​Bite the hand that feeds you

This provocation commissioned by Stoke Airspace for an Artists’ Soup Kitchen addresses and confirms the importance of the role and value of artists within cultural and social change. The four sections are designed to open up a discussion on ‘what now?’ and – more importantly – ‘what next?’ for Airspace and artists and future artists located in Stoke.

Section 1 – It’s best when you’re in charge

Rather than expecting others to want or be able adequately to articulate artists’ value on their behalf, I am proposing that artists take responsibility themselves for this and for advocating for and translating their value to others.

I believe that it’s only by doing this that things will change for artists. Once they become champions and advocates for their own and other artists’ practice, they can create the climate for lasting change of the scale that other kinds of action - including well-intentioned public policy and commercial market forces - can’t hope to.

In the text ‘The 21st Century Artist’ published in Artlicks, Rosalind Davis commented about the unhelpfulness of: “Misleading and stereotypical notions, romanticised and dismissive assumptions about the role of artists in society”.

Artists may however, prefer to be perceived as being ‘unworldly’, brave protagonists of an alternative lifestyle, driven by something ‘higher’ than money and traditional career measurement - (the job title), as outsiders, people who refuse to be tamed into the norm, who rail against the status quo. Artists may perhaps enjoy being perceived as the shaman– someone with altered states of consciousness, someone special because they hold creativity and genius in their grasp.

It would be great if everyone you ever had to deal with as an artist thought like the Ontario Arts Council did, and stated, in a policy document in the ‘80s: “Artists stand at the centre of all arts practice. From the artist’s capacity to communicate with sound and colour, rhythm and light, movement and language, all art is born. Without the artist’s ability to practice his/her own art, there is no literature, no music, no dance, no painting, no theatre, no film-making – no art of any kind.”

Quite a lot of people you have to rub up against with however, may find what artist Maddi Nicholson did when in 2004 she examined for a-n’s Networking Artists Networks initiative the UK media’s representation of artists. Terms used included:

  • Psychologically unhinged
  • Reckless
  • Bohemian
  • Radical
  • Obsessive
  • Unreliable
  • Useless with money
  • Irresponsible
  • Strange
  • Generally fucked up
  • Manic
  • Prima donna
  • Not a proper job

Let’s now consider before we get to the self-organising bit - a little more about the definitions and interpretations of an artist’s role in contemporary life. An artist may be considered – as described in a City University publication The Business of Being an Artist (1995) as a:

  • Maker of unique works of value for sale
  • Animateur - encouraging other people’s creative expression
  • Public servant – making work to commission for public places, regeneration, etc
  • Economic unit – a ‘small business’ / a creative industry employing others
  • Social worker – empowering others to be fulfilled and improve their lives
  • Educator – delivering into schools and the educational curriculum
  • Initiator of new arts ventures – creators of arts festivals, open studios, etc
  • Visionary – a ‘social conscience’

Or maybe there are:

  • Artists who are impoverished – but fulfilled
  • Artists who are incapable/needy – expecting to waiting for others to ‘discover’ them and show them how to do things properly, and where they ‘fit in’.

As identified in an Arts Council report, a central ingredient of almost any artist’s practice is ‘uncertainty’:

  • Uncertainty because of the variable length of contracts and commissions
  • Uncertainty because of the variable terms and conditions of contracts
  • Uncertainty because of the unpredictability of work offers and variable income
  • Uncertainty because of the short notice they get of engagements and commissions
  • Uncertainty because of delays in the start of a production
  • Uncertainty because of the sequential stop/start patterns of employment
  • Uncertainty because of managing concurrent projects and contracts
  • Uncertainty because of the need to be available at all hours for work offers
  • Uncertainty because of the seasonal employment
  • Uncertainty because of the unsocial hours of work
  • Uncertainty because of the unpredictable locations of work
  • Uncertainty because they are vulnerable to changes in fashion, in broader cultural trends and in the market’s preferences.

Section 2: How I got to my position

Back in 1993 whilst an artist myself, I conducted my practice alongside what we would now recognise as the above ‘activism’. As a founder member of Sunderland Artists’ Group I with others in the group lobbied Sunderland Council to adopt an arts policy and to create an arts budget. I contributed to the formation of the National Artists Association and Tyneside Artists Forum as routes for artists’ representation. I accumulated evidence to take the voice of artists to committees on the Regional Arts Council and Arts Council of Great Britain. It was during that time that I realised there was in the UK an emerging phenomena of ‘artist-led’ organisations.

Using the only artist-centred and UK-wide research resource available – hard copies copies of what was then known as Artists Newsletter – I discovered at least 250 of them, surveyed and analysed them into types and categories. Inspired and armed with the glint of a notion that these ‘little hubs of creativity’ were doing something special, set out to raise funds for my independent study of the ‘scope and value of artists’ initiatives’.

The aim of the study was to look at the scope of artist-led organisations, and to attempt to quantify their value against criteria such as those described below:

  • Are people more able to participate in and gain fulfilment from the visual arts through relationships with artist-led organisations and through gaining first-hand experience of the processes and issues with which artists engage?
  • Can such organisations, by working directly with people in a location over a period of time, tangibly help people to improve their environment and quality of life?
  • Are artists empowered by such relationships and by gaining a better understanding of their role in society and of society’s needs of them, more likely to be able to make a living as artists?
  • Are artist-led organisations more able to respond to society’s changing needs, and capable of inventing new working structures to do so?

Two years later I had raised in my own right as an individual artist/researcher some £36,000 from 16 funding different sources - including some I had never actually applied to - to undertake that research, over a three-year period. The result was a 64,000 word study drawing on 17 in-depth case studies which illuminated how artists were doing something unique within the arts ecology.

As the following extracts illustrate, my research articulated how artist-led initiatives impacted on people’s lives:

“Artists-led organisations tend to have a defined geographical location for their practice, based on where the artists themselves live and work. In such cases, the artists’ intimate knowledge of the arts environment and the social and political make-up of an area forms an integral part of defining artistic vision and the development of new work. Because the artists are carrying out their practice on their home territory, they have an acute interest in maintaining a rapport with an ‘audience’ which lives in close proximity to them.”

“The interest in attracting an audience which includes the artists’ own neighbours, who want to see what people they know who are artists actually do, is cited in the Cambridge Open Studios study. An artist concerned in that event has reported that, as a result, one of her neighbours has become a regular purchaser of her work. Whilst the financial gain may be relatively small, albeit quantifiable, the other benefits which accrue to both artist and neighbour are less specific. These include the raising of the neighbour’s awareness of what a professional artist is and does, and the recognition that art is a commodity which he/she can choose to acquire. This provides an interesting indicator of how, through such events, the visual arts might have an impact on the lives of more people in the long term. “

“Community-based organisations (such as shown in my case study of Cardiff-based The Pioneers) offer benefits in terms of education, training and employability which come from giving people opportunities to develop their confidence through creative activity, and to acquire new skills and from learning how to work collectively. Such projects are an empowering tool for individuals and communities, with visual arts the vehicle for making works which can have lasting impact on the lives and environment of those who take part.”

“Site-specific work attracts audiences including arts-interested people and others connected with, or interested in, the site itself. By enabling art to interact with real spaces, visitors are encouraged to review their concept of the artists’ role within society, with the projects being capable of prompting a heightened awareness of, and sensitivity to, place and environment.”

“The notion that because artists are predominantly concerned with artistic practice they are not sufficiently concerned with the needs of audiences was raised by the study. However, although artist-led organisations are in general highly conscious of the need to engage with audiences, how artists interpret audience need and activate the relationship may not necessarily fit within the definitions used by funding bodies. For example, it is unlikely that TEA (a case study) would use the word ‘audience’ for those who come in contact with its work. Because their work is concerned with “research... into real life systems and problems” where the traditional divide between artwork and audience, producers and consumer become irrelevant, everyone who gets involved plays a creative role in the processes of research and interpretation that constitute their projects, with public ‘response’ taking the form of active engagement and interaction with various interest groups.”

“Such ways of working, because they are concerned with the broader issues of society’s needs, question traditional notions of how artists’ work is or should be made publicly available, and thus its relationship to the resources provided at present by the arts infrastructure. Equally, it raises issues about how such work is best evaluated and whether the mechanisms which are applied to measuring the ‘success’ and ‘quality’ of mainstream art practice in traditional settings are necessarily appropriate to judge the outcome of work which derives from different aspirations and values. “

My research addressed the impact of the artist-led in terms of the broader arts and cultural economy and found that:

“The case studies highlight how artists-led organisations have contributed to aspirations for an enhanced local or regional cultural identity. Artspace Bristol (a case study example, which was then an artist-led organisation) was viewed not only as a providing a valuable resource for artists, but as being capable of making a major contribution to the city’s cultural identity as a whole. “

“In these examples and others, the energies and activities of artists at a grassroots level over a period of time have provided a valuable ‘personal’ face to what is sometimes otherwise perceived to be the ‘institution’ of the arts, serving to deflect the oft-quoted criticism that the arts are an elitist activity and as such have no place in the lives of ordinary people.”

My examination of artists’ expectations and approaches showed that their “motives in generating work are best described as being concerned with personal and artistic development and with realising a vision. Whether this is manifested through setting up what may be described as a small business or whether it is concerned with identifying new working processes or collaborations or in generating different kinds of social relationships, the common factor is the length of time required to achieve any significant outcomes. Whereas the planning structures of arts funding bodies are constrained by government time-frames, and schemes and strategies may run for relatively short times before being superseded by others, artists tend to work, knowingly or unknowingly, within longer time-frames. “

“In adopting a life-style approach, the practice of visual artists becomes a statement about who they are and what they value and a means of creating meaningful work which encompasses the things which are important in their life. As such, the practice is concerned with defining the terms of reference by which artists engage with society, and with setting their own agenda.”

“This approach makes a key contribution to the arts environment in that it generates creative capital, this being the term used to describe what arises when artists’ ideas and creativity are nurtured and provided with the means necessary for development. Artist-led organisations in general are cited within the case studies as having the ability to generate this essential resource. They are said to demonstrate “ambitious, innovative approaches to the creation and presentation of work” (TEA), to be “interestingly non-institutional, very productive and [gain] the respect and support of audiences and artists” (TEA), “pro-actively seeking out new areas of work, being experimental and risk taking in order to produce work that breaks new ground” (The Pioneers), “take greater risks... have a stronger sense of artistic vision and direction” (case study of Space Explorations), “play an active role in stimulating and contributing to debates around specific areas of visual arts practice” (Space Explorations) and “have a passion which drives them to succeed” (case study of ArtSway).

Furthermore, my research demonstrated that “the work of artist-led organisations is valuable to the arts environment because it is perceived as being experimental and innovatory, and therefore as filling gaps in the existing range of visual arts provision. Practice-lead approaches are worthy of greater attention because they can suggest new ways of delivering arts provision and developing audiences and new roles for artists within society.”

The key evidence gained from my three-year, in-depth study was distributed through lectures in art schools, presentations to conferences and at arts funding policy fora and in widely-distributed shorter report entitled Roles and reasons, providing cogent and persuasive evidence about artists’ intrinsic worth and validating their practice-based strategies.

Importantly, my research effected changes in arts policy too – I know of many instances where artists themselves took the evidence to meetings with local authority arts officers, regional boards wrote strategies for support to artists’ initiatives into forward policy and the Arts Council into delivery of percent for art strategies too. In my own region of Northern England – for example – it specifically influenced Northern Arts’ new policy to support the artist-led – Waygood Studios and Gallery, The Globe, Artists in Middlesbrough, Sunderland Artists Group and a myriad of smaller groups and networks.

As I wrote in the final – widely-distributed – report Roles and reasons: “To a lesser or greater degree, arts boards and local authorities are supporting artist-led organisations. Some are felt to provide a focus for visual arts development and fulfil requirements for audience growth, community participation, access for disadvantaged groups and the improvement of provision in rural areas or outside main urban considerations. By redeploying and revitalising older buildings or using redundant buildings as locations for temporary works, artists contribute to local authority policies for heritage, economic development and the built environment.

Drawing on the evidence for a policy paper, the (then) London Arts Board recognised that “Artists continually provoke and respond to urban renewal, and thus make visible to other artists and audiences features of [the] terrain not previously recognised or valued… [and] inspire other artists to follow suit”. In such ways, artists are recognised as contributing to the cultural vibrancy of an area, in a climate when culture is used to demonstrate quality of life, social well-being and to indicate economic stability.”

Summarising the role of artists my study concluded:

“As pool of creators, artists might be visualised by the arts funding system as the material in which the arts system ‘tree’ is planted, the seemingly naturally-occurring resource which nourishes the roots so that the tree produces healthy leaves and fruits.

An alternative visualisation might be to place the artist-constituency around the rim of a wheel which also contains the other enablers and promoters of the visual arts and which is driven by the interaction between, and the combined strengths of, each of its parts. Such a diagram recognises that all elements hold an equal role within the arts infrastructure, and suggests a greater possibility of interaction and exchange between artists and the range of people whose beliefs and energies shape the cultural identity of the country and define the part the arts plays within it.

Regardless of which philosophical framework the arts funding system opts for in future, there will be a requirement to invest more heavily in creativity and in the practice of artists, with at the same time an acknowledgement that artistic risk and experiment have the potential to result in failure or no tangible outcome in the short term.

In financial terms, support to artist-led organisations can claim to be a highly cost-effective way for funding bodies to extend visual arts provision whilst at the same time investing in experimental work. As much organisational work is done on a voluntary basis, any funds given will tend to be spent largely on the exhibitions and projects themselves. Project-funded groups have the advantage of not being restricted by the conditions placed on regular and larger clients and can respond quickly to new ideas or trends. However, disadvantages include having no security on which to plan over and above the short-term, being heavily reliant on the commitment of the artists, and being less able to influence the arts planning processes and the policies to which their work must relate to gain support.”

Section 3: Social networks

Fast-forward to 2002, and in my then relatively new role as Director of a-n The Artists Information Company, I instigated an investigation into an infrastructure that might support the “networking of artists’ networks”. “A strategic UK-wide professional exchange and advocacy programme towards a change in approach for the support of artists.”

Research (unpublished) had revealed that “78% of artists surveyed in the UK recognised the professional value of networking and saw it is as vital way of developing their careers”. At a time of burgeoning of new media and communications – albeit prior to the surge of interaction enabled through Web 2.0 – there was a need to understand new infrastructures to enable that creativity that only artists can foster. The initial study – over two years – involved some 200 artists from across the UK and took the form of action-based research – how other networks operated within social contexts (housing, the environment and sex workers) and non-UK examples such as Wochenklauser.

Initial discussions amongst the artists instrumental in the initial study revealed the need for any artists’ networking initiative to: “act local, think national and global; avoid formal structures; create high value input as well as critical mass; empower artists/enabling them to travel; engagement through history and recommendation; people (users) can pick and choose what they want….”

a-n’s NAN initiative that ran 2004-2011 developed from this, defining its mission as: To provide a ‘place’ for UK artists that supports and enhances artists’ networks and interest groups and by doing so:

  • enables artists to feel part of a profession
  • generates and supports artists’ professional exchange in the UK and internationally
  • provides a focus for the development of artists’ collaborative projects
  • raises awareness of the value of artists in society.

The NAN advisory group of artists forged everything about it – what it did and why, how it did it and what was achieved by it. Over that period, NAN helped to identify, make visible and support over 250 artists’ initiatives and their artists.

NAN’s success was judged to be because: “it does not pose a model from outside but has created an ethos of its own that can be applied to a range of different activities and projects – creating a chorus of artists’ voices”.

As a forerunner to today’s well-trodden internet based social networks, NAN produced and shared a body of knowledge including information and skills that (to paraphrase physicist and systems theorist Fitjof Capra) has shaped (visual arts) culture and artists’ practice in a distinctive way, in addition to holding a body of values and beliefs.

Section 4: Into the future

The neo-liberalism of the last decade in the UK at least has largely located artists – unless they are the art stars of the commercial art market - as deliverers of public policy. Artists may find themselves shoe-horned (through financial necessity or the arts PR machine) into making art/delivering art projects the efficacy of which are measured in terms of their instrumental powers - how well they serve the needs of others (achieve social improvement such as regeneration, uplift the lives of disadvantaged people, they fill the ‘arts gap’ in school curricula.

In short, their role has been defined by others as creating art or using art processes that are predominantly measured by what they ‘give to others’. Thus highlighting the altruism of artists.

However, as John Holden from Demos has commented: “Institutional and Measurement Properties of the administrative system exert far too much influence over the nature of cultural activity itself…The danger is that unintentionally, these pressures will institutionalise cultural mediocrity by encouraging funders and funded to take safe bets…We should be not be satisfied with criteria that act as proxies for cultural value; rather, we should be seeking to design the institutions around the creation of cultural value”.

There is a certain amount of irony that over the last five years or so, artists and arts activists have been returning to, and reiterating, the arguments for and providing the evidence about the value of giving meaningful support to artists that were common-place ten and twenty years before. This is because of short-term memories within arts policy-making that means that public support to artists falls in and out of fashion – this to the detriment of society as well as to artists.

Amongst the arts funders and policy-makers in England at least nowadays there is poor knowledge and understanding of the scope of value of artists and in particular of the importance of supporting the ideas and ventures that artists initiate and explore for themselves – that are in effect the essential creative R&D, unbound and unconstrained by notions of the arts as an economic tool or social Elastoplast.

The need now is greater than ever to support artists and their potential for innovation, as the arts world and society struggles with defining value and achieving great things for people. As Julie Crawshaw commented in her paper ‘Value of making (value)’: “Rather than fitting art practice to ever-changing measurement criteria – or setting norms (“ will look like…..” ) or attempting to predict behaviours, perhaps we in the arts – the arts activists – should be comfortable with what is not normal, what is unpredictable, what is, and make better sense of that”.

Quoting again from Julie Crawshaw, she says: “Art practice is something that sits, walks, jumps up and down, amongst, on top of and in between [the institutions].”

Doggerland – an artist-led project whose initial development was supported through an a-n New Collaborations bursary (2014) - “conducts collaborative research documenting the breadth of artist-led activity across the UK and contributes to a culture in critical engagement and dialogue with audiences that is currently lacking in younger or independent projects.”

The long-term aim for the artists – Sam Playford-Greenwell and Tom Prater - is to “to develop a forum and platform committed to the development and strengthening of non-commercial arts organisations across the UK through the provision of exposure, dialogue and engagement.

“Doggerland is in the process of meeting with the organisations and project coordinators who we wish to build relationships with over time and foster an extended network of contributors. By holding these conversations, we are celebrating the nuances and defining attributes of each project, whilst seeking an understanding of the current climate of activity around the country. “

In conclusion

We must in my opinion beware in the funded arts of over-reliance on a building-based, events-based, instant gratification based culture which unless there is widespread participation in the arts by all sectors of our society, is clearly unsustainable without the largesse of public funding.

Arts institutions in order to deliver their promise to increase audiences have been cutting corners since 2008 which has reflected harshly on artists’ fees – as the Paying artists campaign has shown.

If I were asked to give advice to a group of artists who want to, and need to make their way: to be artists, effect change, foster innovation, make a difference, be proud of what they are and what they achieve I’d be proud myself to quote an artist I met – over twitter of course – who says it says well:

“You are an artist. Articulate and defend your ideas and your place in society. This isn’t a fight for your own survival; it’s a fight to imagine and articulate a not-so-distant artistic future that can become a reality in our own lifetime” Margaret Lam, Bemused, Canada

And the Modes of practice manifesto produced in the Airspace building in 2011 also stands in good stead, designed as it was to create solidarity amongst practitioners in the earlier years of austerity, that we now know is here to stay.

  1. Be active: support each other.
  2. Be active: be an activist.
  3. Be active: be an artist.
  4. Value yourself, your time and your skills.
  5. Share your knowledge and resources.
  6. Focus, strategize and plan.
  7. Be critical - be fair
  8. Know your rights.

Reporting later on the event, artist Nikki Pugh said: “it was notable that all the rules seemed to be independent of the current economic climate. The issues of prime concern to us were to keep making work of high quality; to be rewarded (financially or otherwise) fairly for our work; and to be part of wider, mutually and innovatively generous networks.

The blocks we are encountering to achieving these goals come from the perceptions and expectations from society as a whole and because we have not always been guilt free of perpetuating them ourselves. If I have one hope for what might result from activism catalysed by the cuts, it is that we may do something towards addressing these attitudes.”

© Susan Jones 2014

Presented at Airspace, Stoke on Trent 18 October 2014