It is just as important to nurture individuals and micro arts groups as it is to protect big bricks and mortar institutions
In recent months, and in the run-up to this month’s spending round, arts lobbying network What Next? has been urging us to play our part in giving out positive messages about the value of the arts (#Arts4Britain).
The arts are, as the body’s spending round political engagement document says, “central to public life and drive growth, innovation and regeneration.” The impact of the arts tends to be described as economic, such as when Turner Contemporary generates a 30% increase in rail passengers to Margate. According to Arts Council England’s toolkit, government subsidy to the arts is worth it because the buildings attract tourists, who spend money. And to quote CEBR data, public subsidy to the arts is vital because your house will be worth more if it’s near an arts venue.
At September’s No Boundaries symposium, which brought the arts industry together to debate new solutions to arts development in this unfriendly political climate, consultant John Knell – who a few years back was urging a holistic approach to fostering the health of the whole arts and cultural ecology; not just particular bits – set out a different stall. Small arts organisations, he asserted, would have to go to the wall because they don’t have the (business) skills and capability needed for resilience. They’re just too small to succeed.
Maria Balshaw, director of Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery, continued this theme. She asked, perhaps rhetorically: when had the prioritising of arts funding to new and bigger venues, such as Manchester’s multimillion-pound Factory development, ever been to the detriment of the smaller-scale?
Surely I’m not the only one to question this assertion. In my own patch of Newcastle-Gateshead, the creation of Baltic may have created a flagship organisation with international status, but it’s had the side effect of pushing important smaller players such as Globe Gallery, Isis Arts and AmberSide to the margins. The Waygood Gallery and Studios, which had grown from regional arts policies that valued the artist-led as much as the arts institution, is now a distant memory.
At No Boundaries and elsewhere, the talk was about forming clusters of like-structured organisations, saving money by sharing staff and having jointly used systems, as this will ensure the arts’ survival in a harsh climate. But this is only a viable long-term strategy if the resulting ecology is in tune with the behaviours and aspirations of its users and audiences – and if it provides the seed beds, testing grounds and ladders for development for the artists and performers of the future.
Tacita Dean, who is now an internationally known artist, has argued for the value of very small organisations – many of which are now under-resourced – in building artists’ careers: “My first cutting room was at Four Corners in London. There I would work, with an intensity I can recall vividly … I cannot know what I would be doing now had I not cemented my process, as I did there.”
Having recently become a doctoral student in a university among 32,000 others, I’ve got a personal interest in how much the customer (aka student) is driving his or her own education. Speaking at No Boundaries, educational researcher Sugata Mitra regretted that in the education systems of today, schools still act as if the internet doesn’t exist. As one of my own guiding principles is to accept that creativity is messy, I warmed to the description of his School in the Cloud as being “purposefully chaotic”.
This is definitely not remotely like my university’s library, where the Dewey categorisation system still reigns supreme. Mitra’s school is a new creative online space where children worldwide come together to answer big questions, share knowledge and benefit from guidance from online educators.
In the pursuit of demonstrating social impact and organisational resilience to secure political support for the arts, I’d argue that we should actively embrace this messiness and pay more attention to supporting the nitty-gritty of the processes by taking care of the needs and ambitions of the thousands of individuals who comprise the creative industries. Securing their resilience is just as important as the bricks-and-mortar.
I like this advice from the US-based Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center:
“A community that is working to strengthen itself is, without realising it, preparing for a disaster. Because you don’t get ready for a disaster the day before. We must keep sharpening our tools.”
First published The Guardian 2 November 2015