ideas for a new art world


I tweeted this right at the beginning of quarantine, but I’d like to reiterate it now. I think, as we’re in the midst of categorising labour n sectors as ~essential n non-essential~ We, The Art World, could use the spare time we’ve got now to rly think about how useful* our activity actually is, how could it be more useful*, and what does utility* mean right now to us n our communities.

This week’s text is a weird one; lumpy and unrefined. I read Lola Olufemi’s book; <Feminism, Interrupted - Disrupting Power> on a beanbag in the sun. I drip-fed it to myself, allowed space to ruminate on what was being said.

The book is a careful and detailed description of a feminist politic that is expansive and fundamentally hopeful; the opening words are, ‘Feminism is a political project about what could be’. It describes a logic that is both optimistic and grounded in the Real Lived World, it is a verb, ~doing~ word, but even in theory it never lets go of a speculative potential for a better condition of being. This looks like less of a rigid dogma and more like an approach to viewing the social, political and material structures we exist within. Is that what praxis means? Lola gently, carefully constructs arguments around areas, describes and analyses their weight in relation to this core approach that is grounded in care. It has done the hard but magical work of ~framing~ political beliefs into a solid coherent form, grounded them in a real landscape. I feel like this book tidied up that understanding in my own mind, and for that, I think Lola must be a genius. Her writing is generous; she doesn’t speak down to you and flatten the nuance of what’s being inspected, but equally she explains what she’s on about with a consideration that prioritises your understanding. I want to give a copy of this book to my sister and my little cousin so we can feel this warmth together, of being tenderly held, enriched and known.

I mention <Feminism, Interrupted> both to recommend it w my whole chest, and also to use it as a jumping off point for some Thinking Aloud. There’s a chapter on art & the way this liberatory feminist framework relates to the politics of art. In the chapter, Lola details the speculative potential art has, as vehicle and accomplice to activism. She describes the system as it is, and does the tough work of dragging us back to what the political lens of liberation could shape this system to be. It’s compelling and reaffirming; reading this chapter reminds me that I used to believe in the romantic power of art, before I became this furious character. ‘Creativity is at the heart of any new world we seek to build. Without the demands placed on our body by capital, by gender and by race - we could be freed up to read, write and to create… Every time we engage our creative faculties, we are going against a logic that places work and the nuclear family at the centre of our existence. Art is threatening because when produced under the right conditions, it cannot be controlled.’ This bit summoned a reminder of something that felt plastered over; something that can get lost in a pursuit of change and overhaul, again Lola plants any political posture back in the real and in relation to its fundamental value. The chapter continues; ‘The divide between politics and art is not real. It is politics that dictates who creates art, how it is consumed and sold, the conditions in which it is created, the subjectivities that dominate it.’ Reading this book with space, with late afternoon sunshine on my face allowed me to be softly challenged by it. It prompted me to identify what the art world has the potential to do, what our writing has the potential to push towards and against, how to rally around coherence and an optimism that a better future is possible. I have been caught up in the problems for a while now, and god I am bored of them. I want to write towards models that represent solutions, I want to make demands with clarity, describe the potential of what could be rather than what’s wrong with what is.

In mad quarantine times, I have held Lola’s affirmation of art’s potential and value close to my chest because HONESTLY this mad inertia we’re experiencing now feels like a concentrated end-game. The art world - as a system of organised institutions - is ill-equipped to address the political issues around who’s afforded access. The way power and resources are distributed in the sector feels amplified right now, but it’s always been this way as an aching chronic backdrop. There is a fundamental gap between this newly affirmed power/value of art and the institutions that are responsible for it being displayed, experienced or encountered.

In this alienation, there is a palpable desire to overhaul. A week or so ago I saw a tweet from Tarek Iskander (the Artistic Director & CEO of Battersea Arts Centre): ‘The clear task for most of us in the arts is to stop being entitled ivory towers contributing to rampant social inequalities, and start pulling together to create a new National Arts Service that is free and available to anyone who needs it’. The more I thought about it, the more it dissolved into a vague aphorism. Isn’t that what the Arts Council already does? Why stop contributing to social inequalities and not actively try to dismantle them? WHAT does free and available actually mean, in practice? Literally, what would a new National Art Service look like, and how would it be distinct from the model of publicly funded art that we already have? Without being dramatic, this tweet has been fucking haunting me. The idea of a National Art Service that effectively addresses issues of social inequalities, that is free and publicly available - the idea of this implies a kind of public value/usefulness that is already at the heart of our existing system. The current Arts Council model stresses the importance of Art’s public value; it is a central organising logic that justifies its literal existence in distributing public funds to both institution & individual. If public value is an effective rallying cry, where does the gap come from, what does usefulness mean here?

Morgan Quaintance’s essay <Teleology and the Turner Prize or: Utility, the New Conservatism>. In this discussion of art’s usefulness and public value, Morgan offers an analysis of the hard end of this framing and its implications: ‘The fact is [the] ‘useful’ model, and the… privileging of utility over criticality, is a boon to the current Conservative government… In the current national climate where public subsidy for the arts is being ruthlessly cut, where higher education for arts and the humanities is being turned into a business, and where artists and institutions are under pressure to make the economic case for art, it will undoubtedly send damaging ripples through the art world… It’s about the new conservatism of utility, and how the rhetoric of use values has been deployed to close down the same expansive, inclusive and progressive nature of contemporary art.’ tl;dr: The rhetoric of public value can be co-opted and instrumentalised by a hostile state, to fill the gaps of its own making, and de-politicise art’s capacity to call for overhaul. In the same way, you can critique social practice as a form in and of itself that functions to fill the gaps left by the state after decades of austerity. The key part that allows space for co-option, that Morgan problematises using Assemble as an example, is ‘an acritical almost completely depoliticised response to a highly politicised social situation… with no reference to the political or social situation that led to their employment’. This bit is giving me an actual headache, bear with me; but this de-politicisation and co-option also functions as a way for the art world’s upper class to continually sustain itself with funding &. Self-serving activity. Returning to Tarek’s tweet: it's not enough to just ‘stop contributing to social inequalities’, that is a fundamentally liberal position that the arts already occupy; not actively doing anything ends up in complicity and perpetuating the same social inequalities you’re trying to extract yourself from.

That’s the problem, but Morgan, again and always, has helped identify an exit. There is nuance outside of that reading of both social practice & public value; ‘contemporary art is a critically engaged field that, for the most part, produces critically engaged actors who are uncomfortable with state power and its various methods of citizen subjection - this is nowhere more prevalent, diligently observed or else thoroughly critiqued than in socially engaged practice.’ Conceptual art broadly, and socially engaged practices more specifically are products of an arts education that involves ‘rigorous conceptual training, in which the development of critical faculties is encouraged and challenged through discussion, group critique, lecture and written assessment… 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.’ This is a chaotic energy that Lola also identifies, ‘Art is threatening because when produced under the right conditions, it cannot be controlled.’ While artists, institutions and broad gestural flexes can alienate by prioritising individual freedoms and expressions, art can present itself most valuably when it foregrounds a radical collectivity in politic and outcome. There are models of practice that represent that same mutual care, tenderness, that resist their own display, that never really provide exhibitable output as a way of exiting capitalist expectations of production.

Whether the institution in question is a gallery, museum or funding body; Institutions™️ need to rapidly adapt to be able to hold these models of practice without endangering them. This pandemic has made absolutely universally visible the plain fact that we live in a Bad Society, and that social inequalities have obvious, measurable and devastating effect on whether we live or die.  These are things that you’d have to be powerfully stupid to ignore. The ~cultural sector~ has been resistant to change, it has held on to antiquated balances of power like no other area of society, and that rigidity has affected the way we distribute resources amongst ourselves. Lola’s writing and the political model of collective care feels urgent and important now more than ever, and we need to let that same politic wash over the art world and affect the way we run things. We could use this time to terraform the arts landscape we’ve got, and become more expansive in what we do; the idea of utility and public value doesn’t have to be a grand philosophical scheme, a rigid category that we use to sift through works and actions. It can be a way we approach making and doing; in the same way Lola applies a coherent feminist lens that foregrounds care and mutuality, we need to define what we value specifically and coherently so it can become an approach that we apply.

Now I get to do the fun bit, let’s ~imagine a better art world~. We can start by making sure we’re funding grassroots organisations and community arts organisations doing important & politically urgent work. In an effort to rapidly decentralise; if there was a new National Art Service it would have to prioritise a more localised and collectivised kind of public value.

Zain Dada wrote <No community spaces? No community arts>, about how community arts centres are disappearing. Read it, because he mentions a research project in California called <Mapping Oakland>, and states the importance of knowing what you’ve got to work with; ‘it provides an insight into which organisations are essential local hubs, what barriers might exist and where opportunities to up-skill might be’. Crucially, the process of mapping/surveying could provide information about overlaps and shared concerns. Institutions need to get better at recognising their own limits, partnering up with other smaller grassroots organisations that do the hard work already, and siphoning off significant resources to them when they do (it’s the most significant thing they have to offer in that relationship, and it would go a long way to stabilise the power balance between big institution & grassroots org). Imagine an organisational dating agency where grassroots orgs are given big NPO gallery buddies, or imagine awarding collectively shared funding to a consortium of multiple organisations of various sizes that they have to use together rather than distribute amongst themselves as individual bodies. Kinda like a group project in uni, also a lil bit social engineering? I’m not committed to it, so I say it softly. But the rhetoric of all being in it together is often just words & theory - you can make it real by putting money on the table.

On a less sweeping scale, regarding organisational structuring, we need more collective working practices. Make it standard practice to pay everyone in an organisation the same generous living wage. This mentally feels more feasible for smaller orgs: not/nowhere (a black & POC art worker’s co-operative) do exactly this by paying everyone that does any kind of work for them the same hourly wage - it can be scaled up to larger more formalised institutions. The disparities in pay between the director-class, curatorial staff, and the rest of the invigilation catering & cleaning staff feels like a key fault line in the exact social inequalities across the industry that we need to dismantle. Directors of big institutions on the whole get paid 6-figures, Maria Balshaw is reported to be earning £165,000, and state regulation doesn’t seem to be doing anything. Level it out: figure out an institution-wide average and pay everyone from bottom to top the same fucking thing. Abolish volunteers, stop outsourcing cleaning and catering staff, certainly no more zero-hours/precarious contracts, so that it’s across the board and as comprehensive as possible.

Maybe our ability to take a more collective and inclusive approach to programming and running an institution will become easier when everyone’s got the same amount of monetary skin in the game. If not, then could a democratic art institute exist? Like could it, does it exist? I genuinely don’t know and I’m not gonna google it. Could a whole enormous gallery be governed by collective co-operative, everyone that works there, from top to bottom, has equal amount of say in what happens; could the Tate just turn into a fucking co-op? Would it be chaos, and if yes, who cares?

Specifically in London, Zain’s article also mentions City Hall’s Creative Land Trust and the problem sky-rocketing rents present for smaller orgs. The CLT prioritises affordable workspaces and studios, limiting its ability to support both community arts organisations and artist-led spaces. Short of abolishing rent and private property (inshallah), Zain points to an example in San Francisco where the Community Arts Stabilisation Trust purchases leases using tax credits. That’s not a bad idea, and the CLT could do more by doing the same. On more speculative terms, high streets are dying, right? What if London councils offered empty high street units to small organisations to use as free spaces? What about shopping centres too: turf are in the Whitgift Centre over in Croydon, and TOMA have a project space in Royals Shopping Centre down in Southend, so it’s not a mad place to have some art stuff in by any means.

I also remember South Kilburn Studios, a portacabin that was turned into studio spaces; the studio holders got the spaces rent-free in exchange for ‘training a local young person, helping them learn the skills of their profession’. The idea was it would be a mutually useful scheme; more art but also responding to ‘the high level of youth unemployment in Brent’. This model feels more ~neoliberal-y~ than the idea of free space/no rent outright, but maybe that’s in its lack of permanence. The South Kilburn Studios I’m thinking of is one from way back in 2013; it has now been relocated and absorbed into the Granville, a community centre that Zain mentions at the beginning of his article, because it is now being threatened with demolition and replacement ‘by a new housing and commercial development.’ A lack of permanence characterises models like this; that transience in turn becomes an issue of its own, not just because orgs that use them are forced into an itinerant operational model that might not suit them, but they’re dragged into a process of art-washing and gentrification. Maybe we do actually need a new National Art Service, or a big beefy Land Trust to throw organisational weight behind ensuring these attempts at providing free spaces are stable enough to achieve some kind of longevity.

We don’t have to decide who gets to occupy these empty spaces; we could make them function like timeshares or allotments, assign them by lottery, or we could split them up into a back office that can host desk space for multiple organisations and a front end project space, and the timetable of that could just work like booking out a conference room in this mad activist/art/community co-working space. It could be packed out, anyone that applies gets in, or gets a shot at doing something with it. But if that sounds like chaos, we could look to an idea Gab wrote about in 2017: the Local Advisory Board. Rather than being a tokenistic body that only gives locals the power of consultation, give them the agency to make decisions for themselves and make yourself (the art-bod) the consultant: ‘when AIR studio was thinking of doing a project in North Woolwich, Anna Hart set up the North Woolwich Curators Club with five local residents she had met there to figure out what they should even do, and only then wrote the arts council app that would go on to be match funded by Newham Council. the club met weekly throughout the year to discuss the shape of the public programme and strategise on how and where to deliver it.’ Imagine lil hyper-local chapters of a National Art Service, running as Local Advisory Boards, distributing funding and free spaces according to what they want to see and what they value.

We could use that model to allocate available rent-free spaces, but it could also be useful in programming for larger formalised institutions. Gab wrote; ‘imagine if those advisory boards were almost obligatory, in the same way registered charities need trustees to certify their organisation is fulfilling the stated charitable aims, and thus can retain their status as a charity. With such boards, art spaces of all scales might be responsible and accountable then; social, local, good. their activity would be considered, wanted, attended, and shared’ This idea and mode of working requires a sincere engagement in the lives, interests, opinions and experiences of communities that are going to be in proximity to the art; it requires decentralising the power of decision-making away from the institution and gives actual people stakes and ownership over what’s being produced - it’s a sincerely good idea if done properly.

All of that economic restructuring might seem kinda tangential, BUT what it would do is free up valuable time & resources for the actual hard graft art’s meant to be doing. The art world is notorious for consistently not providing gainful or stable employment, that financial precarity is a huge part of the art world’s homogeneity; it precludes the access of so many people. If everyone was paid the same, if the economic constraints of rent were removed, or actual funding and resources in the programming budget were substantial and generous - that’s a levelling of equity that would represent a genuinely huge overhaul considering the way things are at the moment. But in the grand scheme of things it would only be the surface work, it would lay the fundamentals for further policies of care. By restructuring the finances and the dispersal of power, we could adapt without question, hesitation or problem to the access needs of cultural workers with disabilities and chronic illnesses; it would be less complicated to facilitate practices that work slower, or that resist the production of output/exhibition; it would be easier to actually start your own Thing (zine, gallery, collective, pressure group, weird art folk band, idc), making that layer of the arts ecology easier to access for those without a formal arts education or without external income/wealth. We could use the discursive potential we’re opening up to rally publics for further change - higher wages across sectors, greater public funding, affordable housing, a real grassroots popular resistance to austerity, migrant rights, stopping deportations, closing detention centres, stopping police brutality, stopping the police altogether, abolishing prisons, the end of wage labour, the destruction of the centralised government and the returning of all power to the people, e t c.

The art world is close to the brink of collapse. We have got to radically restructure the way we do things; no one wants to return to normal, because normal was bad. We have got the capacity to make a mad little industry that’s sustainable, accessible, genuinely diverse, fundamentally joyful, and I think we should do that. Right now. This is the tip of the iceberg, I literally wrote the second half of this in one afternoon, imagine what people cleverer than me with way more time could come up with - reach for the fucking stars.