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Reflections on Public Assets: small-scale arts organisations and the production of value

by Max Slaven, Frances Davis and SCAN

Max Slaven is one of the founding directors of David Dale Gallery, a contemporary visual arts organisation based in the east end of Glasgow.

The first thing that became apparent on entering registration at Central St. Martins for Public Assets: Small Scale Arts Organisations and The Production of Value Common Practice event was the number of small scale arts organisations and interested stakeholders that such an event could draw. Though a tiny snapshot of what actually represents small scale visual arts practice within the UK, the number of participants was indicative of the potential weight that our arguments can carry. Strength in numbers, if not in individual financial and political clout. And if this gathering and demonstration of numbers did not inform the defiant rhetoric that followed, it was indeed coloured by it.

The tone, which was challanging and independent, was artfully crafted and sustained by Andrea Philips, who not only drew insightful commonalities between speakers but had the audacity to attempt towards tangible outcomes and conclusions from the sometime semantic bog of a day. The subject was the production and demonstration of value, which has followed on from, and been informed by the previous work that Common practice has delivered. In particular the two papers Size Matters by Sarah Thelwall and Value, Measure, Sustainability by Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt. The core to be interrogated was Value, and the problems inherent within it. On the one hand we were invited to devise a new vocabulary, from within which we would articulate our worth to the Government and funding bureaucracies, sidestepping the oppressive lexicons we were expected to work within. And on the other hand we were asked to consider how we display this value out with financial and necessarily quantitive methods– a dichotomy that wasn’t fully reconciled in my mind. It is a duality borne of exasperated participants within a funding system that for now almost time immemorial has misplaced value, emphasis and effort at the discretion of successive governments. And for a collection of representatives of funded organisations within a funded event, of which no representatives of the arts council (on either side of the border) saw as disruptive enough to attend, to step out side of our condition may have proven difficult.

That is not to misunderstand me, I did enjoy and draw a lot from the event, and that the speakers were without exception all excellent in their chosen topics, only that the defiance could be read as a retreat into ourselves and our language rather than a projection out. Here, I don’t have the space to elaborate on the particular points of the speakers or the growth of the discussion within the room, though I did notice that the event was filmed and hope this will be available to a wider audience soon.

After lunch we were invited to break out into smaller groups to discuss a topic which we had selected earlier. I chose to participate in the group titled How to Balance and Measure Values of Localism and Internationalism, which was joint chaired by Kwong Lee of Castlefield Gallery and Alessio Antoniolli of Gasworks. Among my fellow participant organisations the main concern appeared to be how to balance the two ideas of the local and international, those organisations that participated (among other individuals non-affiliated, and those I missed) were Circa, Devron Arts, Mexico, Outpost, Pumphouse. We discussed why we participated internationally, and to who’s benefit were we doing it for. From which the consensus developed that it was everyone who benefited. In explanation, the artist (travelling internationally) and the local audience through cultural exchange, and the artist (regardless of locality) and organisation through heightened profile and legitimisation- therefore allowing the organisation to better serve artists’ needs in the future. All of which I agreed with in entirety, and believe needs more proponents. However, conditioned by the morning’s activities, I saw the problem as semantic and financial. Speaking on behalf of my organisation, I offered that we don’t intend to work with local or international artists – that we work with artists, regardless of where they’re from as long as it’s interesting and beneficial to the artist, and we feel should be shown in Glasgow now. Our local audience will then reap the rewards regardless of where the artist is from. The local vs International (never mind the unnecessarily loaded ‘isms’) is a construct symptomatic of the problems within funding I hinted at earlier. Though, in this particular strand, the public and citizen (therefore local to either country or city – tax collecting municipality) has precedent and must benefit over those from elsewhere. This doesn’t work as an end point, and neither should it, all great art is international – and the role of a responsible and benevolent government is to enable it to be shown, and for our artists to show elsewhere. When the local stands in for the national, as it often does, we create problems in privileging our benefit, as tax payers, over others. And the metric for value becomes, along with every other public service, is it value for money?

Frances Davis is Curatorial Assistant at Timespan, an award-winning museum and public contemporary art gallery in Sutherland.

Andrea Phillips, co-organiser of Public Assets, introduced the day, setting out its context and its framework. As with Common Practice’s previous outputs, there was to be a focus on the work of small-scale arts organisations in relation to its funders and of the difficulty of articulating the value(s) of art within systems that render value in economic and commercial terms. Phillips outlined the contradiction performed by cultural workers, struggling to match the often radical exteriority of arts organisations with an interior of increased administration, entrepreneurism, and marketisation. With the suggestion that this could be seen as a difficulty of negotiating different meanings, the day was to be an opportunity to establish a new vocabulary with which to describe our work, and to feel more empowered with, and through, language.

In keeping with this emphasis on words, Guardian culture writer, Charlotte Higgins, began with an etymological root – of “broadcast” and its earliest meaning of scattering seed widely – to introduce a brief overview of the BBC’s formation and presenting the corporation as an example of an organisation where the importance of public space unconstrained by private interests was understood.

The Otolith Group’s Kodwo Eshun called attention to the word small, suggesting its diminutive, hyphenated effect forced small-scale arts organisations into a perpetual infancy, the eternal youths to the grown-up Tate’s et al. He stressed the need for non-linear metaphors for the work of small-scale organisations that understands their work as valuable in and of itself, but perhaps it is also necessary to challenge the related idea of continual growth within individual organisations too; maintenance may not sound exciting but it could be a valuable and more sustainable, approach.

Opening up the conversation to contributions from the audience led to a consideration of the word (and work of) curation and its Latin root curare, “to care”. With care work widely undervalued in society at large, and performed predominantly by female labour, this metaphor might be more apt than intended but also more problematic.

A breakout session led by Eshun and Emily Pethick, director of The Showroom, nominally addressing networks, instead covered a looser collection of ideas related to the morning’s discussions. Picking up once more on the importance of words, one participant made a forceful call for the need to resist “industrialisation” – specifically the terming of art as an industry – and the inherent notions of production and profit it implies.

The afternoon included three further presentations offering examples of organisational practice from outwith the UK, each speaker invited because they were working in ways that “moved from value to values”. Maria Lind presented the work of Tensta Konsthall, focussing on its networks and collaborations, and Jesús Carrillo spoke of his work at Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofìa and the difficulty of maintaining an approach akin to activism within the changing political environment in Spain. Finally, Lise Soskolne, core organiser of W.A.G.E, deftly unpicked the issues around artists’ labour and fair remuneration.

Public Assets concluded with an attempt to distil the day’s discussions into a set of actions – a careful consideration of the use of small within the work of Common Practice, a sharing of data between organisations – moving the broadly philosophical conversations towards a “pragmatic activism”. But the most compelling suggestion came from Lind: whilst there is clearly a need to challenge the structures that work in opposition to practice these conversations should not take place at the expense of talking about art. Perhaps they can take place through engaging with art, artists, and ideas?

With thanks to Common Practice for providing a bursary to support my attendance at Public Assets.