Tim Joss puts forward a radical proposition for two new organisations to lead the arts towards a better future for artists, citizens and the state.
The structures currently in place to support and organise the arts are responsible for many of the major problems facing arts leaders today. There is frustration with the hash the state has made of developing artists and connecting artists and citizens. But where are the cogent ideas for changing it for the better? The time has come to stop the carping. This article offers four practical stages.
Stage 1 – See the arts as they are
It is time to abandon state arts bodies’ narrow definitions of the arts and embrace what is actually happening: the full, delicious cacophony of what artists and citizens believe the arts to be. We don’t know exactly what is out there because of state arts bodies’ partial perspectives and patchy traditions of research. What we do know is that people take a broad and imaginative approach to defining ‘art’. The terrain of artforms is complex. Profound art can be found in any style and in any artform. Some art is commercially viable, although rarely in its early stages. Some art is not commercial, but has great social, cultural or educational value. Some work has the aesthetic aspect to the fore, while other work – in advertising, architecture, software and so on – is outside this creative core but has a strong aesthetic aspect. At present, the visual arts (remembering that several galleries are funded direct by the DCMS), film (through the UK Film Council) and other artforms are treated in different ways. But a consistent approach to all artforms is vital. Equitability, consistency and unity of purpose demand that the anomalies are faced up to.
Stage 2 – ‘ARDA’
Having reunited the artforms, the confusion of two very different yet linked activities must be untangled: the origination and dissemination of art both deserve their own spaces and investment. Separating the two gives us the chance to focus properly on artistic freedom, research and creation. It removes the pressure, often premature and sometimes misplaced, to roll out experiments, go into production, take work to the market and put it in front of audiences. Inspiration can be found in science. Its six research councils have a combined budget of over £2.8bn. Artists, the arts and wider society need their own arts research and development agency – ARDA for short. [[Name any department of government, and such is the power and relevance of the arts that they could have a role to play there]]
For the nation, ARDA would pick up where formal education leaves off. It would understand the needs of artists and the conditions of creation. Its research would give us an up-to-date picture of artistic practice and build an evidence base of how the arts contribute to people’s quality of life. It would release the definition of the arts from the monopolising tendencies of state arts bodies and engage with what is really happening: the live and the non-live, the commercial and the non-commercial, contemporary work and artistic heritage, the popular and the specialised, and how people engage with the arts. An informed case could then be made for the artist as a vital contributor to the health and success of society.
For the artist, ARDA would give information and guidance on progress after leaving formal education. It would redress the power imbalance between artists and those intermediaries who stand between artist and public. The fragile position of the artist would be better understood and ARDA would strengthen that position, ensuring the kind of financial independence granted to research scientists and helping artists engage with society and their audiences. ARDA would create safe contexts in which artists and other artistic decision-makers could critique each other’s work – a natural home for the peer review recommended in the McMaster report. Only works which could justify the investment would be put into production. Savings would be made on production, presentation, marketing, sales and touring.
For the nation and the artist, ARDA would open up and champion a larger space for freedom of expression. It would have the resources to expand the time and space for the artistic equivalent of science’s ‘blue skies’ research. We must never forget that some of the world’s most important artworks were derided, even persecuted, when first presented. As long as artists are working within the law, ARDA must be there to defend them. Just as we have an independent judiciary and a strongly independent Information Commissioner, we need an ARDA which is truly at arm’s length from government and prepared to face down politicians and others when the pressure is on to stifle the voice of artists. Equally, ARDA would address the emerging field of arts ethics, setting artists’ rights next to artists’ responsibilities.
The space ARDA would open up would be cherished. The proposal is not for it to be isolated, divorced from citizens, communities or public engagement. The issue is timing. Before artworks can work magic in society, they and their creators need time for exploration, invention and gestation. Society needs to grant that freedom to artists and, if it does, greater art of greater power is the likely reward. Of course, the value of the arts ultimately lies in the interaction between a work of art and its audience, but the making needs unencumbered, unaccountable time. As the Scots say, ‘fools and bairns shouldna see things half done’.
Stage 3 – ‘COPEA’
At this point we move from research and development to engaging with the public. We shift from being artwork-focused to being citizen- and customer-focused. Alongside ARDA, we need an imaginative, sleeves-rolled-up, tuned-into-today organisation which will champion public engagement and fund programmes which deliver real improvements in the public’s engagement with the arts: a commission for public engagement with the arts. COPEA would support commissioning (new works for broadcast, particular public spaces and events), roll-out (filmed documentaries, book production, touring, festivals, exhibitions, outreach and interactive websites) and ‘taking to scale’ (a venture philanthropy/private equity expression which signifies helping for-profit and not-for-profit businesses grow and realise their full potential). The emphasis would be on achieving greater public engagement while being true to artists and their work.
COPEA would find the next generation of leading public engagers – tomorrow’s Kenneth Clarks, Robert Hugheses and Melvyn Braggs. It would work to improve the quality of businesses working in the arts. A recent DCMS report found that “Many creative industry firms have no business plan (39%), no training plan (64%) or no training budget (70%)”.1 Artists and citizens are badly served by such inadequacies. COPEA would work across the arts’ mixed economy. It would be agnostic about an organisation’s exact form of incorporation. Any of these might make a potent contribution: Artangel, Channel 4, Greenwich Dance Agency, the MOBO Awards, Penguin Books, Somerset County Council, Teachers’ TV, the theatre on the island of Mull or Virgin Media. The test for COPEA is to devote its energies and resources to programmes which genuinely expand public engagement. It could liberate much of the pent-up energy in the arts world.
Should COPEA be at arm’s length from government? The answer is ‘no’, and the reason leads us on to the final, fundamental change.
Stage 4 – A deserved place at the top table
Together, ARDA and COPEA would prepare the arts for a permanent seat at the government’s top table. Name any department of government, and such is the power and relevance of the arts that they could have a role to play there. Today the natural home is the DCMS, but the arts must not be compartmentalised. The importance of the creative industries more than justifies the attention of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. The case for the arts achieving health outcomes is at last being pulled together. The Ministry of Justice might seem remote, but high level issues such as freedom of expression, intellectual property and arts ethics have an important legal dimension. Of course, it would not stop there. The arts can also be part of the core script of civil society and commerce. With this degree of involvement, it would be counterproductive to insist on the arm’s length principle for COPEA. With an arm’s length ARDA and an involved COPEA, this is the arts’ chance to be at the top table rather than using a long spoon to sup with some supposed devil.
This article draws on Tim Joss’s new book ‘New Flow – A better future for artists, citizens and the state’, published this week on the new Mission Models Money website.
1 DCMS, ‘Creative Britain - New Talents for the New Economy’. DCMS 2008 p43.