Tuesday, February 06, 2007

I'm flattered to discover that Lyn Gardner has responded to my comment on her Guardian blog about Arts Council priorities. I've noticed that Guardian blog authors normally don't get involved in their Comments box debates, so I'm pleased that she's taken the time to respond.

It's timely in that it links in with my recent theme on this page about the power (or lack of) of theatre to change things in the world. I've reproduced our exchange below, not simply as an easy blog entry (though I am having a busy week) but because I've been quite impressed with my readers' quality of mind here lately and I'd be interested to get your opinions. I haven't had much contact with the Arts Council recently so I'm also curious to hear any anecdotes from those who have. I've reproduced their current listed priorities at the end of this post to get you thinking. Do you agree or disagree with their focus? What would your priorities be and why?

Here's what I said to Lyn:

"Whilst I can understand some of your disquiet about the balance of this equation Lyn [between funding the arts for their own sake and funding participatory/community arts projects] there are a couple of important points which I think you've overlooked.

The first is that for the arts to truly flourish at a professional level, artists themselves need to be drawn from as diverse a range of backgrounds as possible, in order for the art that they make to provoke and challenge the society it is for and about. Theatre is a telling example: ten years ago playwriting was an almost exclusively white middle-class activity. Nothing wrong with plays by and for this group, and I speak as one of them, but if that's the only group from which stories are being drawn then the possiblities for ongoing originality and provocation are necessarily limited. Artists, of whatever stripe, are important gatekeeper positions within our culture - we are the progenitors of stories, and as such decide what people, subjects and aspects of human experience are worth putting a frame around. This is an extraordinarily powerful position to hold. The people who hold it should come from as representative a range of backgrounds as possible. But holding these positions and getting to make art isn't something people usually just jump into at a professional level; it takes a lot of training, and young people's projects are the first step in this. Many will be inspired to make important original art of their own later in life.

[Apologies to regular readers who are sick of me banging on about this next bit:] I'm currently working as playwright-in-residence at Mulberry School for Girls in Tower Hamlets, a state school which by its location is made up of 99% Bangladeshi Muslim girls. I'm running an after school playwriting club, and I'm struggling to find them plays to study with characters even remotely drawn from worlds they would recognise. I've found a couple - by Tanika Gupta and Amber Lone - and great as those two are, the scarcity of material from this particular group is still a bit of an indictment of where we recruit our playwrights and how we train and support them.

But more importantly, Mulberry have also asked me to write a new play exlusively for the school, for and about their students, which they want me to take to the Edinburgh Festival this summer. This is an amazing opportunity and I'm proud and privilieged to be given the opportunity to do it. Mulberry is a visionary school with specialist arts status and this is all part of their philosophy - that artists and educational establishments should form a sort of symbiosis, where the students obviously benefit from working directly with arts professionals, but where the school, through supporting local artists, also inspires them and puts them in touch with groups with whom they would never normally have contact, and for this to go on to create new original art which couldn't happen in any other way. (Incidentally, the money for this is coming from the school itself, not the Arts Council, but I've long argued that education is rapidly taking the lead in innovative working models of this sort and that the arts could learn a lot).

As a playwright, initially the difficulty in making a regular living in theatre pushed me to find education work, particuarly with young people. I found myself working with kids in care, teenage mums, young offenders - all the groups the government want to target through the Arts Council agenda - and absolutely loving it! Before, if i had wanted to break out of my white middle-class bubble and write about pirate radio and a clash of faiths in the UK grime scene I'd have had months of painstaking research to do and contacts to make. Now, I just offer to run a few workshops for specific organisations and I have instant access to the people I want to write about, all of whom get something out of it too. The theatre companies adopting this approach, such as Half Moon, Birmingham Rep, Liverpool Everyman and several others, are actually producing some of the most exciting and relevant work in the UK, and are the theatre companies most in touch with their audiences. What's wrong with that? My play for teenagers Locked In, which toured last year, was a direct result of this approach and couldn't have been written in any other way. I've just been commissioned to do another on the back of it and I can't wait - through Half Moon I have the opportunity to access a whole range of subjects I might otherwise never write about.

So don't dismiss working in this way. At its best it can inspire art and artists to explore new areas in the infinite variety of human experience, and surely that's a good thing for art, artists, audiences, critics - and even the government's happy. I think that's a pretty positive outcome by anyone's standards."

And here's Lyn's response:

"Fin, I can't argue with anything you're saying. I'm not for a moment trying to suggest that participation, access and education are not important. What's the point of art which is only elitist, made by the cultural establishment for the cultural establishment? We all know from Gramsci how power--whether social, political or cultural--is maintained by deneying access to those who are not part of that established power base. You only have to go to something even as wonderful as Devoted and Disgruntled--probably a pretty representive cross section of people working in theatre today---to see how few black people have a foothold in theatre.

In many ways I think that despite all the schemes access has actually diminished in theatre over the last 20 years as funding has been eroded and production costs have risen. Young theatre makers today often not only need talent, skill and dedication, they also need £10,000 in the bank to get that all important first production up and running.

So yes access and participation are crucial. The scheme you're currently working on at Mulberry school sounds fantasic, and I've certainly had experience of other schemes which have produced extraordinary art and just as extraordinary social benegfits. I am thinking of companies such as Quarantine whose White Trash was a remarkable and moving piece of of dance theatre created via workshops with a group of young, white working class men in Manchester who'd never done any theatre at all. I'm thinking of the work done by Action Transport-- I recemtly saw a terrific show which was wriiten by no less than 15 young people in collaboration. Or a LIFT project I was involved in a school in Stoke Newington when the children turned their very lives into art.

What I think marked out these projects was that they are not afraid to find new ways of working (after all most of British theatre--both institiutions and individuals-- shies away like at a frightened horse at the prospect of working collaboratively) and that they always placed art at the centre of the project.

My point is simply that I don't think that the government and the Arts Council see the purpose of art in that way any longer. The value of art is increasingly being assessed for its value as a branch of social work. They are only interested in the use to which art can be put and see it as a tool of social policy and social engineering. And that's worrying.I believe that good art almost always turns out to be transforming and has huge social benefits for individuals, communities and the country as a whole--witness the projects I've mentioned above. It may be called the Arts Council, but increasingly its agenda suggests that art is really secondary to other priorities."

And here are the Arts Council's current priorities, as listed on their website:

"For 2006 to 2008, we have six priorities:
  • Taking part in the arts
  • Children and young people
  • The creative economy
  • Vibrant communities
  • Internationalism
  • Celebrating diversity.
Right. Over to you.


jonathan said...

Actually, Arts Council England have just published their first theatre policy since 2000.

see www.artscouncil.org.uk/aboutus/artpolicies.php

This is what they say...

,Our priorities for theatre 2007–2011

To support a more confident, diverse and innovative arts sector, which is valued by and in tune with the communities it serves

∑ We will fund a portfolio of organisations that are contemporary in their approach and committed to engaging people in their work in new ways. We will continue to review the organisations we fund and prioritise those seeking to implement more sustainable business models and to develop partnerships that give their work greater impact and reach

∑ We will give particular emphasis to experimental practice and interdisciplinary practice, circus and street arts. We will help develop a sustainable environment in which promoters can develop new work and exploit international opportunities and partnerships

∑ We will support artists and producers by encouraging opportunities for skills development and international exchange. We will help create the time, space, money and networks that practitioners, including writers, need to develop their practice

To enable more people to take part in the arts as both audiences and participants

∑ We will encourage initiatives such as Sunday opening that enable more people from a wider range of backgrounds to engage with theatre. We will encourage the use of technology to increase access to theatre and support collaborations on new forms of distribution

To enable more children and young people to take part in the arts

∑ We will create greater access to theatre for children and young people. We will build opportunities for participation through our Young People’s Participatory Theatre Project. We will advocate the value of professional theatre for children and young people and artists

To celebrate diversity

∑ We will develop greater equality of opportunity for practitioners and audiences from diverse backgrounds. We will continue to work with mainstream theatre organisations to remove institutional barriers. We will take forward the recommendations of Whose Theatre...?

Fin said...

Go on Jonathan, venture an opinion. No-one else is biting on this one and I love it when you get going. ;-)