Waiting for a cultural revolution


ARTS: If the arts are to prosper then the language barrier between the traditional business of funders and the work of artists has to be broken. The first step is for those in the arts to abandon the cultural high ground and become involved in the political process, argues Annette Clancy

Arts and cultural commentary focuses on a number of taken-for-granted splits within the sector. One is either an artist or an administrator, in receipt of Arts Council funding or not, a member of the powerful class which makes policy and distributes funding or a member of the powerless class which makes the work and waits for annual acknowledgement etc. Much of the debate centres on moving blame around to find who is responsible for the current predicament.

A central theme underlying much of the debate is that of "not enough". It is clearly played out in discussions regarding money, quality and of late - business acumen. Add an additional layer - that of silence - and it becomes difficult, not just to seek answers from, but even to ask questions about this system.

Asking questions about the nature of that silence is a difficult process when those you are conversing with see their existence as contained within a dyadic relationship between the Arts Council and individual organisations.

It is unquestionable in my mind that many practitioners are afraid of asking "awkward" questions, as they feel this may result in the Arts Council cutting their funding. Those unspoken questions regarding why decisions are made, and on what criteria and with what consequences, are invariably played out in the media. Artists and organisations express surprise at the level of funding awarded to their peers and the traditional splits are played out in a culture of suspicion and competition.

Yet these questions are also those that arts practitioners are reluctant to ask of themselves - preferring instead to allow the "work to speak for itself".

For many arts organisations, infrequent conversations with funding agencies regarding their quality of work and artistic policy take place in the context of a discussion regarding funding. Quality and quantity ultimately rest with the funding agency having the more powerful say because it has the finance to dispense. This discourse reinforces the sense of powerlessness experienced by the dependent arts organisation (or artist), which is never in receipt of enough funding to deliver on the range and quality of work it may wish to produce. This creates an environment where the "not enough" theme makes it possible, at a subconscious level, for some organisations and artists to lower their standards as to what is feasible artistically.

There are few formal mechanisms for open discussion about the quality of work that do not end up as a discussion about funding. Funding discussions inevitably lead back to the conflicting relationship between the arts sector and the Arts Council. The relationship becomes further complicated when the language of the business sector is imposed on arts and cultural organisations by funders.

Many within the arts interpret this as being told they don't manage well enough - yet how many arts organisations have gone bankrupt?And in business, management philosopher Charles Handy uses the idea of a theatre company as a metaphor for the future development of organisations. The paradigm is not new to arts and cultural organisations, which have grappled with the flexibility and uncertainty of workplace practice for 20 or 30 years longer than the traditional business sector.

In a climate of increased accountability, policy makers need to put transparent systems in place for the distribution of public funds but many arts organisations struggle with articulating, in a language that is geared towards the quantitive and less towards the qualitative, exactly how they do their business. Few suggestions come forth, however, from the arts sector as to how it might be done differently.

This is a closed loop and suggesting that arts practitioners have a part to play in reinforcing a system they perceive as unjust, unresponsive, over powerful and under-funded is a controversial stance. I would argue that not asking the question is in fact more controversial as it reinforces the hypothesis that the sector is powerless, and I don't believe that it is.

I am a supporter of State funding of the arts but don't believe it is a one-way process whereby a powerful State institution awards taxpayers' money to a grateful and impoverished arts sector. I believe the system is demonstrably more complex and thatsilence from the arts sector is a collusive factor in keeping a power structure in place that perversely may benefit those who are perceived to be powerless within it. It may be that some artists and organisations never actually have to deliver on their artistic goals because there is never enough finance. This question of quality is rarely discussed openly amongst artists and organisations.

New mechanisms need to be created whereby artists and policy-makers, administrators and funders, companies and audiences converse openly with each other in a more productive way. The taking up of rigid positions has been useful in the formation of identity but is ultimately limiting in that it prevents an understanding of how the sector does its business, creates the work and engages with the public.

Entering into a process of change is the most profoundly political act an individual or group can engage in. To reject the script handed down by generations or cultures and to attempt to make and live a different story is a powerful statement. Art fulfils that function and in doing so must take up its place at the political table.

The longer artists and arts organisations continue to apply for funding channelled through the political system and then opt out of the formal political process, the longer the sector colludes with the system it claims is keeping it powerless. The longer politicians and policy makers, in the absence of an informed dialogue, continue to under-invest in the country's cultural development then the more entrenched the "not enough" story becomes. I look forward to attending a national arts conference where arts sector delegates put the ministers for the arts and finance through their paces. I look forward to the arts and cultural sectors being represented in the Partnership process where they can rigorously interrogate the makers of social and education policy about the role of the arts in their various sectors. I look forward to politicians seeking the "arts vote". But most of all, I look forward to the birth of arts representative agencies, such as Theatre Forum, that place the vision and thinking of the arts alongside other industrial representative bodies where they belong, in the mainstream.

Annette Clancy is an organisational consultant, psychotherapist and director of www.inter-actions.biz