AIR – Artists Interaction & Representation welcomes publication of the McMaster Review, Supporting excellence in the arts – from measurement to judgement as a timely and far-sighted assessment of future philosophical and infrastructural development within the arts.

Amongst the review’s findings, the following recommendations particularly resonate with the principles underlying AIR as a representative body for professional visual and applied artists and relate to findings from other research studies and consultations around support to contemporary visual arts practitioners.

• That innovation and risk-taking be at the centre of the funding and assessment framework for every organisation, large or small.

Contemporary visual artists’ practice provides an exemplar in this respect: having risk-taking at the heart is a requirement for innovation. The artist’s ‘right to fail’ by engaging in experimentation to the extent that nothing tangible may arise is a crucial part of artistic development. When this concept is adopted within the organisational infrastructures that enable and promote the arts, the quality of the artistic collaboration between practitioner, enabler and audience is inevitably heightened.

• That funding bodies and arts organisations prioritise excellent, diverse work that truly grows out of and represents the Britain of the 21st Century.

Contemporary visual arts practice nowadays is characterised by complexity and diversity, both in terms of context and approach. 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.

Arts organisations that recognise the variety of routes, career trajectories and artistic imperatives of artists are able to make a valuable contribution to the development of wider markets and applications of visual arts practice, including the employment and commissioning of artists.

Encouraging greater awareness of the scope of artists’ initiatives and associated peer networks and peer review amongst arts organisers and ensuring that this knowledge is able to permeate the policies and programmes of their organisations is a vital part of this development.

In terms of approaches to ensuring that cultural diversity is represented within all aspects of visual arts practice and presentation, we endorse Sonya Dyer’s view1 that: “Cultural institutions should be working with and engaging these [British artists and curators from non-white backgrounds] as individuals, who are judged on their merits, rather than ticking ethnic boxes and funding by target.”

• That funding bodies and arts organisations act as the guardians of artists’ freedom of expression, and provide the appropriate support to deal with what can be a hostile reaction to their work.

AIR welcomes this recommendation that strategically responds to the requirement for art and artists to question society’s values and by doing so, to “provoke, aggravate or anger”. Important art may be unwelcome or unpopular and within their duty to the public, mediators should be willing to solicit debate and dialogue around the issues or concerns art raises and support the practitioner’s role in fostering provocation.

Research reveals that although the UK is one of the few countries in Europe that gives direct support to individual artists for contemporary visual art projects, it is also the place where popular media currently ridicules artists and cries outrage whenever public funds are ‘wasted’ on art2. There is a clear role for arts organisations to actively defray this level of ‘ignorance’ and promote social confidence in artists – as well acknowledge the need for artists themselves to be more visible, speaking in a range of forums as advocates for their profession.

• That the Arts Council, the British Council and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport work together to investigate and implement an international strategy that stimulates greater international exchange, brings the best of world culture here and takes the best of our culture to the world.

To a lesser or greater degree, social engagement is a core aspect of all visual artists’ practice. Artists nowadays are well-versed in generating and initiating European and international exchanges, with the internet and social networking tools providing an invaluable communications and information structure to underpin this. Developments in CIT have enabled interest groups – including arts practitioners – to join together across political boundaries, to form catalysts for social and artistic change.

The escalation of ‘virtual’ organisations that have the capability of quickly shifting and changing according to the environment around them also suggest valuable models for arts organisations of the future. There is a need for public bodies to recognise the pivotal role that social and professional networks and their enabling tools have played across the world in recent years that unconstrained by editorial filters and art market rules, are disseminating knowledge and experience widely to citizens hungry to receive it.

• That the board of every cultural organisation contains at least two artists and/or practitioners.

From the outset, AIR has promoted notions of ‘artists as leaders’ and advocates for their profession. By drawing on the experimentation and analysis within their own practice, artists can bring their unique insights into decision-making processes on boards, not only in terms of artistic programmes but also to develop the creative and entrepreneurial approaches that arts organisations of the future need to take in order to better ‘manage’ and achieve their objectives in the complex content of the 21st century.

In endorsing McMaster’s recommendation, AIR further suggests that by bringing artists into the heart of their decision-making processes, arts organisations can learn as much from the thinking processes and belief systems of artists as artists will from understanding how to behave within institutional structures.

As artists Anne Douglas and Chris Fremantle comment in the introduction to the Artist as Leader3 research paper: “Artists lead through their practice. One quality of experiencing art is that artists enable us to see the world differently”

Furthermore, the broad constituency of AIR’s membership – that ranges from new graduates to established artists and represents all visual art forms – provides a unique, catholic resource that arts organisations and public bodies can draw on to locate artists for selection to boards and peer review and assessment panels.

• That funding bodies, organisations and practitioners prioritise opportunities for continuing professional development throughout careers.

AIR believes that access to continuous professional development for what is predominantly a free-lance constituency of visual artists is crucial to sustain and grow quality within the work that artists produce.

It should also be noted that it is access to continuous professional development that underpins the growth of excellence. Research4 into artists’ development has indicated that there is a need for: “Increased and consistent support to artists’ networks that deliver peer review, enables artists to regularly take stock of their work and identify development plans and training needs, similar to opportunities available to employees through annual Job Performance Reviews, acknowledging a requirement for continuous professional development”.

AIR therefore urges those charged with delivering the recommendations of the McMaster review to take full account of the significant models for practitioner-led professional development and peer review and advises that there should be better support for the development of artists’ peer networks5, and an acknowledgment of AIR’s enabling role in this respect.

• That practitioners communicating about their work be the primary tool of any programme of audience engagement.

The presentation of contemporary visual arts takes many forms – ranging from traditional gallery shows to public art and temporary site-specific installations in a variety of settings. Creating increased opportunity for artists themselves to represent and debate their work and the contexts and intentions for it is as important as the more prosaic approaches within education and interpretation programmes.

Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in artists making work outside galleries, directly engaging non-artists in making work, and taking the social as subject or modus operandi. Within this sphere of practice, engagement with people necessarily encompasses communication of artistic as well as social imperatives, contributing to breaking down the assumptions that art is elitist or unfathomable by many.

Talking about the mechanisms for validating her work artist Kelly Large6 says: “My audience includes my extended peer group and the people located in or connected up by the context that I operate in. Projects can take up to a year to complete therefore audiences encounter the work at different stages of development and in different forms.”

We would propose in addition that serious consideration is given to extending the level of public resourcing to support for the critical networks that artists create in order to develop and present their work outwith the traditional art market.

• That the funding bodies, jointly with representatives of cultural organisations, develop good-practice guidelines for self-assessment. These should focus primarily on the excellence of the art and commitment to innovation and risk-taking.

Artists have a unique and adaptable position from which to intervene and create new cross-sector collaborations between funding bodies and cultural organisations that can result in innovative models for communication strategies, good practice and self-assessment. Flexible models of good-practice that incorporate the uniqueness of such collaborations and acknowledge and include the artist as an influential and crucial element of the exchange process can support the desire for excellence and innovation through fostering risk-taking, recognising the multiple layers of communication and the inherent knowledge sharing that takes place.

• That, to complement the culture of self-assessment, funding bodies should institute a system of peer review.

AIR supports new approaches to address public measurement and accountability, as current mechanisms place a disproportionate burden of work on small-scale practice-driven initiatives, are expensive to administer and slow to respond to change.

Grant schemes that provide direct support for artists’ changing practices, and operate as ‘light touch’ are value for money as they maximise public resources for practice and minimise administrative costs.

Assessment using self-completion and state-of-the art online and interactive tools has the added advantage of enabling fast transfer to analysts, to meaningfully contribute to evidence of the impact culture has on our society overall.

We welcome adoption of peer review systems that ensure that expert knowledge contributes to rigorous discussion on merit and value within the visual arts. AIR would welcome opportunities to put forward examples and models from within the visual arts and beyond where the direct and indirect benefits of grant decision-making by peer review are exemplified.

The AIR Artists’ Advisory Group

AIR advisory group signatures

1Boxed in: how cultural diversity policies constrict black artists, Manifesto Club and a-n The Artists Information Company, 2007

2 Quoted from Emilia Telese’s essay for a-n Collections: Trade off, The Artists Information Company, 2007

3 a-n Research paper: Leading through practice, a-n The Artists Information Company, 2007

4 Future forecast: Outcomes and issues, a-n The Artists Information Company, 2006

5 Reflections on networking and Impact of networking, two reports on the scope and impact of the NAN (Networking Artists’ Networks) initiative 2004-2006, a-n The Artists Information Company, 2007

6 Future forecast: Social space, a-n The Artists Information Company, 2005 February 2008