- Bloc, FBI, S1, &model, East St Arts, Basement Arts Project, Mexico
The Artists Information Company (a-n) offers bursaries to artist-led initiatives and artists working collectively to visit other UK-based initiatives to extend their own peer networks, improve communications and knowledge exchange and foster joint developments. I’m using the bursary for the arts initiative Sluice__. Sluice__ is run by an artist (myself), an arts educationalist (Ben Street) and a curator (Charlie Levine). Sluice__ strategically adopts structures in order to showcase artist, curator and emergent discourse, projects and galleries.
As a platform Sluice is predicated on collaboration. It exists as a force because the position we re/present is needed. The networks that connect the grass-roots when activated in collectivist activities create a persuasive edifice. The reason we are effective in organising these collectivist activities is because Sluice__ is not just representing the grass-roots, Sluice__ is of the grass-roots. The larger the network, the stronger the edifice, the more the potential benefits for us and our partners. With this in mind Sluice__ is constantly meeting with new galleries and projects looking to grow beyond the sum of our parts.
As I sat on the train to Sheffield last Friday and started to jot down some notes for my a-n ‘Go and See’ bursary blog I realised that it was shaping up to be less travelogue and more essay. So my plan is to split the text into three chunks and post one after each leg of our three legged a-n sponsored tour. I’ve mentioned some of the galleries we visited as and when relevant, otherwise – as part of an associated project that we’re developing – I’ve let them speak for themselves in short video interviews which you can find here: Sluice__ encounters (A new video will be posted every Monday).
A question that I find relevant to both my personal practice and my expanded practice is; do varying modes of sustainability and organisational structures effect the output/content of artist and curator led projects? These are the questions I’ll be examining as we visit six cities and over twenty galleries and projects over the next few months. What will follow is a discursive look at external and internal pressures and the effect (or otherwise) they may have on artistic endeavours.
Between a capitalist rock and a state funded hard place.
With Sluice we’re clear that we don’t want to focus on the politics of the artist-run sector, our position is that the mere existence of Sluice is a form of advocacy (also, nationally, the excellent arty party already exists as a vehicle for explicit advocacy, as well as a-n and other platforms). We want to place the focus at all times on the art. However, the societal, regional and economic environment that the art is created in must effect what art is made, which art is shown and in what context.
Whenever we talk to UK galleries outside of London, arts council funding features in every conversation.
Of the twenty London based galleries Sluice has worked with over the past four years – three of them sport the Arts Council logo somewhere on their website. Of the twenty regional UK galleries that we’ve worked with over the past four years thirteen feature the arts council logo.
Although Arts Council funding does disproportionately go to London, within the artist/curator-run ecology London suffers in comparison with the regions. This is because the gfta programme is used not solely to reward excellence but also to boost the arts ecology in areas where it’s less developed. Acting as advance troops – regional grass-roots artist-run spaces benefit from gfta as a form of positive discrimination. The UK needs a healthy and broad arts ecology but I’m interested in what effect these georaphical and sustainability differences may have perceptively or imperceptively on the programmes, structures and content of the projects we visit.
“The engine that kept the Fluxus movement running was not the impetus of market forces, but the spontaneity and self-generated dynamic of their actions, performances, and festivals.” Gabriele Detterer
State funding is certainly a brake on ‘spontaneity’ and often comes hand in hand with a heightened sense of professionalism (which anecdotally seems to have increased in the UK since the introduction and subsequent ramping-up of university fees – but that’s another blog). Obviously professionalism is not a bad thing, but if it dissuades the artist from operating outside of the establishment system then the notion of the artist as a corrective to the dominant system is critically undermined.
‘It is a difficult task to be counter-cultural while asking for state approval and support’ Claire Bishop
Karen Watson of East St Arts points out that whilst ‘the tail wagging the dog’ is problematic – accountability is important due to the public funded nature of arts council funding. Or as Derek Horton of Leeds based &model gallery wrote recently:
“The price of Arts Council support and other forms of publicly funded institutional backing can too often be the limitation of being regulated by institutional bureaucracy and a target-driven social engineering of audience engagement. Undue concern for notions of both aesthetic accessibility and social responsibility tends to blend liberal ideas of social usefulness and ‘enriching the community’ with a fundamentally illiberal idea of avoiding offence.”
I guess the reality would be that state funding (or lack thereof) directly effects the viability of projects, which then has an indirect effect on the art that gets shown, which would in turn have a trickle down effect on the art that gets made. Of course art that operates predominantly in a commercial context also has distorting pressures. And the preceding paradigm works the same with the term ‘state funding’ replaced with ‘commercial considerations’, ie commercial considerations directly effects the viability of projects, which then has an indirect effect on the art that gets shown, which would in turn have a trickle down effect on the art that gets made. Indeed, Sluice__ art fair was conceived as a corrective to the dominant model of art production as financial commodity – as promoted by the art fair as trade fair.
Property developers keen to flip tenants at the first sniff of gentrification; the unreliable nature of state or charitable funding, the basic cost of living; all contribute to a sector in a state of perpetual existential crisis. And of course none of these financial pressures exist in isolation, and all are mitigated by varying amounts of volunteer labour (and as Charlotte Morgan of Bloc Projects points out; goodwill).
Art has always got into bed with money. Capital is arts enabler. We may want that money to be ‘clean’ and ‘ethical’ (highly subjective notions) but I think we would also rather the art was able to be realised rather than not. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t then have a discussion about the relative merits of different funding streams or models of sustainability.
I would argue that these financial drivers, and the negotiating of these financial drivers are something that keeps this sector light on its feet, adaptable. With such a precarious organisational existence – it forces us to invest in the idea rather than the physical structure of the organisation. A few break through by shear force of will and an ability to navigate the demands of sustainability but many others are the temporary fruits of temporary collaborations, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Sluice on tour in Sheffield and Leeds met with:
Part two will focus on questions of organisational structure, and will follow leg two of the a-n sponsored Sluice__ tour to Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow in mid June.
Quotes sourced from the following texts: