Where is the place for art?
Susan Jones explores concepts and values around the placing of and participation in art practice and questions whether traditional institutional models – defined by compliance, legalities, unwillingness to take risk – are suitable vehicles for the arts to do its job within society.
These are dangerous times for people and for our world of arts values.
Uncertainty can cause us to be safe, edit the complexity, be secretive, conservative (no waves please, the arts are in crisis). We can put our heads down (noses to the grindstone) and aim for preservation of our chosen environment.
"We’re all in this together" – although some of us seem to be more 'in it' than others - gives way to "I want to make sure my institution is the one that survives" (with all that goes with that), to live another day; battered and bruised we go the ten rounds.
But what of our missions, our ‘greater good’: our altruism to support the things we believe in, above all other?
In my case, it’s a passion for and commitment to doing whatever it takes to raise awareness of the value of artists in society. Not to any specific designated product or existing infrastructure, that is ‘of its time’, in a fast-changing world. I am a keen embracer of the 'unknown unknowns'.
- Physical location: geographical / cold spot / hot spot / central / rural
- Hierarchical positioning: 'know your place'
- Setting: to be assigned a place
What did the riots tell us about people and their power to make a voice (a place) to ‘interact’ with their environment and thus (however inconveniently) to force institutions to behave differently than they had intended to or have resourced and budgeted for?
And what did the #riotscleanup tell us about participatory practices and how they can be enabled outwith institutional structures?
Everyone now knows how to pitch their tent and get a message across – they don’t ‘know their place’ or wait to be assigned one, within a policy directive that is manageable – provided 'people' don’t get in the way, make demands.
- Market place – you just need to fit into it
- Product placement – fit the artwork to the brand
- Placement – is this where a meeting of minds happens?
However we in the arts seem largely unfamiliar with the need to make a fast, timely response to something – art responding to the world at large (9/11, the Arab uprising, the one million unemployed young people, for example) – let alone be able to make an effective campaign to 'save the arts' from cuts.
The 1984 Arts Council policy The Glory of The Garden was to designed put visual art in its rightful place – that was into regional municipal galleries, away from London and into the ‘provinces’.
We are victims of state patronage that on the one hand ensures our otherwise unaffordable existence – subsidises our lack of market take-up/buy in/interest – whilst, because of the state’s rarefied/unworldly situation, controls us by the tyranny of the wrong kinds of measurement (rather than quantifying value).
How can traditional institutional models – defined as they are by compliance, legalities, unwillingness to take risk – possibly be suitable vehicles for the level and depth of participation we are seeking to enable the arts to do its job effectively within society – at all levels?
Conrad Atkinson’s 1986 Critical Mats questioned the (dubious) advertising slogans of Sellafield Nuclear Power Station and its newly founded Visitor Centre, in an arts project sponsored (albeit rather briefly) by a local bus company. Despite sponsorship’s niceties and instrumentality, art must be able to 'bite the hand that feeds it' – that’s its place.
So perhaps his work was 'out of place'?
But as Julie Crawshaw, doctoral scholar of the Sustainable Consumption Institute (University of Manchester) and interim Head of Communications and Partnerships at a-n, commented in her recent paper ‘Value of making (value)’: “Rather than fitting art practice to ever-changing measurement criteria – or setting norms ('will look like...' ) or attempting to predict behaviours, perhaps we in the arts – the arts activists – should be comfortable with what is not normal, what is unpredictable, what is, and make better sense of that”.
Joshua Sofaer, Artist Fellow on the Clore Leadership Programme said: “Over the last 10 months, I have been thinking about how artists can really make a difference in the societies they find themselves in. This is not about ‘making the case’ for the arts under the harsh interrogation of media cynicism during a time of cuts but rather a proactive investigation of what art can do affirmatively, especially in situations of need. “
Do buildings, can buildings run by permanent institutions, respond fast to situations of new need?
The Oscar Niemeyer Centre – charged with delivering the Guggenheim effect in Aviles, Asturias – is run by a permanent staff of only four with a glittering array of specialist artistic advisers. (This is a novel approach to resourcing and drawing on artistic specialism that the UK might care to investigate further).
“The Dome, which houses a 2,000 square meter exhibition hall, is shaped like a semisphere of bright white concrete, the architect’s favourite material”.
"48% of ACE visual arts NPO funding (£21m) goes to a ‘Top 20’ of galleries orproduction agencies." ‘Spotlight on arts funding’, a-n Magazine May 2011 »
"...less than £1.36 million was saved by the cuts to sixteen artists' production and practice-driven visual arts organisations."
Ladders for development, a-n.co.uk, May 2011 »
[Maybe] “Art galleries should be like cinemas – open to audiences every night of the week” as David Lister suggested in The Independent.
Are arts buildings the ‘place for art’ or could they in future be viewed as memorials to the heady, finance-at-the-ready pre-2007 era?
Are buildings (as run by institutions) self-serving? How will their viability (sustainability) be affected by rising energy and transport costs. and the engagement preferences of an ageing population with less disposable income?
Are “arts organisations well-placed to lead the creativity and innovation that will be a driver of economic recovery”? (as Arts Council England thinks they will be and sets out in 'Achieving great art for everyone').
“The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art is the most popular regional venue, with 400,000 visitors a year – down from 628,000 in 2002. Followed by Nottingham Contemporary, which has seen annual attendance fall from 290,000 to 200,000, but has a subsidy worth £6 per visitor. New Art Gallery Walsall had 200,000 visitors last year – down from 236,000 in 2000.” Jonathan Owen, The Independent
Quoting again from Julie Crawshaw, she says: “Art practice is something that sits, walks, jumps up and down, amongst, on top of and in between [the institutions].” Just like people do when they create a riot, pitch a tent or otherwise “change the world”.
We must in my opinion beware of over-reliance on this events-based, instant gratification-based culture which, unless there is widespread participation in the arts by all sectors of our society, is clearly unsustainable without the largesse of public funding. Arts institutions are already busy cutting corners – for example on fees and good practice for artists – in order to deliver their promise to increase audiences.
“Gatherings create new links between artists, community and wider Citizen Power programme; a core group of about 25 people regularly attend including a representative from the Youth Parliament who subsequently linked up with a local school ….. Events have been used to facilitate artistic experiments in the city focused on place making and working with public-sector professionals on how they engage the public in their work.”
Citizen Power Peterborough - RSA/ACE/PCC
The Citizens Power project 'Experiments in Place Making' aims to encourage locally-based creative practitioners to (further) investigate how their creative practice can engage people with each other and where they live. Locally-based creative practitioners are partnered with a Neighbourhood Manager in order to identify a particular local challenge. This new partnership presents an opportunity to explore and extend creative practice as a core resource in developing new approaches to place making and in particular, a chance to experiment and develop innovative and collaborative practice.
It is hoped that both the creative practitioners and the local neighbourhood groups benefit from new ways of looking at communities and how creative practice can be applied to address needs.
At the same time, a network of artists has set up Creative Peterborough to "champion the arts and local creative practitioners in the city. Citizen Power recognises that Creative Peterborough are well placed to build on the legacy of a stronger, confident and inclusive arts community, which is raising funds, developing audiences in and beyond the city, creating jobs and boosting the economy."
“Peterborough citizens will be consuming and producing more art.”
Japan Art Donation was established by the arts community in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011:
“The search for missing people and supplies for refugees [is going on] in stricken areas. On the other hand, the mental care for the people who have suffered will be a crucial subject in the future. We believe that art will have an important role to play then, in healing people and revitalizing their lives. We will use your relief donations for the revival of cultural institutions, dispatching of artists, conducting of workshops for children who suffered, opening of theatre plays, dances, and performances in stricken areas. “
Japan Art Donation is not a legal entity, it does not have a board of directors (although it does have an informal advisory group). It is simply a website and bank account. It was generated by independent curator Kenji Kubota and raised £47,000 in three months.
Kubota said: “The local government has to spend a lot of money to recover the damage. So I thought okay, the budget for culture must be cut. I think it is important to have art activity.”
'Ishinomaki Wonder Yokocho' was initiated by Ichiro Endo, Sakiko Azuchi and Chie Kajiwara, while they were involved in helping people living in the areas stricken by the disaster. Ichiro Endo had been volunteering while going back and forth in his 'Go For Future' vehicle between Kanto and these areas. They are making signboards and painting the shutters in the shopping area in the centre of Ishinomaki city, in Miyagi prefecture, as well as organizing a wide range of activities such as exhibitions, showcases, gatherings and workshops. The project revolves around the people of Ishinomaki and is run in collaboration with artists including local artists.
A shuttle bus makes round trips between Yokohama, Tokyo and Tohoku with people from each region on board. As well as the artists, the bus is driving ordinary people from Tokyo and Yokohama who are willing to volunteer. This project helps with the revitalisation of the stricken areas not only through the collaboration of artists but by making use of everybody's potential.
So at the same time as attracting a financial basis, Japan Art Donation has formed a network of those in the cultural sector who want to use their expertise and creativity for the benefit of the affected areas.
So is ‘the place for art’ in ‘temporary institutions’ such as this, that can quickly foster meaningful, timely participation – create a bigger bounce?
Are we seeking places for art or contexts for participation?
In Julie Crawshaw’s paper she says: “...The world is looking for new ways of seeing. Art practice – the collective performance of art making (between materials, artists, artworks and others) is an inherently inter-disciplinary reflexive process that supports us to rethink and reconsider our realities. Arts organisations are an organisation of artists and others, materials and bits and bobs. They are art practices. Perhaps a ‘bigger’ collective artwork.”
“A fantasy of mine,” she says, “is that they have a capacity for bigger relfection in our collective place. However, to see the big, we must observe the small carefully.”
And as Irene Lucas, Former Director General, Department for Communities and Local Government comments: “Places change for the better when you give people the power to do things differently. That takes courage and genuine commitment to new thinking and ways of working on the ground.”
And it is these concepts, for me, that present the real challenge for art, and its ‘place’.
Bibliography and sources
'The Glory of The Garden', Arts Council of Great Britain policy, 1984.
'Achieving great art for everyone', Arts Council England, 2011.
'Value of making (value)', Julie Crawshaw, Eastside Public Evaluation, 2011.
Citizen Power Peterborough, a citized-focused partnership between RSA, Arts Council England and Peterborough City Council 2010-12.
'Debate', Joshua Sofaer, a-n Magazine December 2011/January 2012 »
© Susan Jones, Director a-n The Artists Information Company.
A shorter version of this report was presented at ‘Work in Progress: artists, education and participation’, the Engage/Enquire International Conference 14-16 November 2011. See below:
A former artist, Susan Jones is a published writer and researcher on the visual arts and Director and Publisher, a-n The Artists Information Company.
First published: a-n.co.uk December 2011
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