embedding of Big Businesses within publicly funded arts and cultural institutions to be incredibly problematic and divisive.  Take Tate: company founded on the profits of the slave trade; sponsored and supported by the state and a list of major capitalists that just goes on and on and on.  Nasty ‘investments’ and ‘commercial activities’?  Massive contributors to climate change, war and terrorism?  Neocolonialists?  Dismissive of workers’ rights?  GREAT!  You’re in!  And it would seem, at least in the case of BP’s sponsorship of Tate, that the price of neoliberal endorsement in return for green washing or art washing and incredibly important institutional cultural capital to be used globally as a valuable source of soft power is a pittance.  Who said arts and culture were always expensive?

Deadline Festival was intended to coincide with the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris and, like the ongoing events in Paris, the festival reflected a much broader recognition of the co-dependent nature of fossil fuels, finance, climate change, terrorism, war, imperialism, colonialism, politics, and neoliberalism’s myriad of other insidious suckers that creep across our planet, strangling ever aspect of human existence everywhere into one totally administered, totally exploited mass.  Western art and culture are the new crown jewels bought with looted artefacts from every corner of the world and the untold lives of colonised people.  Neoliberalism is neo-colonialism.  It’s gilded banners of ‘global trade’, ‘democracy’, ‘growth’ and (most distastefully) ‘peace’ belie a one-dimensionality underpinned by exploitation, deceit, control and destruction.  The dominant few people in the few countries that dominate our world have constructed their fossil fuelled palaces on top of the oppressed; on top of nature.  But these foundations are restless and their palaces built upon nothing more than the shifting sands of false consciousness.  Subjugation of people, of languages, of ‘resources’, of cultures, of nature is always doomed to fail.

We would do well to learn from our pasts.  We would do well to learn from all our pasts; to realise that the Western system is a totally exploitative system that openly capitalises from and colonises people everywhere and every element of nature.  Neoliberalism is ‘sensitive’ when capitalising on people, land and natural life close to home; aggressive and crude whilst exploiting those further afield.  And, for me, some of Deadline Festival’s events brought this home beautifully.  Ivo Theatre performing the act of translation via a battery-powered live feed from the climate talks in Paris as the rights of indigenous peoples and other colonised areas of our planet were being ripped from a climate accord already ‘cleansed’ of any democratic freedoms by the fiddling fingers and squashing thumbs of dominant Western corporate and state interests.  And the Who gets to change the climate? workshop delivered in Arabic and English by Basel Zaraa and Ewa Jasiewicz.  There were many, many moving discussions, performance, images, and more.  But, for me, language lies at the heart of neo-colonialism.  Us and them.  Always, us and them.  Naming The Other is the prelude to colonisation.  Recognising that The Other takes many forms and that difference is good may lead to a movement built upon decolonisation and de-linking.  An opportunity for the voices of the many oppressed people in the world to be recognised as equals and different.

Imperialism and climate change are inherently linked.  The struggle against one-dimensional exploitation and destruction is complex and dangerous.  Western people (like me) do not often realise how deeply engrained our culture is within us.  If writing or TV or film or theory is not translated into English, we often don’t see it or understand it.  To assume that Western thought is the only thought is elitist and wrong.  We would do well to learn that culture is not homogenous but rich and different.  We blind ourselves by our Western-ness.  Deadline Festival helped open my eyes, my ears, my mind.  Our cultural institutions are public spaces where discussion, debate and disagreement should be happening all of the time.  Instead, they are too often little more than spaces of safe consumption, falsely policed by security guards and curators alike.  Places of fake-neutrality masking truths, hopes, alternatives and histories.  Tate ‘tolerated’ Platform London but their constantly disapproving gaze raised issues in my mind about whether the management and directors there think the space is private rather than truly public. Subtle occupations such as Deadline Festival question ownership of space and notions of whose voice is permitted to speak in our arts and cultural institutions.  Neoliberalism adores complicity…

There were so many really positive experiences at this festival to mention in this post but it was ultimately (as always) the people taking part in the festival, Tate visitors asking questions about what was happening and showing genuine interest and support, volunteers supporting and self-organising, and Platform London’s team who organised the entire event on a shoestring budget that is certifiably Fossil Funds Free.