Kerry Harker, 31 May 2023
Last week started with back-to-back conferences: East Street Arts [ESA]’s Hive on Monday 22 May, which took place at the Carriageworks, Leeds, in the context of the organisation’s ‘Guild’ support programme for artist-led initiatives, followed by Stronger Things 2023, organised by independent think tank New Local at the city of London’s Guildhall. (1)
While Hive specifically sought to foster a participatory and generative space for augmenting UK-wide networks among artist-led spaces, with the aim of increasing their sustainability, Stronger Things drew on multi-sector case studies from across the UK to demonstrate the acute need for accelerated devolution in fostering self-governance, hyper localised decision-making and positive change for communities. Here I offer some personal reflections and take-aways from these related but not yet connected events.
Hive began with provocations from researchers Dr Susan Jones and Dr Benedetta d’Ettorre alongside ESA’s Artistic Director, Jon Wakeman. The speakers introduced some barriers to sustainability among artist-led spaces: from the dominance of neoliberal ideology and a situation in which, in 2019-20, only 1.5% of Arts Council England funding was awarded to individual visual artists (Jones); to the shock and impact of Brexit and the necessity of property ownership that crucially provides a glimmer of resilience (Wakeman); and the language of ‘business planning’ (d’Ettorre) pervading an economic landscape into which artist-led initiatives may occasionally stray, only to discover it a bad fit for their alternate desires not fixated on economic growth.(2) Gloomily, for Wakeman the contemporary situation feels tougher than any in ESA’s history – and the organisation will turn 30 this year.
These framing presentations were followed by glimpses into more in-depth research on allied issues. Firstly, Dr Ashleigh Bowmott of The Uncultured presented findings exploring labour conditions in the artist-led sector. This includes analysis of redacted applications (99) to the Guild programme as well as a wider 2021 survey exploring barriers to sustainability in artist-led spaces. The data was analysed by independent consultants Trust Data and the resulting report, Open Doors: The Real Cost of Artist-led Spaces, released to coincide with Hive.(3) For Bowmott, this new research sits alongside and complements other recent contributions including Unlimited’s ongoing Nothing for Nothing survey and Structurally F*cked, the report into artists’ pay and conditions in the public sector published jointly by AN and Industria in March.(4) Open Doors makes similarly stark reading. Over 50% of artists surveyed carry out unpaid labour for their studios, and 44% of respondents think those studios would cease to exist if unpaid labour was withdrawn.
The multiple impacts on the bodies, psyches and livelihoods of predominantly young people (56% of respondents were aged 16-44) staffing these initiatives have been emerging with greater force over recent years, not least through Glasgow-based initiative Transmission which has now questioned the unpaid committee model that it played a major role in popularising from the mid-1980s. This before even considering the structural exclusion of all those for whom unpaid labour is simply impossible. Quoting one Open Doors respondent (‘We’re all working until we’re ragged and bitter’) Bowmott ended by questioning how much longer this broken and unsustainable system can endure – one that benefits a notional ‘sector’ at the expense of flesh-and-blood individuals.
Continuing the theme, Quinn Garrison (In Session) and Ed Compson (Pause or Pay UK) shared insights from research to be published this Autumn under the title Shifting Sands on the professional practice content of Fine Art degree courses in England and Scotland. How well does such content prepare graduates for life after study? Currently, not well at all as it turns out – something that may come as no surprise to those who (like me) have recently had first-hand involvement with such provision. Quantified mainly in terms of what students lack after graduation (a general absence of specialist knowledge, relevant experience, local networks and practical know-how), the research finds a persistent disconnect between studio practice and professional practice in current provision. With student placements often erecting barriers to those unable to take on unpaid labour, it’s no surprise (as the research concludes) that further and higher education simply reproduce structural inequalities at work across the creative sector.
Cut to: the opulent surroundings of London’s Guildhall, home to the City of London Corporation and its traditional centre of government since at least the Middle Ages. Constructed between 1411 and 1440 for an elite merchant class, the building has survived the Great Fire and the Blitz, echoing the centuries-long tenacity of systems they once designed to produce and reproduce wealth – but only for some. A slightly jarring setting then for the aims of Stronger Things, a massive gathering of over 1200 people more aligned with growing a ‘rebel alliance’ of ground-up, small-scale and situated community-led initiatives across the UK focused on public goods.
As Churchill, the Duke of Wellington and Sir John Cass gazed down from their stony, if newly precarious, perches on the Guildhall walls, the day offered up one rich case study after another demonstrating community power in action. One that particularly resonated for us here at the East Leeds Project was Kindred, a membership network of STOs (socially trading organisations) active across Liverpool City Region.(5) The network builds expertise through peer-to-peer support and invests – ethically and with ‘patient’ money – for social benefit. Programme Director Erika Rushton explained how Kindred bases its value system, and actions, not on the traditional banking model of business plans, spreadsheets and risk analysis but on collaboration, community-building and the production of social value. From the founding 150 members, the network has now grown to over 700 organisations. Positive stories abound, such as Craig’s live music venue in Birkenhead that now employs 42 people – real success stories, tangible and relatable for many working in the artist-led field.
Across the day, speaker after speaker, including Civic Square’s always compelling Imandeep Kaur, offered an impassioned plea for new thinking: for devolved decision-making and strategic practices that recognise the simple but inarguable logic that local people know more about the places where they live, and what communities in those places need, than anyone else. For recognition that historically, development has happened to people and not with them. And for the realisation that only a radical and revolutionary shift away from the traditional paternalism of public services, towards what Kaur described as a ‘big imagination moment’ of a new ground-up, practice-first-theory-later economics will enable us to decarbonise at the speed and scale required to address planetary catastrophe.
Two days, two conversations. Two entirely different rooms of people (attendance at Stronger Things felt heavy on local government, health and care, and development rather than arts and culture) all passionate about systems change, decentralisation, sustainability and the right to self-determination. About what we might call ‘community power’, even if understood in other terms. About changing the dynamics of our current situation deemed so dire by Stronger Things keynote speaker and Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Lisa Nandy, that ‘even the winners are losing’. Yet Hive and Stronger Things remain disconnected due to their quite different discursive frameworks.
It felt important to be in the room at Hive and yes, it’s always valuable and galvanising to reconnect with old friends and build new networks with others interested in the specifics of artist-led practice. ESA are bringing to visibility research that demonstrates the acute nature of the challenges to on-the-ground practice. That is work of critical importance. But I also want to explore the opportunities on offer when we step into other spaces, other discourses, other networks. What radical new alliances could we build, what tactical practices might unfold? At the East Leeds Project we’ve been building relationships in the health and care sector for several years now, so Stronger Things’ emphasis on addressing health inequalities came as a welcome opportunity to soak up some deep learning from others with greater expertise. We already know that cross-sector working can be challenging due to different processes, systems and language. But if we retune our ears, leaning in to values shared with other sectors can lay the ground for long-term, meaningful partnerships and reap real social benefits. Far from ‘instrumentalising’ artistic practice (a lazy assumption) this can inspire a renewed purpose beyond what Suhail Malik has identified as the ‘predicament of professionalised criticality’.(6) This, he claims, is a dominant paradigm recently afflicting fine art degree courses that promote a stylistic dogma of ‘critically engaged’ work to the expense of all else. This is surely a major contributing factor to the issues identified by Shifting Sands – a siloed fine art pedagogy that has been largely adrift from the lived daily realities both of the vast mass of practising artists and communities up and down the land.
So yes, let’s have Hive. Despite the deeply alarming statistics of one research finding after another presented on the day, there was great joy in gathering with peers and indulging in the allure of the hive mind, even for a day. But let’s also continue to reach out and beyond to other sectors, even or especially when that makes us feel uncomfortable at first. Let’s tune in to radical new thinking emerging through platforms including Stronger Things – on health and care, economics, urban development, climate emergency, community wealth building and more. Given the very real state of emergency for so many artist-led initiatives, that is surely a necessary move for uncovering new and innovative formations and the fellow travellers to better tackle – collectively – the structural injustices that impact so deeply on such initiatives everywhere.
(1) For Hive, see https://www.eaststreetarts.org.uk/events/hive/ and for Stronger Things 2023, see https://www.newlocal.org.uk/events/strongerthings23/.
(2) Susan Jones, ‘Fair Enough?’ in Art Monthly No.461, November 2022.
(3) The Open Doors report is available at https://www.eaststreetarts.org.uk/2023/05/21/open-doors/.
(4) For Nothing for Nothing see https://weareunlimited.org.uk/nothing-for-nothing/. The Structurally F*cked report is available at https://static.a-n.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/Structurally-F–cked.pdf.
(5) See https://kindred-lcr.co.uk.
(6) Suhail Malik, ‘Art Education and the Predicament of Professionalised Criticality’, in Politics of Study ed. by Sidsel Meineche Hansen and Tom Vandeputte (London, Open Editions: 2015), pp.49-68.