Art & Power: Jeremy Spafford

Art & Power: Jeremy Spafford


Welcome to the Old Fire Station. Today is the last day of our Marmalade week. If you haven’t caught up with Marmalade then it’s high time you did. Every time I say this I can quite believe it’s true, but it is true: We have just run 22 different conferences in four days, of which this is only one. So it’s been a busy week, and we’ve had a lot of people coming in, unpicking knotty topical problems. Really interesting people, from all over the country and indeed beyond. But today we’re talking about art. This is, after all, and arts centre. We’re talking about art and power. And don’t panic at the number of pages here, it’s in really large print so I can read it. So it’s not as bad as it looks. So who has power in the arts? How powerful are we as the makers, funders, commissioners, programmers, facilitators, supporters and consumers of art? How might we use the power we have to change, to make change – and what is that change? My job this morning is to provoke a debate.
So – where is the problem? Well…maybe there isn’t one. After all we are living in an age of wonderful creativity across media, With thousands of talented artists creating exciting new work which challenges and engages and entertains. The Arts Council is in the midst of deciding how to allocate £409m each year for four years to a diverse range of organisations in its National Portfolio. Here in Oxford, we have a City Council which has maintained its funding for arts and culture throughout the downturn. We are surrounded by great cultural institutions bringing some of the best contemporary work to the City Celebrating fantastic heritage and working alongside disadvantaged communities to increase access and participation. And here at the Old Fire Station, a new kid on the block. In just 5 years we’ve established a vibrant arts centre in the teeth of the recession and which is growing in quality and popularity. So where is the problem? It’s not as if we’re not busy making work, developing audiences and evaluating impact. Looking around I can see a host of people who work their socks off to make great work, And include as many people as possible in the enjoyment of that work. And we reflect and think a lot about the meaning of it all. For example, Moira Sinclair’s Paul Hamlyn Foundation talks of building ‘shared ground’, Where young people, migrant and British, can contribute actively and engage positively. Joe Baden’s Open Book brings together people who may never have considered higher education as a viable option, To be supported by people from similar backgrounds to access academic study. People United, whose founder Tom Andrews has helped with the planning of today’s event, Commissions artists to inspire kindness and researchers to examine how this works. Darren Henley’s Arts Council is funding, advocating, researching To show that art and culture help us build better places to live and work, and improve our health and well-being – Something he writes passionately about in his book: The Arts Dividend. We know that the arts contribute to community cohesion, reduce social isolation, Make communities feel stronger and, of course, make a massive contribution to the economy. But you know all this. So where is the problem? TORCH, The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities at the University, Recently launched their ‘Humanities and Identities’ programme. At the launch event I was struck by something said by Professor Deborah Cameron. I am now going to ruthlessly paraphrase here, so apologies to Deborah Cameron. She suggested that the word ‘diversity’ had become a problem, It had come to represent a liberal elite’s pre-occupation with being seen to be fair, Without addressing fundamental inequalities, Most notably related to class. We could certainly do it better, but I’ve found it is actually not that difficult to programme work by great artists who are disabled or from a BAME background, And it’s not that difficult to attract middle class disabled and BAME people to come and see the work. What is really hard is to programme work by and attractive to working class people – disabled or non-disabled, Black or White. It could be said that ‘social change’ is another combination of weasel words that is code for those of us who assume we agree with each other. i.e. we voted Remain, worry about climate change, welcome refugees and think public art is a good way to spend taxpayers money. We don’t spell out what we mean by ‘diversity’ or ‘social change’ too carefully as that might give away the code. There is a built-in assumption that the people who control the means of production in the creative industries, (Who, in the main, look a bit like me) Have hit on something really good and the task now is to gently let in people who are not like me, So that they can get the benefits I can currently enjoy. Because that is the decent thing to do. This has to be done carefully, however, because we don’t ruin everything. Because the last thing we want is to end up with art that we don’t like. That’s too commercial or even too populist – which would be too Trumpy – But we do want what we do to be more popular. I don’t feel in the least bit guilty but I do feel lucky. My job is to help people have a really good time, and hopefully learn something about themselves or others while they’re at it. And I work in a sector based on good quality relationships, having fun, and looking for meaning. And I work in a building where, generally speaking, most people want to be here. We might moan about the money but, be honest, we love working in the arts, And we work really hard here to be inclusive, to reach out, to be warm and welcoming and non-judgemental. And I don’t feel apologetic. Our programme is diverse, entertaining, challenging and increasingly popular – – Go and look at our current exhibition in the gallery and feel free to spend as much as you like in our shop – We support amazing early career and untrained artists, And we’ve found ways to include homeless and other people facing tough times to be central to the running of the centre. All of this is truly great. It’s a safe space. So why am I presenting this provocation? Well – because I’m the director, and I decided to. After all, it’s MY arts centre. I expected you to bristle at that. Because that is obviously rubbish. It’s not my arts centre. I’m just one of several people who are paid or volunteer to make this whole thing work, And I can see colleagues, volunteers and Trustees here today. So it’s OUR Arts Centre. Well, that’s not true. Because I can also see people from Crisis with whom we share the building, I can see people from the City Council who own the building, I can see people we co-produce work with, across the city, And I can see artists who actually make the work which we are here to put on, Not to mention funders, who pay for it all – or (dare I say) might fund us, and pay for it all. So it’s obviously YOUR arts centre. But what about the people we want to come and see stuff and participate in it, and everything that we do? Is it not THEIR arts centre? Whose arts centre is this? Can we have art institutions (and here I’m quoting the Belgian artist Sarah Vanhee) “That practice alternative politics, instead of presenting programmes about alternative politics?” “Can we have art institutions that take care…of everyone involved with the institutions?” So. Here is the problem. Am I actually prepared to let go of the key levers – the creative control? Not really. Are you? When I talk about art as an instrument of social change, do I explain what I mean? No, it’s code. It’s code, again, for stating what I believe to be an obvious mainstream truth from the moral high ground, That it is a good idea to include lots of different people in our exciting nurturing creative world so they can become better, happier people. And it would be good if the world changed to become more like a world where everyone agreed with me. That’s what I mean by ‘social change’. So here I am in my bubble. Here we are in our bubble. Where we feel safe, because it’s a good bubble. And it’s our bubble. Our safe space. Is the job to make the bubble bigger and bring more people in, Or is the job to burst the bubble? To quote a line from a song in our last Christmas show on this stage at the Old Fire Station: ‘We used to think that everyone thought like us…
and then there was a series of elections.’

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