Collaborliberation

Posted by: Cat Harrison on Mar 15, 2011

Artsadmin's trainee Cat Harrison talks collaboration in a podcast created for crowdfunding website WeDidThis.org.uk. Listen to the full podcast above or read the transcript below.

collabor-liberation

is collaboration really our salvation to the arts dissolution?

y’know there’s been a lot of talk about survival, about how the arts will continue once the impact of the government cuts sets in. Like Jack Torrance to a shower curtain, the government have serially slashed all manners of British institutions, meaning that the arts (as well as every other public sector) will face huge reparations on all sides.

And for the arts, one solution that is currently being bandied around a fair bit is “collaboration”. A many-hands-make-light-work one-stop-shop to coming-together and making-ends-meet. Simples.

At the recent Culture Change and State of the Arts conferences, Ed Vaizey (Minister of Culture) spoke of arts-collaboration in some form or another over 21 times. Partnerships were only second to Ed’s pandering of new technologies – a topic that I’m sure will incur further debate in the arts community over the next few months. Further speeches from Alan Davey of the Arts Council, David Hall of Foyle Foundation, Andrew Barnett of Calouste Gulbenkian and even artistic leaders like David Lan of the Young Vic all motioned towards collaboration as at least one solution to the funding de-forestation.

So what is all the collaborative fuss all about?

Of course the first point to make is that collaboration can mean different things to different people. Aside from the war-time secret-messages-to-the-allies collaborator, in the arts collaboration can occur between organisations, artists and/ or a cocktail of the two. One thing that I think is most frustrating about the over-casual use of words like “collaboration” is that it feels like the patronising preach to the converted.

Because the arts do collaborate - in every sense of the word. Since the 1960s and 70s artist collectives have driven through romantic notions of “the lonely genius”, and even where solo artists do exist they would be nothing without the producers, directors, mentors, venues, funders and commissioners that inevitably make some impact on their work. No man is an island and no artist works in complete isolation.

In terms of arts organisations I can only speak of my own experience. Working in Live Art I can vouch for the extremely close-knit community, where, because of the typically limited resources available, such organisations have immediately gravitated towards each other in sharing knowledge, expertise and ideas for further progression. Artists can be sign-posted to the support they need from whichever organisation they turn to, and staff have a blooming network of allies that they can call upon at any time. We share artists, we share funding pots, we share board members and we share responsibilities.

And what I mean about sharing responsibilities does not account for overlap. Something that has been made abundantly clear to me working in the arts for 2 years, is that you cannot get funding for something that already exists. Shared responsibilities take the form of promoting the sector, by specialising in various streams of producing, critical knowledge, networking, education, support and so on. Concerns that arts organisations don’t collaborate because they fear competition are simply not true. They can’t be true, at least not for long, as every supported organisation in the arts has to be necessary in order to find funding. It’s like art itself – it occurs as a necessary response to the climate it sits within.

What’s the point of art? Well, that’s the point entirely.

But if we’re already collaborating, then where do we go from here? What I hope it means is that we try to do it better, to do it more efficiently. Maybe its time we look beyond the arts to help the arts, and that’s where people like Mr Ed Vaizey could really stay true to his word (cough). Perhaps the type of collaboration we can try out is in making partners with non-arts organisations. I find it’s easy to forget when you surround yourself with arts people, how interested and excited people from outside that bubble view us. To other people the arts are mysterious and powerful and glamorous and that it’s just this amazing “thing” that they haven’t got.

Only we know the truth right?

But maybe we use this outside interest in the arts to draw alternative partners in, starting with the necessity of that project. When the Red Room created the first completely recycled theatre in 2010, they formed a partnership with Berlin-based architects Köbberling and Kaltwasser. When Artsadmin artists Curious embarked on their “Autobiology” project about anatomical gut feelings, they worked together with scientists at the Wingate Institute of Neurogastroenterology. These are just some of the success stories that I’ve encountered and I’m sure there are many more. My plea to arts ambassadors like Ed Vaizey is to encourage such non-arts/ arts collaborations to happen – because as high-profile speakers working in both an arts and non-arts community, they have the networks readily available to encourage such collaboration to happen.

Similarly in crowd-funding initiatives, the success stories will be those that encapsulate the arts community and beyond. Arts workers already invest so heavily in the arts through their typically low wages, long hours and voluntary overtime – that I must point out we gladly take on because we are passionate about our work – but sadly this leaves no leeway to then donate £20 to every project that comes up on wedidthis.org.uk. Such initiatives do have the potential to work, but only if we can break through the bubble of the arts sector and interest those from non-arts institutions. Curse my soul for quoting Tesco but every little does help and a little can make a lot.

But hear my cautionary squeak…. A lot can come from a little, but there must always be something to start with. Several thousand nothings can only amount to nothing. The Arts have proven that they can make a lot from a little (or ideally a lot more from a lot), but to cut the arts too harshly can only incur death at the root. For all the well-meaning of the Big Society, all the volunteers in the world cannot create and manage and maintain a project fit for purpose. For all the hundreds of You Me Bum Bum Train volunteers there were set-builders and stage managers and producers and marketers and equipment and materials to be paid for, not including the actual creators Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd.

What I mean to say is let’s not hold onto buzzwords and semantics like “collaboration” but look to further the incredible progress the arts have made despite and because of the cuts. I could try and get in an Oscar Wilde quote here “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”.

No, no that’s a bit blinkered, I’m sorry Oscar, maybe not this time. How about this – is this podcast my work or a collaboration of different voices? They’re only reading what I have written down. Is that direction or partnership?

Be clear, concise and considered with your collaboration. Because at the end of the day I think collaboration is...

WeDidThis is a space for arts organisations to bring their audiences and supporters together to form a 'critical mass' of funders of the arts. At wedidthis.org.uk you'll find details of all the projects available to fund, including Zarina Bhimji's Yellow Patch.

Cat Harrison is Artsadmin's trainee and a member of artist collective non zero one.
@catjharrison

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