Community Arts? Waving or Drowning?

The following comments started life as a reply to a provocative piece published by Mark Ravenhill of the Guardian Newspaper in his online blog. In it he suggested that arts council cuts would be best deployed on the marketing and development areas of arts organisations leaving what little left for the artists themselves. In the resulting comments there was widespread agreement that we were headed for a funding iceberg but how we would manage the impending crash was far less resolved. One contributor to the debate made a very interesting suggestion and one that I thought the most positive in regard to artists and funding. It suggested that artists should be salaried to teach workshops in return for time and space to do their own work. Basically a more formal ‘artist in residence’ system that would do away with a lot of the wasted time and effort artists are currently involved in as they chase various Quangos and funding agencies for income so that they may continue to simply exist. Most of the arguments revolved around notions of ‘quality’ and assessment of a hugely variable sector. Because a certain kind of art is funded has never mean it good or bad. These days it more likely to simply mean it still exists. If forthcoming cuts sever all but a few of the funding arteries the arts across the whole of Britain will bleed to death slowly. In those areas where no ‘private’ sponsors can be found it may cease to exist completely. This is starting to happen now and most arts organisations seem unprepared for the scale and severity of what happening. Most arts projects do not in themselves create worthwhile art because they are not intended to. They create opportunities for people who would otherwise not get them to have therapy, fun and maybe enlightenment. This work has for too long been an unregulated, snout-in-trough mess where predominantly well meaning and usually middle-class do-gooders have poured millions down the drain through sheer un-professionalism and lack of regulation. I as an artist have had first hand experience of mismanagement, unprofessional behaviour and downright nepotism in the area. Going by comments from fellow artists I am not alone and it not a local problem. Having been funded by government to take a

teaching qualification I see no reason why the same funding and concomitant stringency should not apply to the community arts sector too. It has always been an open secret in the sector that a fair proportion of funding was as likely to go to ‘artistic’ friends who short of cash rather than those most able to deliver. This is not a scandalous accusation but was reflected in statements by previous Arts Council leaders. However, whilst the previous government was only starting to pull hard on the reins it now looks like the Con Dem alliance may go a lot further and indeed may actually remove the saddle and put the nag out to pasture altogether. An objective audit of the area with final outcomes assessed truly (not the fabricated results ACE feedback forms have played with) would show where we have been, and then, where we might possibly be going. We regulate schools, FE and HE to a high degree. In my opinion the community arts sector should be regulated too. With proper regulation of the sector employed artists, values, performance and outputs would rise together. If this means training artists properly to deliver those outcomes so be it. Attempts in this direction have been lacklustre and warped by social output targeting meaning that substantial grants always went to those individual artists/organisations higher up the tick-boxing ‘hit list’ ahead of their innate ability to deliver professional outcomes. So yes to regulating and training the whole sector but it has to be a level playing field as in colleges and schools with an independent body to administer and here’s the rub. Where does one find the money to do so and create ‘community arts’ training country-wide like PGCE courses? If a fraction of the money wasted on the sector in the past 15 years (the figures slip into the billions not millions sadly) had been used to set up such a system we would not be in such a weak position now the sector under attack. Regulation could have bolstered those (including myself) who argue that the community arts sector can do great good and should not be dismantled. The Titanic seems to have already hit the iceberg and those who not in the lifeboats (Opera and Ballet) better learn to swim in some very chilly private sponsorship waters. In a sector beginning to nose-dive into to a watery grave this is the only way to save it in my opinion. Are we ready to wave or drown?

Shaun Belcher is a Nottingham Trent University lecturer, critic, fine artist, songwriter and poet with a volume of poetry forthcoming from Salt Publishing. He has worked on a variety of community arts projects in Nottingham. This week: Shaun has bought David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge, been to Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, eaten fish and chips in Scarborough and listened to a lot of early punk singles on vinyl especially The Fall. He is always being told to focus which means he simply does even more things instead…..

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