Access and the Arts

Images of critical fish pages Access and the Arts article

By Kenn Taylor
Magazine design: Joe Cox

Access is a fierce concern in the arts in the UK. Government cuts have dragged on for years, reducing equitable access to culture on all fronts and undermining the progress that had been made in recent decades. Couple this with a period of intense cultural shifts and the spotlight has been turned on access, not for the first time, and hard questions are rightly being asked.

Access to the arts, or lack thereof, has to be considered on different levels. This includes physical and sensory access to art and art venues, financial access to art or the tools to make it, and access to education facilitating the consumption, critique and creation of art. To this we can add access to the platforms that help define the art that is valued, paid for and consumed by large numbers of people, and lastly access to the time and space it takes to even think about art.

The challenges vary between access to the consumption of art and access to making and platforming it. In this multimedia age, these have to an extent blurred. However, a hierarchy remains. A large number of people may be able to put their pictures on Instagram or sell works on Etsy, but it’s not a meritocracy as to who gets their images selected by a major gallery or has their jewellery designs used in a shoot in Vogue.

Let’s talk first about who gets to consume. Though not impossible, it’s hard to produce art without having consumed a significant amount of it first. With the Internet there is ostensibly more access to all forms of visual culture than ever. There are also now more contemporary arts centres in the UK than ever before. So, there’s potential abundance. However, if your personal circumstances are such that you may never have been given the opportunity to think about what you’re consuming, to examine it in detail or explore beyond what major organisations want to feed us through powerful communication channels, access is not equal.

Not everyone is given the chance to explore and create art from a young age. For many reasons art is not just in the purview of a lot of families, often after parents have been denied opportunities themselves. With life getting harder for poorer families,Ilocal cultural services and youth support being shut, (II) and disability support services being axed,(III) fewer young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have opportunities to develop their interests and talents. So, the first layer of people who have been denied access to the arts falls away.

Schools once offered young people at least some chance to engage with different aspects of the arts. Now we see the stripping out and devaluing of arts education at all levels. Except of course, in the elite, private schools, which have heavily invested arts programmes.(IV) Meanwhile school trips to cultural venues – which for many are the first if not only opportunity to experience such things, my own first visits to a theatre and an art gallery were with school – are being hugely cut back.(V) Those who may have interests in creative areas and talents they’re not even aware of yet, are not being given the chance to develop. Instead they are pushed down narrow and often irrelevant paths of learning, and told they’re stupid or a failure if they don’t conform. Any attempt to change access to the arts further upstream are always going to have minimal impact unless things change within the mainstream education system. So, another layer of people denied access to the arts falls away.

Some have concerns about imposing art upon people. It is true that ideas of ‘high art’ have historically been used to devalue and undermine popular culture and those ingrained in it. Yet it can’t be ignored that there are always dominant artistic forms linked to power. People from all backgrounds should have the opportunity to get to grips with these and choose whether to adopt them, adapt them or to reject them. Those within the arts who care little about ensuring people’s access to it, who even see it as patronising, are usually those who have always taken it for granted. They have been fed enough art to be able to reject aspects of it even as others are barely getting their first taste.

It’s not just young people who are having opportunities removed. The slashing of Further Education colleges and other routes for lifelong learning has cut people’s chances to develop interest and skills in art in later life. Simultaneously, austerity and its resulting negative impacts on work, family and community life leave less space for other things. Even if you have a keen interest, the costs for visiting many exhibitions have soared as subsidies have been cut. Disabled people, who now struggle to access enough support even for their basic needs, find it even harder to find support to engage with the arts. More people denied access fall away.

We then need to consider who gets to create art. Making art requires no license, materials can be cheap and some people have made a success of this. However, for most people making art does require first having experienced it, as well as having the time, drive and, crucially, confidence to begin. Inevitably those facing the most disadvantages are cut off first. Without early opportunities, the field of those who may pursue art has already been narrowed. That’s before we get to the Governmental and growing societal narrative pushed even on those who do know deep down that they want to create, that studying the arts at a higher level is a bad or irrelevant thing. Thus, another layer of people who may have had a path in the arts falls away.

For those who do want to study, the cost of arts higher education in the UK is extortionate, our fees are now the highest in the world,(VI) while at the same time arts studios and facilities are being ‘value engineered’ out of institutions. The number of tutors and student contact time with them is also being reduced – time which is perhaps most vital for the more disadvantaged students. Some places have seen the de facto end of visual art higher education, leaving local young people with little option but long, expensive distances to travel should they want to pursue study. Yet another layer of people denied access to the arts falls away.

Then there are those who find it hard to make it through study even once they’ve started. Without significant financial support from their family many arts students have to work long hours outside study as well as having to live at home.(VII) Often this means having less time to devote to study and to develop practice and less opportunity to build a support network, and the extra independence and confidence this would bring. The dropout rate amongst students from disadvantaged backgrounds is generally higher than for their more comfortable peers. So, the next layer of people denied access to the arts fall away.

After study in the arts comes the difficult period when there isn’t a direct, clear or easily accessible path to develop and sustain yourself in the field. The pressure to make a living gets harder as the structural support of being a student disappears. Those with financial backing do not to have to fully support themselves at this stage. Those without disabilities, mental health challenges or caring responsibilities are inherently advantaged: able to focus on developing their creative practice, getting it out there and building further networks. Even if you can avoid some of these challenges, which have been powerfully discussed by Anna Berry on Disability Arts Online,(IX) what if you find networking hard? I myself have an anxiety condition that can flare up and make that essential networking exhausting, even at this stage in my career. Others face far greater challenges and prejudices. Thus, another layer of people who can’t sustain themselves through this period falls away from the arts.

Even for those who do make it onto the first rung of the professional ladder, how does an emerging artist get from a popup show in an empty shop to being exhibited at a major gallery? The path remains remote, distant, unclear. There are more arts centres around the UK than ever, and some do have programmes supporting emerging artists. Others feel the need to focus on artists already on ‘the circuit’ especially as they’re also dealing with funding cuts, which can make them risk averse and pushed to ensure popularity and critical support. Getting on this circuit is often an arbitrary and unfair process, which requires a lot of time and energy building networks and getting seen. It can also be difficult to apply for grants without some form of track record, not to mention draining and time consuming given the likelihood of rejection. Even for those able to create space in their lives to maintain a creative practice, trying to move beyond local recognition is difficult. Again, in this period of an artist’s development, those who don’t fear destitution and who have been taught how to sell themselves from an early age often win out. For those who struggle, another layer of people falls away from the arts.

Who gets to work for those cultural organisations and funders? The arts is a small sector and like all small sectors it can be a deeply interconnected world. People get to know each other and develop close working relationships as they move around organisations, compare themselves and try to impress each other. To an extent this is inevitable. However, it also leads to a narrowness of ‘how things are done’ and a circle of who knows who. While things are improving, diversity in the sector has a long way to go. Those from diverse backgrounds who do enter the sector are often moulded by very similar educational backgrounds, their ideologies dominated by whatever is current in universities at the time. Questions around ‘taste’, ‘quality’ and ‘relevance’ remain decided by a small circle, one that can be very hard to enter. There’s still an unspoken division between cultural organisations that are ‘taken seriously’ and the rest. As a recent article highlighted, burnout amongst arts leaders is growing.(X) There’s a constant battle to get enough funding, keep everything running, deal with unstable governments, a slashed public sector, ever more pressure and paperwork. Inevitably the burden of this falls on the smaller arts organisations who are less able to call on powerful friends, and who don’t have a team of fundraisers. Already things are deeply skewed against working in the regions: four of the richest areas of London received more National Lottery cash per person than any other part of the UK over 20 years.(XI) Even though this is slowly changing, the larger cities with big organisations inevitably benefit the most ahead of often poorer cities and towns. Climbing the ladder in the sector can be hard and slow, requiring difficult choices about moving around. Pay at all levels remains low.(XII) Many people leave the arts sector as they approach middle age, unable to support families in these situations. Another layer of people is lost from the arts.

Which brings us to who is left?

This country did very well after the Second World War: allowing more people from different backgrounds into the world of art and culture, helping lead to a revolution in everything from commercial design to visual art and music loved across the world. This has generated immeasurable benefits to the economy. Yet diverse access to the arts is now in decline at all levels. We seem to realise the importance of a rich cultural life to the wellbeing of society more than ever, just as galleries close, local colleges shut arts classes and schools are turned into privatised exam factories. It is certainly not all doom: there has been progress in the increasing acknowledgment of diverse perspectives, more effort towards meaningfully engaging the wider public in the arts and a growing number of places to show work. There will also always be a random and arbitrary element to who and what becomes popular or powerful in the arts. Lots of us want to create, not all of us what to consume what others create. Some people are just better artists or curators or whatevers than others. What we can avoid though, what we must work hard against now more than ever, is the compound unfairness at which every layer more people who don’t fit or who are facing disadvantages in life fall away from the arts. Many never even get the opportunity or space to think about art because so many of their other needs are not being fulfilled. These issues are not confined to the the arts sector. They are fundamental to the multiple challenges the UK faces as a society. This social decay started much further back than 2010, when public sector cuts following the financial crash of 2008 really began to kick in. It’s just grown to cover more areas and affect more people. Much needs to be done, but in small ways we can all do things to create better opportunities for access to the arts, so less people fall away before they have even begun.

This piece was first published by The Critial Fish in May 2019.

References

I Hannah, Felicity, ‘Why low-income families won’t ever be able to make ends meet’, The Independent, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/money/spend-save/low-income-families-outgoings-personal-finances-poverty-a8432991.html

II Bulman, May, ‘Spending on children and young people’s services cut by nearly £1bn in six years, figures reveal’, The Independent, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/children-young-people-services-uk-cuts-funding-local-authorities-labour-tories-angela-rayner-a8285191.html

III Ryan, Frances, ‘PIP is a disaster for disabled people. At last the full horror is emerging’, The Guardian,2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/07/pip-disaster-disabled-access-report-benefits

IV Norris, Rufus, ‘Creativity can be taught to anyone. So why are we leaving it to private schools?’, The Guardian, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/17/creativity-private-schools-uk-creative-industries-state

V Kershaw, Alison, ‘Cash-strapped schools axing classes and cutting back on trips, headteachers say’, The Independent, 2017, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/education-schools-struggling-financially-axing-gcse-a-level-courses-cutting-class-trips-headteachers-a7620931.html

VI Kentish, Benjamin, ‘University tuition fees in England now the highest in the world, new analysis suggests’, The Independent, 2017, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/university-tuition-fees-england-highest-world-compare-students-student-loan-calculator-a7654276.html

VII Busby, Eleanor, ‘Poorer students three times more likely to live at home while at university, study says’, The Independent, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/poor-students-live-at-home-university-sutton-trust-social-mobility-a8229816.html

VIII Sellgren, Katherine, ‘Rise in poorer students dropping out of university’, BBC News, 2017, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-40429263

IV Berry, Anna, ‘How The Art World Exclused Introverts’ Disability Arts Online, 2018, http://disabilityarts.online/magazine/opinion/art-world-excludes-introverts

X Romer, Christy, Increasingly high risk of burnout among arts leaders, ArtsProfessional, 2018. https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/increasingly-high-risk-burnout-among-arts-leaders

XI Evans, Felicity, ‘Lottery good causes: Is UK lotto cash shared fairly?’, BBC News, 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-46468787

XII Hill, Liz, ‘Pay crisis builds as arts workers struggle to make ends meet’, ArtsProfessional, 2019, https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/pay-crisis-builds-arts-workers-struggle-make-ends-meet

Tourists, Travellers and Changing Landscapes

By Kenn Taylor

Foreign travel was once something largely reserved for the well off. Improvements in transportation and communications in the latter half of the 20th century though, saw the opening up of international tourism for the masses. In tandem with this came the growth of the self-proclaimed ‘traveller’. Those who distinguished themselves from tourists by aiming to go variously; off the beaten track, to the edgier spot, in search of ‘authentic’ culture, while avoiding the popular or things that smacked of package style organisation.

Being such a traveller in the late 20th century usually required having surplus money and, perhaps even more so, surplus time. However, with those ever-advancing improvements in transport and communications and other factors such as borders being relaxed and increasing global economic development, the goals of the traveller became more accessible. Thus, with the world continuing to get ever smaller, ever faster, those who place personal satisfaction in self-consciously being travellers find themselves having ever less options. At the same time as this and deeply linked, we have seen growing critiques of tourism in parts of the press that, ironically, did very well for years from advertising selling foreign dreams to its readers.

Of course, this isn’t entirely new. In the 1970s, travel writer Paul Theroux talked of the typical curmudgeonly snobbery about travel, finding it going back to at least Evelyn Waugh’s When The Going Was Good of 1946 and even further to William T. Brigham writing in 1886: “Old travellers know how soon the individuality of a country is lost when once the tide of foreign travel is turned through its towns and by-ways.” Nothing new under the sun.

Even if going solo, off beaten tracks or engaging positively with locals, by definition you, I, are still tourists. There is of course deeply damaging tourism; landscapes destroyed by over development or over visitation, hooliganism, exploitation, local residents driven out. However to blame all tourists for this or to try and entirely distance yourself from all the issues tourism can create when you go on foreign trips by defining yourself as a traveller and ‘them’ tourists, is, frankly, silly. It’s also laced with class prejudice which can be seen in some of the articles emerging about ‘over tourism’.

Talk about the growing cruise industry is an example of this. Seen as a big symbol of over tourism, ships are inevitably described as ‘huge’, ‘monsters’ with their ‘tides’ of passengers, and usually more subtle references to the undesirable class status and habits of those passengers. There are some genuine environmental issues about large ships in certain, specific water bodies and big engines pumping out fumes close to urban centres. Nevertheless, I remain unconvinced that one large cruise ship with thousands of passengers is any more environmentally damaging overall than a dozen medium sized jetliners moving the same number of people to an airport in a suburb, out of sight, out of mind. With those passengers then needing various often individualistic forms of transport to get to the place they actually want to be. Not to mention the impact of the half dozen hotels they then occupy. But as cruising is generally more of a working class and lower middle class dream, it’s easier to single it out for blame than acknowledging the role that anyone who goes on holiday abroad plays in the damage that tourism can indeed cause.

Amsterdam is one key European city struggling with tourist numbers. Dutch writer Joost de Vries noted in his article in The Guardian his angst at it becoming “like Venice”, as he describes, shorthand for a city so flooded by tourists that it no longer feels like a city at all. Yet he is also self-aware enough to admit that, he too becomes someone else’s tourist problem when he leaves Amsterdam: “Someone in the south of France will be writing the exact same article I’m writing now (bonjour!). That’s the whole point of complaining about tourism. Are you staying home this summer? If not, you are someone else’s tourist.” Indeed, how many writers in major metropolitan centres even as they complain of the damage done to their city by visitors, are soon booking their next flight elsewhere? Most people want to go on holiday and for the majority, going somewhere abroad is the ambition. As the world has got generally richer, tourism has become the world’s biggest industry. I remain an optimist that this demonstrates our common interest in each other and the world. Which in the present political climate, now more than ever is a good thing. To quote Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”

Some of the angst around tourism is about how it changes a place, becoming less ‘authentic’. It is true a certain kind of hipster aesthetic has proliferated in urban areas, washing outwards from London, New York and Berlin with diminishing returns. That however ignores that cultural exchange has always prompted change, especially in urban areas and that as the world got smaller, this was always going to speed up. Cities have always copied popular things from each other – witness the glaring similarity of most Victorian town halls and museums across the UK, long before people started shouting about clone towns. Not to mention that seeking ‘the authentic’ while deeply human, is also in itself, pretty inauthentic. A chimera given that, like in physics, as soon as you observe something, you change it.

The reason many people who live in areas popular with tourists work in the industry, especially in developing countries, is that it frequently has better pay and security than the traditional jobs that were available to them. Travellers may bemoan somewhere they once saw as authentic see its people move from say, farming, to running a hotel, but then I doubt many travellers ever had to experience the precarious life of being a sustenance farmer. Tourism also offers opportunities for areas with few other options for a sustainable economy. Venice may now indeed be over visited and needs to manage that, but its traditional economic powers (for all its beauty, much to do with slavery and exploitation) have long been in decline, with the city largely relying on tourism now for well over 100 years. After the last of its port and shipbuilding moved away in the 1950s as it became impractical to use its quaysides, without tourism, the city, with its huge maintenance costs, would have struggled to sustain itself at all. With its own population in decline well before the age of mass cruising.

City breaks to the likes of Venice, Amsterdam or wherever, were once the solid preserve of the middle to upper class. However, with the emergence of low cost airlines, the expansion of hostels, the Internet in general, an industry of alternative travel guides that rose out of the grassroots Rough Guides and Lonely Planet (now both part of global corporations) not to mention the general opening up of Europe through the EU, such city breaks become common place. Thus, the traveller now sees them as problematic, now that everyone visits cities rather than just ‘people like them’.

The potential negative effects of increasing tourism on existing urban residents are true, from stag do drunkenness to people being priced out of apartments for Airbnbs. But the traveller critiquing this is a hypocrite. All the disruptive businesses and technologies that made such travel increasingly possible and affordable to more people, were originally popularised by such travellers from the tech-savvy middle class. Airbnb was once talked about as a radical alternative to corporate hotel chains and a way to engage with local people and culture. So much so that it proliferated. Now the same people who helped it catch on judge others for using it. Of course, there’s a long history of the middle and upper class making something popular then judging others for adopting them, from microwave meals to out of town supermarkets.

That’s the thing with capitalism in general, however punk and radical you convince yourself something is, if it works, it becomes mainstream, see everything from Starbucks to Uber. As ever with such problems, the solutions are to use the power of democratic structures to reign them in. Not bemoan and blame that more people can travel than ever, but take hold of these changing patterns and technology. Tourist taxes, to make sure visitors contribute to local services; regulating the likes of Airbnb to stop it destroying residential areas; limiting visitor numbers to fragile sites; imposing taxes and environmental controls on transportation providers; ensuring local small businesses gain from tourism not just big chains, are all ways that we can reduce some of tourism’s negative impacts.

That more people want to see more of the world is a good thing. Don’t blame the desire, but those who exploit that desire with no thought for what they’re doing to these places or the planet. And even if you see yourself as a traveller, however you behave, accept that, in the end, you’re still just another bloody tourist.

An abridged version of this piece was published by New Statesman CityMetric in January 2019.

‘Fear helps keep people in their place’: art, culture and class

By Kenn Taylor

Is wanting to be an artist of any kind, or otherwise work in the cultural sector, stupid? It’s often poorly paid, if at all, and achieving ‘success’ can be arbitrary, unfair. If you’re from a working-class background, it’s even harder. So why would you bother?

For me, art and culture are about ideas. If you control ideas, you control everything. If only a narrow stratum of society controls the ideas, only their views and experiences will be reflected in systems of communication and power. And a far worse society, especially for those with the least power, will result. Art is too important to be left to a privileged few. Yet year by year, it seems to get harder for people from working class backgrounds to find space in culture, media and the arts.

Working in the arts can be a risky option for anyone, but the risks are compounded for those without family money or connections to fall back on. For those who somehow must generate an income to support themselves and perhaps others. Those who’ve probably been told quite often in life not to dare to imagine other worlds they could enter because of the risks involved.

When architect of the NHS, Nye Bevan, wrote a book about the foundation of the welfare state he called it ‘In Place of Fear’. Over the last few decades, what has increased exponentially in this country is fear, and not accidentally. Fear helps keep people in their place and too overwhelmed and frightened to try and challenge the limited parameters forced upon them. Part of that, despite lip service to the contrary, is to return culture to a field dominated by a narrow circle.

It was difficult enough when I entered the cultural sector in the 2000s. The child of a railway fitter and a cleaner, I grew up on benefits when my dad got sick, in a deprived industrial town in Merseyside. I was the first in my family to go to university. In that era, I got help. I lived in one of the pilot areas for Education Maintenance Allowance. The Connexions service helped with university applications when I’d left education to work. There were waived university fees and top-up maintenance grants for those from poor backgrounds. After uni, paid entry-level arts jobs were available, like the one I got – albeit a low paid and zero hours one. Now, so much of that has gone, it’s unreal. I can’t imagine I’d have been able to get to where I am today without any of those opportunities – yet working class people in 2018 get none of this support.

The issues are not just economic. It’s important to talk about the invisible barriers that exist on entering the sector and remain even when you’re in. At its best, the cultural field can be a place that welcomes those from different backgrounds; creative, open-minded, full of ideas. However, sadly, at its worst it can be too convinced of its own radicalism that it can be blind to the prejudice and structural unfairness that exists within it. Despite some progress, too many cultural organisations suffer from the ‘groupthink’ that comes from being dominated by people with incredibly similar backgrounds and educations. It was recently revealed that the key art, music and drama schools in this country are more elitist in their student bodies than Oxford and Cambridge. This doesn’t surprise me, but it’s a damming indictment of inequalities in the sector.

Many people who have experienced an elite education from a young age are given constant reinforcements of their confidence, get taught how to network and how to ‘sell themselves’. Sadly, some of these things are more respected and important to success in parts of the cultural sector than talent and depth. I mentioned ‘imposter syndrome’ recently to a few people in the sector from a similar background. There was mutual acknowledgement of this and past experiences of being made to feel inadequate, talked over, or willfully ignored by those who think you can’t benefit them in their own ambitious trajectory in the arts.

This is, of course, not to privilege class over other forms of structural injustice within the arts. Intersectionality is vital when looking at diversity in the sector. However, class has been an area ignored for too long, especially as it cuts across other areas of inequality yet is not covered by the Equality Act 2010. Similarly, I don’t mean to privilege one class over the other. Working class cultures at their own worst can be oppressive, prejudiced, and suspicious of difference, but it’s clear that working class people are not well represented enough across the sector. In addition, while thankfully it’s a minority, the sector still has too many people from comfortable backgrounds ‘slumming it’. That is, adopting performative tropes of being working class in some strange grasp for authenticity, who then drown out the voices of people who have actually come from such backgrounds.

It’s important to note it’s not just big cultural institutions that have these issues. The artist-led grassroots sector is not immune. Often relying on tight, cliquey networks and people with huge amounts of free time, it can also be blind to its own unspoken exclusions and prejudices. The self-confidence of members from elite backgrounds often dominating groups despite their supposed ‘fluid’ or ‘no hierarchy’ structures.

Now I am the director of a small arts charity, part of the establishment, albeit at a low level. The air is even thinner in terms of those from working class backgrounds when it comes to leading organisations. Though as I’ve chosen to work regionally and in a socially-focused field, not as much as in some other areas of culture. I have achieved a modicum of ‘success’. What does sometimes keep me awake at night though, is, do I do enough to make a difference for others from disadvantaged backgrounds to be heard in the arts? Is it all just a waste of time when there are so many huge structural inequalities in society over and above that in the cultural sector? Especially now things are even harder than 15 years ago. This is perhaps again an anxiety that comes from being working class. You think that you can never do enough even as those leading some of the largest organisations pay lip service to diversity.

So, what can be done to make a difference? It’s not actually that complicated, but it would require change on a large scale beyond just the cultural sector itself. For example; free higher education at the point of access; arts schools reserving spaces for those from disadvantaged backgrounds; a stop to the stripping out of the arts from school curriculums; the Arts Council continuing to push organisations to diversify (while other areas of culture such journalism, film, publishing, games and heritage should do the same); ensuring volunteering is only supplementary support to paid jobs; serious government funding for multi-year creative apprenticeships and an end to the qualifications arms race in the sector – let’s have proper respect for on the ground experience and not raise the bar too high for entry level jobs.

Listen to people who are working class; employees, artists, fans, participants, visitors and especially those trying to enter the sector. What they have to say is crucial. It’s time to ensure people from all different backgrounds are given decent opportunities. It won’t just be better for individuals and society, it will be better for art.

These things might seem utopian now, but that’s how far we’ve fallen. I spoke to an older man once, who as a young working-class boy had applied to art school. He never heard back. So, he got a job, only getting into art after his retirement many years later, to his sadness. Only after his father had died did he find the letter of acceptance from the art school that his parents had hidden. Whose fault was this opportunity being denied him? His parents? Or this country, for creating the climate of fear that to work in the arts is to be destitute and especially dangerous if you’re working class? And here we are in those times again. Let’s start to say no more. Now.

This piece was published by The Double Negative as part of their #classisabigdeal series in October 2018.

Time and Tom Wood

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Text Kenn Taylor
Images Tom Wood

The Pier Head – Tom Wood
Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool
12th January – 25th March 2018

“They were outside the groove of history and it was my job to get them in, all of them.”
The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

The thing that gets me most in Tom Wood’s series of images on and around the Mersey Ferries is the intensity of the eyes. Across years, generations, genders, locations, so many of his subjects in these photographs either look intently into the distance or, more strikingly, straight into the lens and into you. I’m drawn to an old video clip of former Open Eye Director Paul Mellor – an early champion of Wood’s work in the gallery he has returned to with this show: “I think he has a care and empathy for the subject matter and the people. I think he’s a humanitarian, if there is such a thing.”

Full disclosure, seeing Wood’s images years ago and how they captured places, people and an era so familiar to me in such a powerful way, was one of the things that drew me into visual arts. Merseyside, like many deprived areas, has had no shortage over the years of photographers keen to bob in and capture ‘poverty porn’. Which when you know a place well, its layers and complexity, can become deeply tiresome. Even if the photographer’s intentions are well meant, their ‘truth’ is usually two dimensional.

Wood is one of a few whose work stretches far beyond this, no doubt in part due to his deep familiarity with his subject, having photographed the area as a local resident over decades. In contrast to others, Wood captures his subjects not as types, but individuals as significant as in any high society or celebrity portrait. Sure, in some expressions or behaviour is humorous, but in others it is sad and still more it is powerfully dignified as he gets that shot of the confidence of youth, the resigned wisdom of old age, the cynicism of having been pushed to the fringe of society. And of course, the boredom of waiting.

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Like his previous work that focused on bus travel, All Zones Off Peak, here Wood captures the commute and its varied humanity. His Pier Head images differ from All Zones though in that the ferries and their terminals were, much more than the busses, also a ‘sit off’. Somewhere for the young and old especially to hang around, mess about, chat, linger. He photographs friends, couples, individuals’ heading somewhere or just passing the time. Snapping different generations over several decades, Wood captures continuity and change. Faces seem ever familiar. In contrast, fashion and hair styles shift rapidly. It was a particular part of the poisonous stereotypes pushed to the area in the 1990s to attack Scousers for a fondness for sportswear. These images remind that was only part of the fashion story. Not to mention that the often unique ways clothes were worn in the area was done with an originality rarely matched when such looks were copied elsewhere. Again, the particular detail of fashion in cruder hands could become voyeurism, but not here. You look at his subjects and their styles, but they look back into you.

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People are the heart of Wood’s images but the background detail is important as well, as much a part of their role now as social document as the fashions. While the images here span from the 70s to late 90s, the bulk are from mid 80s to mid 90s. This is a time in Merseyside history that artists, writers and academics rarely look too, preferring to tap into the swinging, for some, 1960s, the radical era of the late 70s and early 80s, or the more recent, if patchy, renaissance. Yet the period between the 80s and 90s that Wood captures so powerfully is important as well as it was perhaps Liverpool’s nadir. Coming as it did after the collapse of the brief Militant period when Merseyside was largely cut off and left to rot. Treated so often nationally with either contempt or indifference, negative stereotypes about the area came to the fore even in supposedly polite and liberal circles.

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This was the Merseyside I grew up in. Almost nothing new was built. Most of the theatres and gig venues closed. So much seemed of the past, decaying, like the ageing, smoky 1960s busses and ferries we waited for, while opportunity, change, a positive future, seemed distant, if not impossible. The local media became deeply nostalgic for ‘the better times’. What radicalism existed largely retreated to educated urban circles and had little impact on the city’s poor and unfashionable fringes.

Wood, intended or not, captures this atmosphere. Both the crumbling grandeur of the Victorian docks and jetties, rusting, grassed over, silent. But also the decay of 1960s optimism as exemplified by the rotting Modernism of the graffiti covered Pier Head terminal. Today its concrete and steel would be lauded by fans of once-again fashionable Brutalism, its Formica’d cafe turned into a themed eatery. Then, it was just a reminder of how everything had fallen apart. The Merseyside of today still remains highly deprived and faces numerous challenges, but it has come far from being so unrelentingly crushed in a way that people who came to know the area later on struggle to grasp.

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What Wood also captures though is that, despite the national mistreatment, life in Liverpool did indeed go on. People survived and even occasionally thrived despite the shit they had been given. Not crude stereotypes or even that other media trope, ‘sympathetic victims of a cruel system’, but individual human beings with their own stories, part of a culture that carried on despite seemingly impossible odds.

The landscape of the river and those who travel across it, as they have done so since around the 12th century, has now changed from that photographed by Wood. Just as the young, moody people in sportswear in 1987 confused and in turn were confused by the older people sporting headscarves and flat caps, so young people today must look these images with a distance hard to bridge. The differences in fashion and scenery though are just the visual demonstration of the bigger gap. That of experience and understanding between generations in an ever faster rapidly changing word, each one with its new sets of opportunities, joys, problems and challenges. Wood captures his subjects with dignity, young and old, but the generational gap remains for them as it does for all of us. We look at them, they look at us, but never quite understand what the other has seen and felt, like looking across a river into the distance.

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This piece was published by Corridor 8 in March 2018.

Beyond Leadership in the Arts

By Kenn Taylor

My first regular job in the arts was as a zero-hours gallery attendant. Now I have the fancy job title of Creative Director, having done quite a few roles in between, including being a volunteer and a freelancer. Starting off around the peak of the ‘boom’ in the 2000s when money flowed into the sector, through the worst of austerity and to today’s mixed but still uncertain times. In my career, I’ve also seen many different types and styles of leadership and management. This mixture of experience, along with having had opportunities for various forms of training and development in my career, I think has made me better equipped for my current role.

During the same period, I’ve also witnessed a seemingly ever growing focus on leadership in the arts. This is something which I do think has been necessary. As the sector expanded and diversified and the operating environment became more complex, cultural leaders having training and skills beyond academic art form knowledge has become increasingly important. Especially given the challenges that many organisations have faced, high profile and otherwise. Speaking to older colleagues about their experiences in the 1970s and 80s in cultural organisations, challenges with management in the sector seems to have been an issue going back a long way and this new focus does seem to have improved things. In addition, programmes which seek to increase the diversity of leadership in the sector continue to be vital. As the first in my family to attend higher education and having spent my youth living on my father’s disability benefits, active work to ensure a diversity of voices is heard in the arts is something I am passionate about.

However I have also become concerned that the sector may now be placing too much faith in leaders and the chimerical concept of leadership as being able to solve all the challenges cultural organisations face. This is something I considered when researching whilst on the Arts Fundraising and Leadership programme. Good leadership is important and can help organisations through changes and challenges, but it isn’t a panacea. In a sector struggling to simultaneously deal with big funding cuts, education system changes, huge regional disparities, increasing societal deprivation, major cultural shifts and growing political turmoil, leadership alone will not solve all problems we face.

Individuals can only do so much, even with progressive styles of management, and this focus on leadership can create unrealistic expectations and encourage constant churn in the sector. Suitable financial support from different sources, actively working to increase diversity, collaborative working inside and outside the sector and, crucially, ensuring personal development opportunities are available at all levels are just as important. These things may need to be led, but we need to think beyond leadership if we want to create a vibrant and resilient artistic ecosystem that can deal with inevitable shocks and changes.

We need to continue to develop leadership and management in the arts, especially different styles and methods that suit different types of organisations. Yet this has to be part of much wider and long term support and development for the arts sector if it is to be sustainable and better reflect the diversity and talent of creative voices in this country.

This piece was published by the Arts Fundraising and Leadership Programme in December 2017.

Art and Culture in Overheated and Under Resourced Cities

By Kenn Taylor

Over the last 30 years, the once fringe interest in the role and impact of art and culture in cities has become a huge area of mainstream focus. In particular its relationship to gentrification occupies the thoughts of many columnists and policy makers, artists and activists.

Gentrification has been most apparent in the cities that ‘succeeded’ most in the transition to a post-industrial urban world. Especially London and New York which have seen once deprived areas become enclaves of the wealthy at an ever-increasing rate. While this is down to a complex combination of factors, the not insignificant role arts and culture can play in gentrification been well documented. Such has been the expansion of gentrification processes that both London and New York risk eating themselves, as they become increasingly difficult to live in for anyone but the extremely well off.

The gentrification of these cities has been examined intensely because of its scale, but perhaps even more so because of the huge concentration of those in media, academia and the arts in London and New York and the impact it has had on the lifestyle of people in these sectors. What this has perhaps masked though, are the equally important issues around arts and culture in places that are the flipside to such overheated cities, the far greater number of under-resourced cities.

When industrial decline in the West really kicked in from the 70s onwards, it impacted most on certain specific areas in an extreme way, such as my native Merseyside, or Glasgow. These could be written off by many at the heart of power as ‘localised failures’ whose decline was their ‘own fault’ for ‘failing to adapt’.

40 years later, what is clear is that places like Liverpool and Glasgow and Detroit were the canaries in the mine, as post-industrialisation and its impacts have spread across more and more places. In the UK, outside of the increasingly island-like South East, economic stagnation in the norm, save for odd spots often relying heavily on success in specific industries such as Bristol (defence) and Aberdeen (energy) which themselves may well slump and impact such places.

Outside of London, gentrification connected to the arts has had a less dramatic effect. One impact being that residential areas which have traditionally been popular with artists, public administrators, lecturers and the like, such as Didsbury, Jesmond, Stokes Croft, Aigburth and Chapel Allerton, are no longer affordable to them. So this section of society has started to move into neighbouring often more deprived areas and house prices have begun to rise in therm. This effect though has been largely localised to very specific areas. New suburban housing built on the edges of cities is still more popular with the majority of the middle class in regional cities than most inner urban areas, nothing like the changes in London.

There has also been some impact on space for artists’ studios; music venues etc, being priced out of once abandoned industrial space for apartments, a recent example being Manchester’s Rouge Studios. Long term leases for such buildings are also harder to come by than they once were. However, in general, artists finding space, either residential or for the creation and display of the arts, is much less of an issue in the regions than in big and capital flushed cities. The far greater challenge that remains and in some ways grows for artists in the regions is being able to sustain a creative practice or organisation in such under-resourced areas.

While never easy, with the focus and the money always being on London, the ever-declining local authority funding for arts and culture, coupled with the closure of publicly-supported venues such as theatres, museums and arts centres, as well as the reduction in the number of traditional ‘second jobs’ for creative practitioners such as FE college lecturers, threatens far more the future of the arts and those practicing them in the regions than issues with the property market. With these local economies long having lost the core engines that gave them money to invest in culture now followed by the government cutting off support, this is not likely to get any easier.

There has slowly, after much campaigning, been a recognition of the imbalance in central government arts and media funding and resources and this is changing, but not nearly on the scale, reach or depth needed to make a significant lasting difference. There has been a focus on one or two government-favoured cities and investment often sporadic and patchy.

Of course, my focus on the arts is just one part of a much bigger issue – the huge regional economic and power imbalance in the UK, but it is a useful exemplar and something that could help create change in under-resourced areas.

In a different era in the 1950s and 1960s, when areas like Wales, Scotland and Merseyside faced economic challenge, a decade’s long programme of investment was directed towards them, with companies effectively forced to invest in less prosperous areas. While this was imperfect, it did in many respects create economic drivers which are still powering these areas to this day, such as the hugely successful Jaguar Land Rover factory in Halewood on the edge of Liverpool. A relentless focus on regional development on the scale seen in that era is what is needed to change the crippling imbalance in the UK, which has now started to eat away at London through its overheating as much as it has done in the regions for years.

Coming back to the arts. In the regions, a lack of opportunities and finance is more of an issue than overpriced space. In London, there’s a plethora of opportunities and no space. The solution is as simple as it is obvious. Undertake a long term, large scale sustained investment in arts and culture in the regions. There’s likely to be resistance, such as recently highlighted around Channel 4’s suggested move out of London, but at this stage it should be a win-win. London is so economically overheated its arts and culture are being undermined, while in the regions, economic stagnation and cutbacks are undermining arts and culture there. The small scale shifts in cultural policy and funding allocations over the past year or so have been a start, but what’s needed is a much bigger and longer term plan to direct cultural investment and activity away from the capital. And indeed, what’s important for the creative sector is important for many other fields as well.

Would a government want to plan that far ahead and commit to that level of investment and change? Evidence from the last couple of decades would suggest no, but further back there is a precedent. In these turbulent times it’s increasingly accepted, even demanded that big change is needed across the country. Such a large scale regional cultural investment plan would be a good start.

This piece was published by New Statesman CityMetric in September 2017.

Heritage and Future in Liverpool

The Six Sided Clock in Liverpool's northern docks

By Kenn Taylor

The potential removal of Liverpool’s World Heritage Site status by UNESCO has put into sharp relief the challenges the city faces.

This threat stems from the Liverpool Waters project for the old northern docks; a mixed used development involving historic restoration and new builds on a large scale. UNESCO is unhappy with the sightlines and heights of some of the proposed buildings.

That this issue has been hard to resolve is symptomatic of the city’s difficulties. It has a beautiful architectural legacy, but has a small tax base, is heavily dependent on shrinking external grants, has high levels of poverty and a fragile economy with low demand for property. Liverpool needs money to restore and maintain its old buildings. With little public money available now, this has left the city heavily reliant on developers who want a return. If the city doesn’t work with them, it faces these structures continuing to rot, especially as in case of Liverpool Waters they cover a vast acreage and are largely in ruins, since being abandoned by the old dock company in the 70s.

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Few critics acknowledge this difficult context, with much of the national commentary on this issue marred by thinly veiled contempt. The kind of patronising the city has sadly become used to over the years, from people keen to twist the knife but with few actual solutions to offer.

As someone who can well remember decaying streets even in the city centre as recently as ten years ago, it’s clear that Liverpool is getting better at looking after its historic buildings despite the challenges it faces. From the semi-abandoned 1930s Royal Court Theatre being turned into a thriving venue and the brilliant restoration and extension of the Central Library, to Calderstones mansion being renovated into a centre for reading and plans well underway to convert the Art Deco Littlewoods Pools HQ into a film studio, I could go on. Indeed, Liverpool was given ‘Heritage Role Model’ status by Europe. Even controversial Liverpool Waters got a prize at the Historic Bridge and Infrastructure Awards.

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Of course, the picture is not all rosy. The city has also seen a raft of poor quality development schemes thrown up by speculators. With Liverpool especially vulnerable due to the issues outlined above along with planning law and planning departments becoming so weakened in recent years.

Liverpool is too big and has too much poverty to rely on its heritage entirely like Bath or Saltaire and, to give its young people real opportunities, it needs significant economic development. Yet its heritage is a big asset that people are passionate about. Must the city go in one direction or the other? Sadly we seem to be heading that way with UNESCO issuing final warnings and the Council losing the will to keep the status. Dresden faced a similar situation a few years ago. Like Liverpool, the city suffered economic decline and de-population, but it was buoyed by a new VW factory. A new bridge was built to relive congestion, provoking the ire of UNESCO and Dresden lost its World Heritage Status. Interestingly, tourism increased in Dresden the year after the status was removed. UNESCO meanwhile has demonstrated inconsistency on this issue. London built a pile of glass towers adjacent to its World Heritage Site at Tower Bridge, at which UNSECO “expressed concern” but did little else.

A compromise can and should be found in Liverpool. Money needs to be found from somewhere to restore buildings in the northern docks and find uses for them that help the local economy and population. The most likely thing that could tip the balance would be a large injection of public funds and UNESCO et al should be pushing for this rather than bashing the city. With a range of local bodies, not just the Council, having more money to restore and develop things, Liverpool would be less trapped between speculators or decay.

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Some powerful redevelopment projects have been undertaken in Liverpool with Community Interest Companies and Community Land Trusts, however they have been hampered by lack of funds and control of only small areas of property. With the right financial support, these could be expanded, or other interesting models explored. In Havana, another World Heritage city with little money for preservation, the state-sponsored Habaguanex has done good work developing crumbling buildings into hotels and the like, but using the surplus it generates to invest in local housing and social projects in-between them. A counterpoint to World Heritage Sites becoming gentrified dead zones, as they have elsewhere.

Liverpool is capable of looking after its built heritage, sometimes innovatively so. But saving and refurbishing huge swathes of decaying structures costs serious money. Unless the national or international public purse opens, the city will face having to continue to go cap in hand to developers or leave things rotting. Then, all the lobby group statements, broadsheet articles and UNESCO motions in the world won’t save that heritage.

This piece was published by New Statesman CityMetric in August 2017.

Grammar schools are not the solution to our social mobility crisis

By Kenn Taylor

I’ve done reasonably well career wise so far in life. I’m the Creative Director of an arts organisation, I’ve written for national newspapers, given talks in universities and at national conferences, undertaken international research.

Yet at age 11 me and many of my friends were declared to be ‘unacademic’ by the education system.

The Metropolitan Borough of Wirral in the Liverpool City Region is one of a handful of local authority areas that always retained a grammar/secondary modern system and I went through it in the 1990s. Wirral is an area of extremes, containing some of the wealthiest and poorest areas in the UK just a few short miles from each other. Now, have a guess which parts of the borough the grammar schools are concentrated?

My parents took an active interest in my schooling and asked me if I wanted a tutor to help me with the 11 plus. As a quite shy, awkward child, I expressed disinterest. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. No one in my family had any real experience of anyone engaging in higher education. We’d mostly worked for the railway, so surely, I should do the same? The area we lived in was pretty solidly working class. Some parents did get tutors for their children as the 11 plus approached, many others though couldn’t have afforded it even if they wanted to.

Inequality isn’t always obvious when you’re a child, especially when you live somewhere that most people are in the same boat. I didn’t really know then that I lived in one of the poorest areas of the UK or understand that when we were taken by our primary school to see a submarine being launched at the local Cammell Laird shipyard, that as we waved the boat off, we were waving away the economy of our town, as it closed soon afterwards.

I could tell though that something was deeply unfair when our local swimming baths had to close due to cutbacks and a grammar school in a rich part of the borough ‘let’ our primary school use their own private swimming pool for lessons. How could an area of estates housing thousands and thousands of people and containing numerous schools lose its swimming pool, when a grammar school up the road bankrolled by the taxpayer up have one just to itself?

I have a vague memory of sitting the 11 plus. Later as an adult it was discovered that I am dyslexic, making the very narrow measure of ability that is this exam even harder. I failed like many others and we were divided up into sheep and goats. I went to a secondary modern in a slightly better off area to where I grew up. That’s right, what cheerleaders for grammar schools often forget to tell parents is that a return to a grammar system is also a return to a secondary modern system. Sure, they’ll be given a bullshit trendy updated name for this new era, but let’s translate it: the underfunded schools for the poor kids.

Paint flaked, windows were rotten, the heating didn’t work in parts, textbooks were shared as was computer equipment. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t cartoonishly Dickensian, just a bit crap, and after Labour got in, facilities and resources improved. Up the road though was the grand shining grammar and the feeling you just mattered less than those children was pervasive. Despite all this there were many children with talent, wit and intelligence in my school who were let down by the system.

Some teachers would tell me I was pretty sharp, but that I needed to work harder at things like spelling andgrammar (my dyslexia still not discovered) and that maybe I should go to university. I wondered though, what was the point? I was only good at things like English and History and I struggled with the writing even with them. And what jobs could you do with something like that? I knew I wanted to do something creative, but that was thin on the curriculum. University was loosely encouraged by the school, but Labour had just brought in tuition fees. I didn’t really understand it all, but by this point as a young teenager I was living off my father’s sickness benefit after he was thrown on the scrapheap after decades of working the railway, so anything involving debt was frightening and discouraging.

After school, I drifted into low-skilled manufacturing work and retail. Long, dull and hard work. Close to despair I started reading some books by local authors out of boredom. From a similar background to me, they had gone to university and done creative jobs. If they could do it, maybe could I do as well?

I was lucky in many respects. Wirral was one of the first places to get the now axed Education Maintenance Allowance which helped me. I was supported by the now decimated Connexions service into completing my UCAS application. A former teacher wrote a reference for me. In today’s merry-go-round schools, they’d probably already have moved on. My university fees were waived due to my parent’s poverty. I even got one of the short-lived maintenance grants for poor kids to top up my loan. I went to university and achieved a few things. God knows what I would have done without all the things that helped me get there. Now all long gone, taken by a government that says it believes in social mobility.

Years later I got a job in a big grand old cultural institution. One that my parents would take me to as a child and mention the important work the clever people did there. Walking up the huge steps on my first day at work I was intimidated, surely the clever people would find me out? Remember boy, you’re worth less. You don’t get to work in a grand building. It’s not for you. Clever people pass their exams….

Being labelled as inadequate at a young age stays with you. With the wisdom of confidence and age of course, I know this to be bollocks. There are geniuses on building sites and idiots teaching in universities as anyone with any sense knows. To put it more eloquently than I could as a child wondering about the injustice of that swimming pool, the difference is nearly always money and privilege, not intelligence or ability.

The other tragedy though, is it’s not just about the children who are cut off from the monied schools by a single poxy exam. Some might say my parents should have pushed me harder, but no, they did the right thing. Supported me to find my way. Despite the desperate earnestness, game playing and spending of parents who understandably want their children to do well, plenty of the kids who ‘get in’ because of parental obsession often don’t have any particular academic ability and don’t always do well once at university. This is when many young people step off the treadmill of one hoop jump exam after another and, without a parent shoving them, realise they don’t really want to be there and drop out or drift aimlessly. I’ve known just as many people who hated their grammar school they felt they didn’t really fit into or felt crushed by parental expectations they could never fulfil as who ‘did well’ from being in them. Ever more the traditionally academic, usually single sex and often monocultural grammars bear little resemblance to the outside world of work. Too many parents still haven’t yet grasped that Royal Insurance, ICI and Abbey National don’t have thousands of easy opportunities for graduates to be picked up from a ‘good’ university every year.

Yet we have this crass nostalgia from people who confuse the opportunities they were gifted having grown up in the biggest period of wealth redistribution in UK history with having been down to going to a grammar school. Given most of my family have been tradespeople, I deplore the state of technical and craft education in this country. A product of decades of indifference. Yet you rarely see the children of the politicians and journalists who say a grammar system is ‘best for all’ down the local college learning how to repair motorcycles do you? Funny that.

These cretins are threatening the future of the UK’s children not just because of their nostalgia, but beneath that, a clear, ruthless ideological mission to build new bastions of privilege for their offspring while they let everything outside rot. Don’t believe for moment in the lip service paid to ‘places reserved for poor kids’. Just like all the promises about no university fees for deprived young people, as soon as they get the legislation over the line, they’ll all quietly be axed.

No school system is perfectly fair, but some are fairer than others. The universally discredited grammar system has no place in modern Britain. Far from new ones opening, the remaining ones should be cracked open.

If there’s a reason I went through a system pretty much designed to ensure my voice was not heard in the corridors of power, it was to be able to say this: a country which does this to its children in its education system, is a country that’s more concerned with maintaining the stinking illusion of privileged superiority than with its children’s futures. And what the hell kind of country is that?

This article was published by Comprehenisve Future in May 2017.

Art and the post-industrial community in Detroit and Chicago

MOCAD, Detroit

By Kenn Taylor

In 2016, I was awarded an Art Fund Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant. This enabled me to undertake research visits to several organisations in Detroit and Chicago who are on socially-engaged art practice in post-industrial communities.

I’m originally from an industrial town in Merseyside and lived in Liverpool ahead of and during its year as Capital of Culture in 2008. Because of this, the relationship between art, artists and art organisations in areas struggling with industrial decline has always been important to me. This has very much informed the approach I’ve taken to programming throughout my career in museums and galleries. Having followed closely many socially-engaged artists and projects in the UK, I also became interested in examples of this practice in America.

The Heidelberg Project in Detroit was the longest-established initiative I visited. Begun by artist Tyree Guyton in 1986, he decided to create ‘something beautiful’ in the run-down Heidelberg Street by painting bright dots all over the house his family had lived in for generations. Soon Guyton began to decorate and modify abandoned houses in the area and then the street itself using reclaimed materials. Thirty years later the project is a world-renowned ‘total work of art’ and the home of an organisation that runs community and education programmes, exhibitions and residencies for other artists.

The Heidelberg Project, Detroit

MOCAD, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, meanwhile, is an arts institution established 10 years ago in a formerly abandoned car dealership. Notably, it’s also the base of Mike Kelly’s work Mobile Homestead.

Mobile Homestead was unveiled in 2010 and funded by the UK’s Artangel. A recreation of Detroit-born Kelly’s childhood home (which is still standing and occupied) made as a pre-fabricated building with a detachable trailer section. Kelly’s idea was that this could be transported around the city with the ground floor being a flexible community space and the basement a place for artists. Based behind MOCAD, the Homestead functions as a dedicated space to host community content exhibitions and events; everything from local craft groups to, recently, lively election debate parties.

Mike Kelly’s Mobile Homestead, MOCAD

Over in Chicago, around 10 years ago artist Theaster Gates began restoring the house he’d moved into on Dorchester Avenue. After the 2008 financial crash, he also bought the neighbouring property. Restoring it using reclaimed materials and filling it with cultural artefacts like books and records from the area, he then began to put on arts events. By 2010, he’d established a non-profit organisation called the Rebuild Foundation and had rehabilitated a housing block in the area into 32 mixed-tenure homes and community facilities, called Dorchester Projects.

Dorchester Projects, Rebuild

A few years later, Gates persuaded the city to sell him a striking but decaying former local bank for just a dollar, providing he got the money to restore it. Amongst other things the bank now houses the archive of the important African-American publishing company Johnson, and the Black Cinema House. Rebuild’s most recent initiative is Dorchester Industries, which provides training opportunities for local residents with craftsmen and artists and sells products and services to help sustain the foundation’s work.

While all of these organisations are distinct, they are united by having a focus on the re-use of previously abandoned or underused urban space, involving communities in their activities and demonstrating a complex relationship between artist, artwork and art organisation. In the case of MOCAD, an art institution occupied an old building and with Mobile Homestead, ended up creating a semi-permanent new building as an ongoing social practice artwork. In contrast, the Heidelberg Project started out as the creation of an artwork out of buildings and has morphed into also being partially an institution. Rebuild Foundation started out as a project based around art activity in run down properties using reclaimed materials, before growing into a full-scale neighbourhood renewal project, but one that is also an ongoing artistic experiment.

Johnson Publishing Archive, Rebuild

The projects are not only re-purposing and re-imagining buildings and areas in a very different way to traditional urban redevelopment schemes; they’re also highlighting the continued life, activity, creativity and culture in areas often more associated in art terms with the genre of ‘ruin porn’, that seeks to portray them as empty, tragic ruins.

Art projects like the ones I visited may be partially a product of decline, but they speak as much of the potential future of these areas as their past. They may be led by complex theories and an emotional desire for continued community life, but they create outcomes that are very much concrete: housing, artspace, crafts to sell, community facilities, training opportunities.

Vital to the success of these initiatives has been a close and long term relationship to the areas in which they’re situated. Connected to this is the fact that for all the genuine community involvement in such projects, the figure of the individual artist, pursuing their vision against the odds: Tyree Guyton, Theaster Gates, Mike Kelly, remains central in a very traditional art historical sense. This raises the question of what happens to these projects when their founder moves, or indeed, passes on.

Stony Island Arts Bank, Rebuild

While at Rebuild, I attended one of the weekly ‘Tea, Coffee and a Chat’ meetings led by local residents and they spoke about the positive impact the foundation has had on their neighbourhood. While artefacts from such initiatives could be kept in collections or even whole districts be preserved, the people who benefit from them are perhaps their most important legacy. Can the power of this social action also be retained by these projects in the longer-term?

How the founder-artist plans for posterity will be key to this. Mike Kelly, for example, setting in stone the community use for Mobile Homestead as being part of the artwork itself has ensured the preservation of such space for ‘social sculpture’. The power in projects like this is both social and artistic, and if they can retain each aspect in the long term, they will be important parts of both future art and urban history.

This piece was published by the Art Fund in April 2017. You can download my full essay about my research here.

Beauty as a Basic Service

The Heidelberg Project, Detroit


By Kenn Taylor

In the wake of Brexit and the US election, there has been renewed attention given to post-industrial areas and the issues faced by such communities. For some parts of the US and the UK, problems caused by industrial decline have been around for 40 or 50 years, long before the rise of China, the EU or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And, as anyone who spends time seriously with the subject will tell you, there are no easy answers or single solutions to such challenges.

So to art. Despite the breathless proclamations of some, art is not a panacea for the post-industrial town, but neither is it a total irrelevance. The creative industries remain a growing sector and a sensible solution to reuse many former industrial spaces that will never see mass production again.

Meanwhile, in some of the residential areas that once drew their lifeblood from such industrial zones, artists, or local communities working with artists, have been using creativity to demonstrate, even make, a future potentially different from top down regeneration or abandonment to decline. The now well-known Granby Four Streets project in Liverpool is one example of this in the UK.

Between Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory I had the opportunity to spend some time at some similar projects in the US. In 1986, in the Black Bottom area of Detroit – a city which perhaps more than any other felt the crushing pressure of industrial decline early on – art student Tyree Guyton decided to paint large bright dots all over the house his family had lived in for decades on Heidelberg Street.

The area had declined rapidly during his lifetime and he wanted to create “something beautiful” in the street. Soon Guyton began to decorate some of the abandoned houses in the street, using reclaimed materials from the neighbourhood. Thirty years later, despite being demolished by the authorities, twice, and suffering arson more than once, the Heidelberg Project is a world-renowned “total work of art”, and the home of an organisation that runs community and education programmes, exhibitions and residencies for other artists.


Part of the Heidelberg Project.

It’s not so much a celebration of beauty in decay like the infamous “ruin porn” from Detroit, but a sign that there is life and people still here, creativity, culture, even growth.

Chicago coped better than Detroit with the transition to a service economy. At least, some of it. In Grand Crossing in South Chicago, more than half the residents live below the poverty line. Here, around 10 years ago, artist Theaster Gates began restoring the house he had moved into on Dorchester Avenue. After the 2008 property crash he also bought the neighbouring house. Restoring it using reclaimed materials and cultural artefacts like books and records from the area, he then began to put on arts events in the houses. Gates had seen the West Side Chicago neighbourhood he grew up in demolished and wanted to stop such destruction from happening again in Grand Crossing.

By 2010, Gates had established a non-profit organisation called the Rebuild Foundation, and had worked with the Chicago Housing Authority to rehabilitate a housing block in the area into 32 mixed-tenure homes and community facilities, called Dorchester Projects. A few years later Gates persuaded the city to sell him a striking but decaying former local bank for just one dollar, providing he got the money to restore it.


Dorchester Projects, Rebuild Foundation

Amongst other things, the bank, now houses the archive of the important African-American publishing company Johnson, and the Black Cinema House. More recently the organisation has set up Dorchester Industries, which provides training opportunities for local residents with craftsmen and artists. The Rebuild Foundation places art firmly in the hierarchy of needs of a deprived community. To quote Gates: “Beauty is a basic service.”

There’s a long tradition in art of highlighting urban social problems. Projects such as these differ in using the urban fabric as a medium in itself and working on the regeneration not just of buildings, but of social, cultural and economic life in these areas. Crucial is how these projects have been led by people based in these communities, albeit interacting with international art networks. Such initiatives may have only impacted on relatively small areas – but it is possible they have done more to change life in and perceptions of them than many bigger and more expensive top-down urban redevelopment programmes.


The Stony Island Arts Bank, a hybrid gallery, media archive, library and community center.

Part of the power of art is its capacity to highlight where we’re going wrong, to tell us things have value that we didn’t realise and point out different ways of looking at the world. Even if projects such as these can’t be reproduced like-for-like elsewhere, they’re not just a reminder to avoid writing off such communities, but more so of their potential – if energy, attention and money are given to them – to create their own future.

This piece was published by CityMetric, a New Statesman website, in December 2016. Funding for this research in Detroit and Chicago was provided by The Art Fund

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