Funding the arts: Just do it, dummy.

Last night I popped into the wonderful Art NOW panel discussion, hosted by the Friends of Dulwich Picture Gallery and held at the gallery itself. It’s such a lovely venue – you can see me gushing about how much I love it here.

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The Dulwich Friends organise a whole lot of events – hundreds a year, I hear! – for Friends and friends of Friends alike. At this particular one, Will Gompertz was lined up to chair a discussion on the art sector today, with panellists including Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller, Jerwood Gallery curator Liz Gilmore, and the Arts Council England’s Peter Bazelgette. However, as the fascinating story of Nazi art hoarder Cornelius Gurlitt continues to unfold (take a look at my original post on it here), Will Gompertz had journalistic duties, so we were instead treated to a night hosted by Andrew McDonald.

Each of the panellists really showed their different personalities in their answers. Jerwood’s Liz Gilmore came across as someone who is just really passionate about giving artists a platform for their messages and ideas. Since opening only two years ago (and amassing 1,000 Friends in the process!) she said they have unconsciously exhibited a lot of older artists, including 76 year old Rose Wylie, who was their first artist. Take a look at this:

Liz was saying that the role of the curator is not to define art, but to give a voice to artists who are, in her own words, speaking the ‘language of feeling’.

Peter Bazelgette, who was visiting from the Arts Council England has a personal relationship with the gallery, as he grew up in Dulwich. It was nice to hear from someone who has a connection with the space from a personal perspective, and he reminisced on the Gallery’s role in his childhood. When asked how an artist makes it out of obscurity, he called on the fine example of Grayson Perry, who has done just that and managed to become a national treasure. Andrew McDonald was saying that today’s outrage is tomorrow’s mainstream, and Grayson Perry’s success is testament to this.

Jeremy Deller is a controversial kinda guy. As the discussion kicked off with the elusive definition of art, he said he wouldn’t put a definition on it. Whether a child’s art or a prisoner’s art; it’s all still art and definitions invite boundaries, he said. Duchamp’s Fountain, which I previously wrote about here, is only an artwork because it is signed by an artist; so what does it even mean to be an artist? Just as Jeremy said it's not something you can control, so all you can do is stick to your guns with your fingers crossed and hopefully that establishes a connection with an audience.

When discussing talent, Jeremy mused that you don’t have to be technically proficient in something to be good at it. You can be the most photographic painter in the world, but not be an artist. Being an artist is a je ne sais quois situation. But as an art appreciator, judge art subjectively. Let it make you happy, sad, and angry.

So far, so fairenoughIwasexpectingtohearthiskindaconversation; but then the discussion took an interesting turn.

Opening the questions to the floor, we got onto the perhaps inevitable subject of class in art. It’s no secret that art in education struggles to get the same recognition as the STEM subjects, so when Ofsted comes knocking on state schools’ doors, arts fall by the wayside and stay there. This means that art is taught differently in private schools in comparison to state schools or, more bluntly, art is taught differently to the upper middle class than everyone else. Long-term, it is an issue if we continue to focus on STEM as opposed to STEAM, to borrow Peter's phrase. If private school students who grow up to stay middle class are taught the importance of art but working class kids aren’t, the former will be the only ones who go onto work in the arts sector. As a result, it will continue to be posh, inaccessible and limited in its potential. In fact, as someone who went to private school and state sixth form and noticed a significant difference in how art was viewed, the whole reason I started this blog in the first place was to make art less high-culture, and more ah-that’s-nice.
We are recognised around the world for our creativity and ability to teach the arts, so it would be a shame to see this dwindle.

As a knock-on effect, society will continue to divide over how important art is. Public funding will become harder and harder to come by; and then how will we propel the burgeoning creative industries? Economically, they are growing at twice the average rate so it pays for itself and continues to improve us both individually and collectively. Liz Gilmore was saying that Jerwood Gallery relies on philanthropy for a third of their finances, which struck me as a pretty hefty chunk.

We need this funding because galleries deliver such a strong quality of life, providing access to the corners of society that might not otherwise be creatively stimulated. Take prisons, for example, where art is a way of encouraging productivity, a creative mindset and even therapy. Do this right, and we’ll take another step in the direction of a happier, safer world.

Good God, I sound optimistic.

With or without galleries, artists will always exist, but we need to remember that where galleries go, tourism, education and success follows. So if it pays for itself in the long-run, both financially and culturally, funding the arts shouldn’t even be a question. 

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