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Words and Money: discussions on art, ethics & value

Ackroyd & Harvey, Living Skin, 1992/2014. © Ackroyd & Harvey. Photo: Anne Purkiss. The work was shown in an exhibition from which Ackroyd & Harvey have now withdrawn it, due to their ethical concerns around sponsorship.

Ackroyd & Harvey, Living Skin, 1992/2014. © Ackroyd & Harvey. Photo: Anne Purkiss. The work was shown in an exhibition from which Ackroyd & Harvey have now withdrawn it, due to their ethical concerns around the exhibition’s sponsor.

I’ve been at a couple of conferences recently in London that were responding to rising concern about the ways the visual arts in the UK are being funded.

‘Take the Money and Run’ reflected on ethics and fundraising. It was organised by Live Art Development Agency, Artsadmin and Home Live Art, with Platform. The recent campaign by Platform to force Tate to release details of its sponsorship by BP was an underlying motif for the day.

There were several fiery and articulate presentations and provocations, of which you can get a sense from the twitter storify. I particularly enjoyed artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey’s tales of attempted manipulation and deceit by sponsors, from the overt and almost hilariously gauche (sponsors wanting to alter their artwork to promote their brand) to the hidden (the gradual realisation that the motivations of the sponsors of an apparently worthy exhibition were not what they seemed).

Their stories ably illustrated key points that the other speakers made:

  • that the type of funding an artist or organisation receives can and often does affect the work itself
  • that the arts have always been sustained by private sponsorship/patronage/philanthropy (different, but related), but now we have more ability to research the sources
  • the need to understand and reflect upon what it is that sponsors are buying, and if that is what we want to sell.

Points from the floor that I greatly appreciated included misdirected gratitude (as was said later in the day “BP doesn’t support Tate, Tate supports BP”), the irrelevance of personal moral responsibility (“It’s not about individual ethics. We’re all compromised. It’s about movements and changing politics”), and the Arts Council’s contentious use of the word “resilience” in relation to forcing companies away from reliance on public funding into the uncertain world of corporate sponsorship and private philanthropy.

‘Public Assets: small-scale arts organisations and the production of value’ was convened by Common Practice to discuss value and sustainability in the small-scale arts sector. I attended with my colleague, curator Ele Carpenter.

Common Practice is a group of London visual arts organisations that commissions research around the value of the small-scale contemporary visual arts sector in London. It has produced two interesting papers: ‘Size Matters’ by Sarah Thelwall, which argued for a more sophisticated understanding of the concept of value, and ‘Value, Measure, Sustainability’ by Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, generated by a day-long symposium in 2012 which I attended, which argued for different ways of measuring the artistic contributions of small organisations beyond footfall and econometric indices.

The morning presentations opened up possibilities for creating new language and metaphors for value in small arts organisations. Artist and theorist Kodwo Eshun called for partnerships between cultural organisations and academia to create ‘alternative communities’, and new forms of cultural politics. Charlotte Higgins noted that the UKIP culture spokesperson says the arts are the last domain of the left that he need to conquer.

In the discussion, the notion of care, specifically curatorial care – for art and artists, for concepts and theory – was a recurring idea. A delegate suggested that those doing the ‘caring’ are often female, and that arts organisations suffer from the problem that ‘carers’ in society are not valued. One contributor spoke of gendered male theory in female-run organisations, but the conversation held off from addressing the social entitlement of men to hold positions of power.

New metaphors, outside those related to economic value, were requested, a point that was picked up in the breakout session I attended, where a contributor noted that ‘cultural industries’ in itself is a metaphor that requires attention. An amusing suggestion expanded the ecology metaphor into the idea that small arts organisations create the compost for artists’ practice. The proposer thought the way in which Eshun described theory made her think of theorists as worms, mixing the compost and enriching the soil. It was a popular idea, although it was felt that ecological analogies still rely on ‘growth’ or ‘competition’ models, in which, as Gordon-Nesbitt’s paper noted, “only those organisations able to adapt – particularly to corporate or philanthropic models of organisational development – will survive” and the small is only of worth if it contributes to, or grows into, the large.

The afternoon presented speakers with international but relevant perspectives. Maria Lind, Director of the Tensta Konsthall in Sweden, suggested that, whilst networks were essential for small organisations, it was easier to partner internationally because of competition for funding within a country. Lise Soskolne from W.A.G.E. in the USA meanwhile presented detailed argument for the need to pay artists working with non-profit organisations. She spoke of the contradictions swirling around the issue of pay to artists, as well as analysing the economy of philanthropy. W.A.G.E. has developed a certification program in the US that establishes a sector-wide minimum standard for artist compensation. Fee levels take into account pay levels within the organisation.

As Higgins and Eshun eloquently described, small arts organisations are small in size but big in scope and networks through which they support the development of artists’ practices (commissioning new work, helping artists to establish contexts for their work, providing residencies and mentoring, etc), enable audiences to experience new artworks and engage meaningfully with ideas and specialist practices, organise discussion and debate, and work imaginatively with long term communities of interest. All this caring, developmental work needs to be valued, not simply as underpinning the rest of the art world, but for having complex and in depth engagement with art and its many communities and discourses. So we were all left thinking about the elephant in the room: will the new Arts Council England research grants examine the ‘impact’ of their regular dissolution and undermining of so many small scale arts organisations across the UK?

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