Ruth McCann

Ruth McCann

Ruth McCann is a bookbinder based in Newcastle.

'Everyone is an artist': but how good is the access of women to culture?
Friday, 29 March 2024 12:43

'Everyone is an artist': but how good is the access of women to culture?

Published in Visual Arts

Reading the Communist Party's recent Class & Culture pamphlet led Ruth McCann to consider the diminishing space for women to socialise and create

When it comes to culture we are being let down, failed by the government — something made clear by the authors for each of their areas of expertise in the Communist Party’s recent Class and Culture pamphlet. The pamphlet has prompted some conversation in these pages — and I felt compelled to add my voice to that. 'Artists are soldiers of revolution', said Diego Rivera.

Make space for women! Growing up, I always associated the term spinster with negative connotations, sad and lonely. Recently I learned the etymology of the word. Historically it named a woman’s occupation as a spinner. To have an occupation as a woman in the past meant having means of one’s own — an income and freedom. To have time to create it is essential to have money and this is why young successful creatives are often from wealthy backgrounds. Watching television I sometimes wonder, did everyone on the screen come through spotlights at Oxford?

As Joseph Beuys said, “everyone is an artist.” But an artist needs space and the luxury of time. I have always maintained an artist’s studio, believing as Virgina Woolf wrote, a woman needs a room of one’s own to create! Since returning to Newcastle I am on my third studio, having moved not through choice but through closures and demolition. Studios are often able to open in empty office buildings in the city centre due to landlords being keen to avoid paying the business rates on their empty property by letting to a charity or property guardians. When it inevitably becomes demolition time, everyone must move on. More secure locations are where there is building ownership, such as 36 Lime Street and Newcastle arts centre.

The Craft Council states that craft contributes £3.4 billion to the British economy. Craft participants are more likely to be female if they are self-employed and part-time. So there are legions of women running creative businesses on the side, perhaps around working elsewhere full-time, or as well as caring for children or elderly parents. The need and interest for craft classes is huge, it can be the start of someone going into business for themselves or it can simply be for pleasure or mental well-being.

What it must be is affordable. Adult education and community learning have had funding cuts so extreme that the Learning and Work Institute says there will be £1 billion less in adult education in 2025 than there was in 2010. Perhaps I should have started at the beginning with the first cultural experience opportunities available to mothers and small children. The difference between what was available to me when I lived in London and then in Newcastle, and then the difference between Wallsend, where I live now, and Gosforth for example.

A child’s first experience of culture is the baby group — stay and play, messy play, baby massage, first words together, boogie bairns, story adventures to name only a few! These groups are essential not only in the growth of a child being introduced to first cultural experiences but also in creating a community and network for mothers to socialise and learn from each other. It is essential that they are accessible regardless of class or geographical location.

Since 2010 the policy of austerity has led to the closure of 1,416 Sure Start centres (the figures are from the New Statesman last October, and don’t include other centres linked to Sure Start). Meaning the cultural opportunities to attend baby classes are becoming more often either privatised or charity-based. In the same time period 800 local libraries have closed with many that are left only having part-time hours.

Libraries have never just been about lending a book, they are a meeting place for many of the aforementioned groups. The retired and people with disabilities also use library spaces to socialise free of charge and experience culture with their community.

Film clubs, poetry and writing groups, knitting and crochet circles were all common cultural social opportunities. Many are still offered but with added travel time and cost as fewer people have a library within walking distance. An additional loss of closing smaller local libraries is that people must travel out of their local area to attend, thus losing the social aspect of their own community.

All of the cultural experiences I have mentioned are so essential and yet we are experiencing cuts nationwide. With Birmingham City Council in the news this week cutting almost all funding to the arts over the next two years, where will be next?

Recently the Communist Party published a discussion pamphlet entitled Class and Culture aimed at stimulating discussion and campaigning around issues relating to culture and the class struggle. It is currently available as a free download here.

This article is republished from the Morning Star.