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From Taking Part to everyday participation by Susan Jones

For a while now, I have been mulling over the possibility of including a feature on this web site on reviews of newly published books that speak to the broad set of themes, research questions and concerns that fall under the umbrella label of ‘cultural value’ (or that indeed challenge it!). As I was until recently Book Reviews Editor for the journal Cultural Trends, I felt this might have brought a bit of a conflict of interest (and overwhelming review-commissioning duties for me!). However, as I no longer have this role, when my friend and collaborator, Susan Jones – now working freelance but previously of a-n, The Artists Information Company (and Dangerous Ground partner!) – contacted me to see if I might be interested in a review of Robert Hewison’s latest book, this seemed like a perfectly timed opportunity to finally launch a book reviews feature on this site. Susan offers here a very perceptive and interesting reading of the book, connecting Hewison’s analysis to long-standing campaigns that she’s been involved in during her time at a-n and as part of her indefatigable quest for the recognition of the value of artists and their fair payment – most recently as part of the Paying Artists campaign. I hope you’ll enjoy this new format of posts, and please get in touch if you would like to review a book for The #culturalvalue Initiative!

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A review and commentary on Cultural capital: the rise and fall of Creative Britain, Robert Hewison, Verso, 2014.

When New Labour appropriated the arts as an instrument for social change, government subsidy increased by 81%. A slew of lottery funding went to a gleaming array of new arts buildings. Amongst the downsides were the yawning gap that emerged between arts funder and the funded organisations and – as evidence later revealed – despite this massive upgrading of the arts infrastructure, audience participation and depth of engagement barely improved.

The ‘golden age’ of Creative Britain was presided over by Tony Blair as Prime Minister. Despite hosting pop stars at Downing Street, John Tusa’s assertion is that Blair: “…is simply not at ease in the arts world. His evidence lack of esteem for it – as evidenced by the way his government treats it – springs from this essential personal discomfort”.

Under New Labour, targets and measurement of the arts became the order of the day – with the inevitable increase in compliance staff and overheads costs. As I myself ran an arts organisation at the time, I experienced first-hand the anxiety and coercion that resulted from what Hewison describes as the “narrow contractual agreements that substituted for professional judgement and expertise, and in which artistic autonomy and trust was replaced by surveillance and assessment”.

In an impassioned plea in 2001 to Arts Council England’s then CEO Peter Hewitt, I had argued: “To work effectively, and to deliver significant artistic development, the visual arts sector needs a dynamic, flexible infrastructure that delivers both expertise and financial support and meaningful peer assessment through artistic interchange. Above all, it should be ‘light on its feet’ as regards to responding to a fast-changing cultural climate across the breadth of professional and artistic development within the sector.”

During Gerry Robinson’s chairmanship of the Arts Council, the peer panels formed to debate arts policy and authenticate artistic quality – that he had found so irksome – had been abandoned. The result when combined with reorganisation after reorganisation of the arts funding system, in which many of the most experienced and knowledgeable art form officers departed, was an arts community that lost faith with the Arts Council and with the professional authority of officers. Writing some years later, Norman Lebrecht observed that: “The trouble with the Arts Council under New Labour is that, like government, it applied too much energy to policy papers and too little to public delivery.”

The McMaster report that came out in 2008 proposed an end to top-down, target-driven arts funding agendas. James Purnell whilst only briefly in the post of Culture Secretary gave some assurance things would change: “It is time to trust our artists and our organisations to do what they do best”, freed from “outdated structures and burdensome targets”. However the Arts Council’s next good idea was to cease the RFO (regularly-funded organisations) scheme and replace it from 2012 with NPO (National Portfolio Organisation) funding. This was a significant policy departure. No longer a collaborative relationship – one in which an independently-constituted arts applied for public funding to support its mission and ambitions – the job of an NPO would be purely and simply to help ACE to meet five stated goals as set out in its policy Great art for everyone, and thus to achieve the targets DCMS had set for ACE.

As Tory arts policy saw philanthropy as the solution to future arts resourcing, the Arts Council enshrined this aspiration in a mandatory a KPI (Key Performance Indicator). All NPOs had state within their funding agreements a year-on-year percentage point increase in income from “non-Arts Council” sources, with every other kind of income other than philanthropy ruled ineligible for inclusion. But it was clearly not a realistic expectation in a period of economic standstill, at best. As financial expert and charity trustee Susan Royce commented at the time: “The only rational response on the part of NPOs is to lie or, at the very least, to aim to be ‘economical with the truth’. Healthy funding relationships are built on honest peer-to-peer communication but, in this instance, honesty would be a poor choice for any NPO.”

As Hewison’s analysis confirms, the publicly-funded arts became adept at stacking up data to prove a policy. This is an approach which cultural analyst Sara Selwood has shown creates a blurring of the relationship between advocacy and evidence. The Arts Council’s Great Art for Everyone asserted that “76% of the adult population is engaged in the arts” – meaning going to something in the arts once year. In reality, just 17% did so “regularly”. However, such advocacy statements and the DCMS’s Taking Part surveys are continually quoted, particularly by those working in the contemporary visual arts to justify the prioritising of ACE funding to galleries. Whilst You Tube is referenced by Hewison as an indicator of the potential for vastly increasing the scale and scope within future distribution of visual culture, Taking Part digital impact data relies on visits to gallery and museum websites.

Robert Hewison’s book provides a fascinating description of cultural activity in the period 1979-2010. It shows how, when times were good, the publicly-funded arts were cynically appropriated by politicians, abused by the instrumentalists, and then axed when times got bad. He dissects these past years as a preface to looking forward to the 2015 General Election and to cultural needs beyond. He acknowledges that technology is a democratising tool and the burgeoning of the user-generated is currently an untapped source for creativity and innovation. However, he seems to make the assumption that creation of a more fulfilled society will nevertheless arise from reasserting the arms-length principle of arts funding whilst continuing to rely on the traditionally, building-based arts infrastructure – albeit with some fresh leaders with new horizons – to produce wider interpretations of ‘excellence’ and “be more open with the people they wish to engage”.

But will enjoyment of the arts in future be premised less around consumption and more around participation? This is a concept that Hewison describes as: “Homemade culture which is spontaneous and democratic by nature, self-starting… dependent on a network of peers to share enthusiasm and approval for whatever is produced.” Drawing on a body of evidence around the impact of everyday participation, Abigail Gilmore argues in her recent paper Raising our quality of life that: “Policy should not only be about… creating access to arts establishments and institutions, but also in providing resources for everyday participation within communities. This means safeguarding places where communities meet and connect – libraries, parks, community centres, markets, and other public spaces – and supporting communities to have access to the means of cultural production as well as consumption. These forms of cultural production will respond to local agendas, interests and values.”

Conducted ten years ago, a-n’s Future forecast inquiry came to some similar conclusions: “Changes across our society reflect the ever more complex interplay between our individual and collective behaviours whether as consumers, neighbours, professionals, households, citizens and as communities of interest. The increasing sophistication of our networks supported by fast evolving communication tools provide greater power than ever for communities to question and feedback on what is being done in their name, regardless of their geographical location”.

Whilst the wider, more democratic sphere – digital and physical – is undeniably a place ripe for artists and creativity to happen, recent Arts Council policies have essentially marginalised the ‘at-large’ participatory and engagement-based-practices in order to preserve diminishing funds for buildings and civic pride. The small, flexible and responsive, the artist-run, have been edited out, left to the vagaries of occasional grants. 48% of the ACE’s visual arts budget in the first NPO settlement period 2012-15 was allocated specifically to the ‘Top 20′ galleries and production agencies. The 2015-18 agreements are set to increase spend on the ‘top’ group to 68%. But whilst Taking Part says that: “52% of adults” were going to a gallery or museum in 2013/14, it seems that just 3% go every month – a figure that has remained consistent since the survey began. And as the data set lumps galleries and museums together, are such visits specifically to exhibitions of contemporary art – as funded by Arts Council or to the historical collections that may or may not include contemporary art and craft?

DCMS figures, as evidenced by Francois Matarasso suggest that fifteen per cent of the English population are taking part in amateur arts activities, promoting 700,000 performances , involving 160m recorded attendances. In the case of the contemporary visual arts, engaging more fully through their exhibition programmes with those within the amateur arts is likely to be of scant interest to curators within the publicly-funded galleries, who instead are looking to art market trends and to influence the peer networks in Venice and Manifesta, in support of their next career step.

The newly-appointed CEO Darren Henley has stated the need for Arts Council to be: “responsive and adapt to the world around us”, citing the Arts Council’s ten year strategy as the overriding framework. Holding tight to such a plan – which includes an extraordinarily prescriptive framework for NPO Business plans – whilst ‘being responsive and adaptive’ is however a contradiction in terms. Resolving this and getting the publicly-funded arts back on a more fruitful and inclusive track needs to be high on the arts agenda of the next government.

 

BIO

Susan Jones is a published writer, researcher and consultant specalising in contemporary visual arts matters including artists’ livelihoods and careers, the value of the artist-led and socially-engaged practice and the impact of artists within the arts ecology. Recent writing includes Artists’ low incomes and status an international issue, The Guardian, 2015; Rethinking artists: the role of artists in the 21st Century, Working Artists Aspect of Arts and Labour, 6th Seoul Art Space International Symposium 2014; A feast for sore eyes, provocation for the Arts Party, 2013; What are artists really worth? National Photography Symposium 2013 and published The Guardian; Where is the place for art? Engage conference 2011 and published The Guardian; Instrumentality or artistic autonomy – the pursuit of cultural value, Cultural Value Initiative Warwick University 2012 and Are there too many artists? MarketProject 2011.

 

 

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