Over 100 artists have rallied for OpenAIR: Effecting Change – an opportunity for visual artists to come together, share their experiences and plot the next stage in AIR’s development. They discussed a range of issues that effect artists, from personal gripes such as unpaid internships and late payments, to artists’ presence on key committees and the perceived value of artists to society.

Sally Sheinman, Chair of AIR, set the scene in her opening speech: “Today is a chance for you to talk to us directly about what change you want to see happen. We are here to listen. We need you to become active in your regions and join us in the fight for visual artists’ needs. Now is the time for artists to be proactive and define their own development and destiny. One voice is just a whisper, but together we can ROAR!”

A range of speakers drawn from very different disciplines and fields of work offered insights into their own successful campaigns. Keynote speaker Carrie Bishop was joined by action presenters Tessy Britton, Dan McQuillan, Josie Appleton, Manick Govinda, Esther Salamon and Judith Stewart in speaking to artists face-to-face and offering advice on how they can, basically, enhance their personal and professional lives.

A key topic of discussion was artists playing a vital role on committees and decision-making bodies across the sector. Artist Belinda Loftus commented: “From my experience artists can be bloody hard work. We need to get out there and ruffle a few feathers!” AIR Activist Ania Bas responded: “Do we have to play the game a little bit and be quite strategic about how we approach people?” AIR member Sally Lemsford said: “If we wait to be invited it just won’t happen. We need to initiate the conversations.”

Methods of communication was a hot topic. AIR Council’s Angela Kennedy asked whether artists wanted guidance on how to engage with key decision makers, whether that be information packs containing data and evidence, or media training to improve communication skills. Dan McQuillan commented: “Artists need to be inter-disciplinary, utilising the tools that are available to them to create, in essence, a global peer-to-peer network.” AIR member engagement with social media was commended, with AIR Council’s Annabel Tilley stating: “I live in Hastings and Twitter is a great way for me to stay in constant dialogue with members.” Keynote presenter Carrie Bishop added: “It does not have to be high-tech to engage people. A phone conversation goes a long way!”

A misunderstanding of the activities artists are engaged in was explored. AIR Council’s Rosalind Davis commented: “The idea of being an artist is romanticised. It is bloody hard work!” The general view was that artists need to communicate better just how valuable they are to society. Manick Govinda explained: “Not many artists just quietly work away in their studios. They are involved on a local level and have an impact on social and civic life. They are becoming more and more important.”

So how do artists effect change? The general feeling was that the change in the way artists are valued must begin within the sector itself. Artists need to stand up for themselves and collectively refuse exploitative opportunities – essentially those where no fee is offered. Also, artists should be paid for the planning and thinking time they invest in projects, including time spent evaluating. Although in some cases this already happens, AIR members agreed there needs to be a fundamental code of practice that the visual arts must adhere to. AIR Council’s Rachel Wilberforce said: “Across the entire sector, from education to board level, there needs to be rules of engagement – it has to be the norm!”

Should payment to artists come in the form of anything other than money? Susan Jones, director of a-n The Artists Information Company, said: “The problem for artists is that few organisations have money to spare. There needs to be a culture of reciprocal exchange, where both partners in an agreement are seen as equal, what is exchanged suits both parties and neither one is exploited.” One audience member questioned this approach, stating that his landlord only understood one currancy, and that he couldn’t pay his rent with anything other than pound sterling.

Action presenter Josie Appleton spoke of the need to find the issues that resonate with the wider world. She said: “The political sphere is now very open, with the media and internet key spheres in their own right.” It was agreed that campaigns need to work at different levels for different audiences, but that the most crucial thing was to avoid painting a picture of artists as an isolated group, detached from the rest of society. Appleton added: “You need to address those issues that not only effect you, but resonate with the wider world.”

Small actions can make a huge difference. Tessy Britton gave the superb example of the NAC Foundation in Rotterdam who have transformed an entire street from a slum into a 10-year housing project for artists. This slow-burning social creativity could not contrast more with the UK’s events-based, ACE funded approach. A sustainable, long-term methodology is perhaps what is needed, one based on self-initiation rather than consumerism.

Do all artists have a duty to campaign for artists’ rights? Rosalind Davis said: “There will always be a percentage of artists who are not socially engaged. Not every artist wants to be an activist, and this is something AIR needs to be aware of.” Does AIR need to re-define the meaning of the word ‘activist’? Many artists are already performing activities that result in positive change, but they wouldn’t necessarily class it as activism. Quite often it is through their artwork. Artist and curator Elizabeth Murton summed it up: “At the root of everything I do is my visual practice.”

OpenAIR laid the foundations for AIR’s strategic activities, now and in the future. Artists need to be valued by arts organisations, committees, boards and the public – but also by themselves. They are integral to the lives of many people and need to be valued as such. Effect change? They are already doing it.

Read Emily Speed’s blog post on OpenAIR here 

View a slideshow on Flickr 

Read Jack Hutchinson’s article ‘Artists are their own agents of change’ here 

Follow AIR on Youtube Video Highlights

a-n.co.uk February 2012

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