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By: Alice Bradshaw
I received an artists' bursary from Arts Council England through application to attend the State of the Arts 2012: Artists shaping the world conference at The Lowry in Salford on Tuesday 14 February 2012. Arts Council England provided evaluation forms to give scale ratings of the conference sessions and comments. These are my any other comments.
# 1 [17 February 2012]
Monday 13 February 2012: Pre-conference events
I was really pleased to have been awarded an artists' bursary to enable me to attend the SOTA12 conference this year as last year I couldn't attend due to the ticket price. I did attend the Scottish version State of Play: Art and Culture in Scotland Today in 2010 as a performer and audience member, then followed and engaged in the SOTA11 debate online particularly about the lack of artists' voices at the conference. When awarded the bursary, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to attend due to recent major surgery but thought this was too important an opportunity to miss and decided I was sufficiently well enough to attend.
The first session that was arranged for artists' bursary recipients (or “winners” as our info packs declared us) at the ACE North West offices was good to meet the other artists and to have the opportunity to raise questions. Immediately after that in the pub round the corner proved to be a much more familiar and less strained way to get to know everybody and begin the conversations around “Artists shaping the world.”
The Monday evening events provided courtesy of MIF were a nice touch but simply signposting to existing events in the vicinity could in future be a more locally supportive way of delegates engaging in the local offer. A comment overheard at the Whitworth Art Gallery during Amadou and Mariam was that it felt like a band laid on for a wedding reception rather than a music performance for its own sake. The general feeling of exclusivity about the whole conference and particularly pre-conference events made for a slightly uncomfortable experience. Whilst complimentary events, drinks, food and hotel rooms plus travel reimbursements are gratefully received, it felt wrong to receive such relative opulence in times of austerity when just down the road one of the best galleries in the North (Castlefield Gallery) has recently lost it's ACE funding.
# 2 [17 February 2012]
Tuesday 14 February 2012: SOTA12
The film What Matters, which artists' bursary recipients had already previewed the night before, was probably the highlight of the first session in the Lyric Theatre of the grand setting of The Lowry. Kirsty Wark did a great job as chair but speeches by Alan Davey, Liz Forgan and Ed Vaizey were largely unmotivational, frustrating and Valentine-sickly. To have the Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries stand in front of a large number of arts professionals and tell them he is determined to keep artists at arms-length from the Government was not a good start to the day and threw the integrity of the entire conference into jeopardy. How can “artists shape the world” when they are kept well away from the the policy makers directly affecting the arts? Although Mr Vaizey's view was not entirely surprising, it did provide the perspective directly from the Minister about how Government view artists. But then why couldn't Ed Vaizey stay all day? Surely even with a minister's busy schedule he could have made the commitment to stay and listen to opinions at one of the most significant national arts conference of the year and even engage in conversation with the sector? I think this demonstrates a need for better advocacy work on the need for politicians to listen to artists, and perhaps for an alternative format of ministerial interaction in SOTA13.
The parallel sessions I attended were Artists and Audiences in the morning and Artists and International in the afternoon. I found it difficult to choose which sessions to attend as many if not all were relevant and cross-cutting. When choosing, I didn't know who the speakers and chairs were which could have helped the decision.
The presentations by the speakers in the Artists and Audiences were both from the performing arts and there were no artist representation on the panel which was disappointing. The presentations in the Artists and International were more relevant and interesting with a local/international artist on the panel. I picked up that the parallel sessions had been designed to unravel the problems of the theme in the morning and address the issues in the afternoon, but I'm not sure both if that was indeed the intention and if that happened at all. Points and questions from the audiences weren't debated much at all and it felt like a quick-fire, skimming of the surface of the well-rehearsed problems. I thought these sessions would be smaller groups addressing specific issues and working through to solutions in a workshop/roundtable debate so was disappointed that there seemed to be no outcome. To address such big cross-cutting themes in 30 minutes each seems almost pointless. Maybe the conference needed to be longer to allow sufficient time on each theme.
# 3 [17 February 2012]
The Arlene Phillips interview was the low point of the day. Why Arlene Phillips?? Hasn't she got enough airtime? 30 minutes dedicated to her interview was excessive in balance with the rest of the day.
Perhaps it was fatigue of being talked at and hearing well-rehearsed issues reiterated but the final session back in the Lyric Theatre seemed to miss the “Call to Action – a manifesto” bit. Kirsty Wark and Alan Davey were on stage speaking but I completely missed any useful call to action or manifesto.
The performances by Contact and David Edgar were inspired and a refreshing change but it felt too little and too late in the programme of the day.
After a lost coat fiasco, drinks and canapés at the Imperial War Museum and more speeches which I opted out of in favour of discussing artists running SOTA13 with a handful of other artists there, that was it.
To be an artists' bursary “winner” put me in a strange hierarchical position to the rest of the paid-up delegates. What was my role at the conference as an artist? For a conference subtitled as “Artists shaping the world” I presumed I was there to have a say and use both my creativity and sector knowledge and experience to, well, do some shaping in some way or another. On the other hand from feeling uncomfortable about the opulence provided, I also felt my presence there wasn't valued enough alongside largely NPO funded organisations directors and chief executives effectively being paid their salary to be there, as hard-earned and worthy their salaries they may be. A few days after the event and having had time to digest the experience, I'm still not sure what my role was intended to be. From the first Monday afternoon session, ACE representatives verbally assured us that artists' presence this year weren't tokenistic, but I wasn't given an opportunity to affect change there and then. It was good to gain more perspective on what is happening centrally/nationally and clarity on where the problem areas lie, but to go off and affect any change independently from ACE, NPOs and Government isn't “Artists shaping the world” any more than it was before. So I would like to make a plea that ACE enable artists to have a real voice and run SOTA13. There is the collective will and the necessary skills already there to make this happen with your support, and I strongly believe this will result in greater art for everyone.
17 February 2012
# 4 [18 February 2012]
No further positive reflections as yet (still thinking) but crystallised my thoughts on one of the major issues that came out of SOTA12: The top down hierarchy at play enforced by both Ed Vaizey and Liz Forgan at SOTA12.
A point I made in the Art & Audiences parallel session is that defining the roles of artists and audience are integral to the discussion and that these roles are often blurred. Audience are artists, artists are audience, artists are curators (and run NPOs) and curators/NPOs are audience.
The archaic top down model just isn't working. At the “bottom” the audience/artists/arts organisations are working together (as equals and frequently flipping between roles) in interesting, innovative and grass-roots ways. Government is determined to keep artists at armslength we heard directly from the Minister. In between the arts sector and Government is the Arts Council under pressure from Government to implement cuts upon cuts.
I think this underlies many problems and frustrations of the day and needs addressing desperately urgently. This is a major reason so many artists are calling upon Arts Council to allow them to be involved in the planning of SOTA13. The feeling of being at the bottom of a hierarchy and the communications not being a two way process “back up” to Government is the undervaluing theme of the day.
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Alice Bradshaw is an artist and curator based in West Yorkshire, UK. Her practice involves a wide range of media and processes involving the manipulation of everyday objects and materials. Mass-produced, anonymous objects are often rendered dysfunctional caricatures of themselves, addressing concepts of purpose and futility and blurring distinctions between the absurd and the mundane. Alice curates collaboratively and is co-founding director of Fundada Artists’ Film Festival, founding director of the Museum of Contemporary Rubbish, co-curator in residence at Westgate Studios, Wakefield and co-curator for Holmfirth Arts Festival. http://www.alicebradshaw.co.uk