Cultural democracy in practice: alternatives to artwashing and the Great North Exhibition
Tuesday, 11 December 2018 11:27

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.

GNE 2

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.

Demo

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.

Otherness 1 Sheree Angela Matthews

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.

Work worklessness and the politcal economy of health sharon gollan 2

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.

 "Culture is BAE Systems Britain", appropriated government overseas advertising image, Stephen Pritchard, 2018.
Tuesday, 11 December 2018 11:27

The Great North Exhibition and BAE

Published in Cultural Commentary

Stephen Pritchard protests with a blog against the involvement of BAE Systems in the Great Exhibition of the North, and Keith Armstrong protests with a poem.

This blog is a brief response to the artwashing of the Great Exhibition of the North, particularly the inclusion of BAE Systems as a "premier partner" of the event, which is billed as the UK's biggest event for 2018. There's a campaign to force event organisers to remove BAE Systems from the list of sponsors and I'm a member, but I want to consider the following questions in relation to the scandal: a) Who really organises the exhibition? b) Where is the money coming from? c) Who decides on sponsors? I suggest the arts community in the North East may have had little, if any choice in the decision to brand the event with a weapons manufacturer with a terrible reputation.

Just what on earth is going on with the Great Exhibition of the North? An event dreamt up by the Tories to showcase their outlandish vision of the Northern Powerhouse has become the site of artwashing on an epic scale! The biggest cultural event on the UK calendar this year, the exhibition has revealed its three "premier partners" - each of which will benefit significantly from massive media exposure across the UK and around the world. It was bad enough to find that two of the three exclusive partners - Virgin and Accenture - are renowned tax-avoiders and well-versed in exploiting and privatising our public services, but to find that weapons manufacturer BAE Systems are set to benefit from their association with the Great Exhibition of the event left me absolutely dumfounded!

I mean, the decision to accept sponsorship from BAE Systems simply beggars belief. The company has made billions from the sale of weapons and mass surveillance technologies to oppressive regimes and has been widely criticised for doing so. Its weapons have been used by Saudi Arabia to kill innocent men, women and children in Yemen. The company's weapons have also been used by Israel against innocent Palestinian families. How can exhibition organisers legitimately defend their decision to attach such a brand to the event? Are artists and organisations involved in the event aware that their names are being used by BAE Systems to sanitise their image as symbols of their commitment to corporate social responsibility? This is artwashing on a grand scale: the artwashing of the North of England - its communities, its artists, its people. It is absolutely outrageous!

Some artists have already withdrawn. I am part of a group of artists and arts professionals calling for the Great Exhibition of the North to #dropBAE. Our petition had almost 800 signatories at the time of writing this blog. It is deeply unethical to have BAE’s name associated with the exhibition and it taints the proud cultures and heritage of the people of Newcastle and Gateshead and, indeed, the North. Artwashing works by using brand association with arts events, like the Great Exhibition of the North, to create what appears to be a caring image to the general public. Unfortunately, this is nothing more than a PR exercise in false claims of "corporate social responsibility" to disguise unsavoury corporate activities - in this case the wholesale export of arms and advanced surveillance equipment that murder people and spy on them. BAE Systems are the antithesis of social justice. Their products kill innocent people and take away human rights.

So why would anyone want to associate such an important festival of arts, heritage, culture and creativity with a producer of mass destruction and control? It is all too easy to blame the organisers - the NewcastleGateshead Initiative - or the arts organisations, or the artists, or the other board members, for that matter. We must remember that this event is primarily paid for by the Tories - by the UK government. The Great Exhibition of the North is a government initiative. And BAE Systems are a tax-payer subsidised company. So is it really that surprising that they were chosen to benefit from this festival? They employ many people in the North East. For the Tories, that's a "no-brainer". They wouldn't think twice about ethics or about brand identity. This is just a vehicle for their own Conservative notions of "the North" and neoliberal enterprise.

So this is a political issue. The artwashing of BAE Systems at the Great Exhibition of the North is a political issue. It is another example of the state-supported corporate takeover of the arts, just like the recent appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch to the national council of Arts Council England.

I would not be at all surprised to learn that the DCMS and Government Office forced exhibition organisers and participants to accept the prominent branding of BAE Systems. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that BAE Systems had contributed little, if anything in terms of financial sponsorship. I wouldn't be surprised if all the sponsors were selected by the Tories. And all this in a part of the country firmly committed to the principles of community, hard work, and solidarity: a Labour heartland. THEY are trying to tear out our hearts and turn the North East into a sales event for weapons and tax-avoidance. Artists are once again used as pawns, with precarity used against them at every opportunity.

We must say no! Please sign the petition now.

Great North Exhibition 2018 from Great Northern on VimeoThis article is republished from Stephen Pritchard's blog.

55 Degrees North

by Keith Armstrong

They're going to illuminate Scotswood,
make missile entrepreneurs in Elswick.
Someone's set fire to our Arts reporter,
it's another Cultural Initiative.
Sting's buying the Civic Centre,
they're filling the Great North with tanks.
The Sage is changing its name to BAE,
Shane's pissed on the Royal conductor.
They're floating quangos down the Tyne,
the bonfire will be at Shields.
They're bringing tourists to witness miracles,
the Chief Executive will strip for money.
They're blowing up the Castle Keep
to build an installation.
They're giving the locals more top down Art,
it's something to silence our kids with.
They're taking live theatre to the cemetery,
the vicar will write an Arts Council poem.
Steve Cram's taken up painting
to stop his nose from running.
The river will be made into an ice rink,
we can play with our boats in the bath.
Let this Great Nation bomb the Middle East,
they're making a museum of our politics.
Stuffing glass cases with old principles,
the head hunters are out and about.
It's cultivated jobs for the boys and the girls,
they're putting the Arts into centres.
Drain the music from our souls,
we have to be grateful to be patronised.
Their self righteousness grins from on high,
let the bombs fly and rockets rip.
We can enjoy some more tamed Art,
say cheerio to your history.
They've wrapped it up in moth balls,
thank God for the boys from the south.
They've saved us from self government,
we've missed out on the Joy Parade.
This City of Culture got lost in the end,
the Angel glowers over us though.
Thanks again City Fathers,
your office blocks look uglier each day.
You've reinvented our culture for us,
you've rendered it meaningless.
Guts ripped out,
we touch our forelock to your glorious Lords.
From the orifice of the House of Commons
leaks the corrupt emptiness of your Tory manifesto.
The aching past of the working man
has become the death of England.
Let us hail you from NewcastleGateshead,
a city you made up for yourselves.
Let us watch your empty schemes plummet,
let us learn to dance in community again.
We are Geordies naked with a beautiful anger to burn.