Hilary Gresty reflects on the ‘complex behemoth’ that was put in place to repair the fragmentation of the visual arts sector.
Contributing a blog about Turning Point, in response to the publication of ACE’s own evaluation of the pilot phase of the Turning Point Network and the indomitable a-n, artist information company’s Understanding Turning Point - a briefing paper is no mean task.
For me the story begins in the mid 1990s when the then Chairman of the Arts Council, Lord Gowrie met with VAGA and a group of visual arts leaders calling for a strategy for the visual arts. It was a little disillusioning that our mission was compared by the Chief Executive Mary Allen to a recently completed policy paper on jazz – a little like suggesting that all that was required was a policy for abstract painting rather than a strategy for an important, complex, growing and, when compared to the other artforms, underfunded sector.
A lot has happened since: the golden age of public subsidy and Lottery investment has come and gone, the Tate Modern effect has changed public perceptions of the visual arts beyond recognition, the distinctions between producer and consumer have been blurred and now the political erosion of the state alongside spending cuts is presenting uncharted territory. In the midst of this we have had Turning Point, a ten year strategy for the visual arts, finally completed in 2006 following an in-depth two-year sector review. Publication of this broad and ambitious document coincided with the first ACE restructure, reduction in staff and the literal archiving into boxes of institutional and artform knowledge. Visual arts was, however, accorded priority status within ACE’s 2008-11 plan and the point of decisive change promised by the name Turning Point was anticipated.
Five years down the line the a-n briefing paper, commissioned from Phyllida Shaw, reveals expenditure of £3.41m of which over 51% has been spent on the administration, co-ordination and evaluation of the Turning Point Network. The network – a complex behemoth of 13 separate regional groups and various national working parties – was put in place both to answer what was seen as the detrimental ‘fragmentation’ of the sector and as a bold attempt to introduce bottom up, sector-led policy making. To quote from the evaluation, “A central aim of the Turning Point Network was to develop a culture of reciprocal relationships and shared aspirations where arts organisations and their partners took the initiative in devising and implementing strategies that transcend partisan interests to safeguard the future of the sector as a whole.”
We have got a very thorough and illuminating 226 pages of evaluation of how the network functions, the benefits and what needs to be done next, but only time will tell whether the policy itself was the most apt one and whether the TP regional networks have made the whole contemporary visual arts sector fitter and more able to weather the current storm. Cultural change takes time as well as openness and imagination. The evaluation pitches value for money as found in the amount of voluntary input levered from network members – something which over the next three years will need to increase dramatically as available resources to pay for co-ordinators and projects plummet from feast to famine – and through the increased efficiencies of collaborative working.
A big question mark lies over the many individuals and organisations that are not part of the regional networks, in particular individual artists, for whom Understanding Turning Point was commissioned. Likewise, how Turning Point works with other networks regionally, such as with Common Practice in London, and nationally with Tate Plus, VAGA and the other agencies and networks represented within the Visual Arts UK alliance, will be crucial to its effectiveness.
An observation with which to close. Thursday saw good coverage in the online Guardian for the Turning Point North East website listings and iphone App, www.contemporaryARTNE.com produced to profile the art in the region on the back of the Turner Prize at Baltic. Emails were whizzing across the network on the benefits of the App – some of a more cautious nature, questioning whether an i-Phone only App was socially exclusive given the dominance of android amongst the general public and prompting a comment from The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool that only 15.4% of their visitors own smartphones. Longer term strengthening of the sector and its relevance to people’s lives may require thinking beyond the network...