{the community, the state and a specific kind of headache}
2/8/2020 ZM

I feel like I’ve painted myself into a corner, just a little bit. My writing in lockdown has become increasingly cynical about the institution’s viability; while this isn’t brand new to me, I am j absolutely knackered lads. It gets a bit long talking about the same tired problems, grappling with the same question in different forms. I don’t want to keep getting pulled down by the sticky details, the in-betweens and the weird compromises; I want to look away, towards a grassroots where questions of relevance and urgency are immediately answered. 

 

In March we published <mango&lime>, on the disparities between big formal galleries and grassroots community arts organisations; the budgets and scales they’re expected to operate on, the work they do, and the unstable question about what public programme is even supposed to be doing in the first place. That text left it all on a soft question, but now i’m picking my thinking back up. This week’s text is something a little bit different to the furious monologues we usually publish. I’ve been speaking to 5 practitioners who have been involved in/in proximity to community arts activity in different capacities and from different positions. I’ve learned a lot from these convos, got a good sense of the problems that feel both brand new and familiar; and now I wanna turn this all into a teachable moment by writing thru it. 

 

The first practitioner I spoke to was Zain Dada; a cultural producer and researcher based in London. I need to define what we’re talking about here, so I asked Zain for a solid example of what constitutes a community arts organisation. By his reckoning it’s a tricky term to navigate coherently, and maybe it’s best situated negatively? ‘There’s a delineation between them and mainstream arts institutions that reveals itself in times of crisis. In mainstream arts organisations there’s no sense of their own geography, they’re so detached from the communities in their proximity, and the needs around them’. Community arts organisations do work that contemporary art organisations seem to be fundamentally incapable of; ‘community arts organisations are generally in touch with their locality. They have a coherent understanding of the communities in their proximity and their relative needs, their approach to arts activity is one that actively cares for those needs through community and culture’. 

 

The second practitioner I spoke to was Miguel Amado, director of Sirius, an arts centre in Cobh, County Cork, Ireland. His proximity to community arts comes via the more formalised world of contemporary art organisations; his curatorial MO has been invested in repurposing curating as a civic practice. We talk about the history of community arts and where it came from; ‘community art is what we’d call socially engaged art in the 70s’. Miguel plots it out as a timeline for me, ‘this has a radical anti-capitalist history that has been obliterated from the canon and the constraints of what constitutes ‘proper art’’. Movements like the early post-revolution Soviet avant-garde and Proletkult, Productivism, the performative and the participatory, and Marxist thinking around cultural democracy fed into it. For what it’s worth, the history of avant-garde participatory art/post-revolution Soviet art as a device for social change is super interesting; Blindboy did a podcast ep about it if ur interested, I rly recommend it. Community Art™️ formally coalesced as a movement in the UK in the 60s; as a result of the welfare state’s transformation of wider working society, the creation of the Arts Council of Great Britain back in 1946, and then the Arts Council’s unsurprising inability to fund preexisting cultural activity produced and participated in by working people. In <A Restless Art> by François Matarasso, there’s a really comprehensive history leading up to & including the formal community art movement, n its formation as a left-wing, grassroots response to top-down exclusion. Miguel continues, ‘modernism had set out a precedent for art as an apparatus for the bourgeoise to distinguish themselves from the working class’, community art came out of an opposition to art’s status as a tool for a monied minority. Matarasso writes ‘Arnold Wesker and Joan Littlewood [pioneers of participatory theatre in the 60s] were artists and socialists who saw art as a human right and as a means of education and consciousness-raising. In this, they and their allies built on [a] legacy… that aimed to recover art as a part of everyday life with emancipatory possibilities’. Though it was a coherent movement of extensive grassroots arts activity, Miguel points out what happened to it; ‘art history co-opted the useful parts and obliterated the rest. We see its legacy now in educational trajectories, engagement and learning departments’. Miguel confirms Zain’s earlier definition as a negative one, and beyond that, the concerns and practices of community art found a codified home in the institution by doing what formal contemporary art couldn’t: ‘curators, as practitioners, and curating as a practice, comes from the canon of Western, white male formalism. For them, engaging with society isn’t a priority. Modernism suppresses the existence of society, it insists on art’s autonomy from that’. Community art, as category and as practice with a historical context, stands in direct opposition to that autonomy from society; it is a way of practicing and making ~in~ community or society or just amongst other people, and leans into the radical or emancipatory possibilities that that process allows. 

 

Zain’s definition of it as a practice characterised by ‘a coherent understanding of the communities in its proximity and their relative needs’ is a definition that has been pressed into a specific shape in response to government policy and direction. Miguel mentions the way it emerged alongside the Thatcher era’s rapid dismantling of the welfare state, ‘community arts organisations provide social services in civic space that were previously the role of the state. State agencies like Arts Council England offer support for arts organisations to operate as public bodies in public space. While it might be positive to have systems of support that critique the triangle of studio/gallery/market, it’s also a way for capitalism to evade critique’. It’s a system that gets arts organisations to do welfare work, step in where the state fails; Big Society n all that. Zain confirms this, ‘it’s activity that’s often tangled up in multiple different things. Community centres that do welfare work through culture, or arts and culture activity that takes place in the same space across other welfare work’. They’re often impossible to extract from each other, which is an issue we’ll return to in a bit, don’t u worry xoxo. 

 

The framing of community arts activity now is characterised by a specific set of problems as a result of the government policy that shapes it. The first problem I came across was of space and commercial viability; the way government neglect moves as trajectory. Zain explains it with a reference to Morgan Quaintance’s text on <New Conservatism>, specifically the bits about New Labour and PFI contracts. A recap of that reference, Morgan writes: ‘In [1992], Tory MP Norman Lamont introduced the Private Finance Initiative; the flagship public private partnership (PPP) policy enabling contracted private firms to manage public infrastructure projects (hospitals, schools, rail contracts, etc.), a venture significantly increased during New Labour’s ’97-2010 tenure… Politicians set the PPP climate that would spread to and inform an increasingly private positive UK art world’. In the comments, Morgan clarifies further: ‘PPP here is used to refer to public private partnerships, not specifically the governmental kind, but public private partnerships that have emerged in the wake of policy led activity initiated since Lamont’s PFI innovation in 1992. I think it’s clear that these are rife in the art world … this has become the de-facto approach’. He goes on in more detail about the blending of private funding into public funding, how it has gone from supplement to staple in the eyes of major state level funding bodies like Arts Council England, and in that new normality, how it’s justified reduced public funding of the arts. Zain continues, ‘those parts of New Conservatism identified the way cultural organisations, as public assets, began to be viewed in a very particular way at a state level. There was this specific move towards commercialisation, in wanting these organisations to be run more efficiently as commercially viable entities. In a community arts context, it’s a very specific thing. Youth services got cut by 50% under the coalition government, they’re unable to do all the work they normally do and it all slows down, so it makes sense when local councillors say these spaces are ‘underused’, and it becomes justified to sell off these ‘underused community assets’ to try and raise funds for the council’s essential services (that are already pressured by budget cuts). If you chart the history of a specific space, you can see really clearly the way it moves. These spaces end up being sold to property developers because, by the way the framing of value has been shifted, they’re not efficient. If everything is seen through the lens of commercial efficiency and viability, of course these spaces won’t survive’. It’s been a gradual process across decades and governments, it follows the wider trend of neoliberal privatisation of public services, and the opening up of new markets to commercial interests. These community spaces, that were arguably shaped by government services and social provisions being privatised, are now in turn being strategically defunded along similarly commercial principles now. 

 

What this does, practically, is limit the capacity and autonomy of these community arts organisations; it forces them into an operational model that’s reliant on either complying with state interests, or working with other organisations that comply with state interests themselves. On a more human scale, away from the state level trajectory, I wonder how that force towards compliance works on the ground and in action. Zain has a hunch, he reckons it’s through professionalisation. The pressures of commercial viability, reduced public spending & budget cuts often act as a tool of coercive conformity. Organisations are forced to work in a particular way, adopt professional structures and processes, become registered charities; doing so makes it easier to access funding, allows access to bigger pots of funding from a wider range of trusts and foundations, and gives stability in a sector that is closely characterised by precarity. Zain announces this as a possible conspiracy theory, but I think he’s on to something when he says ‘assimilating into existing norms and conventions is often just about convenience; it might sound like a reach, but the whiter your space is, the less likely it is to be demolished’. It has a really insidious way of entrenching itself too, ‘as soon as you professionalise, you open yourself up to these more institutionally acceptable players who are most comfortable with that particular way of doing things’. Right down to the interpersonal level of workplace politics; art’s renewed frame of value has a proximity to the state, state interests, and modes of operating that contain and protect those interests.

 

My third contributor is Louise Shelley, a curator and organiser. Her curatorial practice has been characterised by a sincere concern with working alongside and in collaboration with local communities, and a political interest in doing that grassroots work. If community arts is struggling with funding structures and state forces, how’s it faring within galleries and their education/outreach/participation departments? I spoke to Louise about her work at the Showroom from 2010-18 as the Collaborative Projects Curator, and the Communal Knowledge program she ran. ‘We set up Communal Knowledge when we moved to the site in Edgware Road in 2010; it was in the wake of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition government, the start of austerity, the student protests, rent increases. Around all of that, it felt like there needed to be research and work about or around locality, a need to build that as a parallel program with a different timeframe to the exhibitions program, without the need to form exhibitions within it; to just focus on collaboration and community solidarity given the climate at the time. Over the course of those 8 years of work, it was activity that became really embedded within the Showroom’s mission, it became something they were quite well known for. Then when I left in 2018, it was put on pause. It was heartbreaking, because for 8 years these relationships were developed and nurtured; to me this felt like it wasn’t valued enough to be continued. It’s difficult to do that kind of work in institutions; not just at the Showroom, but there are great people doing this work at the Serpentine, South London Gallery, for instance, and the work can just be stopped. I don’t know, maybe it’s a signal about how committed or engaged these institutions are in that work, maybe it’s a question about how integral that work is to them?’ 

 

Speaking to Louise, it became clear that there’s something about the way that galleries are positioned and structured that means they’re ill-equipped to handle this kind of work: alongside a community, serving their needs as urgent priority, actively collaborating to ensure horizontal ownership and agency. Bearing in mind what Miguel said about contemporary art’s history as a field that has insisted on its autonomy from society, I ask Louise about that doubt around commitment to the work. ‘There’s something about this layer of the Arts; maybe it’s language or class, but it so so often speaks over or for people. There’s just this default mode of extraction’. I ask about where that mode could come from, and Louise says, ‘somewhere along the line, we’ve built these values that don’t prioritise other ways of working. It’s hard to support another way of working when you’re taught it as the default right from the start. It begins at art school; the default is competition, reputation-based, placing a stress on your ability to accumulate social capital as an individual’. It feels like it’s too big for me to shoehorn into this text as a single paragraph in a wider conversation, but I think this is all what Morgan was saying in <New Conservatism>. There’s one way that art workers are taught to do things, it serves corporate & state interests, and it’s upheld by the soft coercion of ~best practice~, professionalism, state level funding bodies and their requirements. The way the arts are networked make subversion or deviation from these best practices very difficult to maintain with any kind of long term sustainability. Louise hints that maybe there could be ways to game the system, ‘you can tell funders one thing, and have it be completely different on the ground or in reality. But it’s hard to do that, the work does get compromised’. Even then, how do you maintain that facade; Louise isn’t optimistic about it as a strategy, ‘you can push those conservative elements away from the process and the work, but it’s still there and forms part of the evaluation. You kind of have to codeswitch with the business-funding speak. And how much freedom is there really if the very structure you’re working out of is complicit in this Tory agenda? The Arts Council put out these funds that require match funding. That could come from a local council with a stretched budget, it could equally come from a private property developer’. The effect of top-down policy cannot be understated in this. It effects everything; from 10-year trajectories and long term sustainability, to the language of department names, job titles and remits. ‘It’s interesting how quickly these things get compromised’.

 

It’s a weird and sticky one, the Arts Council’s funding requirements place a stress on providing ~public value~, but somehow engagement and community participation work that would constitute a solid and sincere form of ~public value~ is placed peripherally or temporarily within even the most well intentioned galleries. Louise continues, ‘Arts funding bodies want to make it fit into these institutions, but if you want to do this work with any kind of passion or politics, it doesn’t really fit well’. Although this isn’t news to me, I am still baffled by this, so I ask why they even bother with it as a caveat in the first place; Louise hints that maybe it’s a political position that can’t see its own flaws and failures. ‘Institutions in some way want to be ‘helpful’; they’re desperate to signal being good and position art as a virtue, as a utility. They want to diversify audiences, it’s those agendas of working with ‘young people’, ‘the hard to reach’, ‘diverse’ etc; it’s a charitable idea of help or support, it's patronising and actually very violent. It’s a very Blairite thing, very Big Society; the Arts Council had their own specific version or tagline, Arts for Everyone’. The way engagement/participation/learning roles are shaped within institutions is absolutely informed by state level policy. The Arts Council might be a body ~at arm’s length from government~, but Arts For Everyone was a consciously informed scheme launched by the Arts Council in 1997. ’97 is a significant year; brand new Labour government under Blair, the Blair government’s newly created Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) that the Arts Council sits within, and this new scheme: Arts For Everyone. The creation of the Arts Council as we know it today, as a body ~at arm’s length from government~ with specific values and requirements and funding strategies, is arguably a Blairite project. Arts for Everyone became a codified part of Arts Council strategy in 2010, when they launched their 10-year strategic framework: ‘GREAT ART AND CULTURE FOR EVERYONE’. Louise positions the impact of that ideological framing in relation to this work, ‘it really neutralises it and its radical potential. There could be the chance to parasite it and redistribute resources from the institution, but that’s hard work. A lot of this work isn’t held properly by institutions, because it should take the shape of long term projects. It relies on personality, warmth, mutual concerns; it’s not about a professionalised body turning it into a curatorial thematic or a kind of soft capital’. The way this work is best done is at polar odds with the way institutions led by government policy require it being done, ‘it’s work that refuses representation and the visibility that comes with it. If it’s done sincerely it can be quite a private thing; it defies that preexisting institutional model, it resists being made subject’. That denial of being conditioned into subjecthood is something that institutions can’t really handle, that isn’t nurtured within funding frameworks; ‘a lot of it is about language: multiculturalism, outreach, diverse’. That language comes from the top down, from the framing of arts council funding requirements, it trickles down into the gallery, and it’s incredibly pervasive. ‘The terms itself: engagement, participation, outreach, that’s all arts council speak. That’s why it happens the way it does, and they want it to be delivered through contemporary art -  I’ve got no idea why! Some of the approaches are bizarre, it can get quite violent or extractive, when you satellite in and just disappear when the project is done’. The funding framework doesn’t impart any sense of timeframe, doesn’t require you to do this work in a way that has any particular meaning or sincerity, and so it’s rare that education/outreach/participation work is ever done in a way that is impactful, long term, for the communities involved in it. There is a systemic flaw in the way community work is held at an institutional level; the agenda of contemporary art and the bureaucracy required by its funding bodies are fundamentally at odds with the community art model. The latter resists being made subject, the former requires it.

 

Aside from the top-down framing that pushes the work into a productive category, of becoming Work™️, Louise had doubts about the fundamental basis of it all. ‘The Showroom built up a reputation for all this activity, but there was something in the reality of it that didn’t match that. Who did it all benefit in the end?’ Inevitably, these institutions stand to gain a lot, but the communities, and even the individuals on the inside don’t gain that much. ‘A lot of those relationships were held and maintained through me. These things don’t actually happen between the institution and local communities; these relationships are always held by individual workers within it’. And here, part of me wants to scream; there’s something about how power is spread here that feels very deeply unstable. My fourth contributor is Nurull Islam, co-Founder of Mile End Community Project; I spoke to Nurull about his perspective on this. He concurs with Louise about the way this work should ideally be done; ‘you need trust to work with people in this way’, which inevitably requires time and mutual benefit from the proposed activity. In his experience at Mile End Community Project, they get a lot of larger organisations reaching out to them; ‘we’re a small organisation, but we get a lot of larger organisations who’ve secured funding come to us to do the outreach for them’. The disparity there is obvious; larger organisations with bureaucratised structures are better at securing the funding, but clearly worse at actually delivering the community engagement work. Louise voices a hunch that confirms this for me: ‘it’s all so compromised in an institution. Maybe it can be done better in the third sector, at the community arts level, where it can be more radical and interesting’. Third sector is a term I hadn’t heard of before, but Louise explains it, ‘like youth clubs, women’s refuges, housing, food banks. People delivering public services, and welfare work’. As a contemporary art institution, it makes sense for you to partner with a smaller community organisation; you can outsource and cut out the legwork of investing time and building relationships of trust by working with a smaller, grassroots community arts organisation like Mile End Community Project. But again, like Louise & Nurull have said in this text, and like mentioned in mango & lime back in March; there are some very awkward fundamental questions about the benefit for community arts organisations when working with institutions. 

 

Nurull raised some really good questions about the balance of power in these relationships between larger contemporary art organisations, community arts organisations, and communities themselves. ‘I think it’s important to ask: what are you doing with this, where is it going, can the people involved put it on their portfolios?’ It becomes a bigger issue than just money and budgets, really its about cultural capital, sustainability and who’s being supported to make work in the long term (& i’ll pick back up on this later too, don’t u worry bby). Nurull is honest and incredibly modest about the work he & Mile End Community Project do, ‘we’ve never really had a full or part time post and salaries haven’t been there, it’s always been funded on a project-by-project basis. It just gets a bit disparaging when you have to ask other people to give their time for free or for a reduced rate too; even if they’re happy to give it, we know it’s not ideal’. That scale, of working on a project-by-project basis has a significant impact; ‘it’s exhausting to apply for funding, hustle, and also raise the issues or do the work you wanted to do in the first place’. Larger organisations and contemporary art institutions have entire departments dedicated to fundraising, networks of patrons and benefactors, clout and proximity to power; the benefit of being inside the tent pissing out. It’s not the same for small community arts organisations, they’re on completely different scales of operation; ‘i think sometimes it’s the fancy words that gets the bids, I think that’s all it is. It’s confidence or entitlement to put the work out there, or know how it should all be framed’. The language and requirements of arts funding can be so specific to the point of being opaque to smaller grassroots organisations, but most importantly, there is clearly something askew within the wider structure of values that dictate how funding is awarded. 

 

This problem also transcends organisational concern, the scale of funding they are able to access has a significant impact on the work they do. ‘The work is vital, and it has to happen and be put out there! We need funding to do that, to do justice to the work we produce, otherwise there’s no point. Producing something on a low budget scale, it might not go anywhere. Investing in the quality and production is important to make sure it does well. We know we can do that - films we’ve produced have been on TV, there’s the capacity where we are for this to be considered important or central’. What Nurull’s talking about here feels like a really key component in this entire mess: community arts organisations have the capacity to do and produce legitimately good quality, radical work that actively plays into the Arts Council’s priorities. ‘Funders and galleries don’t understand these kids, I think, but these youth groups we work with have a tolerance and understanding for some really demanding work’. The kids Nurull works with have had more patience than I’ve had for some of the art world’s nonsense, they’ve sat through still, iterative, gestural work and metabolised it, appreciated it, critiqued it. ‘Of course they understand it, they can reflect on its relevance to their lives and form opinions on it’. The question of access in the world of contemporary art isn’t an intellectual one, or about literal individual ability or condescension; the lines of exclusion are drawn by the institutions themselves, and they’re inevitably drawn along the lines of class and race. Community arts organisations like Mile End Community Project are doing work to actively counter that, facilitating cultural literacy and capacity, for the same underrepresented demographics that arts institutions find so hard to grapple with. They give them skills, experience, portfolio work, all the things necessary to go on and do other things in the creative industries. This isn’t incidental, for many of these organisations, it’s central to their mission. Nurull continues, ‘it’s just not realistic. We get offers in that want us to produce this stuff on a shoestring budget, but we want to give participants a real experience that can be professionally useful for them’. That’s the entire basis of community art; funding the cultural production of marginalised, working class communities, enabling them to make culture on their own terms and in accordance with their own frame of values.

 

My fifth contributor is Abbas Zahedi. Although I know him now as a contemporary artist whose work has been in and around massive institutions like South London Gallery, before Abbas did his MA at Central St Martins in 2017, he was involved in the community arts scene. He tells me about his experience working at Rumi’s Cave, a community arts space in North West London, and how he started by organising a symposium in the Grove Fish Bar, a chip shop in Ladbroke Grove, while he was still studying medicine. ‘Community arts careers are just a vehicle for burnout. You have all these stakeholders, and you burn out just by explaining to everyone why they should stay involved in what you’re doing, why they need to support this activity long enough to get it out there and make it successful. Under neoliberalism everything is monetisable, and maybe some things need to be given for free or in kind. But bargaining within these economies is actual labour; it needs a safe, protected area away from transaction’. You have all these pressures from every side; you struggle to get funding and run autonomously, in kind support only lasts so long and hustling that is a job in itself, and you can’t work within institutions without getting redirected into another agenda. It’s a pressure cooker and it has affect. For community arts workers themselves in the field, these wider issues can lead to deeper internal problems with how you conceptualise the work you’re doing in the first place. ‘There’s a lack of confidence with engaging with your position as it is, just in the field you’re in. Either you’re creating a vibe or an aesthetic, or you’re acting as an ethnographer’, & honestly sometimes it can be both, ‘it’s all just doing the work of translating, it isn’t ever really for ~us~’. Under those two intertwined issues; of not being able to bag the funding required to operate independently, of not being afforded the agency to operate as you want to in/alongside institutions, there’s the very real threat of almost inevitable co-option. ‘This community stuff is being fetishised, it’s being thrown into this ethnographic lens’. I ask Abbas what that ethnographic lens means, and he explains; ‘It’s journalistic, reportage, it’s an update from the frontlines of a struggle or issue. Because we socially define things in this way, these struggles exist in the area of a specific subjectivity’. Abbas points out how that then translates into a specific dynamic between marginalised/minority artist and institution: ‘it creates a rationing system, these tickets, a mentality of, ‘oh ye, we need the updates about this community from ~this guy~’, doing that and then it’s just filed away. There’s not much space to think about the internal diversity within ~that guy’s~ community, and he’s forced to represent that community. All nuance gets lost, it creates an artificial frame of reference’. That artificial frame of reference is basically a value system that prioritises the visible components, a representational understanding of difference. It returns back to Miguel’s framing: of conceptual art co-opting the useful parts of community art practices and assimilating it into an acceptable shape that appeals to its bourgeois values. ‘Why can’t we just be artists as we are, it’s the same sleight of hand as diversity quotas; there’s just all these ways to tokenise us’. There, Abbas is fundamentally questioning the same thing as Nurull: this work is consistently overlooked and underfunded, precluding marginalised communities from being enabled as cultural producers in their own right. In that, they are precluded from ever moving beyond the role of ~subject or audience~, the institutions of contemporary art require these communities to be conditioned into a role that’s useful to them before they are allowed access. Community art work not being held in a similar esteem as contemporary art work is fundamentally a question of class and race, and the value of the cultural aesthetics attached to both in tandem. 

 

And so this then becomes a structural problem beyond the remit of the art world. Abbas continues, ‘galleries are turning into middlemen, where each exhibition room operates as a kind of periscope looking out towards a kaleidescopic menu of ‘struggles’ each one vying for its own relevance to the times. We should be talking to people that are doing the funding, we need an element of proximity to power’. I ask if that’s about moving towards a horizontality, or a more democratic structure, and Abbas is hesitant, ‘art isn’t a democratic space, it never has been; this whole society is geared in a way where power doesn’t mix downwards’. He confirms my feeling that the way we perceive public value and participation in the arts is a new invention, ‘this democracy around art doesn’t exist within its own cultural tradition, art’s been for the elite. That framing of it as ~for everyone~ from the Arts Council, that’s a very different value, a very new one too’. Via email afterwards, Abbas adds; ‘even the idea of a community arts space just presents a sort of democratic spin which allows institutions to protect their boundaries, so as to keep the community art folk in their communities, basically a form of social lock-in. It’s like the institution is saying: let us control the Instagram of art and the rest of you can go make a WhatsApp group for your cute memes.’ If it’s not about democracy, if that’s too distant and contains the potential for alienation or placebo, then what is it about? Abbas says, ‘the points of entry need to be worked on more. What would it be like if there were foundation courses everywhere, in chip shops? If you could democratise that part of it, it would do so much more than any democratisation of community or outreach spaces’. Abbas’s framing makes clear that the issue with this dynamic isn’t about a lack of literal mutual exchange; it’s more structural, speaks to a wider context regarding access and resources, the stodgy underbelly of cultural capital and proximity to power. ‘The people that participate in these engagement moments aren’t equipped to participate further than that point in the process of cultural production. Can they go on to make art in any serious way, be commissioned, exhibit? What is the point of the cultural participation that takes place between community arts organisation, community, and the art world?’ A move towards greater autonomy and agency would be enough to change this disparity, ‘it’s not about having more spaces, it’s about having access to the spaces that are there. Who’s got access to the means of cultural production, who’s entitled to being defined as a cultural individual?’ 

 

And right now, at this point, 6 pages & 6k words in; I’ve had enough. We know the problems by now; they’re familiar and applied so specifically they almost feel like a novelty. The entire shape of the arts ecology and the Arts Council funding industrial complex is obviously broken. My contributors have some suggestions, and I think you should hear them (if you’ve made it this far). When Abbas said, ‘the points of entry need to be worked on more. What would it be like if there were foundation courses everywhere, in chip shops?’ I think we should take him incredibly seriously. Not only is this a practically sound idea, but it has form; the symposium he organised in the Grove fish bar in Ladbroke Grove was basically a condensed course in art theory fundamentals, that worked as effective primer for an entry into the world of contemporary art. Abbas continues on this point, ‘art schools and foundation courses are the first point of access to the art world. It’s the one consistent, almost everyone here has been to art school; what if that was detached from the institution?’ Though Gab & I spend a lot of time complaining about art skl as an incubator for new and innovative forms of fuckery, Abbas reminds me of its importance and refers to Morgan’s essay <Teleology & the Turner Prize>. To quote Morgan directly: ‘rigorous conceptual training, in which the development of critical faculties is encouraged and challenged through discussion, group critique, lecture and written assessment, has taken [the place of ‘technical-skills-based-learning’]. This has developed in response to a field that, since the 1960s, grew uncomfortable with its co-option by powerful governmental, financial, or ideological forces; a field that increasingly produced art that problematized and drew critical attention to its modes of display and exchange, not to mention the culture, society and politics that made that display and exchange possible’. Abbas continues, ‘we don’t realise what we have in the arts; tools to navigate our circumstances, disparate activity bound together through practice. Spaces that facilitated that existed before, spaces that held that liminality and allowed a looser and less regulated engagement; they were youth clubs, and we know what happened to them’. In an email after, Abbas continues, ‘the 'institutions' have their liminal zone of entry which is the art school, whereas on the community end there isn't a real zone of exit/entry and so community art makers are just locked into their position by virtue of wanting to feel rooted. What if we work on that boundary, expand and extend the liminal zone and make that the focus? Fuck the binary or the negative need to posture in relation to the institution. We exist in the border and move freely whichever way we like.’ I think that liminality is key, Abbas frames it as necessary to the process of ‘renegotiating your terms and engagement and understanding of these things’; all of which constitutes the fundamentals of that rigorous conceptual training in art schools that’s so deeply valuable. 

 

Community art spaces acting as gonzo foundation courses is a very sincerely good idea; arguably it’s an operational possibility they’ve always contained, but who cares - let’s do it. And Nurull has another good plan beyond that. ‘We do this work that’s of immense value to these institutions; our work reveals and facilitates access points to the art world, empowers and enables these kids to make work themselves. We’re the ones with the contacts and the skills here, but we in turn need the resources’. Similar to the annual budget swap suggested by Hassan Vawda in our <mango & lime text>, ‘why don’t galleries have a risk managed department, one that’s more willing to make the jump or just allocate the budget to give out to smaller organisations with no question about outcome or expectation. What if they just invested the money and trialled it, no harm if it doesn’t produce exhibition’. Nurull refers back to our <mango & lime text>, ‘reading that was eye-opening, it’s incredible to me how much money there is in these spaces. How much are they spending on other things that aren’t nearly as effective?’ Nurull reflects on the ways Mile End Community Project has worked in the past themselves, where they’ve not been afforded the space to work in the ways that would be truly useful to them; ‘it feels like the work we produce always has to be a response to something, it always has to be reactionary. It would be nice to make something for the sake of it, on our own terms’. And of these contemporary arts orgs, that so often find themselves looking to grassroots community organisations; ‘if they value it, they can back it!’ Again, this is not an unreasonable suggestion; it constitutes a model that already exists out there. Talking about civic responsibility in arts institutions, Zain mentions models similar to this; ‘South Kilburn Studios (it doesn’t exist any more, but) used to be a ~meanwhile~ space where they'd incubate local community arts groups, it was where OOMK were first based; Paddington Arts Centre gave us at Khidr Collective free space for 6 months; the Albany have a workspace they use to incubate smaller projects, it’s full of brilliant orgs that need a space in deptford (I’m unsure if it's free and or subsidised, my hunch is it's subsidised at different rates for different orgs); Theatre Peckham give free space to local groups; and Raven Row give free temporary space, prioritising collectives and activist networks like Voices that Shake, Asia-Art-Activism, Languid Hands & London Renters Union’. In our own capacity at TWP, we’ve been given desk space at Res & LUX before; the space has come with mentoring & guidance on things we had no idea how to navigate, and been truly useful for our development. None of this is groundbreaking innovation outside the realm of reasonable possibility; Nurull’s suggestion about repurposing outreach budgets as R&D/incubation funds for local community orgs would constitute meaningful support. If paired with other gestures that already exist, like space in kind, it would go a long way. 

 

However, as always, there is a ~but~. There’s always a ~but~. I mention Nurull’s suggestion to Zain, a week or so after our first conversation, and he says, ‘it’s a banging idea; of course it is, Nurull’s got loads of banging ideas’. But there’s a wider context it’s working within, ‘it’s a way to tangibly get funding and budget allocation in a non-tokenistic way, but it’s still a reformist way to work within the confines of what you think is possible or realistic. It’s not a ~fuck up the system~ separatist model; but it has the right intention, it works within what exists’. It’s a practical fix, but not a long-term solution. The problem with it isn’t one of obstinate ideological purity, it fundamentally comes down to questions about agency and sustainability; ‘it’s absolutely contingent on institutional goodwill. Ultimately, do these institutions give a shit? No. If these community centres or orgs that speak to social issues in a tangible practical way, and do things to save people’s lives (not to be hyperbolic, but they do), will institutions clamour to save these spaces? No, they won’t. I’ve not seen many institutions, arts spaces, or centres acknowledge or realise even that these community spaces exist in the same boroughs as them, let alone speak and show solidarity when they are getting closed down’. Zain explains the motivations of that silence, ‘they don’t want to risk any existing relationships; with people in the local council who they rely on, who in turn are connected with funders, who in turn are connected to people that might give them the power they want to continue. It is so dependent on the right director coming in who happens to know and recognise the local context’. It returns back to Louise’s assessment that just working in or through the institution represents a significant compromise to the work at first instance; the gravitational pull of vested interests & state agendas is too big to circle around.

 

However, for the community arts organisations caught in the wheels of this dynamic, though it’s fair to be wary of institutions and their agendas, Zain is keen to stress the importance of practicality and survival here. Over our collected conversations, it’s fucking depressing how many examples he points to that no longer exist, that got co-opted in service of commercial interests, or that have just been ground down to a halt because of immobilising budget cuts. Zain returns to Nurull’s suggestion, and the wider idea of civic responsibility in institutions; ‘it’s an understandable response to try and make the business argument for supporting community arts organisations; if they’re seen as talent hubs, then their economic value is seen as worth investing in’. It’s a neoliberal logic, but if it gets the work done, then can we really complain? It’s worth remembering Louise’s observation about handling business-code-switching between funders and community. Zain continues, ‘i think a danger of that is they can end up becoming institutionalised over a period of time’. If we rely on this commercial or economic case for the funding of community arts activity and organisations, it doesn’t do anything to shift the way we actually value the work of these organisations and this activity. All it really does is turn community arts into a pipeline, a feeder system that allows you to graduate into the formalised world of contemporary art. And in viewing this layer of the arts ecology as a pipeline, ‘there’s also the danger that those smaller organisations can end up becoming inseparable, just the attached arm of the organisations that they’re in relation to. It also raises a question about how new organisations might identify with or perform the role of community arts work just to access specific funding for it, when they might be able to do better work by just partnering with local groups’. It’s a sticky one still; Zain moves between seeing the flaws, and seeing the potential in it. ‘I’ve made that argument myself at times; even cultural democracy movements see the value in making the economic argument for the arts, and positioning community arts work as a talent pipeline is a part of that’. Maybe you’ve just got to speak in their language and hustle what you can, because they probably aren’t going to give it willingly without it becoming the Blairite charitable agenda Louise described. Zain continues, ‘this is a London-centric conversation, but it does come down to the ways that London is truly shit. The absolute rubbish that’s come out of 40 years of a neoliberal consensus and 10 years of austerity. It’s big big rat race energy, fuck London tbh; such small pickings. Even beyond the good will of mainstream arts centres, there’s also the threat of gentrification which can remove these brilliant spaces in place of ~sustainable~ ~enterprise hubs~ which ~generate jobs~. These initiatives leak money if anything, they cost more’, and arguably do less. It’s clear who this activity truly benefits, and where power really rests in this as exchange and dynamic.

 

My conversation with Miguel ends on a thought towards a wider structural solution; ‘things start to change when management, curatorial and the directors commit to investing in civic space, make it core to their practice, not just a side thing. It requires engagement beyond funding requirements, KPIs and virtue signalling. Infrastructure and mindsets will change when it’s taken seriously at that upper level. It has to be named as strategy. It may be tokenistic, or appear performative, but naming it as strategy and making that declaration is also a form of accountability or manifesto. The discussion throughout art history so far has not been such that this would be obvious or natural; it needs a statement to even make it real’. I laugh, because that feels like a punchline, like satire, but Miguel is dead serious. ‘Maybe manifesto needs to become a part of institutional language; to set intentions and harness a political energy’. And he’s dead right u kno. 

 

Over the course of the past month, I have had these conversations on different scales. They have been incidental, when I stumble upon them, consciously sought out with scripted questions, across facetime, headphones and voicenotes. I’m aware that not one single part of this text is groundbreaking or new information; but it’s a depiction of a vital part of our arts ecology under severe threat from top-down imposition. We have this feeling that this system is the way it should be, because it’s the way it has always been; but it’s a relatively new logic that has serious flaws. Throughout these conversations, the consistent bottom line being referred to is: from the Arts Council to the literal government, state policy is actively holding back progress in any and every way. Whether the work of progress is being done independently in an autonomous community arts organisation that seeks direct funding for their activity, or alongside larger contemporary art institutions that partner with smaller grassroots local orgs to do their outreach work. The top-down policy imposes a rigid template; doing this work in a sincere, non-extractive way, that prioritises the needs of a local community, or that enables and empowers them as cultural producers with agency, is difficult, precarious and unlikely. What that does in action, is a return to Miguel’s initial critique of community art work and fundamentally of wider social practice models; ‘a way for capitalism to evade critique’ by getting ‘arts organisations to provide social services’. If it is a system that gets arts organisations to do welfare work, then that system is one that launders state funding for welfare and social provision through the middle/cultural classes, rather than handing it directly to the marginalised community in question; power and control over the funding and activity still firmly rests with the middle/cultural class, who act as gatekeepers over the means of cultural production. That monopoly parasites off marginalised, working class communities; their presence in this dynamic is turned into subject, and this becomes quite a colonial power dynamic - Blairite, Big Society, outreach as charity, neoliberal extraction. At no point is the output of a marginalised, working class community valued in any serious or sincere way. I ask Zain a follow up question, and he answers by way of an anecdote that is so truly enraging, I listen w my forehead pressed to the desk in front of me. I’m gonna leave u hanging with the anecdote, bc we’re 8,000 words in at the end of this. I am tired tired tired after hearing about the constraints that shouldn’t be there, and the absence of support that should. My eyes roll back in my head & I type, ‘corbyn government, I j wana run 2 u’. He type type types, ‘tell me about it’.  

 

 

 

p.s. while I was working on this text, Miguel reached out about a separate commission. When I told him what I was working on with this text, he agreed to support it & turn it into a commission. So, now I can happily tell u that the writing of this text was supported by Sirius, an arts centre in Cobh, County Cork, Ireland. It’s currently run by Miguel Amado, who we know from Gab’s 2017-18 role as critic in residence at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, where he served as Senior Curator at the time. Miguel has been consistently materially supportive of us and intent on facilitating paid writing opportunities, commissioning us multiple times (the last time was when Gab went to Porto); we rate him infinitely for that. 

The support for this text came in the form of a writers fee for myself, as well as contributors fees for the practitioners I spoke to; it’s honestly j rly nice to be able to pay people for their generosity, time, and expertise, especially bc they agreed to speak to me before I secured their fees. Thank u to Zain, Louise, Nurull & Abbas; I owe u all a drink when Corona has ended <3

If ur still nosey, see our accounts; we publish what we’re paid for all the jobs we do, including this one. 

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