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Are traditional arts organisations the best vehicles for meaningful participation or should we be looking elsewhere?

These are dangerous times for people and for our world of arts values.

Uncertainty can cause us to be safe, edit complexity, be secretive, conservative. No waves please, the arts are in crisis. Let’s just put our heads down, noses to the grindstone, and aim for preservation.

“We’re all in this together” – though some of us seem to be more ‘in it’ than others – gives way to “I want to make sure my institution survives to live another day”. Battered and bruised, we go ten rounds. But what of our missions, our ‘greater good’, our altruism to support the things we really believe in?

In my case, it’s a passion for, and commitment to, doing whatever it takes to make things better for artists in society. Not to any particular product or infrastructure, that is ‘of its time’, in a fast-changing world.

What did the riots tell us about people and their power to make a voice/place to interact with their environment? And what did the #riotscleanup tell us about participatory practices that don’t rely on institutional structures? Everyone now knows how to pitch their tent – they don’t ‘know their place’, or wait to be assigned one.

However, we in the arts seem unfamiliar with the need to make a fast, timely response – art responding to situations in the world at large – let alone be able to make an effective campaign to save the arts from cuts. We are ‘victims’ of state patronage that on the one hand subsidises our lack of market take-up or interest, while (because of the state’s rarefied/unworldly situation) controlling us by the tyranny of the wrong kinds of measurement.

How can traditional compliance-led, risk-averse institutional models be the best vehicles for the level and depth of participation we are seeking for the arts to do their job effectively within society?

Conrad Atkinson’s 1980s work Critical mats questioned the dubious advertising slogans of Sellafield Nuclear Power Station’s Visitor Centre, in an arts project sponsored rather briefly by a local bus company. Despite the niceties and instrumentality of sponsorship, art must be able to bite the hand that feeds it – that’s its place. So perhaps his work was ‘out of place’?

But as Julie Crawshaw commented in Value of making (value): “Rather than fitting art practice to ever-changing measurement criteria – or setting norms (“will look like…” ) or attempting to predict behaviours, perhaps we in the arts – the arts activists – should be comfortable with what is not normal, what is unpredictable, what is, and make better sense of that.”

Joshua Sofaer said: “Over the first 10 months as Artist Fellow on the Clore Leadership Programme, I have been thinking about how artists can really make a difference in the societies they find themselves in. This is not about ‘making the case’ for the arts under the harsh interrogation of media cynicism during a time of cuts, but rather a proactive investigation of what art can do affirmatively, especially in situations of need.”

Do and can buildings run by permanent institutions respond fast to situations of new need? 48% of Arts Council England’s visual arts NPO funding (£21m) goes to a ‘Top 20′ of galleries/production agencies. ACE saved just £1.36m by cutting 16 artists’ production/practice-driven organisations.

The Oscar Niemeyer Centre in Aviles, Spain is run by a permanent staff of only four with a glittering array of specialist artistic advisers. This is a novel approach to resourcing and drawing on artistic specialism that the UK might care to investigate further.

Are arts buildings the ‘place for art’ or could they in future be viewed as memorials to the heady, finance-at-the-ready pre-2007 era? Are buildings, as run by institutions, self-serving? How will their viability/sustainability be affected by rising energy and transport costs and the engagement preferences of an ageing population with less disposable income?

Are “arts organisations well-placed to lead the creativity and innovation that will be a driver of economic recovery” as Arts Council England sets out in Achieving Great Art for Everyone? Or as Julie Crawshaw comments: “[is] Art practice something that sits, walks, jumps up and down, amongst, on top of and in between [the institutions].” Just like people do when they create a riot, pitch a tent, or otherwise change the world.

In my opinion we must beware of over-reliance on this events-based, instant gratification based culture which, unless there is widespread buy-in and participation in the arts by all sectors of our society, is clearly unsustainable without the largesse of public funding.

The RSA Citizens Power project, Experiments in Place Making, enables locally based creative practitioners to investigate how their creative practice can engage people with each other and where they live. Creative practitioners are partnered with Neighbourhood Managers to identify a local challenge. The partnership presents an opportunity to explore and develop innovative and collaborative practices.

At the same time, a network of artists has set up Creative Peterborough to “champion the arts and local creative practitioners in the city.” Citizen Power recognises that Creative Peterborough are well placed to build on the legacy of a stronger, confident and inclusive arts community, which is raising funds, developing audiences in and beyond the city, creating jobs and boosting the economy.

So is ‘the place for art’ in temporary institutions that can quickly foster meaningful, timely participation and create a bigger bounce?

Julie Crawshaw says: “The world is looking for new ways of seeing. Art practice – the collective performance of art making (between materials, artists, artworks and others) is an inherently inter-disciplinary reflexive process that supports us to rethink and reconsider our realities. Arts organisations are an organisation of artists and others, materials and bits and bobs. They are art practices: perhaps a ‘bigger’ collective artwork.”

Arts organisations, says Crawshaw, “have a capacity for bigger reflection in our collective place. However, to see the big, we must observe the small carefully.” As Irene Lucas, former director general of the Department for Communities and Local Government, says: “Places change for the better when you give people the power to do things differently. That takes courage and genuine commitment to new thinking and ways of working on the ground.”

It is these concepts, for me, that present the real challenge for art and its ‘place’.

First published 6 Jan 2012

This is an edited version of the speech given at the Engage/Enquire International Conference in November 2011, video version at https://vimeo.com/35635192