The Great Exhibition of the North takes place this summer. According to the website it will be England’s biggest event in 2018. I’m sure you’re aware of it.
When George Osborne bestowed the princely sum of five million squid upon Newcastle to host the event, I should have taken more notice. I rather naively ran away with the notion that a fair proportion of that money would filter into the arts; into the commissioning of new work, and be a generally all round jolly fine affair for northern based artists. It’s not their fault; I overlooked the smaller print below the headlines at the time. I now understand it’s all about tourism and celebrating the achievements of the past, present and, hopefully, future. More like a Victorian trade exhibition really that takes in the whole of the ‘North of England’.
Years ago I put together a performance piece which involved me putting my head into a bucket of water. I performed it at the Slade, and the following night at London film Makers Co-op. As the audience assembled I projected a carousel full of rejection letters. One after the other they read “unfortunately at this time” etc.. you know the sort of thing I’m sure. But still, there I was, triumphant in adversity, primed with existential angst and a certain amount of tongue in cheek, performing to my peers on hallowed ground.
In those days it took a torturously typewriter typed letter, a stamp and a photocopied CV to illicit a response. But at least most institutions were polite enough to reply despite the time and postage overheads. Either my memory is shot or these days the process is meaner and ruder than I ever remember. People (institutions) just don’t reply, concentrating efforts on their social media stream, effusing how ‘fab’ everything is in an all consuming effort to gain footfall. Artists are a plentiful commodity so require less tending to it seems.
Given this pre-amble you may well conclude that I am one of the many bitter artists who invested their efforts in applying to the Great Exhibition only to have their hopes cruelly dashed on some notorious northern coastal rocks. Well you would only be partially correct.
In fact I am the only artist I know to have been fortunate enough to actually have a new project seed funded by the GEoN (not one that has already been produced and shown elsewhere). It has not been easy and the end of this particular narrative still hangs precariously in the balance. Thus far we have had more rejection than acceptance, and yet somehow we are actually in production, with the promise of four quality venues at which to show our final video series.
I thought the least I could do was chart the progress of this journey. It throws up some issues around current art funding processes and I hope might add to the debate around whether our not so ‘big’ society actually values artists’ work, particularly that which doesn’t neatly fit into public spectacle or cuddly social engagement.
In some ways I am lucky, in that a certain serendipity (not artifice) has led me into working in a socially engaged way within my own art practice. I was involved in three proposals to GEoN when they first called for artist led project ideas. All three were rejected though, to give them their due, they did at least send letters. At this point I asked around, had anyone else I knew applied? They had indeed and all had been rejected, some sooner than others.
I have no doubt there were many amazing ideas and great projects that will have withered on the vine from lack of support. Hey that’s the way it goes and we all have to learn to handle rejection. Except there seemed something different about this. I mean, with such a large event surely SOMEONE I knew would get a commission? Oh there was a person a friend of a friend knew, they had been accepted. Great.. new work? ah no it’s been shown all over already, oh and it’s got a science connection. Perfect. But not new work, so low cost.
There’s lots of happy success stories I’m not aware of I’m sure, but my point is, expectation was high given this proclaimed ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ and now I am afraid to say that, certainly within my own artist fraternity, expectation is now flatter than a flat hat run over by Stephenson’s Rocket (at up to thirty six miles an hour).
We are not without political cunning. We have lobbied. We met with various movers and shakers during the interim of application and decision making. The low point was when myself and two interested parties had a meeting with a local city councillor. We aired our idea, that we wanted to make a work that would allow a voice for disabled people in the arts arena that wasn’t ghettoised with the ‘community art’ stigma; a work that would stand as tall as any other contemporary artwork, valid in its own right and uncompromising in its vision (ok I summarise a bit here). The Councillor listened, she looked puzzled, she suggested snow dogs. “They have been such a big hit with the general public” she enthused helpfully. Hey I’m all for entertaining the kids and drunks on a Friday night with a photo op but erm.. I think you missed the main thrust of our pitch I said; well to be honest, I implied, as I am a polite person. I tried to be diplomatic. When tourism meets art you better be a Turner prize winner or forget your even mildly challenging concepts.
In fact our backroom manoeuvres were to no avail. We were rejected too by the GEoN. Ours was high on the worthiness scale but still no banana. We received the letter of doom… with a familiar caveat. “There’s no money left” oh “but we’ll support you to apply to ACE for the funding”. Talk about passing the banana.
We should have given up at that point but instead decided to boomerang it back. Having many years experience of applying to ACE, who I have to say have been very supportive when I needed it in the past, I knew they would at the very least require some funding input from other sources. After some debate GEoN agreed to pledge enough to cover the minimum to make an ACE application credible. As is always the case we also beefed up the bid with copious amounts of in kind support ourselves, effectively lowering our already low rates.
We applied to ACE.. which I’m sure you are aware is a big and arduous job these days. Less about content and concept and more about viewer figures and footfall. I thought we would be onto a winner with the footfall thing.. I mean it’s got to be the biggest public engagement event I’ve ever been involved in. But no. We were rejected again. The dog had weed on the banana tree and it was not good.
So finally.. back to GEoN. Surely they would want to include the ‘disability community’ (sorry for the label) in such an event. Of course they would… but it was now autumn for the banana tree.
We reworked our idea, significantly cut back the scope of our original project; a smaller project with less people involved and no production assistance. What would that budget be we were asked? Still too much. BAE Systems had withdrawn their dubious sponsorship due to ethical protests. It was deep winter for the banana tree now.
Plan C. apply to ACE again for a smaller amount with a quicker turnaround than the previous application, with the offer of enough funds from GEoN to begin the project but nothing for post-production. In other words – begin the project not knowing if we have the funds to actually piece the final thing together. I forgive you if you have lost track of the plot by now.
Notice I haven’t talked much about our actual idea. That’s because, overall ,the entire process has been about application forms and refusing to lie down. Very rarely have we been asked about content. It just hasn’t figured. I’m fine with that – I know what I’m doing and we will produce something really good I have no doubt. But it is rather odd. Isn’t that a bit tail wagging the dog syndrome?
I worry about our ACE application because, by the very nature of the process, we want it to be driven by the participants and that doesn’t sit very well with making the application sound all neat and tidy. For us it is about creating an environment that will allow those less often given such a voice to be heard; not about precisely what the outcome will be at this early stage. It has to be that way otherwise once again our disabled participants will find themselves being pushed in that fictional wheelchair rather than powering themselves. But open ended thinking is dangerous in these conservative times.
Still here we are… filming a project aptly called “The dog ate my wheelchair” involving a number of lovely people I shall introduce in my next post, with yours truly as the lead artist and the CEO of Disability North Dr. Victoria Armstrong as the facilitator. We have funding to start it. We are months behind schedule due to all of the above and, even now, as yet we don’t have funding to finish it. We await the result of an Arts Council application. But that’s a whole other story…