A series of informal surgeries for creative artists in Salford uncovered widespread disillusionment, says Steve Slater - as well as suggesting new ways foward.
When Quarantine invited me to hold a number of informal arts surgeries as part of its Tenancy project at a house in Salford for two weeks earlier this year, I began with few expectations.
There needs to be a sense of the possibilities on offer and a unifying theme or movement to get behind
To my surprise, the team at Quarantine were inundated with requests to talk and meet. This resulted in a schedule where I would meet up to five individuals a day, with a brief period of downtime between each visit for me to gather my thoughts.
Why were so many creative people interested in sharing their practice? I’m not sure, but maybe today’s methods of connecting artists and their work within the industry (venues, galleries, funding bodies and those that work within them) are becoming more limited. As funding pressures mount and responsibility shifts from arts councils to institutions, the pressure from the top could be squeezing out the time for those precious conversations with artists about their work.
This is nothing new, and it is not confined to the arts. We see the same pattern repeated again and again in fields like education, health and the police, all of which suffer from diminishing hands-on contact with those they profess to serve.
Meeting these people in the kitchen of the house reminded me of my time as Senior Producer at Tramway in Glasgow - much of which I spent having long conversations with artists in the café. This was the nuts and bolts of my practice as the producer of the programme of live art, dance and theatre within the building. I was genuinely interested in discovering new work, new ideas and new ways of presenting art. I wanted Tramway to beat a path untrodden by any other theatres.
Conversations like these are indeed precious, both as an opportunity for the artist to express themselves beyond the page of their proposal, and to enable the ideas to grow and develop in a dialogue with a venue or gallery. The artist can then begin to see the possibilities their work may offer beyond the realm of its own solitary existence, and become part of a wider programme of work.
Maybe this is what we have lost. Through a breakdown in communication and the sharing of ideas, and an assumption that social media can compensate for a lack of face-to-face communication, we have lost sight of the artist at the heart of things.
Risk and responsibility
Risk was discussed a great deal, either as a catalyst for innovation and change or as a spectre to be avoided if success and acceptance were to be sought. Risk, the unknown and the unknowable are all part of what it means to be an artist – to seek and to create through trial and error.
When I sat in the kitchen of the Tenancy house, I saw exactly this need and thirst to create in everyone I meet. Talking to 44 artists, producers and creatives across a range of subjects from writing, producing, theatre, performance, dance and visual art, I found myself at home for the first time in a long while, because like them I sometimes find it hard to situate what I do within this world of targets, numbers, value per head, public subsidies, responsibility, art for all, and so on.
It’s interesting that so many of the conversations I had in the house seemed to find their way - like a small boat blown on to dangerous rocks - to the same issues of vulnerability, disempowerment, isolation, direction and validation of their chosen creative path.
Despite - or maybe because of - this, there was always a steely determination to seek a way through the maze of funding obstacles while fighting for space (many artist studios in Salford and central Manchester are in the process of being re-developed). I felt genuinely uplifted by each individual’s need to be seen and heard, to fulfil their roles as artists, producers and creatives in a city that arguably can only see them as skilled civic decorators and societal healthcare monitors. Really, they should be leading and defining the city’s beating heart and soul.
Space and hope
Greater Manchester is undergoing something of a reimagining: an architectural evolution which can be seen in its dozens of new buildings and developments. It is also experiencing a crisis of identity as its population swells with new opportunities, people and money. In this cauldron of change, there is the necessary space for artists to define, question and offer up alternatives: but where are they?
I can testify that they are here: everyone I met during my time in the Tenancy house gave me hope for the creative future of the city. But there need to be more opportunities for these individuals to meet, talk and exchange ideas. There needs to be a sense of the possibilities on offer and a unifying theme or movement to get behind.
I feel there needs to be some sort of catalyst – a lightning strike that would ignite a sense of artistic unity, place and time. I wondered about a festival or event that could capture the energy and creativity I witnessed on a daily basis. Something that is not driven by the agendas of the big institutions and venues, but is fundamentally made by and for the artists that live in the city. But maybe that’s not enough. Maybe it needs to reside in a symbolic belief in ourselves as artists - something which is expressed every day, in every studio, office, gallery and performance space.
And what do I take away from all this? Fundamentally, I’ve been reminded that I am not alone. As an artist working in a community of individuals, it can sometimes seem as though we are isolated and forgotten. It's easy to forget we share so much with others, and that all we really need to do is find the time to share our experiences, and know that someone will always be willing to listen and offer advice.