Cultural democracy in practice: alternatives to artwashing and the Great North Exhibition
Tuesday, 23 October 2018 05:30

Cultural democracy in practice: alternatives to artwashing and the Great North Exhibition

Published in Cultural Commentary

Theresa Easton and Martin Gollan are two members of a group of artists who staged protests about The Great North Exhibition and who organised an alternative – and ongoing – series of events, The Other Great Exhibition of the North. They were recently interviewed by Mike Quille.

MQ: There was a lot of media attention given to The Great North Exhibition. What were the views of local artists?

MG: I think for many artists and musicians and others involved in the creative world of Newcastle and Gateshead, the Great Exhibition of the North (GETNORTH) was something planted down with little relevance or desire to attempt to connect with what was happening locally, especially at grassroots level.

As it got closer to the launch of GETNORTH it became increasingly clear just how limited its engagement would be with established centres of creative activity, like the Ouseburn in Newcastle, or those communities where Tory welfare reforms and austerity have increased already entrenched levels of poverty and disadvantage.

Yes, there was a small grants programme, but few artists we know were successful in getting any funding from that. And GETNORTH’s ‘inspired by’ programme was simply an act of appropriation, making claims for festivals, projects and cultural activities which were already planned and in the calendar.

‘Inspired by’ gave the illusion of GETNORTH’s reach into Newcastle and Gateshead’s local arts community, when the reality was that it barely moved beyond the established cultural venues along the Quayside and city centres of Newcastle and Gateshead.  

It was clear fairly early on that IT was less about celebrating cultural, scientific and engineering accomplishments, than a promotional device for George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse. Unlike other arts festivals in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool or Middlesbrough, it was hatched in Westminster, like the Northern Powerhouse’s devolution plans.

It’s worth remembering that Osborne’s plans for a North East devolution deal, similar to Manchester’s, had already been rejected, that Greater Manchester seemed to be the only place where anything was really happening. You need to remember too that GETNORTH, although taking place in Newcastle and Gateshead, was supposed to be about the whole Northern Powerhouse area – hence John Lennon’s piano and Helen Sharman’s spacesuit being included in the rambling display at Newcastle’s Great North Museum.

GETNORTH was simply an example of artwashing – using culture to give a positive gloss to a cynically inspired political programme designed to distract northern communities from the reality of a centralised political and cultural machine. This Westminster machine is hellbent on pursuing neoliberal economic policies, and making ordinary people pay for the reckless and criminal actions of finance capitalism in the 2008 crash.

MQ: How did local artists, musicians and other creative workers react to the project?

MG: The cynicism of GETNORTH and its neoliberal capitalist roots was made clear by its list of sponsors, including BAE Systems and Virgin Trains. We acknowledge that along with the arts, it was also about science and engineering, and maybe from that perspective those two sponsors made some sense.

But only someone with a tin ear to what was already happening in museums and galleries, where protesters had already for several years been taking action against BP’s sponsorship of the National Portrait Gallery’s annual portrait competition, or Airbus’s links with the Science Museum, would think it a good idea to approach BAE Systems and Virgin.

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The Art not Arms campaign against BAE Systems involvement in GETNORTH and BAE’s subsequent withdrawal, was a galvanizing moment for artists and demonstrated how we didn’t need to simply put up with it. Also, Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry incensed artists when he referred to them as ‘snowflakes’, chasing ‘subsidies’. It was obvious he was clueless as to the precarious working conditions of artists, who on average survive on less than £10,000 a year.

In April we put a call out through social media to anyone interested in creating an alternative, more democratic cultural initiative, which would be grassroots, led by North East artists and involve the communities that the official programme wasn’t interested in. We organised a meeting and about 20 to 30 people turned up – artists, performers, musicians, writers and activists. It seemed like we’d struck a chord.

We outlined our reasons why there needed to be a response to GETNORTH and we agreed a name for what we were planning, The Other Great Exhibition of the North, or OtherGEN. A website was set up along with Twitter and Facebook platforms to promote events and advertise the planning meetings, which continued through the summer. OtherGEN deliberately reached out to creative communities in Sunderland, Durham and Middlesbrough and elsewhere in the region, where GETNORTH was absent.

Our programme was necessarily somewhat ad hoc and reliant on the artists to themselves organise events and exhibitions. Some great ideas didn’t come off simply because of lack of time. Remember, work began on GETNORTH in 2016 – OtherGEN only had a few weeks.

However, we were awarded some funding from Seedbed Tyneside Arts and received donations from Newcastle Trades Council, Northumbria UCU and that enabled us to meet at least some of the costs incurred by the artists and performers who took part. Over time a core organising committee naturally formed and as we are all members of either Artists Union England or the Musicians Union, paying artists and performers was important.

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June demo against GETNORTH artwashing

Among the events that took place as part of OtherGEN, the first was the march/parade on 22 June, the day GETNORTH launched. We marched from the Haymarket, down Northumberland St and congregated outside the Laing Art Gallery, where we had speeches and songs. It was a great way to start off.

In July The gallery at 36 Lime Street was transformed into a working studio as resident artist Theresa Easton created a range of hand printed posters in response to GETNORTH. On show was work by young women attending St Michael's Centre, Byker, alongside Theresa’s collection of broadsides and posters covering the 'Together Against Trump' campaign and a past residency at Robert Smails Printing Works, Innerleithen.

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OtherGEN workshop run by Sheree Mack

I think we were all clear that OtherGEN, as much as it was a set of cultural actions, it was also a straightforwardly political act. When OPENM;NDED, a group providing a platform to explore challenging issues through conversation, community and creativity, made contact with us about a spoken word event they were organising, there was no question of OtherGEN not getting involved.

The event at Kommunity had a panel featuring OtherGEN’s Stephen Pritchard, also Mo Lovatt and John Tomaney, who had recently published an article critical of GETNORTH, and spoken word performances from Wajid Hussain, Harry Gallagher and Andy White.

Other events in August included a Friday night ceilidh at Blackfriars Centre, Byker with local band Berking Mad. An exhibition, Is the Spectacle the Sun that Never Sets, was also held at System Gallery. The show, featuring work by North East artists Azin, Mark Carr and Sharon Gollan, explored the ideologies and consequences of neoliberalism and the deliberate austerity policies pursued by the Tory government. So along with the art on display, we shared information about Gateshead Foodbank, Newcastle West End Foodbank and the People’s Kitchen.

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Work, worklessness and the political economy of health, by Sharon Gollan, in an OtherGEN art exhibition

In September, OtherGEN supported a jazz event in Sunderland, with Emma Fisk and James Birkett playing early jazz numbers. There was also a display from Assign (Arts Sunderland Support Initiative Group Network) of jazz influenced artwork.

A ‘drink and draw’ night was held at the Tyneside Irish Centre. Organised by Angela Kennedy, a Gateshead-based interdisciplinary artist and activist, the drink and draw was an opportunity to have some fun and loosen up their creativity in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere.

We returned in September to Blackfriars for a comedy night with local comedians Mike Milligan and John Scott.

MQ: Now the GNE has ended, what does your group intend to do?

TE: OtherGEN has struck a chord with many of those involved and will continue to build links with communities to create events and plan artistic developments with a whole range of people. The group has also developed a supportive role within the artistic community.  

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Community arts screenprinting workshop at Redhills, Durham, run by Theresa Easton for OtherGEN

The neoliberal and elitist environment of the ‘art world’ where the ‘free’ market rules, is being challenged and exposed. Alternative models of making a living as an artist are being embraced. Community art, sometimes seen as less important or serious as ‘high art’, is being used to challenge the idea that success is measured by the price of artwork.  

This is particularly relevant, as recently Arts Council England commissioned a report called ‘Cultural Democracy’ which was supposed to encourage arts organisations to open up decision-making and physical spaces for local communities and artists.

In fact, the report is another top-down approach that appropriates the radical concepts behind cultural democracy, and the work of communities and art activists. OtherGEN will continue to hold the government and its institutions to account as long as it continues to artwash its programmes of austerity, inequality and class-based discrimination.

MQ: What kind of pressures are artists under these days? How do you make a living?

TE: The effect of austerity on artists and their working lives is no different from other professions, having a direct adverse effect on the precarious paid work of artists. We are facing zero-hour contracts, less local government and public funding for the arts, cuts in visiting lecture work and huge cuts in schools’ art budgets, as well as the time devoted to the study and practice of the arts.

This inevitably affects the funding available for art work in educational contexts, communities, gallery work, art projects, residencies, and commissions – all these avenues of funding have been decimated by the austerity programme.  

Universal Credit has hit many artists hard, as benefits are cut because of irregular wage income. Artists are regularly asked to work for free to complete projects, so their business model is often deemed unprofitable by the DWP. Artists in England formed a trade union in 2014, the Artists’ Union England, to counter the exploitative nature of their work and demand better wages and conditions.

The corporate takeover of the arts manifests itself as sponsorship deals, which do not put money into artists’ pocket or provide regular, adequately paid work. Instead corporations are using taxpayers’ subsidies to present a squeaky clean image while they avoid tax, pollute the planet and exploit lucrative government outsourcing deals.

MQ: What would you like a Corbyn-led Government to do, in terms of arts and culture policy?

TE: Reverse the austerity cuts, and reintroduce universal, accessible library and museum services. The arts will always need subsidy, so investment at local and regional level is imperative in order to avoid a centralised approach.

The arts and other kinds of cultural activity need to be at the centre of communities. They are too important to our well-being to be restricted to weekend visits to cultural venues by the better-off. Those who work in the arts need employment protection like any other worker, and to have their trade unions automatically recognised. Diversity in terms of class, ethnic background, sexuality and other factors needs to be addressed, both for those who work in the arts and those who access and engage with it. Much more needs to be done to be totally inclusive and representative of our communities, especially working class and poorer communities.

MQ: More broadly, how do you think OtherGEN relates to the current discussions and debates about cultural democracy? What lessons might political parties like Labour take from OtherGEN?

TE: The general consensus from the discussions we have had in meetings is that our kind of ethos – participatory, egalitarian, based on mutual co-operation and support, and rooted in local communities – is what cultural democracy should be about, only for artistic activities, but other cultural activities too.

Cultural democracy is not something that can be imposed from above. It’s a process of genuine empowerment of communities, and the artists in those communities. If resources and power are located in grassroots groups, and the means of cultural production and enjoyment are developed, managed and enjoyed within democratic structures, as they have been within OtherGEN meetings, then it’s genuine cultural democracy.

But if power and money are located in professional cultural organisations, following templates and monitoring systems set by national bureaucracies or private corporate sponsors, then it’s not cultural democracy.

Like health, education and key industries like the railways, culture is too important to be left to the so-called ‘free market’. In our discussions, people have imagined arrangements where there is a genuine and significant amount of shared, social ownership and democratic control of cultural services. We think that just like other more material resources, working people also need to have more ownership of cultural production, communication and enjoyment.