When I set up this blog, my aim was to reach out and appeal to people who don’t usually think much about art. That aim inspires me to write every piece I write with an accessible tone. But recently, I’ve been thinking about why this “accessible tone” is needed in the first place. And the more I think, the more I worry.
Because there are lots of lovely people out there, doing and making wonderful things. The diversity of world views and artistic concerns artists have is enormous. So why aren’t you aware of this? How is it all so simply categorised as “bollocks” by swathes of the population?
I believe it’s linked to a problem which I’ve had run-ins with lately: Volunteer Culture.
Writing Messy Lines is something I’ve enjoyed so much over the last year, that I’ve started thinking it’s finally the time for me to take the plunge and make a career change into working for an arts organisation. I have years of professional experience and loads of transferable skills. I am absolutely passionate about promoting the arts. What could go wrong?
What’s “going wrong”, repeatedly, is that I haven’t spent time volunteering in galleries. I’ve been openly told that unless I do this, getting the type of job I want is pretty much impossible. Now, there’s a couple of very justifiable reasons I haven’t volunteered. My full-time Day Job is often rewarding, but always hard. After working long hours all week, I value having my own time at weekends (although sometimes, I have to take work home anyway). Spending a whole Saturday “on duty” would push my already fragile work-life balance to tipping point.
There’s also the not-insignificant fact that with every year, my financial commitments seem to grow. I can afford to take a salary cut, but not to nil.
I’m angered, and a little insulted, by the necessity of volunteering to the system. And I’m a white middle-class woman. I don’t often feel excluded from things.
So how do my experiences relate to why you perhaps don’t like art? That’s to do with who can afford to intern/volunteer/work for free. It’s got to be somebody who has a secure income stream from somewhere else. And as career-changing even at not-quite-30 seems tricky, let’s assume these people are not long out of university. So I’m going to hazard a guess that for the majority, the support comes from the Bank of Mum and Dad.
(I’m far from the only person to think this by the way: long read here, or point 11 here.)
If it’s only reasonably privileged middle-class people going to work in galleries, then the art is going to promote what middle-class people want to see. And while this is worthwhile, it’s not always “accessible”. Thank goodness main collections are free, because £17 for a ticket puts visiting an exhibition into the category of “luxury” which even an art lover like me struggles to justify at the end of the month. There’s also issues of practical engagement: the Real World leaves many of us exhausted. If you’re working and perhaps looking after others too, and a gallery hasn’t spent time appealing to you to be interested, then why should you be?
Plus, I’m increasingly recognising how much of the Art World is an echo chamber. People who go to galleries are the ones who care about their contents in the first place. There is a recognition that most gallery engagement is repeat business, that whole demographics don’t go to galleries. But what should be done about this seems to only get vague answers from establishments. Showing new perspectives would help, but those perspectives aren’t going to come from the same old voices. How can they?
Now as I said at the beginning, there is a massive diversity of artists and community-based arts movements out there. In Liverpool we’ve got groups like Granby Workshop, whose home decor is all made by local people, and which is focused on local regeneration. I also believe that Open Eye Gallery’s “North” exhibition, which I wrote about last week, gives a subject and perspective which has broad appeal, and I really hope it’s a success. But if you say “art” to your average person on the street, that’s not what they’re thinking of. They’re thinking of the Big Galleries (e.g. the Tate or National), the Old Masters and “new pretenders” which they’ve read about in the paper.
And if they can’t find anything to relate to in those, then the arts have a problem. They become viewed as an indulgence for the well-off, not as the catalysts for ideas and growth that they should be. I’ve undoubtedly said before that I truly believe that art is a social good which can inspire anyone. But if it’s only being promoted by and to a particular audience, can it be sustained?
This is more than a self-pitying statement about wanting a job¹. This is a problem which is increasingly looking like it might have major implications for the future. Trump in the US. Brexit (and its ensuing economic uncertainty) here. The arts have said they’re fighting back but to thrive, they have to speak to everyone. I’m believe I’m doing my bit to open up the perspective. Could big galleries perhaps do theirs?
¹although, it is also that. If you are in a position to hire me, I’m smart, adaptable, passionate, and all ears.
Hans Holbein the Younger, 1497/8 – 1543, “The Ambassdors” courtesy of The National Gallery.