In the light of Arts Council England's recent capital grants announcement, Alistair Gentry asks when investment in the work of new, financially strapped artists will be given the same priority.
Arts Council England's recently announced £12 million in small capital grants is rather depressing for any artist who finds themselves scrabbling around for their livelihood as the economy wobbles ominously between flatline and total collapse. For one thing, ACE's definition of ‘small’ is £100,000-£499,999.
I don't think there's any question that our arts and artists need quality, sustainable infrastructure. It's difficult, however, to regard ‘impractical foyer facilities’, ‘garden improvements’ or ‘state of the art lighting’ as pressing issues when the ongoing recession has dramatically curtailed opportunities and downsized or eliminated budgets for artists. When we're offered exhibition fees or budgets at all, they're no higher (or indeed lower) than they were when I started out in visual arts more than ten years ago. Housing, food and energy have not been wrapped in the same economic stasis bubble.
These grants also contrast vividly with the zero budget, make-do-and-mend squalor in which artist-led collectives or studio groups have no choice but to function. These grassroots initiatives are invariably the very same places from which new artists are eventually strip-mined by the regularly funded organisations (NPOs) with their plush new mezzanine office spaces and their ‘low carbon footprint catering and retail facilities.’
ACE is clearly aware of objections. The fourth question in its FAQs is: ‘Wouldn't the funding be better used being invested in corefunding for arts organisations?’ ACE answers itself in typically vague terms: ‘one of a number of measures... something, something... great art for everyone...'. There is one truly informative nugget: this round of grants is ‘demonstrating how we are using our lottery funding flexibly alongside grant-in-aid investment’. ACE doesn't say to whom it needs to demonstrate anything, but one presumes it means Downing Street; like most other current government or quango initiatives, these grants are ideological actions with the scantiest fig leaf of pragmatism.
Troubling as it is to see ACE increasingly used as a blatant sock puppet for Coalition policy, and however long the list of publicly-funded money pits that eventually folded, I'm not here to quibble with any venue that feels the need to spend nearly half a million quid upgrading their washroom facilities. The real issue is that many NPOs, recipients of the public's money, still don't get it. There should be an overpowering sense of noblesse oblige pressing upon anybody who works at these places; they should be the motherships for the audiences, artists and artist-led spaces that surround them. Unfortunately, in many cases they don't even seem to know or care about the artists who are right on their doorsteps. There's no thread between the local, the national and the international, and no apparent desire for one.
Salaried curators are still palpably bored by any artists except the ones they already know and were probably educated alongside in the first place. They still whinge that if they started looking for interesting art they don't already know about, then they'd do nothing else all day. (Hint: it's your job.) These places might do a few token workshops for ‘the community’ and they almost certainly have a salaried staff member to administer them, yet they refuse to accept that artists are as much a part of an NPO gallery's community as anybody else is; more so, in some ways. Artists are never consulted about anything these places do, not even about the facilities supposedly being built in their names.
You can put up all the carbon neutral offices you like. What are we going to do with these wonderful art facilities when we've got no artists of any quality, ambition or diversity to make and show art in them, because all but the richest and most privileged of us have given up working in the arts for lack of income?
More on a-n.co.uk
Arts funding tag search on a-n News - for funding updates from February 2012.
Arts funding homepage - overview of Arts Council England's 2011 funding announcements (including NPO announcements) and the launch of Creative Scotland's ten-year plan.
Realising the value - Dany Louise's 2012 report into how how practice-based organisations fared after ACE cuts.