The State of the Arts Conference was labelled as an opportunity for “a wide range of creative voices to debate issues around resilience, audience and the value of arts and culture.”

Panel discussions included ‘What is the vision for the arts beyond the cuts?’, ‘Rethinking cultural philanthropy’ and ‘Should the arts lead the big society?’ Four provocation papers, examining current themes facing the arts sector, were distributed in advance of the conference, with a view to helping shape debate on the day.

In her opening address, Arts Council chair Dame Liz Forgan took a swipe at fellow speaker and culture minister Ed Vaizey. The DCMS have asked the ACE to cut admin fees to just 5%, and Forgan responded: “I get frustrated when people talk about the costs of running the Arts Council as ‘admin.’ Our staff are councellors, experts and advice services. I will fight anyone who talks about them as if they were simply ATM machines for doling out dosh.”

Despite taking place just 48 days before the ACE announces which organisations will receive funding for 2012-15, there was a strange sense of apathy from the delegates, the majority of which appeared to be representatives of organisations currently funded by the Arts Council. Discussions were met with unconvincing applause, and few feathers were ruffled. Of the questions asked, most were little more than inane self-promotional vocalisations that had little to do with the issues at hand.

At no point were artists central to the discussions. Of the list of 48 speakers, only one was a visual artist, that being Turner Prize-winner Mark Wallinger. It would be churlish to disregard the quality of the other speakers on offer – Pilot Theatre’s Marcus Romer, Clare Cooper from Mission Models Money and theatre director Josie Rourke are critical thinkers whose contribution was informed and investigative. However, you cannot have a sound debate about the future of the arts without including artists.

Too many of the discussions here a) lacked incisiveness b) covered the same ground as last year’s conference, and c) failed to generate creative new methodologies for change. I lost count of how many times the word ‘collaboration’ was used. Collaboration with whom? Certainly not the artists and makers currently showing great resilience and adaptability in the face of extreme adversity. At one point it was even joked that there should be a separate conference for artists, as though they are a completely different species.

The RSA attempted to improve inclusivity by using Twitter to allow those not able to attend the conference to contribute. At one point the tag #SOTA11 was one of the highest trending topics in the UK, with @AIR_artists, @culturevultures and @hannahnicklin providing some of the most impressionable tweets. Disparaging comments from artists were rife, with many accusing the conference of being narrow-focused and elitist. Other’s balked at the £100 admission fee. Examples include:

  • @flofflach Art: Its not just about organisations, what about artists?! Without artists NO art organisations
  • @janetedavis It’s also the cost of getting there on top of the £100. I hope you get a decent lunch for the money!
  • @alicebradshaw The message that £100 a ticket gives out is that they don’t want artists there
  • @elfkay If the pyramid establishment wants to talk to themselves, fine. BUT it’s not reflecting new practices.

The general feeling was that the conference was out of touch and retrograde. Anne Bonnar perhaps described it best in her blog: “The State of the Arts should not be entirely about the Arts of the State. Policy makers and politicians may control state funding, but they don’t lead the arts in the UK.”

There was a complete ignorance of the broad national campaigns against cuts that have engaged a wide spectrum of people who work in the ‘arts’. The ramifications of the destructive cuts to the HE sector were barely touched on, with issues that will have both a short and long term impact on this country’s engagement with culture overlooked in favour of vapid conversations about arts’ “golden age.”

Artists, teachers, playwrights, art therapists, animators, actors – it is these people who define the real state of the arts. They are engaged in acts of creative defiance in opposition to the state’s ideological attack on education, free thought and expression. What is the vision for the arts beyond the cuts? Artists are the answer.


Audio, video & speaker content from all sessions is available here 

Read the four provocation papers, examining current themes facing the arts sector, commissioned for the conference here February 2011