As one of the lucky recipients of an ‘Artists Bursary’ to attend the State of the Arts Conference 2012 I had applied precisely because the intentions of the conference seemed to epitomise my own concerns I went to the conference with a great feeling of purpose: to represent our region and the artists and writers I have had the good fortune to meet and work with both here and nationally through CANNED and to act as a channel for some of the conversations, ideas and possibilities presented by the symposium – bringing these back to the North East. But what I left the conference with was not a sense of accomplishment, positivity or of conversations to continue (though I did meet some lovely people and was bowled over by Robert Wilson’s pre conference lecture at RNCM) but rather a profound feeling of confusion, under representation and deflation.
I think what set my unease growing into a fully blossoming voice of dissent was the innate contradiction at the centre of this event “Putting artists at the heart of the discussion”… This frequently cited ethos just took on a hollower and brittler timbre when it became apparent that not a single key note speaker of the day would be an artist; then when, in the breakout sessions, comments and questions from the audience were fielded but not responded to cultivating the atmosphere of a frustrated ‘speakers corner’ rather than a reciprocal discussion. Epitomised, in my experience, when Sir Richard Leese who was chairing Artists and a changing society in the morning calmly said after a round of concerned, dissenting or impassioned comments and (unanswered) questions from the audience:
“Let’s put an end to all this negativity.”
Whilst we were constantly reassured that everything from the event was being captured and that somehow these comments and our voices would be readdressed in the future, the morning’s panel discussion seemed to destabilize the certainty in that assertion: Liz Forgan, when asked by Kirsty Wark about the effects of the impending further cuts to ACE said:
“…Well Ed (Vaizey) knows that I’m really worried about the implications of the next stage of cuts which the arts council has to do, which is to its own administration…My worry is that, unless its worked out very carefully, what’s going to be threatened is the creative relationship between the arts council and the artists…”
(No volunteered response there from Ed Vaizey note.)
Following Liz Forgan’s comment Sally Lai (Artistic Director, Chinese Art Centre) was very positive in talking about the need to support and protect the ecology of small organisations who form a crucial bridge between the arts council and artists. Whilst this was a strong point and I was glad to hear it at the time, the reality we would experience of the day (myself and many of the artists I spoke to) was that there was a real rift here between artists and those organisations… . At the conference were many Directors, Producers and Chief Executives all with great energy and enthusiasm for the arts… But there was no scope, in the organisation of the conference for artists and those rarefied individuals to meet, to talk, to exchange ideas and experiences. There was no opportunity for artists and organisations to converse in two different languages… but meet somewhere in the middle.
So being an artist, let me break out in some behaviour which would not be welcomed at a SOTA tea party and say that – whilst I was very grateful to be there and to hear some exciting speakers and meet some wonderful, dynamic and creative individuals – I feel like it was a wasted opportunity.
I believe it is our duty as artists to act out, to disrupt the status quo, because this is the only way anyone ever really examines what it is made of. I think we should not only keep asking challenging questions and making troubling statements but I also think we should take real and direct action. Although the likelihood of artists organising SOTA13 is slim to none, I would like to propose it as an action to work on. Who’s with me?
What Matters? A film commission for the Arts Council’s annual State of the Arts conference by artist film-makers straybird (Becky Edmunds and Lucy Cash) featuring Jeanette Winterson & Hofesh Shechter