First published by Voluntary Arts, January 2020
As Arts Council England prepares to launch its next ten-year strategy it’s welcome to see Sir Nicholas Serota saying that he wants to see more people participating in the arts and culture (Arts Council Boss vows more funding for those at early stages of career, Guardian, 1 January 2020). ‘If we could get into the same position in the arts [as sport] we would be well placed. It (arts and culture) is just something that is part of life rather than something which is over there and separate.’
The truth is that many people do take part in all sorts of creative, cultural and arts. Voluntary Arts engages with over 60,000 voluntary-led creative groups operating across the UK and the Republic of Ireland reaching over 10 million people. Activities range from music and dance to craft and the visual arts, but also increasingly to new technologies and digital media. People also cite cooking and gardening as creative activity. There are numerous studies about the value of benefits of such everyday creativity but we don’t need to rely on extensive research when people tell us how willing they are to spend on average 6 hours per week on voluntary creative activities and that they recognise many benefits from doing so: friendships, community links, relaxation, fulfilment, confidence, mental well-being. One of the more interesting responses to Voluntary Arts’ latest (2018) annual survey suggests that participating in the arts addresses some key social issues such as loneliness, depression and isolation.
So what’s the problem for funders and policy makers that they are lamenting the fact that ordinary people fail to see a relationship between the professional arts that they support and everyday creativity? In my experience funders find making this link very challenging indeed . They tie themselves up in knots drawing up definitions and criteria like ‘Is it Art?’, ’What about quality?’ ‘ Who gets to judge its value?’ as if every artistic enterprise has to be judged by them. And they also apply these questions to the space between amateur and professional too, and to groups that are not perceived to be part of the mainstream: disabled artists, BAME practitioners, commercially successful artists, even crafts people whose work might not seem to funders to be ‘innovative’ or ‘original’. Such comments may provoke discussion but they seem to me to be less about the value and importance of the arts and culture and more about the need to ration funding and resources, and to be in charge of the definitions. It’s about the funders themselves and their role. Activities get measured by how much funding they receive, how valued by the funder the activity is, how much value the activity brings in numbers of performances or exhibitions or how many people attend. Engaging with the professional arts is always prioritised over activity that most people do. And underlying it all is a fear that if activity is recognised it will need to be paid for.
The truth is that supporting professional artists and companies and celebrating everyday creativity are not mutually exclusive and the fact that they are seen so is to the detriment of the funders themselves. In the latest Guardian piece Serota recalls a study of 5,000 people who, when asked what the arts mean to them replied, ‘not very much’ even though many people say they listen to music most of the time. People no longer, if they ever did, see any connection between public funding of the arts and the arts they experience in their everyday lives.
The easiest part of a national funder’s work is to apply year-on-year funding to a portfolio of organisations: there’s a list and a budget and not much changes year on year. The level of investment is, of course, significant and will always take up the lion’s share of the available resources but there’s a much more important job for national arts funders to do.
Promoting everyday creativity is a different beast. Amateur artists don’t expect or want to be paid to make art. They value their independence. Voluntary groups thrive on self-organisation and not having to fill in forms or account to policy makers. But for this activity to thrive there does need to be some modest investment and proper recognition. There’s a need for information sharing, networking and advice. Groups need help to manage things well. More and more red tape means that any self-organising group needs to be able to navigate legal and financial challenges such as data protection, insurance and health and safety. Profile is important too.
I’m delighted to have recently joined Voluntary Arts as a trustee and VA’s Epic Awards and Get Creative Festival are good examples of shining a light on what’s happening and letting people know how they can get involved. People won’t value what’s happening on the ground unless they can see it. They won’t know where the opportunities are unless someone promotes them. A small amount of investment from the funders to help organisations like Voluntary Arts to provide such services to enable activity to thrive will bring disproportionate benefits back to the funders and help make the essential link between ‘my’ artistic enterprise and what goes on in the professional, media and online worlds.
As a practising artist, however raw and untrained, I am better placed to understand, engage with and debate with professionals and their work, and in turn improve what I do too. More than anything though we need an urgent language shift away from an obsession with dividing up arts and cultural practice between those who are funded and the rest, and a shift towards recognising that we can create a healthier and happier society by providing opportunities for all of us to take part.