In these dismal times, where cuts are everywhere, we are in serious danger of losing a lot of our access to independent and public arts and culture. In Sheffield, with £50 million in cuts announced yesterday, (on top of £140m over the last 2 years), galleries, award-winning theatres and libraries are all to have their funding cut alongside children’s services, services for vulnerable adults and 600 jobs. Independent organisations, like S1 Artspace, are already seriously under threat due to national arts funding cuts.
For individuals involved, this can be devastating: careers stopped short and ideas wasted, people who want to learn and be inspired given no chance. It also makes it harder for us (all of us) to share a rich, interesting, thoughtful society and culture. We are offered commercialisation and safe choices instead of experimenting and challenging – except for perhaps a narrowing elite, just talking to themselves.
Perhaps it’s hard to care about gallery closures when people are being sacked, made homeless, starved, care provision withdrawn, the NHS sold off? Things that make life bearable are recast as wasteful indulgences. Libraries for luvvies. But this is clearly just another opportunity for them to play divide and rule. Because it’s not about a choice between cutting disabled people’s benefits until they commit suicide or making culture the preserve of a privileged few. This government wants BOTH.
In this climate, how can arts organisations make arguments for their survival? I really care about the arts. They help me to think, reflect, learn provide spaces for making connections with people, things I think are important. But I know they are pretty, well, bourgeois. But…maybe they shouldn’t be. Not exclusively. Like so many things, instead of fighting to protect a status quo, there are opportunities here to think about what we want to fight for. They can also be a source of joy, something else that’s important. And it’d probably worth noting that visitor numbers to museums and galleries is at an all-time high. They should be reclaimed. Working class people want, deserve, and, I think, need bread and roses.
There are some really great ‘community arts’ projects, who produce some really good and interesting work (oh, if we could get away from using community as a euphemism for minorities and actually talk about people coming together, genuine collaboration and collectivity). People who are doing innovative things with technology and digital, who have learned through a culture of openness. But it’s always a separate category, something that’s over there. Like ‘women’s issues’ or ‘African American literature’. Why isn’t ‘community art’ just…’Art’? And why is some of the best art in Sheffield the uncommissioned, unofficial stuff of urban artists like Kid Acne, Phlegm and loads of others that reclaims the derelict spaces of the city?
“The arts need to be more political”, I recently heard a prominent member of Liverpool’s arts establishment hold forth, over a pint, (before proceeding to slag off everyone he knew in the arts who was actually doing something political). “There need to be more people like me in the arts”. The outrageous narcissism aside, I couldn’t help thinking: aren’t you in a position to do something about that? But that’s not how bosses work. Workers in the arts are in very precarious positions, and that means being exploited. (I’ve written before about the arts and working for free).
I fear that most responses to threats in the arts mean playing the game more than ever – trying to be commercial, relying on sponsorship, philanthropy, and, of course, unpaid labour. My uneasiness about this is mostly about the individualistic nature of this approach. In a way, it’s playing into their hands. Crowdfunding and strongly worded letters to The Guardian are all very well, but what about a more radical response? What about working collectively? If you’re being moved out because you can’t afford the space, what about refusing to go? Occupations. Mass events. Alliances. This has happened in schools, universities, even adventure playgrounds. In response to nursery cuts in Sheffield, workers and parents are campaigning in a really inspiring way – staffing a daily stall outside the Town Hall, planning marches and rallies, spreading the word. Now these do provide vital services. There’s a lot of momentum behind some library campaigns too, like in Newcastle. Can this happen everywhere? Can the arts convince people they do too? Can they harness their creativity and energy to make themselves heard?
So, I had these questions in the back of my mind. And then I went to Germany.
I stayed in Hamburg with friends who live in Hafenstrasse, a large housing association and community. And from there I visited the Gangeviertel, another housing association developed from a squatting community who reclaimed unused property to create affordable spaces to live and work and make art. Here were open, communal spaces – exciting places to be in, even on a quiet winter day. They hold events and fiestas to bring people in; provide spaces for alternative conversations and ideas; participate in broader political movements (eg eyecatching interventions in public marches).
This is within the context of a movement for ‘the right to the city’, focused on affordable living space, committed to diverse, mixed communities. They are explicitly anti-gentrification, opposed to the soulless waves of corporate development that overtake inner-city residences (whereas in Britain the presence of artists in an area is often a step towards gentrification – the moving in of hipsters, ultimately to polarised, gated cities). Appropriating the tactics of high-earning tax dodgers, the artists of Gangeviertel threatened to leave the city if their homes and studios were sold off. Because people like coming to visit or live in cities with a thriving cultural scene, this is a threat with impact. These Hamburg artists work with working class communities; they are part of the solution rather than part of the problem. By working collectivity, they are able to harness – and demonstrate – their value to the city.
And this helped me understand some of my unease. A single-issue campaign against arts and culture cuts is, in the current climate, a bit tasteless. So, broaden it out. In the exciting days of the 2010 student movements, arts against cuts did some good stuff and got some attention. In Liverpool, I saw there were some people who situated cultural institutions within a broader context and were willing to start off conversations, at least. They were willing to take collective action on specific issues that would affect them (eg campaigning successfully against licencing for buskers). There are lots of arguments made for free, accessible culture and education. There are movements against cuts, and for housing. We even have housing projects that promote a social mix. This government’s cuts are a concerted ideological attack, and the more we connect our struggles, the more likely we will be to succeed.