The subsidised arts sector lives in fear of the hands that feed it, says Liz Hill
ArtsProfessional’s Twitter following is a pretty active one, thanks to you. We publish stories or point you towards others who have written interesting stuff, and you re-tweet or use the link and take the conversation forward. (You can follow us @ArtsPro if you aren’t already.) It seems to work rather well for us all.
On Friday last week, however, we published an exclusive news story that scored by far the highest number of hits ever on a single article in ArtsProfessional in one day. It had picked up some momentum by 10am, before we tweeted, and past experience suggested that our Twitter followers would pick up the baton and pass it on – probably in a world record-breaking time. But as time wore on, and hits on our website began their steep ascent, Twitter remained puzzlingly subdued on this story. It was a mystery. But a direct tweet from one prolific Tweeter to @LeedsSbites, whose investigations prompted the story, gave a clue as to the reason. When encouraged to retweet the story, he replied “it’s a tricky one, there are a lot of powerful folk out there”.
And therein lies the nub of the problem. The subsidised arts sector lives in fear of the hands that feed it. For artists or funded arts organisations to speak up against bad practice, corruption, favouritism, back-handers, rule-breaking, nepotism, back-room deals, intimidation or bullying is perceived as tantamount to signing their own death warrants. Their professional lives are in the hands of those who hold the purse strings, and ‘keeping your head down’ is known to be the name of the game. Indeed, the only reason this story ever came to light in the first place is because a member of the public took up arms in defence of her artist friends, saying “I have nothing, and therefore nothing to lose! The best anyone could do is hike up my council tax!”
The wider implications of this are worth reflecting on. Many of us have passed comment on the impact of what seems to be systemic corruption in the banking system, where whistle-blowers have been notable by their absence. But the subsidised arts sector faces systemic issues of its own (albeit not on the same scale – one hopes). When someone demands an investigation of something apparently untoward, that investigation is invariably conducted by the very organisation against whom the allegations are made. In the almost inevitable outcome that they find themselves innocent (as in this story) the complainant is out on their own with the word ‘troublemaker’ tattooed on their forehead and nowhere to go other than the press or Judicial Review. It’s no wonder that arts whistle-blowers are equally hard to find.