1 The future environment and context for arts practice

a-n’s Future Forecast enquiry1 – published concurrently with the Arts Council’s Turning Point strategy – was the result of a detailed consultation with artists and the sector and raised significant trains of thought about future environments for the visual arts and the mechanisms by which it would be recognised, enabled and hosted in the future.

Outcomes and issues noted: “Customer-driven activity has never been so critical in directly influencing management practices…” We cited the growth – even in 2006 – of user generated content as a driver in the knowledge economy, the imperative to honour and value the individuals rather than institutions within the development and realisation of the arts.

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.

As power structures shift to better reflect the 21st century environment, we posed the question as to whether the visual arts sector was in denial about who is best placed to inform change. Our challenge as a community is to question what is being done in our name whilst also adopting frameworks for open dialogue that are open and dynamic and counter generalised assumptions about artists, including where they ‘fit’ and their interest in or aptitude for performing ‘social functions’ as these are identified by arts managers to fit short term needs and funding.

Throughout the consultation document, there is a message about growth – size of audience, reach of programmes – but insufficient articulation about structural shifts and how to achieve depth of experience and sustained engagement.

 Goal 1 – Talent and artistic excellence thriving – Comment

Our view here is that the Arts Council needs to challenge its own thinking about where knowledge and leadership arises within the arts. It should shift its focus from top-down, institutional, compliance-driven measurement and recognise that arts development if it is to have long-term impact is best driven from the margins, owned by the constituency and .the networks of knowledgeable individuals within it.

Success might look like:

  • The arts championed and led by networks of practitioners and enablers, whose voices and opinions are respected across all aspects of decision-making.

2 Contexts for sustainability and resilience

The impact of the economic downturn on the UK’s overall well-being will continue for many years. Whilst in its consultation document the Arts Council poses suggestions on how the arts can gird up its loins and weather its worst excesses, it generally points prosaically to how institutions can achieve this by arguing for “sustained public funding”, supported by encouraging “entrepreneurial flair”, and adopting “new business models”.

However, the comment by artist Becky Shaw is apposite: “…The problem with any philosophy of sustainability is that it involves us choosing small-scale, ‘manageable’ solutions rather than taking ambitious risks and thinking and working outside what we already know or what we think is possible. This constraining philosophy of low horizons seems to be totally at odds with the blue-sky thinking we traditionally associate with artistic practice.”

Research by MMM2 identifies competencies, qualities and attributes for creative individuals within the arts and cultural sector in times of turbulence and uncertainty. Using cross-referencing it is clear that these are inherent to artists as they carry out their practices and research over a lifetime, within a mixed economy and markets.

As artist David Cotterrell3 has commented: “Artists have an advantage when confronted with political and economic crises. If they manage to sustain themselves through the first five years of their practice, artists tend to work to a different time-scale to many businesses. While conscious of the proximity of short-term demands, anxieties and opportunities, many long-term projects – affected like all other members of society – [they are] yet not dictated by election cycles, growth forecasts, business plans, fashion trends and annual targets. While a heroic model of artistic practice has been endlessly critiqued it seems that the model of a sustainable cautious practice may offer a more serious threat.”

Goal 2 – Diverse and highly skilled workforce – Comment

ACE should respect and give better support for the critical mass of artists, from whose collective endeavours quality emerges through building knowledge and an exchange of values. The adoption of Good practice frameworks across the public sector is an area of ‘compliance’ that will greatly assist to redefine relationships, enabling platforms for genuine collaboration, respect and interaction across the board.

Success might look like:

  • Artists’ role in society financially enabled through political and legislative change
  • Wide adoption of peer-reviewed arts funding for practitioner-led activity, providing professional development for individuals and equality of opportunity regardless of geographical location, external responsibilities and career point.

3 Audience development

When discussing audience development, Manick Govinda has commented: “Using the arts as a magic wand to cure social disadvantage may not only alienate the public to art, but result in artists feeling used, their genuine desire to engage with people exploited by shallow ‘service delivery’ thinking as imposed by political expedience and regeneration strategies.

The continued reliance by ACE on building-based solutions to audience engagement is at odds with the evolving and complex environment by which people can now socially engage.

“…performativity and interaction are the signposts to a future practice… The 21st century is a whirlwind of activity, inter-activity and negotiation. New media art and contemporary performance practice are pushing the boundaries of this relationship, as more and more artists are side-stepping traditional ‘art’ spaces. Artists want more control over their practice, their relationship with the audience and less mediation. Podcasting and [the growing portfolio of] other mobile technologies are potent media to engage with art/artists and live performance that has a direct relationship with the spectator through a one-to one encounter are increasingly becoming the strategy for making work”.

Indications that UK universities are dispensing with email for communication with students and instead opting for mobile phone apps, and growth of Facebook into the “fourth biggest country in the world” suggest that interest in traditional audience development strategies that rely essentially on interpretation programmes – however innovative – will wane as users / audiences prefer time-splintered patterning and 24/7 access to the things they want and need.

Such technological developments offer new solutions for virtual presentation of artists’ ideas and work whilst enabling multiple communications amongst many artists through forums and blogs, providing critical context for practice, and deeper democracy and artistic autonomy for artists in terms of how and where they build relationships with “audiences”.

Goal 3 – More people value and enjoy the arts – Comment

Not withstanding the references to future “digital” imperatives, if our aim is for the arts to be immersed within civil society, there is a urgent need to acknowledge here existing trends in acquisition of knowledge, enjoyment and support for communities of interest.

Success might look like:

  • Dynamic channels of communication that enable all involved in the planning and presentation of contemporary visual arts to engage frequently in open dialogue with artists, recognising that artists are a knowledgeable professional sector through which to gain insights about successful ways of engaging with people.
  • Less and less reliance on ‘festivals’ – and their associated tendency for instant gratification – as a mechanism of creating new audiences and measurement of the impact and value of the arts.

4 Wider contexts for the arts

If the intrinsic value of the contemporary arts is to be respected by future citizens, there is clearly an imperative for the “young audiences to be interested in the arts”. However, the difference between participating in the arts as “enjoyment” and a leisure pursuit and as a professional practitioner is considerable.

Artists’ working practices encompass a mix of self-employment, employment, under employment, small business enterprise, punctuated by professional study as part of a continuous professional development to align with family and social circumstances. However, secondary-level careers based literature and profiling bears scant relationship to these contemporary professional practices and in particular to the characteristics, qualities and values held by artists.

A typical example of the kind of material available is: “Fine artists use visual expression to convey ideas, thoughts and feelings. They create original works of art, such as drawings, paintings, etchings, photographs, sculptures, linocuts, lithographs, screenprints, and computer-aided digital graphics. Artists often experiment with different art forms and techniques, and may work in two or three dimensions.”4

Importantly, there appears to be scant recognition either of the necessity for experiment and risk underpins an artist’s practice or of its ‘non-linear’ nature.

Goal 4 – Young people gaining opportunity to experience the arts – Comment

Campaigns and programmes designed to raise awareness and engage young people in the arts though curriculum-based activities should be cross-fertilised into careers advice services that play a major role in brokering decisions about university courses and career choices

Success might look like:

  • ‘Artists are people’ – location of artists’ workshops – individual or group – within school campus developments in the way that healthcare centres encompass sports and health pursuits facilities
  • Emphasis on working artists with diverse practises impacting on the formation of the arts and social studies curricula in schools
  • Careers material for GCSE and A level entrants and their families accurately representing the scope and value of being a visual artist.

5 Innovation and longevity

Within the consultation document and evidence, there is much emphasis if investment in the arts is to be sustained, on institutions “working together”, through collaboration, partnerships and networks.

Such things, however, will not be achieved though financial expedience. Characteristics that underpin vibrant networks include “alliance (rather than membership), aspirational, capacity for change, constantly updated, dynamic, challenging stereotypes, focused on activity, ‘give to get’, informal/organic, knowledgeable, mutual respect, openness to change, pooling resources, practical and artistic support, proactive, quick information exchange, self- managing, social and professional, trust and generosity.”5

Amongst the characteristics identified that will enable “21st Century” 6 people to navigate a complex and uncertain terrain are the ability to tolerate ambiguity and difference, thinking holistically and systematically and living, thinking and acting locally and globally.

The stated aspiration for identification of new business models within the arts in future is dependent on a funding system that recognises its role as enabler rather than censor, as sustained by the energies of artists and arts activities rather than by hierarchical, compliance led measurement and reporting.

Future enabling practices as regards public measurement and accountability will need to change. Current mechanisms place a disproportionate burden of work on small-scale practice-driven initiatives, are expensive to administer and slow to respond to change.

Goal 5 – Arts sector sustainable, resilient and innovative – Comment

Such evidences demonstrate the need for the future to focus on individuals and people-led structures, rather than on delivery through traditional institutional frameworks. Future leadership in achieving this goal must derive from people-centred campaigns and inclusive communications.

This includes identifying parameters and measurement criteria for evaluation models designed both to satisfy accountability requirements for small-scale visual arts funding recipients and to minimize administration, through self-completion using state-of-the art online and interactive tools, for fast transfer to analysts and meaningful contribution of evidence of the impact of culture into advocacy.

Success might look like:

  • Advocacy networks supported by access collectively grown, timely data and cultural evidence, enabling individuals across the visual arts sector to place the right information, in the right place at the right time.
  • Greater support for practitioner-driven networks and knowledge sharing to provide equality of opportunity for influence within arts policy-making
  • Greater access to R&D funding, enabling the visual arts sector to modernise and test out new investment potential from the wider business environment.

About AIR – Artists Interaction and Representation

“A voice for artists in a challenging environment”

With over 14,000 practising artists as members, AIR – Artists’ Interaction and Representation is a fast-growing, pro-active membership body for practising visual and applied artists. It offers artists tailored professional benefits, routes for representation within policy-making and on improving artists’ working conditions, plus all expert resources and publications from a-n The Artists Information Company.

From Autumn 2010 and led by the AIR Council, AIR intends to provide imaginative, inclusive representation routes for all its members that utlise new technologies and communications to ensure wide participation in the development and activation of campaigns that support improvement in artists’ status and working conditions.

[email protected]

1 Published in full on www.a-n.co.uk/research

2 Thriving in 21st Century: competencies, qualities and attributes for the arts & cultural sector in times of turbulence and uncertainty, MMA 2010.

3 As published on www.a-n.co.uk/p/569232/

4 www.connexions-direct.com/jobs4u/index.cfm?pid=46&catalogueContentID=119

5 Networking artists’ networks: strategic approaches to artists’ coordination and collective action. Report on research and pilot programmes 02-04, 2004, a-n The Artists Information Company www.a-n.co.uk/p/304234/

6 Inside the Edge 21st Century people – why we need them and where we can find them, Roane Dodds, MMM, 2008.

a-n.co.uk May 2010