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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