“Albert! Bobby! For god’s sake, burn it down!” Chumbawamba, Give The Anarchist A Cigarette
Some of us knew this was coming. Two groups have people have consistently imagined different futures, and this is one of them. So as the world falls apart it has been to the mystics, the gnostics, to the soothsayers that we have turned: we have looked to the artists and scientists.
While we see the arts and the sciences as opposites, they really aren’t. The line between them is tenjugo-thin. Both artists and scientists observe carefully, then dream, imagine, and make. The art room and the science lab at school are remarkably similar places. (At my middle school, John Selden in Worthing, there was an open-plan space between classrooms called The Area, where science, art, and home economics were taught).
Here in England, though, while science will undoubtedly get extra funding as we adjust to a world with coronavirus (let’e be honest – this isn’t going away), the arts are being burnt to the ground while we watch. This is arson. Devil’s Night. One venue after another is being torched. Things that seemed solid, stable, fixed are finding their foundations shaking. The Globe, The National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Southbank Centre and the Royal Opera House are facing collapse. “It is really serious now,” says Greg Doran, from the RSC, “And if we lose our performance culture, we lose it for good.”
If the big arts organisations are in trouble, imagine the problems further down the ecological chain.
Arts Council England (ACE) scrapped all their grant schemes (project grants, used by smaller organisations for day-to-day running), cancelling any funding applications already submitted. They replaced them with a new fund for organisations, and grants for artists that were each less than one month of the UK’s average wage. The problem of artists expecting so little is deep rooted – a year ago, one funder actually had to instruct artists to ask for more pay.
But there’s another arts world, underground, that is more resilient: it has never had the big funding, never had the support from ACE, and as a consequence never had the overheads. Everything is already stripped back to what matters. Down here we’ve all spent years finding the quickest route to getting work seen. It’s the world of zines and badges, DIY festivals, open houses and empty shops.
“A man’s vision is his responsibility. If you have an idea, make it happen. Find the brothers and the sisters, find the resources, and do it. Your personal autonomy and power expose the shallowness of endless theorising and debate. Visions become real by being acted out, and once real serve as endless inspiration and free food for the public imagination.” Peter Coyote
And this end of the art world has found new ways to mobilise. Music venues have come together to raise funds, ensuring there will be a small-scale touring circuit after coronavirus. Podcasts have organised online festivals to raise funds for musicians. Music and theatre (where I started) are built on self-organising, mutual aid, on collaboration. The visual arts are built on the myth of the lone genius.
While I’ve spent years bluffing at being an artist, the truth is – art galleries aren’t where I belong. My roots are in zines, putting on my own gigs, scraping together enough to make things happen. I’m more photocopier than etching, more cheap ukulele than concert hall, more throwaway pin badge than artist edition.
This crisis is helping me to look again at what I do, and where I’ve stepped in the last thirty years to get to here. And the truth is, I don’t mind a fire. We can build something better once the smoke’s cleared.
Building something new starts here. This is a pledge to start changing things.
I’m going to work on Back & Fill, in particular on building a robust network of people working in seaside towns.
I’m going to add 10% to all future charges and project budgets. That 10% will be used to give artists in Margate, Stoke on Trent and Worthing time to think (similar to this response to Covid 19, but rolling).
I’m going to work out how – if Arts Council England can have a National Portfolio of Organisations – it can also have a National Portfolio of Artists.
I’m going to work with James Gough and other people I like on some thinking around arts funding models.
I’m going to hang out with more scientists.