Artists Make Change is a 12-month research and development project, carried out by a-n Artists Council, designed to explore the role of the artist in society, and in particular to assess, and advocate for, how artists and art organisers can effectively work for change.

The project aims to build an understanding of current contexts, to offer information and developmental support for artists, and, through a series of engaged, participatory activities, to find consensus, offer possibilities for and generate momentum to find more effective ways for artists to be considered as an integral part in shaping the future of the country.

The project, which launches today with the publication of two specially commissioned texts by Dave Beech and Ellie Harrison, is being led by Artists Council members Glen Stoker, a visual artist and Director of Stoke-on-Trent-based artist-led project AirSpace Gallery, and Rachel Dobbs, an artist and educator based in Plymouth.

Here they outline the project’s research and expected outcomes, as well as how they have had to adapt the programme in the face of Covid-19.

What were the roots of the project and why is it such a timely piece of research?
Glen Stoker The roots of it go back to 2016 and several breakout sessions with a-n Artists Council, which was at that time a much smaller group than it is now. We were tasked with coming up with potential areas of future campaigning that might be relevant to a-n and its membership.

The one that seemed to gain traction was that the artist is often overlooked when developing national policy and the artists voice was missing from conversations happening outside the art world.

We discussed how artists are often seen as prettifiers who play rather than are serious, who are brought in the jazz up other people’s projects, and often on the cheap. However, artists have a skillset that is really well suited to alternative thinking. We started to ask, how do we reinsert ourselves into the areas of society that we are absent from.

Rachel Dobbs Initially conversations were around artists’ role in activism, artists as activists of different types, and also how artists could become more involved in policy decisions. We also discussed how artists could be effecting change within their local communities, thinking about the different routes and types of representation that are available to all citizens, not just artists, but also how creative practitioners could also be more involved in those routes.

That got us thinking about artists sitting on their local councils, parent teacher associations at schools, and boards or trustees of non-arts organisations and charities. We started to look at what was already happening and what could change, and also what information artists might need to step up into those roles.

From our initial pre-project R&D conversations we talked to a range of artists and arts workers around the UK to gather different experiences and insight into how different people were getting involved in different things. This included people involved in collectives and collaborative efforts towards change making, and also people who had experience of setting up unions and union branches.

We also spoke to people who had shifted away from an individual arts practice  towards using and repurposing those skills and skillset that artists and art workers develop.

We looked at how this could be applied within political and environmental activism, local politics, and advocacy for different groups as well. The types of things artists are already doing is really varied but it can be hard to find case studies or information where artists are talking about how, why or when they are doing these different things.

This was part of the way that we have shaped this next year’s worth of activity – looking at actually gathering some of those things, recording them and seeing how they sit inside or outside our existing visual arts structures and ecosystems of visual arts practice.

We are interested in those times when arts and real life overlap. For most artists those things are pretty intertwined, but sometimes there’s the idea that they might need to be seen as separate if we are thinking about art as commodity. There’s a challenge to that idea.

GS Right at the start we wanted to escape this idea that activism equals protest. It involves protest, but we quickly understood from our own practices and initial conversations that the idea of being active and activating and making change was really understanding a whole range of disciplines and activities.

It is important artists aren’t seen as a special case – we are part of the broad community that involves all of the other professions and approaches and views. We didn’t want to re-invent the wheel, but wanted to show in the first instance what is going on. These initial presentations are demonstrations of how people are already working in this area and from there we hope to be able to expand the conversation outwards and develop some conversation. Really just to open up a dialogue in terms of how people are doing it, how people want to do it and how people can do it, and also where the gaps are.

You’ve commissioned a series of video presentations, which will be posted to a-n’s YouTube and on the AirSpace website. Can you explain how these will inform your research?
RD There are five of these video presentations. The first is by some of the people who set up and organised the Designers + Cultural Workers wing of the United Voices of the World Union. We are interested in getting information out there to show how and what is involved in collective action through unionising, to help in the development of some newer, younger unions by artists and arts workers.

In general we are finding that they are still unsure about the role of trade unions and the history of trade unions, and actually what it means to collectively organise and work for change. This presentation will give provide insight into what was involved in the process of recently setting up a branch of a trade union.

GS Next, Liverpool artist Lena Simiç, who is also an elected member of Liverpool City Council, has developed a presentation with fellow artist councilor colleague Tim Jeeves, which explains their experience in the area of policy making.

Right from the start we were interested in the artist as representative, particularly in policy making, and how few artists have been visible in that area. In 2007, the UK government brought in Alan Sugar in an advisory role to the Department of Trade and Industry, but no artist has ever been offered such a role within the DCMS.

Front line politics is where policy is ultimately made, shaped, changed and challenged. We are interested in talking about the artist’s role in that area.

RD The third presentation is by Sofia Niazi, an illustrator and short run publisher of artists books. She was one of the people who was involved in our original conversations with artists around the country.

Her presentation explores her collaborative projects and the process of identifying needs within your own community and working to make a change. One of these is entitled OOMK, which stands for ‘one of my kind’, which features three women of colour working together to make and publish self-initiated projects and books.

Thinking about different topics that you can cover in self publishing, there might be a focus on activism or identity or issues around faith, and that process of self organising and creating workshops and different types of collaborative situations was something we were particularly interested to hear about.

GS Then we have a presentation by Array Collective, which creates collaborative actions in response to the socio-political issues affecting Northern Ireland. They have delivered a series of really vibrant and strident projects to reclaim their city spaces and the processes that a city like Belfast undergoes. There’s something really important about this idea of collectivism and collective action and rallying and provoking and all of these interventions that artists can make in society.

RD They discuss how they use their access as artists to art spaces to platform and bring attention to particular issues. This includes an exhibition they were making at the Jerwood Space in London, which included documentation of some of the members involvement in protests in Northern Ireland to achieve equality of access to reproductive health care. This highlighted how even within the UK there are disparities of legal and health provision between the different nations.

GS Finally, Juliet Davis-Dufayard’s presentation looks at how artists work with communities – with an emphasis being on ‘with’ rather than artists who are traditionally used to make art ‘to’ or ‘for’ communities. The realm of socially engaged art couldn’t be ignored. It’s probably the biggest new change in art dialogue and art activism in the last few years so it’s great to with work with Juliet.

Here at Airspace we have been working closely with the Portland Inn project where the deliverers live in the community in which they are creating the work. It really gets to the root of this idea that artists aren’t a special case – they are community members too.

We’re really interested in Juliet’s Lets Keep Growing! project, which was a community-led gardening activity. This really fundamental idea that the artist’s skillset allows them to think around problems and situations in a way that other professionals might not is crucial.

RD People aren’t encouraged to think in those ways whereas part of arts training and arts practice is about encouraging lateral approaches and things that might seem strange or out of the ordinary. That might be part of what makes artists well placed to be involved in change in different ways.

What other resources will you be producing?

RD The discussions and activities that informed the project provided a whole load of suggestions of different resources and different existing organisations, different projects to be highlighted in different ways. So we have compiled a reading and resources list which we will be publishing alongside the launch of the project.

It includes lots of existing ‘how to’ resources around organising, collaborative action, different types of change making, how to become more involved in different types of situations, such as direct action, creating community groups, finding allies, and finding affinity groups.

We really wanted to highlight the existing work of organisations and one of the key things that came out of those conversations was that artists are often quite keen to or default to starting something new, whereas actually learning from what already exists is probably the most valuable way to approach making change. We want to ask the question: How do we become better at joining in rather than always starting up?

Do you think an ability to think in different ways will become increasingly important as world comes to terms with the impact of coronavirus?
RD Part of the reason we commissioned Ellie Harrison to write one of the texts that opens the project was her declarations around climate emergency and her modelling (and remodelling) of her own practice to really address those challenges.

We are having to deal with a significant existential crisis that will require significant change and change in thinking in action. There is also huge change needed in terms of policy and national and international governance. It’s about thinking from the point that we are in – where we can identifying the different types of resource we have access to, and adapting to change in precarious situations while also positioning that in a longer term desire for change and need for change.

How has the current situation with Covid-19 altered your plans for the project?
GS There was going to be a launch event at Airspace which would have probably had around 40-50 people in attendance. We also had a series of podcasts in mind where artists would share the same room space as others and have a physical conversation. There would also have been closing events including regional group activities where artists would meet together in a room.

Because of the nature of the work, which is largely around information gathering and research creation and dissemination, lots of this is achievable in a more online forum. So the bulk of the programme can be transferred in format.

So the video presentations we discussed earlier were supposed to be delivered at the launch event in person . Breakout sessions with these presenters can now be easily achieved on Zoom via a facilitated discussion. Our podcasting has now become remote videocasting so the conversations can still happen on Skype or Zoom, the same as our regional group discussions.

I think we can still achieve our original aims of generating discussion and finding out some new thinking. It’s actually at a time when lots of artists are, we hope, quite up for the chat and discussion and are probably feeling a bit antsy about the world at the moment. That might hopefully create a vibrant checking around the subjects we are talking about.

The really important thing, and I know this is at the root of my practice and everything Rachel does, is that you don’t give up. Some things are really tough and you might stand back for a few minutes, days or a week, and think ok what now, but then you get back to ‘doing’ again. You find ways to carry on. It’s more important now than ever is that we keep talking about all the things we need to talk about and then we find ways of putting them into action. At some point we are going to be able to be physical again and at that stage we all need to be primed and ready.

RD It also allows us to overcome some of the barriers that physical events have, so around access in terms of different types of disabilities and barriers. Also, in terms of the cost of travel trying to get everyone to one place at one time. There are a number of those things that by moving this online allows us to overcome these barriers, which is really good.

We are also going to try out some potential formats that a-n can use for future projects. Part of being an a-n Artists Council member is about challenging how things are with an organisation and suggesting new routes. So hopefully by taking these approaches in this project we will be able to see what works and what doesn’t for a-n members and trying to find new ways.

The online group facilitated sessions might be a thing that is adopted more widely by not only a-n, but other sector support organisations as well. It’s that thing of creating virtual spaces for people to come together and mix.

The difficult part that is harder to replicate is how do we then take that conversation further. In face to face conversations we are way more comfortable to give each other an email address or a phone number than we are in purely virtual spaces. So that’s another challenge we might face.

GS I’ve been to so many discussions at symposium and conferences over the years where the audience puts its heart and soul into listening to the content. There might be only 15 minutes at the end of the day to chip in, so participation and consultation levels are pretty squeezed. But we often don’t get to see what happens to the results of the conversations.

What we are hoping to do at the end of this 12 month process is to hand over a chunk of information to a-n and say ‘there you go’ that’s what we have learnt over the last year: we came up with these new formats, we engaged with this amount of people, we discovered all these new things that we think there is something tangible here to take forward in terms of something real. That’s the hope at the end of it.

As part of the launch of Artists Make Change, ‘The Wide Revolution: reflections on the history of political art’ by Dave Beech and ‘Artist as Active Citizen’ by Ellie Harrison are available now to read and download via a-n Research.

Artists Make Change video presentations on YouTube – follow a-n on Twitter or check the Artists Make Change portal on the AirSpace site for Artists Make Change updates.

1,4. a-n Assembly Stoke, November 2019. Photo: Felicity Crawshaw
2. Rachel Dobbs with Hannah Jones at Assembly Cardiff in 2018. Dobbs and Jones discussed their collaborative work as LOW PROFILE and Jamboree, an artist-led professional development event which takes place every three years in Dartington. Photo: Clare Charles
3. Glen Stoker at Assembly Stoke-on-Trent in 2019. Photo: Felicity Crawshaw