Monday, 20 February 2012

State of the Arts

Here are some small notes from the Arts Council England State of the Arts conference on Feb 14th 2012 in Salford. I had some beautiful conversations around and outside of the conference, but here are a few thoughts on the structure of the event itself, and why it left me a little sad.


There was much talk of "putting the artist at the centre". Everyone seemed agreed that this was a good thing. Part of this was the creation of 50 artist bursaries, of which I was very happy to be a recipient. This meant that our travel, accommodation, and conference fee were covered - excellent, as in previous years I've been unable to afford the conference. There were also plenty of artists on panels during the day, there was a short film by straybird that opened the conference, a live poetry response to the day by Contact Playback, and an evening of excellent art organised by the Manchester International Festival (MIF) the night before the conference. All of these were great.


Everything is segregated.
Don't let the art infect the conference. 

Yes, I'm sad to say there's a 'but'. I don't want to underestimate what it took to put all of the above in place. I enjoyed it all. But whilst perhaps there was more of an effort to involve artists in the online presence of the conference and whilst the bursaries did allow more artists to be physically present during the conference, I didn't feel that art or artists were really at the heart of the actual event.

three frustrations

1. The MIF programme was fantastic, but it all happened the night before the conference, as if we were to take our entertainment and food and then, safely recovered with a good night's sleep in the Holiday Inn, to return for the serious business of the conference itself. I know that there were practical reasons for this (the MIF programme took place in Manchester whilst the conference was in Salford) but it nevertheless felt frustrating to me that the two were separated in this way. Perhaps some of the questions of the conference could have been introduced into the evening event, perhaps some footage from the MIF programme could have been shown as part of the debate the following day. Instead, the art seemed only to celebrate itself, and the conference, separately, to celebrate its organisers.

2. The film by straybird opened the conference by offering us artist responses to the question "what matters?" including:

"It's long term investment. You need to spend money for quite a number of years. But if you did so for ten or fifteen years, you'd have a generation who've been grown at such an educational level that it comes to be very productive. The only problem (is) that you need to really invest for about ten or fifteen years constantly - and elections come every four years." - Vasily Petrenko
"We're now at a place in this recession where we're being forced to face false choices. People set up binaries which are completely untrue. So they say, it's the arts of the health service, as though those are equivalents ...  I'd like to see a situation where we're honest about funding... There's tons of money and there's tons of waste in this country. Those sorts of things need to be looked at first ... and I think a priority is being a human being, and if you're a human being, you need art." Jeanette Winterson 

But none of the issues raised here were addressed by the main panel directly after it was shown. Again, I would suggest that we were encouraged to applaud the film, which was fantastic, but no-one had the space to really engage with any of the difficult issues it began to touch upon.

3. All 50 bursary artists were listed as "artist" in the delegate pack as we had not been asked how we might like to be listed. So whilst all other delegates had under their name some detail of their organisation, their artform and even their twitter ID, we were kind of lumped together as one. This might seem like a small gripe, but I think it speaks volumes about how the programme was conceived, and reveals an intention towards artists that is well-meaning but ultimately just not joined up.

what art can do

Contact Playback - now this was really interesting. Baba Israel and two other members of the company gave a live response to the day - and everyone went wild for it. I think this demonstrates exactly what was lacking: art that inspires us to think differently, to celebrate and criticise the world, to debate. 

There is so much available to us as people who work in the arts - and if the artist was really at the centre of the day, involved in planning the event as well as delivering it, I think we could have come out of there ready to shape a whole new world. This is why I was disappointed - not because it wasn't a solid conference with some very interesting speakers. But because it could have been so much more! Because I do believe that art can change the world, and ACE should be the first in backing me up on that. Yes, Robert Wilson and Baba Israel and all the other artists were amazing. But a conference about the state of the arts should not just star artists - it should be creative in its very structure.

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