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Guest list or level playing field?

Some thoughts on cultural diversity from visual artists’ perspectives, commissioned for the NCA (National Campaign for the Arts) Autumn 2005 newsletter.

“We must begin by understanding that art is not universal, neither are the notions of creativity that drive it, right down to the fundamentals. We must allow people to develop what they value not what we value.” David Knight1

Currently celebrating 25 years of exposing the diversity and complexity of the visual arts from the perspective of artists, a-n believes that any cultural legislation should recognise the role of artists in defining their own working environment by involving them in the development of related policies and initiatives. The very process of widening dialogue – in our case through working directly with artists’ networks to stimulate open and unfiltered debates – is a meaningful way of shaping the contexts for practice now and in the future. By widening the dialogue to include those that have the most in-depth experiences of what is being discussed, we can begin as arts professionals to sharpen our thinking processes.

“I do actually like the context which IniVa2 has created for my work – in particular the political context. The organisation is interested in a notion of a culture that goes beyond art and the limitations of race and at the same time addresses the difficulties for people who make work who are not from the dominant ideology or those who produce work that cannot fall into easy categories.” Alia Syed3

The role that many artists fulfil within society as agents for social change is widely debated both in terms of public “value for money” and the impact that their particular experiences and training brings to bear on community settings. What do artists do that no-one else can? Rather than delivering social objectives, many artists question, explore or directly challenge the environment within which they are operating. How can this heighten or change the perceptions and expectations of cultural planners and government agencies?

As we better understand the measures that widen participation from the practitioners’ perspective, it becomes clear that there is a need to support artists as artists and on their own terms. Whilst we cannot predict what each practitioner might need, we can better understand the type of support structures that artists draw on to develop their work. As a research-based discipline, the benefits that awards such as Arts Council of England’s Decibel Awards, NESTA’s Dream Time and Paul Hamlyn’s Awards for Artists to buy time and space to develop their individual interests within their work cannot be understated. This in turn drives up quality for the benefit of audiences, clients and commissioners alike.

“I couldn’t have made that film without Okwui and Sarat4. I tried to speak to Western curators but they didn’t understand what was involved. With Sarat and Okwui I could openly chat to them and show them an unsolved idea or picture and receive honesty with a sense of understanding, without the colonial baggage. They understood that it was a special project.” Zarina Bhimji5

For a culturally rich sector to thrive, the issue of the economic status of artists needs to be at the forefront of the debate. Our recent fees and payments research6 identifies that artists are three times more likely to be self-employed than any other sector of the working population and offers a working model for transparent pricing that acknowledges the specific needs of self-employment including: business overheads (such as insurance, childcare costs, pensions) and also addresses their professional development and experience levels.

In the words of artist Becky Shaw:

“Working project-by-project demands a kind of availability and mobility for artists that cuts across notions of family and a commitment to location”7

Because artists tend to sustain motivation by focusing on their own interests (which may be political, social or borne from particular cultural circumstances) rather than the agendas of others, they must as a matter of course construct a sense of their own value or purpose as part of framing their practice and locating audiences for it. However, the continuity of their work (getting new projects, funding etc...) depends on achieving some degree of value or recognition for their practice within the wider world. This tension lies at the heart of relations between cultural planners and artists working within the public sphere.

Finding herself described as a “culturally diverse artist”, Erika Tan is both amused and bemused, asking simply: “Doesn’ t diversity exist in the mix?” In her view, the double bind of “identifying me as different and then trying to incorporate me, exists as much today as it did when I first started making work”8

As practitioners and experts in the field remind us, the responsibility for engaging with difference lies not just with artists – and especially not with diasporic artists alone.

1 Cultural Diversity in a Post Colonial Society, by David Knight, commissioned by Creative People (www.creativepeople.org.uk), March 2003

2 Institute for International Visual Art, www.iniva.org

3 Eating Grass, Edith-Marie Pasquier, a-n Collections: Collaborative relationships, 2005

4 Okwui Enwezor is a pioneer of curatorial practice on the themes of cultural difference and globalisation. As Artistic Director of ‘Documenta 11’, Enwezor brought post colonial critique to the mainstream. ‘Documenta 11’ held in Kassel every 5 years is the world's biggest exhibition of contemporary art – in 2002 it attracted over 630,000 visitors. Sarat Maharaj is Professor in History of Art at Goldsmiths College, University of London, Research Project Fellow at Jan Van Eyck Akademie, Maastricht, Netherlands and Rudolf Arnheim Professor at Humboldt University, Berlin.

5 Artist’s profile: Zarina Bhimji, Manick Govinda, www.a-n.co.uk, 2003.

6 A research and publishing programme enabled through a partnership between Arts Council England and a-n The Artists Information Company representing a significant commitment by the Arts Council to “ensuring proper and fair payment to visual artists in recognition of their professional status, skills and experience and to ensuring that the guidelines that are in place for visual artists are current and can be easily updated on an annual basis”. See www.a-n.co.uk > knowledge bank> professional practice > fees and payments

7 Future Forecast: Social Space – The dynamics of artists' practice in the social realm, Edited Becky Shaw, a-n The Artists Information Company, 2005.

8 Flights of Imagination, Diana Yeh discusses issues raised by Erika Tan’s keynote speech at the Connecting Flights conference at Tate Modern, a-n Magazine, January 2003.

Louise Wirz

Louise Wirz
Director of Development

First published: a-n.co.uk February 2006

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