Thursday, October 13, 2011

Cultural Manifesto

I'll prefix this by saying that this is written from the point of view of someone who doesn't fit into the existing model and that these thoughts are relatively fluid. There are surely many who are satisfied and may even thrive within that which is currently in favour.

The suggestions are utopian ideals that politically might not score as many points as a colourful, but ultimately hollow soundbite culture.

At the moment it would seem that a significant chunk of arts funding - both civil and corporate - is focused on two or three streams. Each of these has it's problems but equally provide an easy photo opportunity for those who are at the helm of the responsible ship. ie. 'I made THIS happen'.

The first - rather garish and glaring - example is public art. There are many arguments about how public art helps activate space, engages with the protagonists in that space or simply 'makes it prettier'. Unfortunately this is often not the case when public art projects are 'enforced' by something akin to Western Australia's 'Percent for Art' Scheme.

The artworks are often treated as flourish or - worse still - used as 'ersatz' elements. Basically an architect might be obligated to design in a way finding system but will instead kill two birds by combining the artwork with the signage. The artwork is potentially compromised by this.

Public art is very much defined by material choice, robustness and safety considerations. i.e. You can't offend anyone, it should be 'uplifting', everything must have a dull edge, be out of reach, etc, etc. It also must often pass committees. This can be stacked with people who are either ill-informed or tainted by an agenda. The art object can then be homogenized to the point of tastelessness.

The second is the art award circuit. We personally enter a limited number of such things (those with pre-selection processes) for the rare opportunity to get our work in front of what I term the 'Mysterious Few', something that would otherwise seem very difficult for outsiders in Perth.

Awards are easy fodder for councils. They then get to throw around large numbers (ie. $45,000 in prizes, 6,000+ people saw the show) and ultimately provide nice, round KPIs for reports as well as excellent photo opportunities.

Awards shows suffer from many flaws not least of which they are often held in horrendous venues with terrible lighting, ear-splitting white noise and an apathetic audience. Big numbers look good in reports but what when 80% of those simply throw a incidental quick glance between other activities. ie. in the brief walk from a fast food restaurant to a $2 shop?

They also vary wildly in quality, the ability of curators to resolve disparate work and installation style. Given the political aspect of such things, some councils take an all inclusive approach and some exhibitions are salon style to an extreme with massive variations in quality.

So... what are the solutions?

I have seen a few variations on what is loosely termed 'Percent for Space'. That is, rather than erecting political totems that have been funded by an active policy of setting aside a portion of project costs, that same money is allocated to subsidised leases to helps studios, ARIs and other such things get established.

This ultimately feeds back into the 'loop' as areas are often rejuvenated in their activation by creatives, they become more attractive to other businesses who then setup and draw in an audience, etc, etc.

There are a few problems with this model. The key one being how does someone 'qualify' for such things? You could potentially link it to educational outcomes - ie. someone holds a BFA/MFA so they are 'officially' an artist - but qualification doesn't necessarily equal an active artistic practice. This also exempts the multitude of artists who don't fit (willingly or otherwise) that institutional model.

You also can't necessarily link it to membership of particular organisations as these are often without qualified application processes. ie.  you pay and you become a member irrelevant of active practice.

The other model that I have seen on a project-by-project scale is micro-philanthropy. Examples (and variations) of this include Kickstarter, Art Angels and Artsource's 'Patrons' fund. I've been thinking about how this same model might be applied to a broader funding pool.

An example would be that a company is specifically setup with not-for-profit status and registers to accept donations. Other companies and/or individuals could donate funds to that company (with associated tax benefits) and money would then be distributed to creatives via an independently qualified application process with some tangible result (edition prints, books, etc) being awarded to those who have originally donated.

That same not-for-profit might also actively purchase artworks rather than simply fund projects. These artworks could then form part of a greater 'cultural collection' that is more indicative of both time and environment.

Scale is important as it encourages others to participate and provides large numbers that are politically rewarding without too much compromise.

Lastly, the awards dilemma. As rewarding as art awards are for a limited number of individuals I think an active acquisitional policy or a series of curatorially robust 'survey' shows would be more sustainable.

The key problem with such things is the need for dedicated staff and space to manage such things and a program of engaging in a broader sense with both creatives and the audiences. This is 'harder' politically as it doesn't necessarily provide soundbites and is more culturally committed.

As mentioned at the start, this is rather fluid. I freely admit that I don't have 'solutions' but I do recognise that I am not the only one that doesn't fit.

It's not simply a matter of recutting the clothes, some times the mannequin is the one in need of a tweak!

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