SOTA Smackdown 2012 Artists shaping the world = Arts world shaping up

Posted by: Cat Harrison on Mar 15, 2012
It was inevitable really. To hold the annual State of the Arts conference on Valentine’s Day was only bound to invite an infectious amount of love puns. However the two most revolutionary declarations of affection came from the Minister of Culture himself, Ed Vaizey, in his introductory speech – not only affirming that he does indeed “love the arts” but even that “the Chancellor cares passionately for the arts” also.

You could hear the sighs of relief ring out across the Lowry auditorium.

Ok, ok so I’m being cynical. And you know what? SOTA wasn’t that bad. If last year the general feeling of the state of the arts was a big fat thumbs down, then at least this year it seemed to be somewhat more of an iffy, midway “meh”. Some improvement then.

But the actual ACE SOTA conference was a minefield of waffle. As one of the 50 artists that had been invited by the Arts Council on an artists’ bursary, I found the whole thing mind-bogglingly verbose. Words, words, words, and very little action. I would have thought that such a gathering of UK arts professionals should be the best opportunity to not only extract the real problems in the cultural sector, but also look to develop strategies to keep the British cultural movement… well… moving.

As David Edgar pointed out in the keynote panel discussion, “it’s all about choices” and I do feel that certain debates were beginning to be drawn out, but were soon glossed over. In short, SOTA 12 was very safe and polite and pleasant and in fact there could have been much less hot air and a few more right hooks, in several different areas:

Round One: Justifying the arts vs. Letting the arts justify themselves

The very opening of SOTA brought up the particularly touchy subject of “what good are the arts anyway?” with Lucy Cash’s and Becky Edmund’s brilliant arts-propaganda film What Matters showcasing some passionate and articulate arts-advocacy from Jeanette Winterson, Hofesh Shechter and Mark Morris amongst others.
Justification for the arts seems to be at the very heart of our present cultural struggle after surviving the latest budget-slashings from government. With Arts Council cuts to 206 arts organisations last year and further cuts to more regional organisations via local councils, not to mention the stealthily increasing privatisation of arts education, the arts seem to be being increasingly treated as some kind of luxury goods. Obviously the arts are important; they form the backbone of every empire and community, they bring people together, they are what separates us from being algae and/ or machines, but there is an argument that perhaps by making such explicit statements as “What Matters” we further weaken our position as public workers. After all, politicians don’t bang on about how important Politics is - they just make that assumption. Even Ed Vaizey declared that, “the arts are their own justification”. So should we still be trying to ram home this idea that the arts should matter to the general public, or should we let this fact shine through? This wasn’t something that was specifically brought up at SOTA, but if it is felt that the Arts Council should be doing more to unite arts professionals, perhaps it’s a debate worth having.

Round Two: Artists shaping the world vs. Artists scraping the barrel

No surprises here then. One of the biggest talking points throughout SOTA 2012 was money. But unlike last year’s main topic on lack of money, conversations centred round more optimistic thoughts of what to do with the money that is available.

And of course it’s not all doom and gloom – the mixed economy model we have with the Arts Council is incredible and one that is trying to be as hands-off as possible. (Whether NPO’s would agree this with the new bout of KPI’s going round is probably a whole other story, but for artists I find it’s pretty good). It was also great to hear Kirsty Wark mention the difficult position artists are placed under when being offered a life-changing commission sponsored by corrupt corporations. Whereas a gig from the Tate is every artists dream, to know that the money is coming from BP opens a whole new moral ball game. It’s an argument well withstanding but check out Liberate Tate’s Tate á Tate if you fancy a fresh perspective.

Yet new money-confusions also seemed to be apparent at SOTA. How can targeted funding be offered to artists without compromising the work? Should artists be pushing for more sponsorship over public funding? Should we all be crowd-funding? And where are all of these philanthropists that David Cameron keeps harping on about?

Well, the easy answers to these questions are:
1. Art should be made from a need and not from a trend. If funding strands want to find open-minded work, they should offer open-minded calls for artists. It only encourages artists themselves to follow these trends and not their interests. That’s what is so brilliant about ACE’s Grants for the Art.

2. What is the weird assumption that public funding and sponsorship are somehow an either/ or situation? As long as the money is good (and by that I mean morally and socially sound – see Tate above) artists themselves don’t care where that money is from. In all likelihood it’s going to be a mixture anyway.

3. Crowd-funding is certainly on-trend, and don’t get me wrong, it can be awesome - if you’ve got the time. However spending a fortnight sending your online campaign to all your friends of friends aunties, having to write 3000 thank you letters in addition to sending 50 signed prints isn’t necessarily the best use of time.

4. And as for the philanthropists – well, I can only presume they’re down the back of Cameron’s sofa.

In all seriousness though, my personal view is that most of these problems lie with the very nature of the current creative economy – in that it works top down. Artists are nearly always the last to get paid. As soon as production costs exceed their original budget or a commission fee is haggled even lower, the artists’ fee is the first thing to go. And this, quite frankly, is ridiculous. Romantic notions of “the poor artist” are long since out of date. The thought that artists should sacrifice a living wage because they do something that they love is redundant. The fact that success in the arts does not necessarily equate to wealth does not mean that the current financial oppression of artists should remain. Teach any recent arts graduates that Art is a business, and these arguments simply do not hold. The mere fact that Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd of You Me Bum Bum Train, now an award-winning cult theatrical phenomena, still have to get their money from the Job Centre is not something the arts sector should be proud of. Yes we should be proud of their tenacity and dedication, but in its current form the creative economical system thoroughly lets artists down.

Round Three: Let’s get digital, digital vs. Virtual hold on reality

One returning feature of this year’s SOTA was Ed Vaizey’s continual push of digitisation. After a slight personal blunder (turns out Ed hasn’t updated his own blog for a couple of years) Ed led more of a “do what I say, not what I do” strategy, encouraging all arts folk everywhere to embrace the free wonders of a brand spanking digital world. It wasn’t exactly clear whether Ed meant specifically artists creating more digital artworks, or simply an up to date website on all arts-based activity in the UK, but I think it’s important here to note a difference. Firstly there are of course many artists working on digital platforms – Blast Theory, Hide and Seek, Duncan Speakman to name a few, if only Ed could get out of the ENO.

And aside from this, the truth is that almost all arts projects will come via some digitisation at some point – what arts organisation doesn’t have a website, and evermore increasingly, someone to manage that website? However, such digitisation doesn’t necessarily address the balance in society of people who engage with digital space and pressurises artists to manage their online presence off their own backs.

In previous participatory works we’ve made at non zero one, it’s become abundantly clear that many people in society don’t know how to use a computer, let alone have one, and they don’t necessarily want to use them either. Should they really be ostracised for this? Making interactive theatre for small audience groups, we’ve seen first hand how digital processes can bring people together… but only as a facilitator for live, personal touch.

Equally, very little consideration has been given to the sheer volume of skilled work it takes to build and use digital platforms from scratch – which is the incredibly daunting prospect most individual freelance artists face. “I am Googled, therefore I am” is not necessarily the motto of choice for all artists. If the government really are going to push for digital as the “free and easy” arts option, there needs to be more support systems put in place to give arts professionals the skills and time to utilise it.

There were obviously many other interesting elements to SOTA that I could spend all day highlighting (but I’d hate to waffle on) – Sally Lai’s impassioned plea to our Minister of Culture about Manifesto Club’s campaign against the points-based visa system (that actually seems to have come fruitful), Ruth Mackenzie’s view that the “job of producers is to protect the artists”, and even performance artist Li E Chen asking the question “how do artists trust arts organisations?” – a question, which sadly also fell to a magnolia-esque gloss-over, but is a pertinent one, especially for the individual artists floating around such rock-formation organisations.

These are the zeitgeist questions I would appeal to the Arts Council to really delve and explore for the future, perhaps for next year’s conference? It was brilliant to be present as an artist and see other artists at the conference – and indeed, as always, artists will look to communicate, comment on and shape the world we live in. But we also need to look towards a united arts world shaping up too, and perhaps now is a good time to do it.

Cat Harrison is Artsadmin Assistant artists' advisor and producer.

Photo by Richard Eaton
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