March 2012

Artists effecting change

'Feedback session at OpenAIR', February 2012. Effecting Change, Firstsite, Colchester

'Feedback session at OpenAIR', February 2012.
Effecting Change, Firstsite, Colchester

'Artists in discussion at OpenAIR', February 2012. Efecting Change, Firstsite, Colchester

'Artists in discussion at OpenAIR', February 2012.
Efecting Change, Firstsite, Colchester

February saw the inaugural OpenAIR: Effecting Change members forum take place at Firstsite, Colchester as well as State of the Arts, Arts Council England’s (ACE) annual conference, which had Artists’ Shaping the World’ as its theme. Emily Speed, Jack Hutchinson and Gillian Nicol give their views of these events.

Emily Speed with feedback from OpenAIR and State of the Arts

'State of the Arts' (SOTA) hosts around 600 delegates comprised of curators, directors, producers and others working in the arts. It was reported that only two artists attended last year's event, so ACE offered fifty artists' bursaries to redress the balance as well as inviting numerous artist speakers. 'OpenAIR' saw 100 AIR members gather in a less formal atmosphere.

At a time for real change for the arts, both events recognised the importance of artists and aimed to put them at the centre of discussion. However, the discussion at SOTA seemed to veer frequently onto money and politics rather than art, perhaps reflecting the daily challenges of those attending. Some of the issues highlighted by both events included the importance of art in education, the problems of funding being driven by results and audience size, as well as supporting international peer-to-peer relationships.

The message from the OpenAIR forum was one of action, that it was best to do something, anything - just to start somewhere. Speakers at OpenAIR presented really exciting ideas, such as rapid prototyping, and perhaps for future events these could be a way in which ideas are actually explored on the day.

SOTA incorporated elements of performance into the conference, which provided some of the most invigorating moments. Unfortunately, for me, this did not go far enough and, like many of the other artist bursary holders, I would like to see the event programmed by artists for more artists. A less passive audience experience and an opportunity to shape the event would feel like progress. Ultimately, I feel that the great points that arose in discussion at SOTA won't necessarily be acted upon, but I hope to be proven wrong.

Read more about 'OpenAIR' on Emily Speed's Artists talking blog: Getting Organised »

"braved the snow and ice to drive down to Colchester for 'OpenAIR: Effecting Change' last weekend. We took part in workshops and networking, and it was exciting and inspiring to see some projects that are going on and to be involved - we both agreed that we need to know about what's going on so that we can participate and support them, and that there should be wider events taking place in a variety of locations across the UK at the same time in order to raise the profile for what we're working towards."
Helen Dearnley on her Artists talking blog: Simulacra And Simulations »

Jack Hutchinson reports from Open AIR: Effecting Change

Over 100 artists rallied for this opportunity to come together, share experiences and plot the next stage in AIR's development. They discussed a range of issues that effect artists, from personal gripes such as unpaid internships and late payments, to artists' presence on key committees and the perceived value of artists to society.

Sally Sheinman, Chair of AIR, set the scene in her opening speech: "Today is a chance for you to talk to us directly about what change you want to see happen. We are here to listen. We need you to become active in your regions and join us in the fight for visual artists' needs. Now is the time for artists to be proactive and define their own development and destiny. One voice is just a whisper, but together we can ROAR!"

A key topic of discussion was artists playing a vital role on committees and decision-making bodies across the sector. Artist Belinda Loftus commented: "From my experience artists can be bloody hard work. We need to get out there and ruffle a few feathers!" AIR Activist Ania Bas responded: "Do we have to play the game a little bit and be quite strategic about how we approach people?" AIR member Sally Lemsford said: "If we wait to be invited it just won't happen. We need to initiate the conversations."

Methods of communication was a hot topic. AIR Council's Angela Kennedy asked whether artists wanted guidance on how to engage with key decision makers, whether that be information packs containing data and evidence, or media training to improve communication skills. Dan McQuillan commented: "Artists need to be inter-disciplinary, utilising the tools that are available to them to create, in essence, a global peer-to-peer network." Although digital networks were seen as the best method of connecting, keynote presenter Carrie Bishop noted: "It does not have to be high-tech to engage people. A phone conversation goes a long way!"

The misunderstanding of just what activities artists are engaged in was explored. AIR Council's Rosalind Davis commented: "The idea of being an artist is romanticised. It is bloody hard work!" The general view was that artists need to communicate better just how valuable they are to society. Manick Govinda explained: "Not many artists just quietly work away in their studios. They are involved on a local level and have an impact on social and civic life. They are becoming more and more important."

So how do artists effect change? The general feeling was that the change in the way artists are valued must begin within the sector itself. Artists need to stand up for themselves and collectively refuse exploitative opportunities - essentially those where no fee is offered. Also, artists should be paid for the planning and thinking time they invest in projects, including time spent evaluating. Although in some cases this already happens, AIR members agreed there needs to be a fundamental code of practice that the visual arts must adhere to. AIR Council's Rachel Wilberforce said: "Across the entire sector, from education to board level, there needs to be rules of engagement - it has to be the norm!"

Action presenter Josie Appleton spoke of the need to find the issues that resonate with the wider world. She said: "The political sphere is now very open, with the media and internet key spheres in their own right." It was agreed that campaigns need to work at different levels for different audiences, but that the most crucial thing was to avoid painting a picture of artists as an isolated group, detached from the rest of society. Appleton added: "You need to address those issues that not only effect you, but resonate with the wider world."

Do all artists have a duty to campaign for artists' rights? Rosalind Davis said: "There will always be a percentage of artists who are not socially engaged." Not every artist wants to be an activist, and this is something AIR needs to be aware of. Does AIR need to re-define the meaning of the word 'activist'? Many artists are already performing activities that result in positive change, but they wouldn't necessarily class it as activism. Most of the time it is through actually making artwork, and let's not forget that this is ultimately why we want to change things for the better. Artist Elizabeth Murton summed it up: "At the root of everything I do is my visual practice."

OpenAIR laid the foundations for AIR's strategic activities, now and in the future. Artists need to be valued by arts organisations, committees, boards and the public - but also by themselves. They are integral to the lives of many people and need to be valued as such. Effect change? They are already doing it.

Read Jack Hutchinson's full report here »
View a slideshow of photos from the event here »
Read Jack Hutchinson's article 'Artists are their own agents of change'
on Culture professionals Network »

Gillian Nicol on State of the Arts

In response to criticism about the lack of visibility of artists last year, State of the Arts 2012 held the promise of greater artist involvement. Fifty bursaries of financial support created real opportunities for people to attend who couldn't have otherwise and eighteen parallel sessions offered themed dicussions on a range of Artists and...' topics, with some very brilliant contributions from the likes of Dan Thompson, Neville Gabie, James Marriott and Clio Barnard.

Whilst there is little doubt ACE genuinely wants to involve artists, it does so in a highly controlled and tightly curated manner that only serves to emphasise its inescapably hierarchical nature and the extent of its deeply engrained institutional paternalism. In always giving the keynote presentations to ACE Chair, Liz Forgan, and a minister, Ed Vaizey, MP and Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries two years running, ACE asserts a reality of the world as seen by Arts Council eyes - a reality far removed from that of artists and small arts organisations on the ground: "2012 really feels like a year of tremendous opportunity for artists across the country", said Forgan.

As many of the artists I spoke to were asking: why not an artist as keynote speaker? Why not let artists set the agenda and format of the day? Why not introduce some messiness to the proceedings and cede some control?

Much could have been learnt from the Stronger together event, which ACE was involved in, with its open and highly participatory format. As Dan Thompson (@artistsmakers) raised on Twitter just after the event: "Didn't come away from #sota12 with any great feeling that voices were heard, action would be taken. Would have liked ACE to end #sota12 with at least one thing happening; we heard x said, we will do y. Just one, small thing." What might the outcome have been if artists set the conversation and the format, and the arts sector large and small actively worked together for a day?"

The sotablog, run by Andy Field and Hannah Nicklin and with contributions from bloggers embedded in each of the parallel sessions, does offer potential for real outcomes. With time invested in browsing and engaging with its detailed insights and very broad range of opinions, it gives us all a retrospective chance to make the most of the day.

Read Gillian Nicol's report on the 2011 event Stronger together: Is collaboration different in the visual arts?
Stronger together:

We're particularly interested to hear what artists who attended either event (or experienced them virtually) have to say. Post reports/reviews to Interface or email

Emily Speed, Gillian Nicol, Jack Hutchinson

First published: February 2012

Comments on this article

Interesting to hear your point of view Ian - there's perhaps a bit too much in this article to know what exactly you're reacting to, could you clarify a bit? Who would you say are the people making a living off the back of artists?

posted on 2012-03-06 by Emily Speed

It just makes me depressed to read this. I am almost embarassed to call myself an artist. as soon as any activity is turned into a profession it gets the navel staring treatment. I like making things and I hate people who make a living on the backs of those of us who just get on with it.

posted on 2012-03-06 by Ian Potter

Post your comment

To post a comment you need to login

©  the artist(s), writer(s), photographer(s) and a-n The Artists Information Company
All rights reserved.
Artists who are current subscribers to a-n may download or print this text for the limited purpose of use in their business or professional practice as artists.
Parts of this text may be reproduced either in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 (updated) or with written permission of the publishers.