A Policy for the Arts: “excellence” within the reach of everyone? A contribution to #ArtsPolicy50

NPG x184224; Aneurin Bevan; Jennie Lee

It’s been almost 50 years since Jennie Lee published her white paper A Policy for the Arts – The First Steps (1965). It was Britain’s first state arts policy. Some revere it. For others, the white paper ushered in a period of government instrumentalism in the arts, increasing the powerful influence of the Arts Council. Writer and theatre maker Stella Duffy has called for the arts and culture community to mark the anniversary and is asking people to consider ‘how far we’ve come, how far we HAVEN’T come, what has changed, what else there is to do – what hope is still here for arts for all’ (Duffy, 2015). I thought I’d respond by suggesting that there is little to celebrate in Lee’s white paper. Perhaps things haven’t really changed that much?

First, let’s look at some positive responses to Lee’s A Policy for the Arts. Deborah Bull, a dancer, writer and broadcaster, and director of cultural partnerships at King’s College London, described the 50th anniversary of the white paper as ‘a significant date’ for ‘anyone with an interest in policy and the arts’ in her foreword to the recently published report Step by step: arts policy and young people 1944–2014 (Doeser, 2015, p. 3). The report suggests that without the ‘persistence’ of ‘pioneers’ like Lee, we would not have arrived at the ‘general consensus in the arts sector and government about the value of arts engagement for children and young people’ that we, apparently, have reached today (Doeser, 2015, p. 4). I must point out that the report is not complacent about the tasks still facing arts education in future years.

For recently departed Arts Council England Chief Exec Alan Davey, Lee was a key figure. He singled Lee out for praise in his evangelistic article entitled Great Art for Everyone: Is There a Point? You Bet! (2012):

In the time of Jennie Lee, the first ever Arts Minister, appointed in 1964, we probably reached an equilibrium for the first time: that we fund the best – from wherever it emerges or is shown – and make it available to the most. No dumbing down, no condescending – we make the best art happen and we make sure as many people as possible can benefit from it. That’s what Great Art for Everyone is. That’s why I’ll shout it from the rooftops. (Davey, 2012)

 

Today (25th February 2015), acting CEO of Arts Council England Althea Efunshile blogged that a ‘key theme’ of Lee’s white paper ‘was the better alignment of “excellence” on the one hand and “greater engagement” on the other’ – influences that remain ‘twin pillars’ of Arts Council England’s mission of Great art and culture for everyone (Efunshile, 2015). So it would appear that, for some (perhaps many), the legacy of Jennie Lee lives on – an arts policy that’s worth celebrating. I have some serious reservations…

I wonder whether that, by sticking to an outmoded and weak arts policy that’s now a bit long-in-the-tooth, arts and culture are in danger of missing an opportunity to REALLY redefine how we think about, fund, promote and work within the field and, critically, to rethink arts and culture from the grassroots up, rather than the top down. As a critical theorist, I’m suspicious of policy. The spectres of hierarchy, paternalism, bureaucracy, technocracy, homogeneity, etc. loom behind a thin veil of ‘it’s for the people – for everyone’ rhetoric. Lee’s paper, like current arts policy, is an attempt to democratise the arts. It ignores the more radical ideology of cultural democracy. Present policy wants to get more people to get involved in existing arts and cultural provision – it supports an ‘official culture’ and ignores or belittles other equally valid forms of cultural activities. This causes justifiable concern amongst some people involved in the field, myself included, because, as Eleonora Belfiore pointed out in 2002, ‘the fact that so much of public money goes to art forms the consumption of which is effectively still the reserve of the well-educated and the wealthy (after over 50 years of “pro-access” policies!) is undoubtedly a source of unease’ (Belfiore, 2002, p. 104). I suggest little has changed since Belfiore wrote so candidly. Lee’s white paper was one element in an arts policy that led actually excluded many working class people (and people from many other backgrounds as well). Sophie Hope explained this concisely quite recently:

With their intentions to democratise culture and take “quality art” to the working classes, the TUC, Centre 42 and the Labour government in the 1960s missed the opportunity to recognise cultural democracy by failing to acknowledge or fund the “cultural practices of the working classes” (Hope, 2011, p. 16).

 

So I’m suggesting that cultural democracy was side lined by central government arts policy, suppressed in favour of the far less democratic democratisation of culture. Undoubtedly, as David Looseley suggested, Lee ‘brought a change of direction… [b]ut the Arts Council’s position changed little’ (Looseley, 2012, p. 10). This is writ large in the rhetoric of Arts Council England today. Lee, perhaps, in her call for calling for ‘universal access’ to the arts in the 1960s ‘gently rocked the boat rather than setting it on a new course’, fortifying the idea of arts for everyone but allowing old practises to remain relatively unchallenged and unchanged (Lewis, 2014 [1990], p. 87). I believe, as did Justin Lewis, that the roots of UK arts funding lie in ‘the paternalistic conservativism of the 1950s and 1960s’ from which was born an arts policy based upon paradoxical aesthetic values (now often termed ‘quality’) ‘that simultaneously promote elitism and universal accessibility’ (ibid.). I also contest that successive governments have, to varying degrees, maintained the principles enshrined within Lee’s white paper right up until today.

Jennie Lee’s call to make ‘Britain a gayer and more cultivated country’ is revealing. It is, perhaps, calling to make more people more cultivated in officially sponsored forms of official culture. Revealingly, Lee once said that ‘“if the world was made in my image it would be perfect”’, a position that Lawrence Black suggests she concealed ‘in favour of emphasising her “function is merely a permissive one”’ – she ‘played the populist’ (Black, 2006, p. 329). Critically, for Black, Lee’s defended ‘public spending on minority, elite pastimes’ by claiming that ‘improving access to them might have a cultivating trickle-down effect or therapeutic value, combating commercial, mass, American, popular culture’ (ibid. p. 330). She was clear that ‘“before we arrogantly say that any group of our citizens are not capable of appreciating the best in the arts, let us make absolutely certain that we have put the best within their reach”’ (ibid.). This was Lee mirroring the state’s wish to project a liberal tone – ‘permissive not prescriptive’ (ibid. p. 331). Her assertion that ‘“we should be trying to bring the best within reach of all; but at the same time. . . broadening of opportunities should not lead to a lowering of standards”’ was, for Black, a case of maintaining, as Keynes had previously, the ‘equation of culture, civilisation and “high” Western art’ (ibid. p. 331-332).

Following Black, I agree that ‘Lee did not contemplate Britain’s cultural life being moulded in the left’s own image’ and avoided ‘delivering the Arts as radical agency, in favour of enabling access to established providers, mindful of her non-prescriptive role’ (ibid. p. 334). 1960s Labour was, like Blair’s New Labour and, following Ed Miliband’s recent epiphany, current Labour, ‘a convinced advocate of traditional elite culture, liberal and inclusive in purpose’ – supporting exclusive classical arts, softly manipulating art as a welfare policy tool and developing its commercial possibilities (ibid. p. 335-336). I contend that Lee, like Keynes earlier, remain influential in today’s arts and cultural field. A field now rebranded and extended further towards businesses as ‘the Creative Industries’. Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, et al. saw this coming a very long time ago. For me then, Lee’s white paper was and still is a blueprint for the development of an official state cultural industry based upon the faux ‘democracy’ of the ideology of the democratisation of culture. This is not an anniversary to celebrate (unless you are part of today’s art world status quo). Instead, today marks fifty years of entrenched financial support for elitism and consumerism dressed down with occasional scraps of small-change for ragged grassroots arts and the 99% of artists struggling, as always, to make a living. We struggle for cultural democracy, to tear down the citadels brick by brick, for a truly equitable arts and cultural environment. They respond by building new temples and repair existing ones, by cutting funding to initiatives with potential to engage new audiences in (albeit often flawed) initiatives such as Creative People and Places, by telling everyone to BBC Get Creative! No money – just BBC Get Creative! I suggest we need to carefully consider the history of UK arts policy. To learn from it and make real changes, not just endless reports and new ‘contracts’ written by people with vested interests.

 

Bibliography

Belfiore, E., 2002. Art As a Means of Alleviating Social Exclusion: Does It Really Work? A Critique of Instrumental Cultural Policies and Social Impact Studies In the UK. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 8(1), pp. 91-106.

Black, L., 2006. ‘Making Britain a Gayer and More Cultivated Country’: Wilson, Lee and the Creative Industries in the 1960s. Contemporary British History, 20(3), pp. 323-342.

Davey, A., 2012. Great Art for Everyone: Is There a Point? You Bet!. [Online]
Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/alan-davey/great-art-for-everyone-is_b_2231085.html
[Accessed 11th February 2015].

Doeser, J., 2015. Step by step: arts policy and young people 1944–2014, London: Kings College London.

Duffy, S., 2015. Jennie Lee White Paper Anniversary – 25th February 2015. [Online]
Available at: https://stelladuffy.wordpress.com/2015/02/10/jennie-lee-white-paper-anniversary-25th-february-2015/
[Accessed 11th February 2015].

Efunshile, A., 2015. The Legacy of Jennie Lee. [Online]
Available at: http://blog.artscouncil.org.uk/blog/arts-council-england-blog/legacy-jennie-lee
[Accessed 25th February 2015].

Hope, C. S., 2011. Participating in the ‘Wrong’ Way? Practice Based Research into Cultural Democracy and the Commissioning of Art to Effect Social Change, London: Birkbeck, University of London.

Lewis, J., 2014 [1990]. Art, Culture and Enterprise: The Politics of Art and the Cultural Industries. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Looseley, D., 2012. Notions of the popular in cultural policy: a comparative history of France and Britain. In: D. Looseley, ed. Policy and the Popular. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, pp. 5-19.

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Quality in participatory arts: fit for whose purpose & in need of qualification?

dr_faustus_magic_circle_front_hi

Doctor Faustus in a magic circle, Woodcut, 1648

I have always been perplexed when people talk of “quality”.  It’s a strangely powerful word, given that it is essentially neutral.  Colloquially, people say things like, “He’s a quality player,” meaning that the person has an excellent footballing attribute (or attributes): goal scoring, tackling, whatever.  In science and philosophy, a quality is one element amongst a host of attributes (or qualities) that make up an entity – each quality can be good, bad, etc.  In business, quality refers to fitness for purpose, defined by a company in relation to their chosen target market’s expectations; it is often qualified, internally, by judgments of what is “acceptable” and “unacceptable”.  Clearly, the word “quality” has different interpretations in different situations but always requires qualification.  So, when I hear the term used in discussions about art or artistic practice, especially when delivered without qualification, I always shrug.

Let’s be honest, quality in art usually means (and is usually qualified as meaning) “excellent” (or at least “good”).  When used without qualification, quality still implies “good” or “excellent”, so why not be honest?  Well, we live in times when “excellence” can sound elitist so, perhaps, it’s best not to say as much.  We also use quality to refer to an aspect of a work of art in relation to its other qualities.  There are qualities in art objects and art processes.  And, of course, we’re well aware of the creeping managerialism that seeks to standardise arts practice with the aim of professionalising the arts (and artists).  This is good for funders and policymakers and good for academia but not necessarily for artists.  And what field of the arts is most prone to attempts at standardisation and professionalisation?  Participatory arts.  So, when I saw Quality in Participatory Art by ex-Helix Arts Chief Exec, Toby Lowe, on the #culturalvalue initiative website, I was intrigued (Lowe, 2015).  This blog post attempts to critically respond to some of the perspectives raised in the essay in the form of a discourse analysis.

The #culturalvalue initiative curator Eleonora Belfiore introduces the essay by situating “quality” as “… a key criterion to establish where funding should be directed” (Belfiore, 2015).  She immediately follows this by asking: “What is ‘quality’? What does it look like? How can we recognize it? And who has the authority to decide what is of quality?” (ibid.).  I think this seemingly naïve position masks her understanding of and role within the debate.  Belfiore makes this clear by placing “quality” amongst the “fundamental questions of arts policy” – a place “where discussions of cultural value usually run aground” (ibid.).  She then points out that, although widely referred to by “policy makers and funders”, they “shy away from defining” what constitutes “quality” in the arts (ibid.).  I wonder how this allegedly ill-defined term can be considered, as Belfiore does, “a key concept in cultural policy” (ibid.)?  Surely, policy should be built on firm foundations, not the slippery mudflats of an artistic estuary with many aesthetic tributaries?  I contest that cultural policy makers know full-well what they mean by “quality”.  They mean “excellent”, “good” or “high”.  These are dangerous words in today’s publicly funded arts world; close to the supposedly bygone days of a “few but roses”.  It is also worth mentioning that when quality is qualified as “excellent”, etc., it creates a dialectic: for every “excellent” there must be (at least one) “poor”; some “fit for purpose” and others “defective”; “acceptable” and “unacceptable”.

Nonetheless, Toby Lowe boldly attempts to make a case for “quality” in “participatory art” – another poorly defined term, as we shall perhaps see…

Lowe begins by stating that “quality” will inevitably be part of the cultural value debate “because we are bound to value the cultural experiences which we feel are good” (Lowe, 2015).  It is immediately apparent that he equates “quality” with “good experiences” (ibid.).  I wonder, however, if it is possible that “we” (itself a slippery term as we shall see later) and other audience members and participants might also find value in experiences we do not make us feel “good”?  Are we really only seeking the “good” in arts and culture?  Lowe then suggests “quality in any arts discipline” is often subjective (ibid.).  I couldn’t agree more.  Yet, once again, “quality” is portrayed as a single entity rather than a host of attributes.  Furthermore, need these “qualities” always be subjective?

We then come to a definition of “participatory arts”.  Lowe describes it as: “meaning the range of arts practice in which an artist (of any medium) facilitates a creative process with people” (ibid.).  This is an exceptionally broad definition and, as a result, deeply problematic – vague.  Owen Kelly warned in 1984 about the dangers of a “‘strategy of vagueness’” the left the community arts movement to be increasingly “led by the funding agencies” (Kelly, 1984, p. 23). Lowe, in his open definition, mimics the non-definition arrived at Harold Baldry’s The Report of the Community Arts Working Party, commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1974. The Baldry Report became “the foundation of the Art Council’s policy towards community arts” until at least 1984 (Kelly, 1984, p. 15) and, arguably, still remains pretty much in place today.[1] It is here worth remembering that “community art” was reinvented in the 1990s as a “seemingly-innocuous alternative, ‘participatory arts’” (Matarasso, 2013, p. 1). For François Matarasso, this transition signalled a move “from the politicised and collectivist action of the seventies towards the depoliticised, individual-focused arts programmes supported by public funds in Britain today” (Matarasso, 2013, pp. 1-2). I could not agree more. Furthermore, “participatory arts”, as is clear from Lowe’s ambiguous (non-)classification, can be considered “neutral and descriptive” – little more than “a method applied to all other forms” (Matarasso, 2013, pp. 6-7).[2] I wonder, then, how “participatory arts” practice can, when so broadly “defined”, attempt to begin to describe work within the field as “quality” (meaning, as I have already mentioned, “excellent” or “good”)?

According to Lowe, “participatory arts is the artistic discipline that most frequently asks the question: ‘who gets to make art?’” (Lowe, op. cit.). Expanding on this assertion, Lowe explains that participatory arts:

speaks most regularly of the importance of equality in the cultural voice that people have: who gets to represent themselves authentically within our culture? And if the people who are asking these questions aren’t also having conversations about what good work looks like, then the practice that is done in their name will soon become stale and uninteresting (ibid.).

I wonder who is speaking here. Who asks the questions: “Who gets to make art?”, “Who gets to represent themselves authentically within our culture?” and “What does good work look like?” Who really gets to “speak” for and on behalf of the disciplinary field of participatory arts? Of course, artists ask these questions frequently but, in the context of cultural policy, they are, perhaps, questions posed by policymakers, academics and ‘arts leaders’ – now well-versed in drowning artists’ voices. What about the public and participants? I don’t believe “they” ask these questions very often (if at all). Also, I’m not entirely sure if “the practice that is done in their name” refers to participants, artists, policymakers, academics, arts leaders, or some, or all. Lowe’s ambiguous statement seems to relate to participatory arts practice doing art in the name of someone; perhaps ‘the people’? I contend that participatory arts are often “done to them” (participants, non-arts people) by us – well-meaning artists or instrumentally rational institutions (arts organisations, funders, policymakers, academics, etc.)

Lowe’s contention that “the massive inequality of art-making opportunity” must be addressed by improving access to the arts for “those who have least access to cultural capital” (ibid.) is commonly accepted by many in today’s field of arts and culture; certainly nothing new; virtually uncontested. Yet, positing that “those who have the least… deserve the best” (ibid.) is unusual. Is Lowe here suggesting that everyone deserves to “get to work with the best artists”, using “the best equipment and materials, because their stories matter” (ibid.), or just those most culturally disadvantaged? I support, of course, the need for cultural democracy within arts and culture. The field is still far too unequal – elitist. But should we really be striving for abstract notions such as “the best”? What is “the best”? Who defines it? I wonder if Lowe is unintentionally speaking for them, “the people”, in a rather paternalistic manner, on behalf of (some) of us.

In situating participatory arts as a practice often aligned to (or even, I contest, directed by) social policy, Lowe illustrates how “debate in this area has become infected with the notion that you can judge the quality of the work by the outcomes it produces” (ibid.). The capitulation of participatory arts into little more than art as a form social work has a long history and is deeply problematic.[3] That “quality” is judged by outcomes when working towards goals driven by social policy is inevitable – a Faustian pact that will always end in fiery torment. Of course, there are other ways to define and measure (or experience and know) “quality” or more “the qualities” of a particular work of art – object or process – but that is, perhaps, worthy of another more thorough debate. It is certainly not particularly well-addressed in Lowe’s essay. Instead, he moves quickly to ask “what do we need to do put this right?” (ibid.). The answers, for Lowe, lie in understanding that it’s “critical reflection that makes our practice better” because it’s the “only way we can learn and improve” (ibid.).

Here, we begin to notice the discussion about “quality” morphing into the realm of “best practice” replete with peer reflection tools, “group crits”, open conversations. Nothing wrong with these techniques, but I wonder if Lowe’s approach is not veering here toward the dialogic. Participatory arts is a field fond of dialogic open conversation. Perhaps it is this type of approach that leads Lowe to lament: “Too much of previous discussion about what quality practice looks like in participatory arts has melted away…” (ibid.). His solution is to carefully document the “critical conversations”. But note that “best practice” has shifted again to become “quality practice”. Surely Lowe is talking about good (or best) quality practices here? Do practitioners need this? Well, it depends on whether we want or need more toolkits and better best practice guides. I’m not sure all (or most) artists do and, given the complex relational dynamics between artist and participants and between participants themselves that are so critical to the participatory arts process, whether it will be possible to ‘define’ anything other than a range of necessarily homogenous qualities. What would they then be used for and by whom?

Finally, Lowe summarises key aspects from his own report entitled Critical Conversations: Artists’ reflections on quality in participatory arts practice (Lowe, 2014). Starting with the “theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of participatory practice, which link to relational and dialogical aesthetics”, Lowe goes on to identify authenticity, “rigour”, “good participatory work”, “quality materials and equipment”, “professionalism and rigour”, “rigour, discipline, and professionalism”, amongst an extensive list of characteristics derived from a series of critical conversations with artists. For me, many of these words are reminiscent of management-speak that, whilst undoubtedly important elements of practice, lack any distinction or any form of critical analysis. For Lowe openness is important. He ends his essay by stating:

The more we are each able to be open about the complex judgements we make, and the uncertainties we feel about those judgements, the better all our work will be (ibid.).

I have big problems with “judgements”: a term laden with inferences of power – whether certain or uncertain. Nonetheless, Lowe seems to conclude by suggesting that openness will make participatory arts practice “better” – not “best” nor “excellent” nor “good” – not even “quality”. I conclude that Lowe’s essay actually describes a host of qualities that, whilst often unqualified or misleading qualified, offer insight into the vast array of attributes that affect the process and product of working in participatory arts. It is, however, important to note that what we see in this essay is participatory arts practice in all its anything goes, apolitical finery. There are other, more radical, more issue-based forms of practice in this field – for example, socially engaged art. Whilst socially engaged practice shares many characteristics (dare I say qualities) with participatory practice, the focus is much more sharp; the suspicions of institutions and policies far more acute. For me, this is a distinction I am exploring in my on going PhD research and in my practice. Rest assured, there will be no attempt to define “the quality of socially engaged art”!


[1] For more information about the Baldry Report, see Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels (Kelly, 1984, pp. 15-20)

[2] For more about the transition from “community art” to “participatory arts”, see All in this together: The depoliticisation of community art in Britain, 1970-2011 (Matarasso, 2013)

[3] For detailed analysis of the alignment with art and social work, see, for example, Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels (Kelly, 1984)

THE STATUS QUO WILL NO LONGER DO – three provocations at Arts Council England national office

What a week.  A great week.  A deeply challenging week.  A week which saw me invited to Arts Council England’s HQ in Bloomsbury Street, London, thanks to CidaCo and Anamaria Wills in particular, to present a resilience lab to almost thirty people from arts organisations from Birmingham and South East London.  I co-presented the afternoon with the lovely Sue Ball.  We were encouraged to be challenging, provocative.  I presented three provocations.  They were:

  • THE STATUS QUO WILL NO LONGER DO
  • COOPERATION AND COOPETITION: OPENNESS AND TENSION AS OSCILLATING PRODUCTIVE FORCES
  • SELF-ORGANISING AND THE COMMONS: SUSTAINABLE CREATIVE SPACES?

Twitter6f6c864

First, I briefly like to say what a lovely, super hi-tech place ACE national office is.  Superb facilities.  Coffee was a bit weak though…

Anamaria introduced me as a ‘loud, pick-a-fight-with-anyone Geordie’…  She ended the afternoon claiming I was a Marxist (I’m not)…

Anyway, the three presentations are available online (by clicking the pics or links below) for comment, criticism, sharing, whatever…  The first presentation features An Introduction to the Arts – a poem by the brilliant Luke Wright who kindly gave his permission and good wishes for my endeavours.  Thanks Luke.

Please view them with notes (bottom left corner) enabled so you can read my provocations (most of my slides are just pictures).

THE STATUS QUO WILL NO LONGER DO

THE STATUS QUO WILL NO LONGER DO

https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=506D631092AC8D21!28485&authkey=!APZLpyaJ8f9w1mQ&ithint=file%2cpptx

COOPERATION AND COOPETITION: OPENNESS AND TENSION AS OSCILLATING PRODUCTIVE FORCES

COOPERATION AND COOPETITION - OPENNESS AND TENSION AS OSCILLATING PRODUCTIVE FORCES

https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=506D631092AC8D21!28486&authkey=!ABKQuwAXk7O5EyA&ithint=file%2cpptx

SELF-ORGANISING AND THE COMMONS: SUSTAINABLE CREATIVE SPACES?

SELF-ORGANISING AND THE COMMONS - SUSTAINABLE CREATIVE SPACES

https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=506D631092AC8D21!28484&authkey=!AN5U5rmFv5DX754&ithint=file%2cpptx

We are socially engaged

This is a reblog of a post I wrote for #culturalvalue initiative which was first published on 2nd September 2014.

This was Eleonora Belfiore’s introduction…

Our regular contributor Stephen Pritchard has kindly agreed to review for The #culturalvalue initiative ‘Evaluation Survey of Artists’, a recent report by ArtWorks, one of the Paul Hamlyn’s Foundation’s Special Initiatives. The Foundation clearly has great ambitions for this project, whose web page states boldly: ‘This Special Initiative is an important intervention that will cause a paradigm shift in the way participatory work is viewed’. The report, and indeed Stephen’s post are therefore focused on the value that is attributed (or, as the case might be is not) to artistic practice that is participatory in nature and focused on fostering personal and social change, and – consequently – on the value that is attached to those artists who focus on this type of work. Because of the legacy of New Labour’s focus on the arts as a means to help deliver on socio-economic agendas, the question of the value of participatory art work with communities is often charged with accusations of ‘instrumentalism’, and the fear (that Stephen shares) is then that the artists might become hired hands charged with the delivery of soft social engineering and the kind of faux-radical type of community engagement that ensures that the fabric of society and the relations of power that govern it remain unchanged. Yet, the most interesting fact to emerge from the data in the ArtsWork report is, in my view, the sense that it is not just policy makers and funders who might fail to appreciate the value participatory arts (a complaint that is almost as old as this form of creative practice itself), but that other creative professionals in other corners of the cultural ecosystem might share in that lack of recognition and appreciation for participatory arts: struggles over cultural value, status and recognition of professional practice clearly are not limited to the arena of the competition for resources but extend to struggles over cultural authority and value amongst creative practitioners themselves.

This is my post…

Paul Hamlyn Foundation created the special initiative, ArtWorks: Developing Practice in Participatory Settings, in 2010 to ‘support the continuing professional development of artists’ (Paul Hamlyn Foundation, 2014).  A ‘workforce scheme’, the project is funded and supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Creativity Culture & Education (supported by Arts Council England) and the Cultural Leadership Programme (ibid.).  In the words of PHF, this ‘important intervention’ is designed to ‘cause a paradigm shift in the way participatory work is viewed’, producing ‘enhanced quality and deeper understanding of what is required from artists in generating successful participatory projects’ (ibid).  There are five ArtWorks Pathfinders, each with a differently focused action research project.  The initiative ends in 2015.  In June 2014, the foundation published ArtWorks Evaluation Survey of Artists, the first of several reports emanating from their extensive ‘conversation’ with and about participatory arts.

This post looks at how elements of the report relate to both my socially engaged practice as well as my current doctoral research project.  I’ve followed the ArtWorks initiative with interest since it started.  I attended their Changing the Conversation conference in 2013, thanks to a bursary from them.  Several of their previous reports and provocations are referenced in my doctoral research literature review.  I’m presenting, PechaKucha-style, at the ArtWorks North East Conference entitled, Pilots to Practice – learning approaches for artists working in participatory settings at BALTIC in September 2014.  I took part in this research.  Why mention all this?  Well, I thought I should put my cards on the table.  The cards say: Be critical; take part.  Why am I critical?  The field of social practice/ community arts/ participatory arts/ etc. is a broad church.  Today, artists producing children’s workshops for major institutions form one node, radical activists another.  There are many nodes in the field.  For some people in the art world, much, if not all, of social practice is not art.  I like tension and dissensus.  Social practice offers plenty.  This is good.  I like DIY (or more precisely, Do It With Others); the commons; alternative forms of democratic society.  Some elements of social practice produce these things and more in abundance.  But much of the field is driven by instrumentalism, agendas designed to use ‘participatory art’ as a tool of soft state power and a means of obtaining increased government funding by ticking ‘engaging new audiences/ publics’ boxes – participatory art as a panacea for all life’s ills.  This is neoliberal social change – not social justice.  This is about maintaining, evening deepening, elitism and age-old institutional status quos within the arts – not a paradigm-shift.

Anyway, the report is detailed and interesting and has received a reasonable amount of attention in the arts media, so it’s worth digging into some of the discourse around the data.  Having read the report, four questions sprung to mind:

  • How has the report been portrayed by PHF, the media and on social media?
  • What does it actually say about artists working in participatory settings?
  • What does this report mean for those working in the field of social practice?
  • What’s missing?

The research was conducted over a short period early in 2014 and had a reasonably large core sample size of 868 respondents.  The questionnaire was thorough and the data is undoubtedly well presented.  I recommend that anyone interested in finding out more about the breadth of artists working in the field in the UK at present take a look at the report.  It makes for fascinating reading which, for a practitioner working in the field, like me, feels very familiar.  But what about my questions?

As I mentioned, there have been several responses to the report for other institutions.  For example arts in criminal justice settings organisation, Arts Alliance, focused on the report’s findings that socially engaged artists often felt their work was undervalued and misunderstood within the arts, often received informal training and worked in ways that, and with commissioners who, regularly ignored standards and codes of practice.  They pointed out that only one percent of socially engaged artists worked within criminal justice.  Arts Professional’s headline was that socially engaged art is undervalued, accompanied by the rather strange (given the data) that ‘Artists urge employers and commissioners to invest more in their professional development’.  Their report did not actually discuss the claim made in the strapline in particular detail, however.  Social media, especially Twitter, responded (in general) very positively to the publication of ArtWorks’ report.

PHF in their July 2014 Briefing reported many of the headline statistics from their report and included a comment by ArtWorks Project Director, Dr Susanne Burns.  In her comment, Burns pointed out that almost half of the survey respondents earned more than half their income from socially engaged practice, describing the practice as ‘a significant area of work generating major economic value for artists’.  Much of her commentary centred on the need for better training, CPD, space for reflection, investment, etc.  Her conclusion is worth quoting at length:

Work in participatory settings is valid practice in its own right. It constitutes a major element of many artists’ portfolios and affects the lives of many people across many areas of life. The status of the work must be raised. We must work together to ensure that its economic contribution, as well as its social value, is recognised and that the artists who undertake this work are supported to be the best they can be at all stages of their careers.

There is little to argue with here.  Social practice is a major part of many artists’ creative activities and, increasingly, an essential way of earning a living whilst not getting paid anything/ enough when exhibiting their work.  This is an area I believe that A-N’s #PayingArtists campaign needs to urgently address.  The motives for some artists currently working within ‘participatory settings’ and the intentions behind instrumentalist projects such as Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places may, perhaps, be suspect on occasions – this is, however, another discussion for another day.  The data quite clearly shows that socially engaged artists feel undervalued.  This is unsurprising, given that the field is often belittled by many in the elite arts establishment.  The data illustrates how artists feel that they are not understood by commissioners, nor given enough time to plan properly, nor listened to/ involved enough.  For me, this relates to many personal experiences in which commissioners do not really know what you do, why you are doing it or what they really want to achieve from the commission.  They are more interested in targets, outcomes, numbers, boxes ticked and nice photographs for their websites.  This is not their fault.  This is symptomatic of an evaluation-based culture seeking to provide instrumental results rather than participant experience.

The question of developing courses and degrees and career development opportunities for future socially engaged artists and CPD, standards of practice and formal qualifications for existing practitioners is, for me, something I’m rather sceptical of.  I believe that constantly reflective and reflexive individual practice, married with ‘being the right type of person’ to work in the field, and a person-centred, organic, non-expert approach to learning from people is essential.  I don’t believe this can be taught.  Nonetheless, I fully understand why initiatives such as this and FE providers are keen to exploit the field as a potential source of new earnings and funding.  Attempts to standardise or certify socially engaged artists or to produce ‘toolkits’ will, for me, always be likely to fail; always represent creeping instrumentalism.

So, my overall feeling about ArtWorks Evaluation Survey of Artists is that it contains excellent data that doesn’t indicate a great demand for the field to be formalised or institutionalised but rather stimulates further debate about examining and mapping the field in much greater detail and exposing the multitude of individual practices both working with and against the state in its insidious drive to promote ‘participation for all’.  At present, socially engaged art is not recognised by Arts Council England or many other major institutions.  It has a long history and is often inherently interdisciplinary – not ‘just art’.  Many artists work in the field; many collectives, cooperatives, even constituted organisations, exist for socially engaged art; even (‘non-artist’) activists make socially engaged art.  My feeling is that social practice should be recognised as a valid, varied and independent mode of art-making that should be recognised by ACE and others as separate from other art forms – not classified as part of a generic ‘Cross-art form’ category.  This does not mean the field should be institutionalised or professionalised.  Much of it already is…

Postscript…

This book offers a much more progressive approach to thinking about and learning about social practice…

https://i0.wp.com/pablohelguera.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/portada-esea.jpg

 

 

BIO…

Stephen Pritchard is an art historian, participatory arts maker, curator and writer with a background in critical literary studies.  He has previously worked in textiles design and manufacture, international business management, quality systems design, and the contemporary arts.  He describes himself as a participatory arts evangelist who’s made many a pact with many devil and that is what he likes – but this is probably not true.  He’s toying with the idea of redefining himself as a gamekeeper-turned-poacher but this will more than likely come to nothing.  His favourite number is zero.

Stephen is currently also executive director of participatory arts social enterprise dot to dot active arts CIC and is also just beginning the first year of his AHRC funded research doctorate entitled: Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?  He is also working as a curator for Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust’s Healing Arts initiative and is helping train recent graduates in curating exhibitions as part of a new initiative with Whistle Stop Arts.  He has just finished a major participatory arts project in empty shops in Blyth, Northumberland called Old-New Curiosity Shop.

stephen@dottodotactivearts.org

@etiennelefleur

@dottodotart

www.colouringinculture.wordpress.com

www.dottodotactivearts.org

www.facebook.com/dottodotactivearts

‘Cultural Value’ and the Economic and Social Impact of the Arts

I attended a workshop at the University of Warwick on 9th July about Co-producing cultural policy.  The day was very, very interesting and frustrating at times.  I was guest blogger.  I wrote this.  It was originally published here: http://coculturalpolicy.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/cultural-value-and-economic-and-social.html

 

A morning of valuing artists, museums as co-producers of ‘social justice’ and cultural value as power, followed with an afternoon workshop about value and impact. The long trip to The University of Warwick was certainly action packed. A day of two halves. A room full of interested and actively probing researchers (and a Director of a National Portfolio Organisation). The day was all about policy: cultural value in the morning; humanities research after lunch. So what happened?

First up was Susan Jones, Director of a-n The Artists Information Company. Susan was, as usual, forthright and focused, delivering the hard facts about the #payingartists campaign; about ‘positive’ mission ‘delivery’; campaigning for fair pay for artists. She pointed out that ‘sometimes artists aren’t even mentioned in cultural policy’ anymore; pay had been reduced significantly in real terms since 1997; and nowadays ‘exhibition budgets exclude the notion of paying artists’. Why? Susan was clear to place responsibility on an increasing ‘shift in focus towards infrastructure’ – in cultural buildings and top-heavy management and administration teams. All great stuff! I firmly believe in this perspective too. But Susan’s emphasis was on exhibitions and galleries ‘because that’s where public funding is going in visual arts’. a-n’s new #payingartists video advertisement reinforced what, for me, seemed a rather narrow way of conceiving artistic practice today. Susan explained, however, that a-n are beginning to ‘look outside galleries – beyond exhibitions’, so, perhaps, there’s some hope of an expanded future scope for this undoubtedly ‘must address’ issue. I have a nagging concern about institutionalising artists’ rights and pay, but that’s for another day…

Director of National Museums Liverpool, David Fleming was incredibly passionate in advocating a more radical approach to museum programming than is often, perhaps, the case. He’s a firm supporter of national infrastructure buildings, ‘so long as the public get something out of it’. His approach is all about people, emotions, inter-generational activities, variety, and, ‘fighting for social justice’ – all with an authentic Liverpool voice (although he was quick to explain he’s from Leeds)! His show reel of ‘social justice’ programming left virtually no stone unturned: gender reconfiguration; queer; children’s cancer; dementia; well-being; Hillsborough; gun crime; slavery – all examples of successful ‘collusion with other bodies’ (NGOs, charities, etc.) because, apparently, ‘activists like working with the establishment’. David was blunt in his dislike of policy directed at numbers in the building, citing London museums as a prime example of government policy and funding decisions based upon ‘how many high spending tourists you can attract’. Nevertheless, his advocacy of the Museum Association’s Museums Change Lives agenda and tick-all-boxes social justice narrative left me feeling a little unsettled. Was this really radicalism or soft reinforcing of a form of, undoubtedly left-of-centre, neoliberal state instrumentalism?

Arts Council England’s Senior Policy and Research Manager, Andrew Mowlah, always had an unenviable task. The mood was set. He rehearsed many of the Arts Council’s new ‘tablets of stone’: the need to ‘reflect instrumental and intrinsic values’; fitting ‘the aesthetic… into cultural policy’; ‘making the best possible case for investment in arts and culture’; ‘metrics’; the ‘economic benefits of the UK culture industry’; ‘the wider benefits of the arts’ (beyond economics and tourism, perhaps?); etc., etc. He was steadfast in his defence of the need to ‘evidence’ culture to persuade government to continue to fund arts and culture, concluding that we shouldn’t ‘discount the value of data and evidence’. Many in the audience wondered whether anyone in government really valued the evidence anyway, no matter what its form. For me, any mention of ‘culture industry’ makes me go all Adorno…

Eleonora Belfiore was last in the morning session. Critical antithesis of Arts Council England’s cultural policy, she breezed through a cutting overview of current cultural value policy. Her assertion that the many who see cultural value as a way of determining ‘real value’ are being ‘over simplistic’ was an antidote to the positivist reductionism abounding in much of social sciences and cultural policy right now. Cultural value, like all things, is socially constructed, political, transient, and never neutral – power is always orchestrating. Ele’s example of Big Fat Gypsy Wedding… clearly demonstrated how economics and ‘fun’ programming has very dark undertones: it humiliates an already oppressed ethnic group, redoubling stereotypes whilst making a great deal of money for the media. It is, as Ele explained, the role of academia and research (and, perhaps, the arts and others) to ‘probe the underbelly of cultural value policy’.

I’m over my word count already, so let’s just summarise an excellent afternoon’s research workshop as follows: ‘Impact is not evil’ but ‘how do you engage someone like James Dyson?’ Solid ‘REF Gold’!

Second post : ‘Occupy artists take message to streets’ from BBC (via @illuminator99) # PhDResearch

illuminator-grievances

Second post : ‘Occupy artists take message to streets’ from BBC (via @illuminator99) # PhDResearch

This link takes you to a really interesting piece by the BBC from 2012 exploring how Occupy use arts as a powerful means of producing counter-hegemonic discourse with big public impact.  Features Illuminator 99%.

Radical counter-hegemonic arts ‘participation’ that critiques instrumentalism by @illuminator99 #PhDResearch

I have been a long-time admirer of the amazingly simple, incredibly expressive and exceptionally impactful work of activist arts movement Illuminator 99%. Their work epitomises, for me, the spirit of Occupy and other non-hierarchical counter-hegemonic movements. This video is the first of two I wish to post to (hopefully) stimulate some discussion around arts, activism and social justice.