My involvement in social practice stems directly from my own experience. I grew up largely on benefits in a working class, Catholic community in Merseyside and was the first in my family to go to university. When I started working in the cultural sector, I soon realised that there was a huge gulf between the sector and the background I came from, and this drew me to community practices.
Initially I was mostly engaged in projects in working-class areas of Liverpool and shared much of the same history and ‘cultural memory’ with the people I was working with. This often made building connections easier, but I was also acutely aware of how differences—even minor ones—for example, between districts, generations, religions etc, could mean very different views of even shared experiences. I quickly learned that you had to stand back from your own positionality as much when working within your ‘own’ culture as you did when working with communities of different backgrounds or experiences.
The idea of ‘community’ is something often viewed by bourgeoise cultural institutions and practitioners as inherently positive, particularly as some experiences and understandings of ‘community’ have shifted and changed. This can lead to a romanticised, if not patronising, view of some communities; one that can result in ‘othering’ even if unintentionally. Being from the background I was, it seemed obvious to me that while being part of a particular community can be supportive, powerful and culturally rich, it can also be oppressive, exclusionary and constrictive—sometimes simultaneously. Communities sometimes define themselves in opposition to others and the suppression of difference and conformity that community membership may require can be difficult for many. This can be the same for the communities that people become part of later in life, as well as the ones they are born into. As some concept of community is often at the heart of social practice, these complexities need to be opened out and considered at funding, policy and practice levels, not glossed over or ignored.
Later when I left Merseyside and worked with many more different communities, I came to understand further what an ‘outsider perspective’ could also bring to social practice. However, I still found that sharing some experience of being from a community traditionally excluded from cultural institutions, helps in learning how to navigate the intricacies that such work involves. It is vital that organisations develop this knowledge and experience at a management level as well as in delivery, so that it permeates throughout their systems and interactions with different communities. Employing people with lived experience is, of course, not a panacea for good practice, but it can make it easier to create spaces where the knowledge and experience of an organisation as well as the community they’re working with can both be acknowledged and considered in a way that can challenge entrenchment by either side. Cultural organisations that are still very dominated by the sector’s ‘somatic norm’[i] of white, middle-class workers may find this much harder.
In spite of its complexities, working at the intersection of cultural organisations and wider communities has often been very rewarding and taught me much more than working in a purely institutional context ever could. By recruiting people with shared experience of who they’re collaborating with and by seriously engaging with these issues in social practice, we might find we achieve more powerful outcomes. This piece was commissioned and published by the Social Art Library in September 2021.
[i] O. Brook, D. O’Brien & M. Taylor, Culture is bad for you: Inequality in the cultural and creative industries (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020), p.191-200.
In the 2000s there was a boom in new cultural facilities opening in the English regions, often in places whose economies had struggled since the 1980s. Many of them subsequently had significant challenges connecting with local audiences. Most of these new facilities were based around a particular model of art and cultural consumption that had its centre in London and other global megacities. Such organisations, when they opened, largely employed in their senior roles white middle- or upper-class people who were drawn from elsewhere and who often shared remarkably similar career backgrounds.
Nevertheless, some junior jobs were created in such places. I began my career in one of them in my native Merseyside on a zero-hours contract. Despite being passionate about art and culture, I soon became alarmed at how such organisations often seemed more focused on recognition from their peers than from the communities they were based in; as well as a wilful lack of acknowledgment that inequalities existed within and outside such institutions. Experiences such as these drew me to work in what was then called community arts, a field which seemed to at least try to address the relationship between key practices in culture and wider society.
Much of course has occurred since. Such community practices, once written off by the ‘mainstream’ cultural world, are now seen as part of the fore of contemporary culture. Class, for a time dismissed by many as irrelevant, has come back to bite.
There has also been a move away from that previous model of cultural development in the regions, with programmes such as Creative People and Places (Arts Council England) having shaken up things up a little. Yet much more needs to be done. Too many organisations still fail to employ people from working-class backgrounds and from the communities they’re based in, especially at management level. Even now, many organisations still struggle to seriously engage with many communities and cultures.
While class is our focus here, it is important not to privilege it over other inequalities. Nor by taking about organisations engaging with local cultures do I mean separating out the ‘white working class’ or a specific requirement to have been born somewhere. Class has had renewed attention recently, partially because it was almost written out of the conversation for 20-30 years. Notably it was removed from 2010 Equalities Act upon its introduction into legislation.1 Yet we must be careful not to fall into the rhetoric of divide and conquer when it comes to change in the cultural sector. I refuse to allow the exclusion of those from my socio-economic background as an excuse to further marginalise working-class people of colour who face even more barriers.2
The cultural sector more seriously engaging with class and regional identity is at its heart about social justice. It is also, though, about making cultural organisations more effective and sustainable. As is well established in business studies, having personnel from diverse backgrounds is a powerful driver in creating more successful organisations of all forms.3 Perhaps none more so than in the sector where culture is both the main input and output, and new ideas and perspectives are often vital to success.
Yet, as evidenced by an array of research and demonstrated in rigorous detail in the 2020 book Culture is Bad for You by Brook, O’Brien and Taylor the majority of the cultural workforce is still drawn from narrow sources and it remains one of the most elitist areas of work.4 This has real impacts on the culture that is produced by the sector, which in turn significantly impacts on how society views itself. Some of these inequalities are structural and beyond what the cultural sector can change in itself. However there remains much that the sector can do.
Currently the vast majority of culture workers have similar entry routes via university. While this works for many, to increase diversity in the sector we need to create more varied forms of entry. Requiring a degree is a class barrier in itself, especially as higher education has become more expensive. That divide is further widened for those who have to work alongside studying, to support themselves. There has been a positive movement away from unpaid internships in the sector, but some still remain and these are a major obstacle for those who can’t afford to work without pay.
Increasing school and college leaver entry into employment into cultural organisations is vital. There has been a growing array of initiatives for this, though the way apprenticeships were reformed in recent years has made it harder for some smaller cultural organisations to access them. However, too often things fall down in how staff are developed after they take up such entry-level roles. There need to be serious career development pathways put in place, especially in medium and large cultural organisations, where people can start as an apprentice and work their way up to senior management, especially in the ‘creative’ side of organisations where this is most often lacking. We need to develop sustainable routes to entry, including those with part-time study alongside on-the-job training, which is common in other fields, for those who cannot, or who don’t want to, take the full-time student route beforehand.
A new model needs to be cultivated where people can develop their career both within organisations and within a region. This is especially important outside of London, where even the largest cities only have a modest number of cultural organisations and jobs and so the tradition is for key management and leadership positions to be taken by highly mobile people from elsewhere. Currently, to not move about like this is to significantly reduce your career options. This is something I had to face when, having spent my whole life in Merseyside, it became apparent to me in my late 20s that unless I was prepared to work in other places, I would hit a career wall, so I spent several years moving around. While this had many positives, it also meant losing connections with family and friends as well as much financial strain. At a structural level of the cultural sector, this reduces opportunities for development for locally based candidates. It also undermines the depth of local engagement by institutions, as personnel move around and constantly have to acquaint themselves with new situations.
Those who grow up in a particular place, even if they have lived away for a time, tend to be more rooted in its stories, its cultures, its complexities and its contradictions. Thus their understanding of audiences can be much more enhanced. It’s also vital for younger participants and junior staff to be able to see someone who is from a similar background to them in the top positions when they are starting out — both in terms of class and regional identity. This is not to ignore that there are also benefits of having worked in a few different places, for staff and the organisations they work for, but to argue for the need for more plurality in how people are recruited and developed in the sector than now. Of course, being from somewhere in the regions and being working class are not one and the same, but class and place have particularly important crossovers in the regions, in terms of access to opportunity, mobility, experience and connections.
Recruitment processes also need to take better account of socio-economic diversity. For example, removing the qualifications requirements for jobs unless they are actually needed and taking account of the challenges to career development that people may have faced due their backgrounds and circumstances; with cultural institutions taking up opportunities to collaborate with specialist organisations who can help with diversifying recruitment. As well as for staff, the same goes for the recruitment of artists. This means enough open application opportunities, but also enough direct support for artists to apply who may have less confidence and experience, including ‘payment for pitching’ when appropriate.
The need to recruit artists from diverse backgrounds is even more acute in collaborative projects with communities. Too often artists from middle-class backgrounds are commissioned to engage with working class communities. While this meeting of different experiences and ideas can be powerful, just like with management of cultural organisations, it reinforces the idea that a certain type of person gets paid to make culture and lead projects. While of course having similar backgrounds does not always result in equivalent understanding or equal power relations, some shared experience between an artist and a community they’re working with does tend to make the navigation of such intricate relationships easier.
It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking working class = better, as comfortable as it can feel given the unequal relations across the class sphere and the long tradition of dismissal of working-class cultures. This can be inadvertently patronising. Power, space and support is what working-class people need in the culture sector, not sympathy or awkward deference. I’m proud of my working-class background, its richness, vibrant culture and energy, but aspects of it, like all cultures, had its share of prejudice, narrowmindedness and exclusion. Employing and platforming working-class people and those from other structurally disadvantaged backgrounds helps create the conditions to tackle these issues and complexities in culture, because they have the direct knowledge and experience to do so. However, this then has to expand back out beyond specific projects to impact the wider operation of a cultural organisation, its relationship to its audiences and how it communicates its work.
One of the biggest issues stemming from the lack of diversity of those employed in the cultural sector is how this helps generate a kind of shared perception of ‘how things should be done’ and of what has value. Shifting organisations away from this is vital for change. That is not about completely abandoning professional practices built up over years, as these are often hugely effective in creating powerful culture. More, it’s about how cultural organisations, especially those distant from the biggest centres of cultural production, take on board what happens when their established knowledges and practices meet and intersect with different forms of knowledge and experience. I think of a quote from the Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Leckey, who grew up in the same area as me, upon his retrospective exhibition at Tate Britain in 2019: ‘This is the world I belong to now. But at one point I belonged to another intelligence.’5
The current model places institutional ideologies and practices, which may cross national borders but tend to be governed by particular classes throughout, way above other perspectives, and this is increasingly being challenged. When a space can be created where different types of experience and intelligence can respect and acknowledge each other and find crossover, that is a really interesting place from which many great cultural productions have resulted. This goes back to the traditions of things like Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed6 but such thinking is now expanding into other forms of culture and I feel we’re just at the beginning of it.
Now more than ever, cultural organisations need to reconsider their traditional value and production systems, to be more responsive, more dynamic and distribute resources more evenly across all forms of programming; not just in terms of financial investment, but how things like time, space or personnel are allocated. If organisations are to be more engaged with the places they are based in and attract a wider range of people, a focus on a constant stream of big productions which need large audiences and significant media attention to justify them, is not always the best method. Projects at scale can be powerful, inspiring and popular, but often take up so much resource that other forms of programming can be held back. Allocating resources more evenly and working in a way so that the often artificial barriers between ‘types’ of cultural project are broken down would allow for a greater variety of more innovative and open-ended programming. This will also benefit less experienced employees in being able to lead their own projects at an earlier career stage and work with less experienced artists and practitioners, meaning organisations can invest more of their resources in new voices. Crucially, this will also aid those who enter the cultural sector from more diverse backgrounds in not being siloed into particular areas of work just focused on community engagement, so they are able to bring their ideas and experiences to influence across an organisation’s work.
Of course, any form of programming takes up resources and doing ‘lots more’ might not automatically result in more depth, more diversity or better relationships with communities, but rather in exhaustion and even audience fatigue. Yet as we need to look hard at how cultural provision is done, stepping back from the current model could mean that new and more diverse forms of programming can emerge in the space that is created. In doing this, some organisations will need to shift their focus from getting validation within their particular field to gaining recognition from the communities which surround them. Yet the two need not be mutually exclusive. Doing work more rooted in particular places can often create more original programming that in turn attracts more critical attention and wider interest, rather than merely replicating the sort of bourgeois contemporary culture that can be found all over.
Some argue that current cultural organisations need to be replaced entirely. The fact is, people have been calling for the traditional academies/museums/theatres etc. to be abolished for almost as long as they’ve existed and it never happens, rather they change and adapt under new influences. Even new and radical organisations, if they don’t burn out, have a tendency to solidify and become ‘institutions’ themselves soon enough.7 While funding should certainly go to new and different organisations and new cultural forms, this doesn’t negate the need to change existing ‘pillar’ organisations to make them more relevant to contemporary life, because they’re not going anywhere.
There are also arguments that too many resources have been put into buildings rather than programmes over the past couple of decades. Yet we should also not forget how many cultural facilities have also closed in recent years, in particular those in more underinvested towns and cities. Many people live a long way from good quality facilities where they can create or experience culture. Buildings are not bad in themselves, it’s about the right type of buildings being used in the right way to meet people’s wants and needs. If you find your building doesn’t fit your organisation’s mission, change the building, not the organisation.
In the regions the largest cultural funders were traditionally local authorities,8 however, many of them now struggle to do this. Thus as culture has become something increasingly set, defined and funded by people based in the largest cities, this has perhaps added to the alienation felt by some people from the cultural sector. Especially as cultural provision in smaller towns and cities and rural areas has in many cases become increasingly vulnerable if not closed completely. By changing how cultural funding is allocated and distributed so more power is put into the hands of the people in the regions themselves, they could better allocate resources to meet complex local structures and needs.
A not dissimilar feeling of alienation is often felt by working-class people when they enter the cultural sector and find organisations, even ones they are passionate about, have an awkward relationship with people from their background. If supported, they can be positive agents of change. Yet for now, as it says in Culture is Bad for You: ‘Those who have the most insight into the problems are often given the least power.’9
This is a process of both short and long-term change. As someone from a working class background who now has a relatively established position in the cultural sector, like many others I can bring a particular perspective that can hopefully contribute to this. Yet, getting a handful of working-class people into positions in the cultural establishment is not enough. There needs to be a pipeline created to ensure there is a constant renewal of people from diverse backgrounds, including socio-economic, entering the sector, and crucially, developing in and changing it.
Given the huge tectonic shifts presently shaking the very foundations of many cultural organisations, if more do not change faster, they will struggle. If the sector embraces some of the above though, it could become more sustainable and produce forms of culture that engage a wider diversity of people. It could also contribute more to our contemporary communities, encouraging greater understanding of our society, the issues it faces and changes we need to make.
Claire Walmsley Griffiths is a photographer from Blackpool, Lancashire who explores the possibilities of human connection through photography. She uses a camera as a tool for conversation, engaging with the psychology of people, place, identity, what community is, was and what it might become. Claire talked to Kenn Taylor about her work, her experiences as an artist and the cultures that she wants to explore and platform.
Kenn Taylor: How did you become a photographer?
Claire Walmsley Griffiths: I went to study fine art in Northampton in 1998. I started to photograph things to draw or paint from. Then I found people like Sophie Calle and Nan Goldin. What photography did for me, I just found it very accessible and much more of an accessible language in general for the audience. I became interested in how audiences could become involved in artwork or become part of that experience. And I think I’m still really interested in that.
It felt very different being at university in the south to what it was like in the north. A lot of pretence. I remember on one occasion one of my peers at art school calling me a ‘pleb’. It felt really obvious that I was from the north even though I’d never really considered it before. But also feeling very protective to the north and to Blackpool. I’m an overly-protective person of the place I live, but it has so many qualities that do not get celebrated.
Blackpool is often used as the poster child for ‘broken Brexit Britain’ by journalists and photographers. What do you feel about that, photographers coming in looking for a particular narrative they’ve decided on even before they arrive?
It is easy to feel that jolt when the media reflects images back at Blackpool, to say ‘this is your life’. Images that might suggest lack of hope or no alternative. As someone who lives here, it can be very difficult and there is a feeling of, where is the bigger picture?
It’s what we have been fed in Blackpool over a long period of time. I don’t think it’s helpful. Not that I’m like everything should be brilliant or Disney. But I think you have a lot of power with a camera and where you point it and that needs careful consideration. It’s really tempting for people to photograph the dark side of Blackpool. It’s too easy. Street photography has changed a lot in recent times. I think it was Susan Sontag who referred to taking a picture as an ‘aggressive act’. Perhaps social media has allowed people to question it more and also be more mindful of the camera’s power. But the stories that often get told of Blackpool are often not by the people of Blackpool. I think you have a right to document or photograph your own story.
Do you feel Blackpool gets ‘used’ or ‘othered’ by the media? This happened a lot to Merseyside in the 1980s and 90s when I was growing up there. Do you think the media commissioning more locally-based artists would create more balance?
I am interested in the psychology of a place, how residents, creatives and local artists feel in response to this consistent narrative. Othering is an easy route I guess especially using a medium such as photography because how much of creating a photograph can be non-reciprocal for the subject, it’s dangerous ground. I think there is a different narrative though in places like Blackpool that often does not get explored, through social and community approaches. Everyone has a right to be creative, it’s part of the human condition. People need to feel part of something, in a conversation or their voice valued.
What did it feel like capturing those Covid lockdown images that became part of the #WorkTownGhostTown project [commissioned by The Grundy, Blackpool]?
Initially I did really enjoy the sense of peace, and there was a feeling of it being very ethereal. You could really see the buildings of Blackpool, when you look above and see the old architecture. I’d never really been able to do that as much previously I think because of vehicles going past. But then I really began to think about the performance industry and the music industry in Blackpool and the buildings that they take place in. Thinking about being younger and not being able to go and have that experience of meeting friends or drinking in pubs, or being able to dance and have a shared experience. I just really began to feel for those people and I started to speak to some of them and photograph them.
I went out again on the last day before the second lockdown, and I went on to Central Pier. It was completely quiet and I started to talk to the man who had the darts stand. If you’re someone who has grown up in Blackpool you probably will have done a job like that. He let me take his portrait and I wanted to make sure he was happy with it. He was just someone who worked for the stall owner, but he really seemed to love it. And that’s a really interesting aspect of taking photographs of people, just having time to listen to their story if they’ll share it with you.
The space of the Pier without people felt very unique, but it is really important that we do have people coming through Blackpool and spending money to support these small businesses, these music venues, grassroots venues that attract unique acts.
You did a series, Seasonal Workers; is it important for you to show the story behind the seaside artifice?
I do think it’s really important. The seasonal workers stuff is ongoing. I photographed some horse and carriage owners having their, sort of, MOT last year. Their stories seem so important for Blackpool, the seasonal jobs make up part of Blackpool’s heritage. The horse owners I’ve met, they absolutely love their horses and seem to do it more through a connection to their animals than for the job. The generations of people who own the horses and donkeys, they go back for years and years. I think the carriage owners have had a very hard time with their season cut short.
Is it important to you to tell these stories, I’m also thinking of your Retired Performers series?
I think I’m just more and more interested in the shared experience and how people can connect and photography feels really accessible for that. The reason Retired Performers came about is I was photographing a circus festival. I met this lady and there was a photograph of her as a young person and she said ‘I used to be a foot juggler’. I said ‘what’s a foot juggler?!’ And she said ‘I used to spin people on a plank on my legs’. Then she said ‘oh yes my husband performed for Hitler’. Only in Blackpool! So she was the person who sparked the idea.
It was completely different to what I anticipated the project to be. I learned a lot through doing it. I wanted 30 people who had worked professionally in Blackpool. It’s like an underground scene really, all the retired performers know each other or have connections with each other, so they were introducing one another to me. They loved the experience of being able to talk about what they’d done. I wanted it to be a collaboration. I wanted them to feel happy with their photographs and that they were aware of what was happening with the work as much as possible. I wanted to create or encourage an exchange between sitter and audience. An invitation to be part of that backstage life, what goes on behind the curtain of and how we can feel part of that. The series of images allowed me to invite performers back into spaces such as The Tower Ballroom or Winter Gardens theatres where we kind of co-created an experience.
Is that one of the things you enjoy about social practice, connecting with people?
Within photography, I do like social documentary. I’m interested in that. But people like Mary Ellen Mark who was photographing her own life and stuff going on around her, just feels more genuine. I think it takes years and months to build those relationships. That, or it’s already going on around you or it has a strong connection to you. I am interested in people, I guess this is all about having that collaboration and finding a way to build relationships. That level of trust, that you’re already part of that community or have a connection to it. I think that’s really important.
What do you think of socially engaged practice as a term?
It’s a tricky term. I prefer socially based to socially engaged in some ways. I feel like it’s an inherent thing in people to want to be involved in the community. I think it’s within care workers, nursing professions, teachers. Socially engaged practice is something I came across by chance really. I guess it has been discussed as community art in the past. But the idea that you might be able to collaborate with a group of people to make work or give people a camera to tell their own story is really powerful.
Do you separate your socially engaged work from your other photography?
I don’t think I separate it from stuff I do generally. If I was photographing for tourism, if they let me arrive early and talk to people, that’s really helpful. If I’m photographing some civic event or street performance it feels uncomfortable if I haven’t said hello to people or found out a little bit about them. And the photograph seems better if I’ve had that experience already or if they know who I am.
Do you feel you were doing ‘socially engaged practice’ before you knew of it as a term? I definitely do feel that. It’s because I’m in that community and I am that person from a one parent family, who’s had someone close to me with addiction, who’s had a friend that was homeless at a young age. I am that person and so are they, but we are also people with a bigger story. I keep thinking about how it is easy to demonise people who are living through difficult circumstances. That those voices do not have a chance to be heard and the stories that get communicated through other mediums are often regurgitated in the same old ways. I am interested in projects where the voice is a collaboration or the story or image highlights hope and space for exchange.
Tell me about your Retired Ravers project?
Retired Ravers is in process currently. I’ve been documenting an ex-cinema space that was later a nightclub and that has now been taken over by a theatre, come art space currently being regenerated by that very community. So it’s an amazing space, the perfect space to invite in people who were in that scene.
I’ve been thinking about that loss of community and shared experience and coming together isn’t happening at the moment. But I have spoken to someone who had been there in the late 80s rave scene in Lancashire and they were quite keen on the darker drug taking aspects being addressed, leading onto darker times for some people, so I’m just considering that at the moment. I see a lot of demonisation of addiction which is really damaging for people in recovery. Perhaps it’s a class problem, you have to pay for good recovery programmes. It just opened a new layer to what I had been thinking about photographing that counter culture.
I’ve also come across quite a few women who were involved in the scene who would want to remain anonymous if they were to become involved in the project. I’ve done some test shots where I’ve photographed people anonymously, so just a soft light silhouette around people. Again I’m thinking of it as a collaboration with the sitter and the idea you could take a journey with people being involved in the project. One of the questions I want to ask those people is, was it a very accepting scene, but things feel very polarised now. Did they feel that youth culture would stay with people forever? The idea of freedom and liberty within that scene that perhaps some people felt. At its best that’s what it promoted. It feels like the places folks congregate or have a shared experience creates a kind of tangible energy.
Through your work in Blackpool as a photographer, what do you think you have discovered about community, and its future?
I am interested in how we come to believe limitations and our place in the world. That as human beings we look to identify with groups, that is my take on community – how we feel when sharing a story or relate to one another is powerful. It feels like people need to feel like they are part of something and how do we find that?
How important is class, and in particular working-class cultures, to you in your work?
I do feel like, what’s wrong with being working class? It used to be a celebrated thing and people shouldn’t be ashamed of it. I would like to see more celebration of all those working-class codes, the Working Men’s Clubs, Bingo, Rose Queens, everything. At Uni in the south, especially studying fine art, the last thing my peer group were interested in were working class stories and values, but it still gets fed back to us by media created by some who perhaps have not had that lived experience. I feel like there is opportunity now to see, hear and experience art and photography created by communities and working-class artists who are able to tell their own stories or collaborate in an empowering way. It feels like we are heading into a time where there is nothing to lose as long as we all keep listening, viewing and communicating whilst checking our own routes to what we believe is our destination.
As a baby I was, apparently, taken to the Liverpool International Garden Festival in 1984. It was arguably the first cultural mega event in Britain since the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the first to have what would become familiar goals of such events: urban renewal, creating a buzz and changing public perceptions of a place.
The event was largely a success. Based on the German Bundesgartenschau concept and backed by significant Government funds, it turned a former riverside landfill site into a varied garden and event space with activity across the year. It was popular locally and further afield and there were some significant ripple effects. It helped the region regain some confidence and think about what its future might be after a more than a decade of especially hard decline. The festival was also part of a wider Government-backed programme, which for example included the Mersey Basin Campaign to clean up the river, and started the long, still ongoing process of reclaiming the miles upon miles of abandoned industrial waterfront on both sides of the Mersey.
The legacy of the festival site itself is more ambiguous. It was sold off and turned into a leisure complex, which was successful for a while but later closed and lay derelict for years. More recently the gardens at least have been restored, but they have struggled for lack of maintenance funds.
The festival also did not in itself alter the fundamental economic challenges the region faced: a lack of decent quality well paid jobs, a solid local economic base and the tax base that comes with it to fund important services. 35 years later, while Merseyside has improved in many ways from when I was a child, even if things were never as bad as the media stereotyped them, this fundamental challenge has not really gone away. The event however was meant to be a spark for change, not a solution to what is an almost existential urban issue. One that has in the time since, sadly, gone on to affect more and more areas of the UK and the world.
The Garden Festival also inspired others. Similar events followed in Glasgow, Gateshead, Stoke-on-Trent and Ebbw Vale. Arguably the initiative influenced Glasgow working towards its 1990 European City of Culture programme, and Gateshead’s arts based regeneration projects including things like Sage Gateshead, BALTIC and the Angel of the North. The perceived success of Glasgow led to fierce bidding for the 2008, renamed, European Capital of Culture title, including between Newcastle-Gateshead and Liverpool, the latter who eventually won. In Liverpool itself, one of the regeneration projects which followed the Garden Festival was Tate Liverpool opening in 1988 in the redeveloped Albert Dock. Tate Liverpool’s first Director Lewis Biggs, went on to play a huge role in the city’s cultural development in a range of ways, including founding the Liverpool Biennial in 1999, one of the first attempts in the UK to hold a regular biennial in the general mould of Venice.
By the time of the build up to Liverpool’s year as Capital of Culture (CoC) in the mid-2000s, I had managed to get a first, tentative job in the cultural sector, as a zero hours gallery attendant, as well as being part of the alternative publishing scene in the rapidly regenerating city. What happened in that period was, after years of stagnation and decay and then slow, patchy development was a period of hyper development. Like many locals, I was torn between the positivity of finally seeing our region get such a level of new investment and construction after so long when so little was built at all – something hard to grasp if you’ve never lived somewhere facing hard decline. At the same time though, a wariness about whether all this was sustainable.
The Capital of Culture (CoC) programme was by and large varied and successful and had huge impact on changing perceptions of the city and giving it a new level of ambition. For me though, one of the most interesting things about CoC was that, initially intended or not, it made large, questions that may not otherwise have been addressed locally or nationally. Being held in Liverpool, it built on what began in Glasgow and to an extent deconstructed the idea of what a large scale cultural event (LSCE) should be in a city heavily impacted by post-industrial decline – a very different context to the first European City of Culture winners: Athens, Florence and Amsterdam.
Raymond Williams said that “culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.” This makes it hard to organise a LSCE, much harder I would say than organising the sporting equivalent, but to me, that’s what makes it a lot more interesting. Before, during and after 2008 the question pushed to the fore was a simple one with a complex answer: what is culture? Breaking that down: How much should things be ‘local’ and how much from ‘further afield’, how do you choose between art forms, between the popular and the niche, the traditional and the radical? Who are the intended audiences? How do you talk about a ‘local’ culture without excluding people newer to a place? Who decides all this and allocates responsibility, platforms and money accordingly? What do we want to change through all this? Such was political engagement locally, there was a huge level of critical debate and it was fascinating to watch received wisdom nationally about what and where was relevant in terms of culture getting unpicked by the region.
What was also important, and I saw this later in Hull too when I worked there, was how the year and build up to it helped restore more confidence and pride to the area. Not that it had ever gone away, but it had been severely dented by years of negative stereotypes and media hatchet jobs, which eat away at the collective psychology of a place. The power and importance of this is little understood by those whose world view comes from richer, more powerful cities which inevitably dominate the arts, media and academic discourse, rather than those who live in places which may only feature in the media as the butt of a lame comedian’s joke or in an negative article by a journalist from far away.
Nevertheless, the nagging question, especially when I came from a local, working class background, was would a LSCE event make things better in a region facing multiple challenges? My experience was that CoC in Liverpool did, in many ways. Even just in cultural terms, in the late 1990s, the city’s Philharmonic Hall was on the rocks, the Playhouse and Everyman theatres had shuttered, even popular music venues like L2/Lomax had closed down. No new cultural buildings had been built since 1939 and culture was not high on the agenda of the local authorities. The situation now, even after 10 years of austerity, is very different. Though the impact of CoC itself cannot be separated entirely from other factors such as wider public and private investment in that period.
However, CoC did not remove in itself the fundamental structural issues the area faced, even if it reduced some of them significantly. The point for me though is, much like with the Garden Festival, it should never have been expected to in isolation, because, frankly, no one single thing would remove complex challenges many decades in the making and part of huge global shifts. The counter question I always put is, would the region be better off if it hadn’t happened, if it had gone to another city? Few local people I think would agree.
On a wider level, what happened in Liverpool for CoC also had a real impact in beginning the still ongoing process in the UK of rethinking of how culture is defined and funded and how LSCE are delivered, especially in terms of how they interact with the varied residents of a city. Something which has carried on in subsequent events. Demand and interest in such LSCE has kept on growing. After the popularity of 2008 in Liverpool, the Govt. launched the UK City of Culture model, held in Derry/Londonderry then Hull and now upcoming in Coventry for 2021, with several areas now developing bids for 2025. The Liverpool City Region launched a Borough of Culture and the Greater London Authority launched a similar scheme, with Greater Manchester starting a Town of Culture. Folkstone has its own art triennial, there’s the British Ceramics Biennial in Stoke-on-Trent, Brighton Photo Biennial, the biennial Manchester International Festival, Blackburn’s National Festival of Making, Whitstable Biennial, Glasgow International and so on. Britain was due to have a European Capital of Culture again in 2023, with several cities bidding, until the UK’s involvement was barred because of Brexit. Leeds valiantly has decided to deliver a year of culture regardless in 2023. In 2025 Rotherham plans to deliver a Children’s Capital of Culture, co-developed with children and young people. With it seems an ever increasing number of such events, is there the risk is there of diminishing returns – at some point will everywhere have had a big cultural festival of some kind?
For me though, the question should be, why shouldn’t everywhere have a year of culture, or similar? When the Garden Festival began this whole trend in the 1980s, culture for many UK cities was at the bottom of the civic priority pile, in contrast to the past. Poorer cities didn’t see it as important given what other challenges they had, even wealthier cities saw it as something to give a bit of funding and support to, mainly via older established civic institutions, but few put it front and centre and rarely did it stretch out to all forms of arts and different interpretations of culture. Many cultural facilities were ageing and underfunded, with few built outside London between the 1960s and the 1990s. Artists were rarely considered in town halls if not dismissed entirely. The creative industries were low on the economic agenda despite their importance. All this has now changed for the better, with the role of the arts and culture in its many forms not just valued in itself but increasingly for many other reasons besides. Many fear negative aspects of instrumentalization, with good reason, but if anything, the conversation around culture, what it is and should be, who gets to access and create it, is wider than ever. With a growing understanding of the role it can play in planning, health and many other areas. Many cities like Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, have it near the top of their priorities, while authorities like Hull, despite the huge central Govt. cuts they have received, have maintained cultural funding levels.
All power to towns and cities who have this level of focus and especially those which are doing it off their own bat. Rotherham for example didn’t bid to have a Children’s Capital of Culture, they just decided it was something they should do. And there for me is something absolutely fundamental to the success of a LSCE at all levels, now more than ever, is that it is driven by local ideas, needs, interests and specialisms above all else.
To me, one of the most important Liverpool Biennial commissions ever was Homebaked/2Up2Down for the 2012 Biennial. This saw social practice artist Jeanne van Heeswijk work in Anfield, celebrated as home of LFC but also an area devastated by the Housing Market Renewal Initiative. Jeanne worked over two years to develop a project with the community, which resulted in the tentative re-opening of a local bakery, an idea for community-led housing and a tour/performance explaining the complex local context. I always got the impression the biennial team were surprised this project seemed to attract some of the biggest interest from the international art press rather than other aspects of the programme. I was not though. Here was something original, specific, that could not be seen, easily at similar events elsewhere in the world, even if some of the concepts were transferable. Something that had impact locally, but relevance internationally as more and more of the developed world faced up to a post-industrial future. Eight years on, Homebaked is now a larger, co-operative community business, employing 18 people and playing a big role in a more sustainable wider development of the neighbourhood.
For me this is an exemplar of how projects within biennials and other LSCE can have impact in different ways – plenty of time to explore, develop and build something up with a particular community, with a later event or other public face that engages a wider constituency, but then some sort legacy that can be taken forward. Of course, the very nature of such projects means that not all are guaranteed to be successful in the long term, but Homebaked demonstrates what it is possible to achieve when the conditions are right.
Even from a purely strategic point of view, such as getting on the ‘art world map’ featured in travel guides etc, doing what is already being done elsewhere over and over again, is I would argue, a hiding to nothing. Key is not to fall into the trap of replication, even tempting as it when looking at successful cities or projects elsewhere. To truly have local impact as well as gain the benefits of increased attention and visitors, originality is key. This will vary from a more specific event – a ceramics biennial makes perfect sense in Stoke-on-Trent, Glasgow, with its large number of studios and galleries makes sense to have its International, while having an outdoor focus makes sense in a seaside town. Even within wider, year-long cultural programmes which need to approach culture from a broad range of perspectives, a firm rooting within the city or town itself will always have most power and local specifics are what can make a programme really stand out.
Towns and cities often have specific cultural strengths. Artists and art organisations based in them usually understand these very well and how they relate to the wider cultural landscape and they should play a key role in the development of such programmes. This doesn’t mean though that the loudest voices, from the biggest organisations or the most well connected artists, should have all the power. Rather those planning such programmes should take this as a starting point for a wider conversation about what they want to achieve within a LSCE. This should involve people at all levels: already engaged audiences, artists, community organisations, but much further out to people on the street and online going about their daily lives. Asking questions such as, what part of town could most do with a boost, what local artist from the past has been forgotten, which project could do with help to get them to the next level, what themes are important to this place? Crucial also is to maintain this conversation throughout all phases of a LSCE. Keep asking people, how do they think the programme is going, what do they want the legacy to look like and how will we achieve it? For year- or six-month long programmes as well, there should be care also to taper an event, with a steady build up and wind down so it doesn’t feel like the LSCE was ‘it’ in terms of culture, overwhelming people and then stopping dead, instead acknowledging a particular time as a period of focus. I don’t think there’s a single ‘best’ way organise a LSCE, remember, what Raymond Williams said about culture. Key for me though is to take a key perspective of the local, then see how those ideas fan out nationally and internationally.
Wirral was the Liverpool City Region Borough of Culture 2019 and it was great to go back and experience some of the varied events as part of it. For me though the most powerful were a couple of photographic exhibitions, Tabula Rasa and Women of Iron, showing work by young people from the Creative Youth Development Programme ran by the Council. Using a LSCE event to inspire a new generation is so important but having the long term programmes in place so young people can develop themselves before, during and after such an event is vital. As are new employment opportunities. If it wasn’t for the increase in entry level paid arts roles in Liverpool in the build-up to CoC, I might never have been able to get to the role I have now. In a LSCE, plans should be made around what cultural employment opportunities will be created for people locally and how least some of these will be sustained beyond the event. Programmes in areas such as youth development and employment should be front and centre of long term cultural programmes in a region to help develop them as centres of art and creativity.
What the legacy of LSCE looks like should be as specific to a place as the event programme itself. It’s certainly possible to be too rigid about long term outcomes, when working in culture you have to allow for serendipity to an extent, but what the future looks like does need to be considered in some detail before such an event happens. A LSCE might have the big impact, but how to build on that long term needs to be thought about as soon as the event is being planned. When funders are looking at LSCE, they should consider their support in three or five year terms, tapering for developing, building up to the main phase and then afterwards, reduced but longer periods of funding to bed down sustainability and impact. One of the most powerful factors of delivering a LSCE is the scale of discussion and debate it can create locally about culture, how to nurture and further develop it and this should be harnessed. It’s crucial to ask early on, what can such an event help spark that does carry on after it? Could that be say, a permanent, low cost artist studio complex, protection through Agent of Change for local music venues, an ongoing commissioning programme in a certain field, a new annual festival, a neighbourhood cultural event that starts the conversation about long term local change, a new creative arts facility for young people. Again, this should always be driven by specific local needs. Though it’s important to ensure that space in towns and cities is developed or sustained to make art, as well as show it.
However, while we focus on arts and culture here, we cannot separate it from the wider context that LSCE operate in in particular locations. A LSCE in an area with a solid economic base but less of a cultural profile, will be different from a place with a good cultural profile but challenging economic situation, different again from perhaps a smaller place with limited profile at all and a small arts base. Liverpool for example, had to deal with decades of nasty stereotypes, Hull felt it wasn’t heard enough of at all in the media, upcoming Coventry meanwhile has a relatively solid economic base but feels it doesn’t have enough cultural recognition nationally.
This does not mean though, that LSCE should be the preserve of already successful places or that bigger, wealthier cities should have a monopoly on the arts. What’s been positive in recent years has been the increased focus on directing some more state arts investment in the most disadvantaged and under invested areas of the UK. However, developing and sustaining an arts and culture programme in a post-industrial area, cannot be done in isolation. LSCE and initiatives such as Creative People and Places are powerful, but they are not panaceas and must be linked in with wider plans and ideas for local economic and social development. Precious few places in the world operate wholly on a culture-based economy and those that do are fragile – Venice’s population has declined throughout the 20th century as its wider economy moved away to more modern places and it became purely a tourist city. While cultural mega cities, say London, New York, Berlin, are employing tens of thousands in culture, arts, tourism and creative industries, those sectors still play second fiddle to things like high finance, professional services and public administration, which more fundamentally sustain them economically. A place cannot be regenerated without considering culture, but art and culture alone cannot be expected to regenerate a place. The Festival of Britain in 1951 is fondly remembered because it was just the celebratory part of a much wider programme of national renewal and investment and opening out of access to education and the arts.
Gentrification and ‘over tourism’ are also significant issues which need to be considered in this context. Though it must be remembered, in urban terms these issues principally impact on the most highly successful and well-off cities and receive so much focus because such places control much of the media and academic discourse. More disadvantaged cities face a different, perhaps even more stark challenge: to keep sustaining and further developing cultural provision at all with limited funds. While artists in these places can struggle to sustain themselves when faced with far fewer opportunities, even if rents remain cheap compared to wealthier cities.
The role of arts and culture in post-industrial urban change can and does have many positive benefits. Yet these can also be fragile and easily be lost. Long term thinking is not something the UK often excels at, but now, as we’re getting closer to having (re?) won the argument about the importance of art and culture in urban areas and civic life, it’s time for a new paradigm, in which a LSCE is the showcase, the platform, for what’s been achieved and will go on being developed within longer term civic and community ambitions around art and culture.
If we do want to see our cities continue to transform for the better, LSCE’s should also be an opportunity, a catalyst to ask bigger questions about society, politics, economics, culture, and places. What we want them to be and how we go about achieving them. A way of exploring what changes people want to make in towns and cities in the UK and how to build underinvested places back up as we go through challenging and tumultuous times.
 Williams, R. Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society. London: Fontana, 1976: p.87.
The publication of Socio-Economic Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts is both timely and important.
I’m the son of a railway worker and a hospital cleaner and was the first in my family to go to university. When entering the cultural sector in a junior position, it was soon clear to me that it was, by and large, not really diverse nor reflective enough of the communities it was funded to serve. Trying to raise the issue of socio-economic diversity (SED) in the sector in the mid-2000s was largely seen as unfashionable, irrelevant, something from the 1980s. An attitude that helped to hide some the inequalities thatera glossed over. Encountering classist cultures in the arts
Upon graduating, I got an interview for a diversity scheme for a major media organisation. I had been brought up in a culture in which presenting yourself well at interviews was seen as the main thing. So I bought my first ever suit for it on a credit card. I expected to talk about my portfolio of work, but was a little surprised to be asked to justify why I had been disadvantaged and why I deserved this opportunity. Being from a background were hiding poverty was key and that, ‘there’s always someone else worse off’, I was a bit stumped by this. In addition, in spite of being to a scheme to encourage the disadvantaged, it was led like a typical tough interview. These days I’d be able to answer all their questions quite eloquently, but then, I struggled, lacking the cultural capital that encourages public speaking and aggressive self-promotion from a young age. It was hard enough then to enter and survive in the cultural sector and it’s gotten worse in the last few years, especially in the more deprived regional parts of the UK where museums, libraries, youth facilities, further education colleges and theatres have all seen huge cut backs and closures. The importance of measuring and monitoring socio-economic background
The conversation on SED has, however, thankfully now started to shift and be taken seriously by the sector. When talking about measuring socio-economic background, quite often I’d be told ‘But how!’ as if it was impossible, rather than complex. The Bridge Group and Jerwood Arts’ Toolkit can help organisations to move into robust and applicable ideas, systems and actions. What’s great is it encourages a strategic rather than an ad hoc approach and uses methodologies with decent evidence behind them. Crucially, it advises how to practically gather this information properly and use it to make a difference in organisations. The report highlights why this information really needs to be gathered: it exposes damming facts such as those from lower socio-economic backgrounds earn on average less than colleagues from more affluent backgrounds doing the same job.
Top tips from the Toolkit
Amongst the things that stood out for me in the Toolkit include being supportive, warm even to candidates in job interviews, so they can perform at their best. Rather than, sadly as I have personally experienced, some interviewers being cold or combative like it was some strange game. Another solid piece of advice is asking applicants to self-describe any barriers they may have faced in gaining access to the arts in an application statement. This is something that gives a candidate time to consider this in advance, as with the usual questions on a job description, rather than it being dropped on them at interview. Its focus too is on recruiters considering skills and competencies over qualifications or direct experience is important, as is its advice on use of terminology. It’s also great that the Toolkit is split into baseline and advanced practice for organisations at different stages and scales. The Toolkit also identifies where progress is happening in organisations. At Artlink, for example, we have already removed qualification requirements from job adverts, unless specifically needed, asking only for relevant information and stating clearly that we’re open to non-standard application formats. However, like any organisation, we can’t be complacent, even if we have made positive changes. Other areas we still need to think more about include avoiding, or at least explaining, cultural world jargon in job adverts, as well as ensuring adverts go to places beyond the usual outlets. Next steps to make progress in diversifying the arts sector
Practically, challenges remain with regards to gathering data. For instance, the socio-economic background survey for employees is long in order to ask the detailed questions needed for enough data for serious measurement. This could be off-putting for those filling in forms, especially if it is combined with gathering others forms of equality and diversity data. More work needs to be done as well to support the micro organisations that form much of the backbone of the cultural sector in how to get to grips with this area. Change in the sector needs to happen though, with urgency, and positive action is crucial. Increasing socio-economic diversity in the cultural sector is harder in a society were inequality is increasing and some things are beyond what the sector in itself can achieve. For example, more work could be done around developing state-supported, multi-year creative apprenticeships.
Crucially this Toolkit also identifies correctly that this isn’t just a moral issue, a more diverse workforce, as a lot of evidence shows, creates healthier and more dynamic organisations that produce better art, which is something all cultural organisations should be aiming for.
I’ve been working on arts and heritage projects with communities for nearly 15 years. In that time, I have seen community engagement shift from being, literally in an early role, down the corridor from everything else, to something that even the largest and most prestigious cultural institutions are trying to adapt their practices to include.
My interest in this field comes from having a working class background and getting tentatively involved in the arts sector; feeling that, as much as it was stimulating and great, how much of a disconnect there was between where I had come from and the world I was now entering. Working in community engagement seemed like an interesting way of bridging that gap.
It was clear that much of the wider cultural sector regarded us as ‘nice to have’ or, ‘necessary for funding’. Something that should not have the same recognition, space or budget as ‘real culture’. This was immensely frustrating when, at the coalface, it was easy to see how important and powerful such work could be at all levels.
Community engagement can mean many different things, so first of all it’s important to step back and ask, why do you want to do it? Being clear in this is key in deciding what approach to take. Do you want to diversify or perhaps increase audiences? Are you trying to understand audiences better? Do you want to work with people in the development of a new project? Make your programming more representative of your local area or wider society? Are you involving people in a more radical rethinking about what your organisation is and does? These things can intersect and crossover, but also all have distinctions.
If you want to engage a community of whatever form, you have to ask, what’s in it for them? Community engagement purely because you feel you have to for political or financial reasons or because it’s currently fashionable may work for a while. However, if there’s nothing underpinning such engagement, if it doesn’t, to a greater or lesser extent, influence and change how you do things, it’s a route to failure in the long term.
Doing community engagement well can be hard work. So, why do it? Simply, the publicly funded cultural sector can no longer have any complacency about the broad communities it is intended to serve and still exist. This doesn’t mean every bit of culture will be coproduced in future, but it does mean more change. That many people, often the most disadvantaged, still feel alienated from the sector remains a huge issue. Furthermore, in a multimedia world, people are far less willing to be passive consumers of culture and want to ‘participate’ in many different ways. Many do still just want to see that exhibition/play/performance. However considering the many ways people might want to otherwise interact with the art and culture that is being made and those involved in making it, is vital for the future of organisations.
When I began to realise in the last few years, that participation, community engagement, the various other intersecting types of work and terminologies we use, had become à la mode, initially it felt positive. That this sort of work was finally being recognised. However, as people and organisations who’d never given it a passing thought started diving into it and shouting from the rooftops about how good they were at it, concerns emerged. For example, of the risks of organisations doing it with little experience and alienating the very people they’re trying to engage. Or of heavily funded traditional institutions adopting the ideas of smaller focused organisations and crowding them out from funding rather than trying to work in partnership. That more organisations are doing this kind of work though, does acknowledge the power of community engagement. However more still needs to be done.
Community engagement on the side is on the way out. This does not mean that specific and targeted programmes led by experienced practitioners can all be replaced by vague statements about how ‘community is considered in all things’. It does mean that such engagement though should impact right across what a cultural organisation does, from the toilets to the marketing. Crucially, the sector also has to make sure that the artists and other workers it employs are more representative of the diversity of British society: they will know best how to engage and indeed challenge communities that they themselves come from.
When I started in this field, I wanted to learn how to do community engagement as best as possible and perfect it. What I found out instead was that, as soon as you think you’ve answered it, you find another question to ask, another parameter to consider, another level of depth to go to. Criticality and theory is, quite rightly, catching up and taking the world of participation and engagement ever more seriously, but there still is, I think, no perfect model. Just different ways of doing things well in the context that you do them in. Though there is a world of good practice to take inspiration from. But tread carefully and slowly as this so often leads to better results. The more successful you do something in engagement, the main thing you’re likely to learn is how to do it better again next time. And for me really, that’s where the joy in it is. Working with people and trying to do it well around art and culture to make a difference in a very imperfect world.
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.
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.
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.
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?