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March 25, 2020

Art in the Time of Corona

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Art in the Time of Corona

Empty seats © Maria Barrett

Image © Maria Barrett, 2014

Even before the British government finally closed down public spaces last Friday in response to the global pandemic, many theatres and galleries were doing the responsible thing. The previous Monday, the Society of London Theatres had announced that their theatres would temporarily close, and throughout the week, first one independent theatre then another publicised its closure on social media, postponing, curtailing, and cancelling productions that had taken major investment in time and money and had once been somebody’s dream. A poignant post circulated, showing the ‘ghost light’, said to be left lit on stages all over the country, an evocative symbol of the future return of theatre to our nation.

But we were never without access to art and culture. Offerings were announced on social media: the Royal Opera House is streaming opera and ballet for free; The Globe Theatre has opened up its online catalogue of filmed performances; and in the commercial sector, West End production of The Wind in the Willows starring stars Rufus Hound and Gary Wilmot is available to stream at no cost. It is similar in the visual arts and museums, where art (albeit a largely Western canon) has been globalised; you can now take a virtual tour of the Chateau of Versailles, or of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC; look at some Monet, Cézanne, or Gauguin at the Musée d’Orsay; or take in some Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum, all while preserving not just a safe social distance or complete isolation, but indeed a reduced carbon footprint.

This augmented cultural offer appeared deceptively quickly; certainly a lot faster than it has taken the Prime Minister to present a cogent public health strategy. The larger cultural institutions, with the funds to invest in and experiment with the digital, already had something up their sleeves. Building closures and increasingly limited public movement due to the global pandemic meant lifting paywalls and increasing marketing of existing digital offers, rather than starting from scratch. The online reach and brand recognition of large institutions and the recognisability of their artworks should appeal not only to existing audiences who need their culture fix but can no longer pop out to the gallery, but also to potentially new audiences of the home-schooled and perhaps the newly bored but culturally curious.

This is important to institutions in the context of indefinite closure, as they can continue their remit of public engagement. It might also be asked: when arts venues close and re-open, do their audiences come back? My observation as an erstwhile board member of theatres which have temporarily closed for refurbishment or rebuilding, is, often not. Knowing this risk, some theatres go on tour for the duration, or decant elsewhere, temporarily setting up shop in another space, as the Almeida famously did in 2000, in order to keep their brand alive and their audiences warm. This clearly can’t be done under the current circumstances, making physical closure a long term risk. Being able to engage your audiences and even extend your reach digitally then is a real advantage.

However, it is apparent that it may be an advantage available only to those large cultural institutions that have been well funded or are wealthy enough to have engaged in digital engagement. Smaller theatres and galleries working on smaller margins have not always been able to invest in the same way, and many of the subsidised have struggled to even survive under ‘austerity’ funding. Such organisations don’t necessarily have a back catalogue of digital repertoire they can launch across social media channels or an institutional knowledge of digital creation, and in any case might lack the resource to do this well whilst simultaneously closing down a building and dealing with contracts, cancellations, contingencies, and insurance. Like the weather, a pandemic hits everyone, but the wealthy are always more ready to survive the storm.

Smaller arts organisations are still engaging digitally, of course. But much of what they are doing is less visible, and more local. Many smaller theatres such as Polka Theatre in London and Unity Theatre in Liverpool are using their social channels as a community resource, sharing announcements and information from local government. On the one hand, this is not their usual cultural fare, and may not be enough to keep audiences engaged. More positively though, it might mean that small venues become more relevant to their communities in this time of crisis, and bonds built now will sustain in the future.

But do these small cultural organisations matter? My colleague Heidi Ashton has talked here about the importance of arts and culture both economically and to the sense of who we are. The small scale contributes greatly to this cultural ecosystem, and engages a significant number of the freelancers who, as Ashton points out, are now struggling without government help. Small scale names may be less recognised nationally or internationally, but they often have higher local visibility and importance. Moreover, the small scale often nurtures the start of cultural product life cycles; In the past small scale theatre has nurtured work that has later been commercially exploited like Blood Brothers, or plays have become feature films like Letter to Brezhnev; and of course the small scale can provide a step on the ladder, nurturing writers, cast members and crews who can learn their craft. Importantly for theatre, and for society, the small scale can take formal risks, it can experiment and innovate, and it can offer a dissenting voice.

Without an obvious way to continue to engage its audiences, many small scale venues may struggle to survive. Indeed, we appear to have the first casualty of the Coronavirus shutdown: 30-year-old Square Chapel Arts Centre in Halifax announced this week it was going into administration. The Arts Council of England (ACE) has reacted to the crisis facing cultural organisations by acting swiftly, communicating in exemplary fashion, and releasing an impressive Emergency Response Package. Even applying to this will be a struggle for smaller organisations without dedicated fundraising and development departments. When distributing funds, ACE needs to note the particular circumstances of smaller organisations, already struggling financially and with fewer staff, and continue to invest in the small scale as well as the big names. ACE needs to keep them afloat in the current crisis and to develop their resilience, including their digital capacity, in the future. If, as seems likely, there is a protracted period of closure for cultural organisations due to the pandemic, it is worrying to wonder how many of our small, local, independent theatres will be able to go back and turn the ghost lights out, and put the flood lights back on again.

September 20, 2012

The work of participation

Last Thursday I attended an event in Nottingham– The Unselfish Artist – organised by the East Midlands Participatory Arts Forum, EMPAF. The event was an opportunity for organisations within the participatory arts sector to showcase their work – under the rubric of the World Event Young Artists (WEYA) festival which was happening across the city last week.

The day included workshops, poetry readings, discussions and exhibits from various organisations across the region. I attended an interesting session about the artist as activist, which encompassed a range of perspectives on different types of politics. It was led by Gaylan Nazhad, who recounted his experiences as a documentary film-maker in a territorially contested village in Kurdistan, and by Kevin Ryan of Charnwood Arts, Leicestershire, who described his work as a kind of creative conduit for the residents of a relatively deprived area of Loughborough as they negotiated and struggled with local council and developers in re-shaping their community.

These kinds of projects – and the different kinds of politics they represent – feed into a developing research interest of mine in the meaning of ‘participation’ in participatory art – and particularly in the place of the artist in that process. ‘Particpatory arts’, as I understand it, emerges from the ‘community arts’ movements of the late 60s and 70s exemplified by organisations such as the Welfare State International artist collective for whom art was connected to political intervention. These artists drew on radical theatre, folk-art, carnival and spectacle to generate work with communities that was underpinned by belief in the potential for creative expression to empower and inspire progressive change. Filtered through the cultural policy agenda of the late nineties and noughties, the ‘community’ side of this vision has been translated into art that contributes to various socially valuable goals (improving health and well-being, easing social exclusion, even helping fight crime and anti-social behaviour). This period allowed for a significant expansion of the sector as both local and national government co-opted arts organisations as an alternative means of tackling - and being seen to tackle - such problems cost-effectively. This expansion of ‘the sector’ might, then, also have been accompanied by some taming of the romantic, emancipatory politics which forged it.

The story about the social contribution of the arts has been well discussed and critiqued by colleagues in the Centre here. One thing less considered in that story is the role of the artist – and perhaps especially the participatory artist and organisations who work at the coal-face of these social agendas. If my account of the historical development of participatory arts is accurate, how have the participatory artists who have lived through that history made sense of their own work in relation to it? To what extent have their artistic careers been negotiations with the various imaginaries of the policy-makers, local and national, who control the budgets from which they draw? And how are those artists entering this field now prepared for it? Do artists still have a politics of participation?

Participatory art can be easily stereotyped as a rather unglamorous extension of social work or an add-on to a pressured education or welfare system (think dance classes in care homes or art/craft workshops with children excluded form school - and notwithstanding how significant such activities can be for their participants). It can also, in the light of the policy ‘backlash’ against the notion a social mission for the arts generated by, for example, the McMaster report, be seen as lacking in aesthetic ambitions for ‘excellence’. The work of organisations such as Artichoke or the participatory events that contributed to WEYA, though, also suggest that participatory art can be inclusive, beautiful and challenging. At the very least, given that the meaning of participation is not obvious even to the Minister in charge of this particular portfolio, the time for a reflection on the artistic work of participation seems ripe.

Of course there might be other stories about the historical developments of work in this sector too. I’d be keen to hear from artists and organisations who would be interested in shaping these ideas into a research project. You can leave a comment below or e-mail me at .

And you can follow my research on here.

May 16, 2012


We're currently working on Happenstance, a NESTA-funded experiment to find out what happens when creative technologists are 'embedded' in arts organisations. We're now half way through the project and starting to make some initial observations about some of the differences between arts organisations and technologists - differences in process (technologists being more process-oriented, arts organisations being more output driven), different attitudes to risk (arts organisations being more accountable than the freelance resident technologists). You can view a short video of Chris Bilton talking about the project, and find out more about the latest developments on the Happenstance blog.

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