Directors' Update - 4 October 2018

There's something of a theme emerging in a slew of recent reports and consultations and in artists responses to them: how does the visual arts sector with its socially embedded practices actually work and can it continue as it is - or can we feed it into a computer, bottle it, flip it, and label it with a flag? How radical is radical - or is it populist? Are we in revolutionary or just ‘interesting’ times?

Post-Brexit 'Soft power' and the arts

Portland Communications published its annual Soft Power Index report in July 2018 and expressed surprise that, despite Brexit, the UK has managed to 'pip' France into first place this year. Portland takes the view that the UK could retain its leading role post Brexit but it "will require a positive and inclusive narrative to take to the rest of the world and the right structural policies to keep Britain attractive for foreign investors, tourists and students".

Following this unexpected but extremely welcome success, the FCO invited leaders from across the UK’s arts and culture sector to ask for their views on how the Government can help them to increase this country’s global reach to inform a new 'soft power' strategy. The DCMS has called for responses from the cultural sectors and CVAN has now responded in detail. In summary, CVAN is arguing that:

  • The contemporary visual arts plays a vital role in the UK’s global reputation as a creative, inventive, open, and cosmopolitan society influential in the development of international cultural trends

  • We need to avoid prioritising the market hub over public arts provision and think about the contemporary visual arts sector holistically as the sum of many moving parts whose interactive processes are as important as their outputs

  • We should avoid associating the visual arts too closely with foreign policy or industrial development objectives because critical independence and freedom of expression are key to the global appeal of UK contemporary visual arts

  • We should avoid a 'nation branding' or unilateral approach as globalising cultural trends relies, instead, on relationships and connectivity

  • We should focus on how the contemporary visual arts can contribute to developing a positive post-Brexit narrative of Britain as still a cosmopolitan, open, creative and inventive culture across our regions

  • Our international engagement should emerge from investment in our genuinely unique socially-embedded visual arts practice shaped by a democratic society

  • The visual arts have an important part to play in the economic life of the UK and its interests should be better represented in the Creative Sector Deal and its global success firmly rooted in thriving national, regional, and local sectors

  • Besides measures to ensure continuity in our creative investment frameworks, equally importantly we should consider how to ensure continuity in in new international cultural collaboration frameworks and the free movement of artists and works on which these collaborations depend

CVAN will follow up on this initial work.

Models for 'marketing' culture seems to echo insights from recent ACE 10-year strategy consultations into the way that contemporary visual arts are perceived by the British public. It seems that most people associate visual or 'fine' arts only with painting, static exhibitions, and London's international auction houses - with perhaps a rather commodified approach? We would argue that the main strengths of the UK's global cultural services exports lies in the predominance of socially and economically embedded practice, our willingness to work across sectors with new materials and technologies, and with the deep and wide international 'connectedness' of our networks.

This highlights, once again, the need for more work to be done to raise awareness of the nature and importance of contemporary visual arts in British life and to ensure that a challenging and critical cultural engagement is available for everyone wherever they live and whatever their background.

Cultural Democracy in practice

Last month, 64 Million Artists with Arts Council England published a guide to Cultural Democracy in Practice - an approach to arts and culture that actively engages everyone in deciding what counts as culture, where it happens, who makes it, and who experiences it. This is a practical 'how to' supported by case studies but which also celebrates the role of voluntary organisations and individual artists in enabling local communities to access a rich cultural and arts practice.

Not everyone is happy with what can be seen as an appropriation of a grassroots process in a report aimed primarily at NPO executives and the report lacks any sense of how ACE might encourage a more credible 'revolution' in the sector. The report comes into a context of widespread questioning of current institutions of UK society (and perhaps the world). Many artists are feeling increasingly 'close to the edge' and there is popular activism in the sector around unsustainable pressure on artists' livelihood and inequalities in funding - which many might feel that ideas such as a micro-grant programme for ACE does little to address in structural terms.

This is not the only faultline as cultural democracy also invokes debates around participation and quality as well as public support for experimental and challenging visual arts forms. Is the debate succumbing to false promises of populism? What would 'equality' in the public contemporary visual arts sector actually look like? Recent Movement for Cultural Democracy debates cross over with localism and regeneration. The financialisation of the commercial visual arts market hub is also beginning to manifest its impact on how art is valued and on the relationships between the market and non-market (public) arts sectors. Are we about to see momentous shifts which ACE needs to engage with at a more structural level?

On the subject of Arts Leadership

Arts Council England has published a new report from King's College London and Sue Hoyle, Changing cultures: Transforming leadership in the arts, museums and libraries. The report, together with the recent research into arts sector leadership, skills and workforces by Consilium, will help ACE understand the state of leadership in the sector, and the support available to leaders when addressing challenges. The reports also highlight the existing and likely future skills gaps across the cultural and creative industries, and the implications these could have for the organisations and the sector.

What is resilience anyway?

A new report by Golant Media Ventures with The Audience Agency for Arts Council England is the first research into 'resilience' since 2010. The report finds that the arts sectors' leaders tend to have a strong understanding of what 'resilience' means ('bouncing forward' rather than just 'bouncing back') but notes that understanding of what is meant by 'resilience' is not well distributed across the sector and the term has more recently become 'tainted' by austerity.

Resilience needs to be seen as a property of systems rather than individuals (whether artists or organisations) and the report calls for "the growth of a flourishing ecosystem of arts and culture provision rather than emphasising the resilience of individual organisations." However, there is little consistent practice in resilience measures within the sector or in decision-making. A resilient future for the sector is "within reach" - but we must think about thriving rather than just surviving?

It does seem that this moment in which the previously hermetically sealed vault of 'austerity' is cracking apart in the heat of Brexit we might want to engage some more systematic thinking about what a sustainable and resilient visual arts sector might really look like?

What's the 'active ingredient' in arts with a social purpose?

Last month also saw the publication of a report in which BOP Consulting with Aesop claims to have isolated the 'active ingredient' in socially engaged arts. You may remember the DCMS literature review in 2015 which collated the evidence for the benefits arts practice could offer to wider society. This review was updated at the start of this year on an explicit call from the DCMS for someone to explain how it actually works - so that the 'active ingredient' can be 'bottled' in a funding strategy.

The report observes that much socially engaged arts deploys the evidence frameworks of partner organisations (medical, educational, correctional etc) which has been broadly successful in demonstrating value, but noting that the arts evaluation has, previously, lacked this kind of rigor. Many would feel that social science is a poor way to try to develop a 'canning' process for arts processes but, on the other hand, it would be helpful for funders and policymakers to better evidence what works for the beneficiaries and how to do more of what works.

The report comes up with a model of the kinds of activities, settings, and participants which need to come together to start the crucible fizzing and, as someone who relies on sound evidence in her job, this is good news - the report is recommended reading for engaged practitioners. However, it's hard not to sympathise with concerns over a reductive 'sciencification' of arts practice.

Campaigning Toolkit

What better to close this update than a campaigning toolkit? I think most of us were aware of the extremely hi-viz campaign to make the case for creative subjects in schools through 2016/17. If all this debate has inspired your group with a fresh urge to campaign, now Bacc for the Future, The Cultural Learning Alliance and WHAT NEXT have got together to publish an incredibly useful toolkit for campaigners.

If you feel strongly about an issue which CVAN should be taking forward on behalf of the sector please do get in touch with your regional CVAN network or the national network and make your case!