We need bold new cultural infrastructures to tackle entrenched inequality in the arts, says Amahra Spence. Can a new project combine business nous with social justice?
I'm a proud Brummie artist and cultural producer, born and raised across the inner-city north. Birmingham is home to many incredible thinkers, artists and doers and has hosted many more. It’s when welcoming creative people from across the globe at our world-class festivals that our humble-but-might city really comes alive.
But the reality of life for artists coming to the city for those festivals highlights some of the key structural problems in the arts. They're hosted in an Airbnb, Travelodge, digs or whatever the budget allows. So alongside their low pay, many creative people have to deal with unaffordable or unsuitable accommodation while money disappears out of the city to corporate shareholders.
The challenges faced by those international visiting artists are reflected in the experiences of local artists, too. While DCMS and organisations like the Creative Industries Federation report year on year ‘growth’, those on the frontlines continue to experience disinvestment and poor treatment. When we can glorify our excellent cultural activity but can't provide appropriate infrastructure or care for cultural workers, there are important questions to answer.
When we can glorify our excellent cultural activity but can't provide appropriate care for cultural workers, there are important questions to answer
In 2013, after graduating and working as artists for years, a friend and I got together to work out how we could support other practitioners and each other to do what we love in a sustainable way. We set up an organisation, MAIA, which initially included a writer's group, a creative entrepreneurship support programme, an artist's network and a monthly work-in-progress night. But we quickly learned that none of these was really addressing the underlying barriers. It became impossible to talk about living and working in these industries without talking about class, race, gender, power, nepotism and what upholds inequities in our professions.
After much questioning, dialogue and experimentation, we started to think about creating new infrastructure: platforms, policies, business models, ways of organising and physical spaces that could distribute energy and resources in a fairer and more localised way than our regularly funded arts and commercial creative industries have ever done.
After one too many stays on uncomfortable couches while touring, I started to think that the solution could be a hotel. Inspired by Project Row Houses and the Rebuild Foundation in the US, this would be rooted in regenerative economics and community justice. Could our hotel lock in and redistribute value in a smarter way? Could we combine a practical business need with something soulful, meaningful and welcoming?
A sacred space
When I tried to imagine what this space could look like, my mind immediately went to my grandad's house. This place is at the centre of our family: there are always parties in the kitchen, table debates, dance battles in front of the telly, garden BBQs – not to mention the infamous sacred front room with its family portraits, glass cabinets and cherished sculptures. The name came instantly: ABUELOS (Spanish for grandparents), an ode to ancestry, intergenerational space and conviviality. Could our hotel replicate this feeling while also addressing the practicalities of hospitality and economics?
Over the last two years, we've been supported Arts Council England, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and UnLtd to explore this question more deeply through research and development. We've produced the first set of plans with community members and talked to developers and landowners. We’ve also received a fast education in how the arts can easily be complicit in the displacement of poorer communities through gentrification. We knew we couldn't be part of that, and started rejecting offers that were part of five-year strategies to raise the value of landowners’ assets.
We decided to focus on a site in a neighbourhood I grew up in and have just secured the first chunk of cash to move plans forward. If appropriately resourced, the road to ABUELOS is a £5m project. We're a little way off yet, with £3.5m of capital still to raise. But a lot of funders are investing in our proposition because they understand that significant support upfront will lead to a financially resilient entity that isn't reliant on grant funding.
I want this to be a moment when our city’s creative community comes together to support the artists who enrich our lives in so many intangible ways. A space for local artists and arts can become a base for wider conversations. We can start asking commissioners to pay their artists every time, on time. We can start talking about how childcare, mortgages, pensions and so many other facets of modern life are out of step with life as an artist. We can start providing opportunities for all to engage with, work in and benefit from the arts.
Artists are used to surviving in difficult environments: our creativity enables us to adapt and change. But what sort of city would we be if we created conditions where artists could not just survive but actually thrive? What would be the long-term health and social impact of a city where art is genuinely recognised as force for good?
We've spent the last seven years dodging heavily-subsidised business models, trying our best to speak truth to power while finding ways within our means to invest in people and place. We need bold new cultural infrastructures and it's time to put pressure on the powers that be to support this instead of continually pandering to their agendas. It will need artists, citizens, organisations, venues, and local councils to come together for a common cause. I know it's possible.
Amahra Spence is an artist, cultural producer and Co-Director of MAIA.