I’ve been in lots of online meetings recently about the future of the arts, and had loads of conversations about where we’re going and what can we do and what is the point of us (all valid questions), and those conversations have also been bubbling on twitter, especially with Alan Lane of SlungLow and Tarek Iskandar of BAC. If you tweet, follow them both. Now.

I was emailing Louise Blackwell about this stuff this morning and want to share what I wrote to Louise, because I have an uneasiness about a call for a ‘united’ voice and ‘concerted action’.

We are not a united sector and that’s ok – we have very different interests and focus. Some arts organisations are all about the great art and the excellence and good on them. Some arts organisations are all about the adventure playground and how can we support the kids (and the elderly and the lost/isolated/vulnerable and everyone) to be whatever kind of artist they might want to be. And good on them too. Obviously, the latter is where I have put my energy and passion for the majority of my work and certainly in the last 7 years with Fun Palaces, but they both have a place, as do the many in between. However the voice that is usually heard – and listened to by government – is that of the great art/excellence people. They have bigger names, more clout, more money and more status and – sadly – government are more likely to listen to them.

The voice that feels missing is that of the everyday, low-paid (if paid at all), community-centred artist. The one who does some work in/with a community, who is rarely commissioned but just gets on and does their work, all the time, with very little fanfare and even less support. Very often they don’t even self-define as an artist (nor do arts ‘senior leaders’ usually perceive them as such – unfortunately), but they are the ones doing the work ALL THE TIME in community. No one needs to suggest they become more relevant, that is all they’ve ever been. Their work is organic, local, uncertain, hard to define and slot into neat categories – and it is vital.

Right now they are also working from home (if they have paid work), homeschooling and/or caring for elderly, supporting their local community even more with personal acts of creative kindness and engagement – and they never or rarely get acknowledged.
They haven’t had work cancelled because they work from commission to commission – if that – so they can’t ask ACE for support for work that was cancelled. Now they have no hope of ANY commissions in the next year or more.
They often don’t earn enough to qualify for the HMRC self-employed support, or if they do, it’s very little – certainly not the full £2500/month, or more than 50% of their work is PAYE so they’re not eligible.
And they get on and keep on because they always do. They’re doing amazing work right now, often unpaid, for love and from passion. We’re sharing lots of it in Fun Palaces Tiny Revolutions.
But I genuinely wonder how they’ll survive this, and they are the backbone of community/local participation in arts, creativity, culture.

I appreciate a national voice is being called for to but I’m honestly not sure that’s the right way. The national voice will always give precedence to the bigger names in this approach and what I’m talking about is hyper-local work that needs hyper-local support. Local govt and local borough and even smaller – working with local schools, local places of worship. This feels like a perfect time to stop going through usual channels in the hope that Treasury can be persuaded of culture’s value and for arts to put our considerable energies towards supporting local action and local initiatives. (Exactly what SlungLow are doing right now.)

I know it’s so hard to find a cohesive way forward, but perhaps cohesion isn’t the way, perhaps big and all-together has had it’s time. What is working right now are local mutual aid groups and street whatsapp groups and individuals making a difference for their estate, road, village, valley. Perhaps the arts needs to be looking to the core, not to the centre, yet again.