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The arts sector needs to stop exploiting skilled practitioners through tokenistic and self-serving community projects, says Charlotte Arculus.

As a freelance artist, educator, and researcher, I am interested in the process of ‘working with’. In my own experience this involves young children, but the same principle can apply to communities and groups in many diverse contexts. It’s a very specialised and nuanced skill – almost impossible to fully describe, yet absolutely critical.

We need to call out tokenistic projects where artists’ knowledge is ignored

‘Working with’ does not involve directing and narrating the experiences of participants, or telling them what to do. It demands an active sense of wonder and a commitment to what is created between people. It requires time for deep processing and reflection. It cannot be reproduced as a set of rules, nor learned by theory. It has to be lived. Neglecting this kind of hard-won knowledge is surely ludicrous – and yet it is happening all the time.

As early childhood becomes an increasing focus for cultural organisations, I’ve seen the same fundamental insights – such as never underestimating a toddler – being learned over and over again, as if for the first time. To make a case for funding high quality culture, we need to be sharing and building knowledge and experience. But in my more than 30 years as a freelance artist, I’ve rarely seen this happen – because those in power so rarely ask artists what they think.

Wasted understanding

Instead, artist-educators wait for project dates and briefs to be handed down to them from above. Short-term funding models make it harder for artists to learn from each other, and to develop the long-term relationships which build cross-disciplinary thinking between the arts, education, and communities. For the same reasons, artists’ expertise is scattered when projects end. Artists are reduced to a colourful portfolio photo on a website to show what great work the cultural organisation is doing. Their crucial understanding of aesthetic processes is wasted.

The sector’s focus on achieving specific outcomes reinforces these difficulties. ‘Working with’ groups of people involves strategies that do not necessarily have a fixed end point. Measuring this kind of work against a predetermined outcome is a problematic reduction of the work of an artist who has skilfully interwoven many different processes and relations to bring new, previously unimagined things into the world. 

Extraordinary work and relationships do exist – but in rare circumstances, and with the support of those in powerful positions. And there is no time or space for artists doing this good work in different organisations to cross-pollinate their understanding and ideas. Participatory work is dependent on a diminishing, poorly-funded pool of freelance artists doing the best they can, without the ability to influence those in power. The sector needs to put the knowledge of these artists to work – without expecting them to speak like salaried arts professionals, academics or policy makers.

Calling out tokenism

One way out of the current situation would involve an increasing emphasis on the artist-led documentation and research of artistic processes. This would require giving artists paid time to process, reflect on and record their work (however they wish), as well as delivering projects. It could be required by funders as a hallmark of quality. The aim would not be to reproduce extraordinary practice, but to make visible the processes that this arises from. It would also enable learning from projects to be shared with wider audiences.

Arts councils and other funders should also look at ways to make organisations more accountable for, and to, the artists they employ. Funders must take responsibility for the wellbeing of those who actually deliver what they fund. There needs to be better scrutiny of projects where artists’ time is under-budgeted.

Equally, we need to call out tokenistic projects where artists’ knowledge is ignored, and participants are ill-served. There should be ways for artists to feed back on the organisations that hire them, without it impacting on their future prospects. It would be fascinating if funders (or even an independent body led by artists) conducted a review of all the work they support by asking project artists in confidence about their level of loyalty to the organisations they work for and what level of care they receive from them.

Artists could be asked to what extent they were able to shape the work they delivered and if they felt their work was understood. Was enough paid time and space given for processing and reflection? Did the project support the development of new learning? Over time, this would build up a picture of how organisations were succeeding and failing in their relationships with artists. Foregrounding the experience of the artist in evaluation radically shifts the emphasis from strategy and politics to ethics and aesthetics – exactly where it should be.

Developing artists of the future

We also need to think about how to produce new artists who can do the kind of work that is needed. My own journey began more than thirty years ago through community music. I was 20 years old and not in education, employment or training. I had a baby, was from a working-class background and had been kicked out of school at 16. I got onto a community programme with Community Music East in Norwich. I was intensively mentored for a year in improvisation, group work and disability awareness. I was placed in a wide variety of settings where I could learn from more experienced artists. I was paid what amounted to the minimum wage for that year, and then supported to become self-employed. The skills I learned during that time set me up for life, and continue to underpin my work to this day. 

But this programme – and many others like it – no longer exist. Where do people like me now go to get the kind of grounding I got? Projects need to build in mentoring strands, and the sector needs to make spaces for artists to come together and cross-pollinate. The questions an emerging artist will ask an established artist will invariably lead to deep new thinking for both.

Finally, and once again – the sector needs to start paying artists for their knowledge. This is about both ethics and quality. If you’re on a salary, look at who is in the room where the decisions are made and note who is absent. Time and money work very differently for freelance artists. Use your paid time to make time for them and to grow their knowledge – because it’s on the basis of this that cultural education flourishes. 

Charlotte Arculus is Creative Director at Magic Adventure and a PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Charlotte Arculus