The Visibility Paradox
Visual Artists in Arts Policy and Arts Impact Research
In England, as in other developed countries, artists are increasingly talked of as important contributors to the new 'knowledge-based economy', within which the creative industries are a key driver. It is paradoxical, therefore, that the status and presence within public policy and research seems to be diminishing. In its 2006 document Turning Point, which proposes a ten year strategy for the visual arts in England, Arts Council England (ACE) asserts: 'The UK leads Europe in the status of its artists.' It goes on to note that: 'There is recognition that the skills of British artists are an integral part of the knowledge economy ... [however] It is a paradox that visual artists are not included in the current definition of the creative industries. This masks the overall contribution that they make both in economic and social terms'.1
This text argues that over the last decade, 1997-2007, the period of the New Labour government in the UK, after a promising beginning, visual artists have become progressively more invisible within arts policy-making in England, and in the research used to inform it. This is particularly true in the area of arts impact assessment, which has emerged as a growing influence on policy-making, and which is almost exclusively concerned with the impacts produced on the recipients or beneficiaries of arts activity – audiences, participants or communities – rather than the impacts produced on the primary producer of art, 'the artist'.
The absence of the artist, and of the artist's interests and concerns, from such research could exacerbate the tendency towards instrumentalism, which is perceived already to be a dominant feature of the national arts strategy, and which will lead to a situation where the development of the arts in England is driven by the utilitarian demands of the wider society, as interpreted by government, rather than by the creative impulse of 'the artist'. Instrumentalism describes a process by which, in determining policy and allocating funding, artistic considerations are made subservient to wider societal agendas, such as the requirement for the arts to contribute to economic or social regeneration.
As the length of the arm grows shorter, the focus on the artist shrinks
A key factor in the imputed recent instrumentalisation of the arts is the 'hands on', rather than 'arm's length', approach to cultural policy taken by the present government. Concern about the dangers to the arts of too much government interference and control, has been widely articulated; most tellingly, perhaps, in a speech by the current Chair of ACE, Sir Christopher Frayling, in February 2005. 'The distance between the Arts Council and government is narrowing,' said Frayling. 'While it was the Conservative government of the 1980s that first introduced the mantra 'culture should serve the economy', since 1997 New Labour has added a whole new list of priorities – still on the basis of instrumental outcomes. The DCMS is becoming more 'hands on'... and commitment to the benefits of the arm's length principle may be slowly ebbing away... the length of the arm has become very short indeed - almost Venus de Milo length'.2 The 'arm's length principle' is a defining characteristic of how the arts have been funded and managed in Britain since the formation of the Arts Council in 1946. 'It means,' says Sir Christopher Frayling, 'that, while Arts Council England is funded by the Treasury through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), it is independent of government … The government evolves the policy framework but it is not supposed to interfere with implementation.3
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Art of Waste, 2000
Year of the Artist 2000-2001
The DCMS's Strategic Plan 2003-06 makes it clear that it believes its remit goes far beyond the boundaries of just culture, media and sport. In her Foreword to the Plan, the then Secretary of State, Tessa Jowell, describes the DCMS as 'a department which continues to make an important contribution to the Government's agenda. Not only in culture, media and sport, but in the broader areas of the economy, education, health, crime prevention and regeneration'.4 One significant effect of the UK government's instrumental approach to culture is that the focus of cultural research has become located ever more firmly on the recipients or beneficiaries of culture (be they audiences, participants, or communities – particularly if they are felt to be excluded or marginalised in some way) rather than on the producers (the artists).
THE ARTIST AND ARTS POLICYMAKING IN ENGLAND
Artists as perennial bit-part players
Internationally, literature concerning the position of the artist within the arts policy process is thin on the ground. Jane Woddis notes that: 'as a rule artists and arts organisations are not considered in the literature of cultural policy research as contributors to the policy-making process … Given the central role of arts practitioners in making the culture that is the focus of cultural policy … it appears a surprising omission'.5 Woddis shows that in Britain the absence of artists from policymaking has deep historical roots: 'the emphasis in the Arts Council charter on high standards in professional arts tended to put arts organisations at the centre of concern, artists as a whole were not generally involved in the key decision-making, and indeed there was a general suspicion about the participation of practitioners in both policy-making and implementation … the structures through which the arts have been publicly funded in Britain since the Second World War have neither promoted a case for arts practitioners to be involved in policy-making, nor provided the mechanisms for them to do so'.6
The artist as leading light: a fleeting phenomenon
The lack of inclusion of artists in the policymaking process (as agents of, or commentators on, policy formulation) is one factor which would explain the relative absence of focus on the artist as the subject of arts policy. During the first years of the 21st century, however, it seemed that artists, particularly visual artists, were set to take centre stage. The most visible signal that a new policy emphasis was being placed on artists as we entered the new millennium was the Arts Council sponsored 'Year of the Artist' (YotA), June 2000 to May 2001, which aimed to create residencies for '1000 artists in 1000 places across England'.
Paddy Masefield, Chair of the YotA advisory 'Think Tank' hailed the year as a great success, claiming that: 'it has melted century-old barriers between artists and their public, created collaborations between artists … refreshed the inspiration of artists once accused only of playing to the same audiences, and provided a new century with the most progressive experiment in arts funding of the last decade … [it] should stand as a model for a new appreciation of artists in a new century. This should be the 'best of times' for artists.'7
A change of tack in the direction of 'the artist' appeared to be confirmed in the ACE manifesto document Ambitions for the Arts: 2003-2006. This document begins by announcing a new commitment to 'placing artists at the centre'. 'The artist is the 'life source' of our work,' it declares. 'In the past, we have mainly funded institutions. Now we want to give higher priority to the artist.' ACE goes on to list its five major areas for policy development for the three-year period. First on the list is a commitment to 'prioritise individual artists'.8
This commitment, to prioritise the artist, proved, though, to be short-lived. An analysis of the Arts Council's declared priorities for the current period, 2006-2008 (as articulated in the ACE Annual Review 2006), shows that the artist has been displaced from the centre and is consigned once again to the margins. Six national policy priorities are now listed: taking part in the arts; children and young people; the creative economy; vibrant communities; internationalism; and celebrating diversity. 'The artist' now warrants mention merely as a footnote to a section on the 'creative economy'. 'Helping artists to be successful,' it says, 'we develop partnerships that help artists contribute to the creative economy.' From 'life source' to a sub-category of 'the creative economy' in just three years; how can this be explained
The new emphasis on utility and its influence on arts policymaking structures
Guided by the UK government's 'instrumentalist' agenda, ACE has over the last decade become increasingly concerned to propound the social and economic benefits of the arts and appears consequently to be less interested in the development of art and artists per se. Artistic autonomy is being sacrificed at the altar of public utility. In order to demonstrate public utility, the Arts Council is turning its focus away from the producer of art (the artist) and on to the consumer (the audience, as it is variously defined). Hence the emphasis in its current list of priorities on 'taking part in the arts', 'children and young people' and 'vibrant communities'.
THE RISE OF ARTS IMPACT ASSESSMENT
A problem for artists: the requirement to demonstrate value and measure 'impact'
My research has shown that there is a dearth of artist-related research in one of the crucial areas that is producing the data which is fuelling evidence-based arts policy: the field of arts impact assessment. Impact assessment research has in the past decade assumed a new priority within the arts sector in the UK. Literature reviews undertaken by ACE (Reeves 2002) and on behalf of the Scottish Executive (Ruiz 2004) point to an explosion of studies in this area. Driven by an instrumental imperative to demonstrate the value of the arts to society, this category of research pays little attention to the intrinsic situation of artists; the impact that funding has on the producers of art is overlooked in favour of an analysis of the impact that art has at the point of consumption.
Recognising the growing prevalence and importance of impact research, the Centre for Cultural Policy Research at the University of Glasgow,has initiated a comprehensive international 'Impact research database' focussed on the cultural sector (designiscentral.net ). A search of this database, on 26 May 2007, using the keywords 'artists' and 'artist' revealed that only three research projects out of a total 436, (and all of those drawn from the United States), had artists, or artists' related issues, as their principal subject of enquiry. The absence of any UK-initiated studies focussed on artists would appear to confirm my hypothesis that artists are largely invisible in the research evidence-base which is said to be driving arts policy development in England.
CONCLUSION: 'The tail is wagging the dog'
The practice of impact measurement which has begun to dominate arts-sector research in England could have negative consequences for visual artists. Its demonstrable bias towards measuring the effects of arts activities on audiences and participants will mean that the evidence captured to inform arts policy will be skewed towards the needs of the consumers of art rather than the needs of the producers. Following the logic of 'evidence-based policymaking', the consequence must inevitably be that the policies that ensue will privilege the arts consumer, rather than the artist. This, in turn, will lead to a situation where the cycle of instrumentalisation, which is perceived to have developed a stranglehold on the arts in England during the period of New Labour, is perpetuated, if not exacerbated.
The link between impact assessment and instrumentalisation has been well-noted by John Holden: 'The gathering of evidence about the impact of the sector has assumed centre stage in the management of the subsidized cultural sector in England. It is closely associated with an extension of government control over the sector'.9 Holden observes that the audit culture that has been imported into the arts may, through the public-sector funding practices that it encourages, already be having a detrimental effect on the art that gets made: 'Many artists, feel that they are made to jump through hoops and that they create art in spite of the funding system. Their ability to 'play the game' and write highly articulate funding proposals is more important than the work ... the identifiable measures and 'ancillary benefits' that flow from culture have become more important than the cultural activity itself: the tail is wagging the dog'.10
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1. Arts Council England (2003), Ambitions for the Arts: 2003-2006, p. 23
2. Frayling, C., 'The only trustworthy book…' Art and public value, speech, 16 February 2005, London, Arts Council England
4. Department for Culture, Media and Sport (2003), Strategic Plan 2003-2006
5. Woddis, J., Spear-Carriers or Speaking Parts? Arts Practitioners in the Cultural Policy Process, University of Warwick, Centre for Cultural Policy Studies, May 2005
6. Capaldi, N., and Chadbourn, D., (eds) (2001), Year of the Artist, June 2000 – May 2001, Arts2000, Sheffield
9. Holden, J. (2004), Capturing Cultural Value: How culture has become a tool of government policy, London, Demos
Arts Council England (2003), Ambitions for the Arts: 2003-2006
Arts Council England (2006), Annual Review 2006
Arts Council England (2006), Turning Point: A Strategy for the Contemporary Visual Arts in England Capaldi, N., and Chadbourn, D., (eds) (2001), Year of the Artist, June 2000 – May 2001, Arts2000, Sheffield
Department for Culture, Media and Sport (2003), Strategic Plan 2003-2006 Frayling, C. (2005), 'The only trustworthy book…' Art and public value, speech, 16 February 2005, London, Arts Council England
Holden, J. (2004), Capturing Cultural Value: How culture has become a tool of government policy, London, Demos.
Paul Glinkowski, Wimbledon College of Art, University of the Arts London, 2007