Friday, 4 March 2011

Arts Cuts and the Manchester Response

The Guardian recently reported Bank of England Governor Mervyn King’s analysis of the public spending cuts. "The price of this financial crisis is being borne by people who absolutely did not cause it," he said. "Now is the period when the cost is being paid; I'm surprised that the degree of public anger has not been greater than it has."

So here we are, seemingly in a reality that values a visit to the bank over a visit to an art exhibition. Those CEOs and board members of multinational banks with gut-wrenchingly high bonuses have not only twisted the system to suit their sordid greed and manipulate many a populace into economic meltdown, but now, by electing a government set upon finishing the job, the clarity of shooting ourselves in the other foot is all too vivid.

As far as the arts are concerned, there has been some local resistance so far. The recent Artists’ Bonfire at Islington Mill is one example and its co-organiser Rosanne Robertson lauds the “definite sense of camaraderie and passion that I have never witnessed at an art event before.” There is more to follow, as The Artists’ Bonfire will next radiate its embers in the Big Smoke of the south, London, with the aim of building on the foundations that will have been laid by the March for the Alternative protest event on 26th March. Robertson is enthusiastic about the possibilities of the second Bonfire event and encouraging participation and awareness can only be of help to the arts as she aims to “add fuel to the creative fire.”

However, Robertson laments the circumstances that have paved the way towards this scenario of belittling artistic pursuits. “For many people art doesn’t seem to factor into the equation as something that should be saved in these circumstances, whereas threats to libraries or the forests get a wider response as perhaps not everybody has a relationship with art. I think a lot of the time people see it as a small selection of people asking for money to fulfil a hobby and, with the Government using the arts as a soft dispensable target, they back that up on a national scale.”

Christina Pavlou, who is a proactive figure in Manchester’s street art scene, offers a slightly different perspective: “People are losing their jobs and galleries are shutting down, but art will always be viewed as a luxury product. We don’t need art in our homes, but we want it and I think small groups can still make exhibitions, shows and events happen. I am more concerned by the closure of libraries and getting rid of some youth work teams.”

Pavlou, formerly curator at Mooch N4 Street Art Gallery until the cuts indirectly prompted its closure (“There was a definite drop in sales when the arts cuts were announced, and as a result we did not have the income to stay open”), recently curated the HldTght live art exhibition and afterparty in the Soup Kitchen’s basement “on an £80 budget and we made most of it back. There were around 250-300 people at HldTght who enjoyed a night we put on for a fraction of what most people pay.”

But when you only make most of your outlay back then such enthusiasm will remain in the realm of extra-curricular, meaning less time can be afforded to it and the results will be less frequently enjoyed. For many the arts may be a luxury, but for others they are a livelihood and the luxury for one can less easily be retained and continued without the livelihood of the other. Robertson favours a stronger public sector: “If organisations disappear or start having an entrance fee then access will be restricted, further marginalising groups who may not historically engage as much with art. I think that free access to art, culture, broadband, knowledge and literature should be a basic right and that in some places the removal of an art centre or a library can mean the loss of all of these things to a large number of people who don’t have the money to access these things any other way.”

“There is a new philistinism that threatens not just art galleries, museums and centres but art and culture in primary education, music in community projects and university humanities and arts departments. There has to be an orchestrated resistance by the people who understand the value of arts and culture.”

Part of that resistance has been organised by another attendee at that Bonfire, Ian Hunter, who is also a Director at the Littoral arts trust and co-ordinator of the upcoming Merzweek event later in March. He pledged to the fiery fate a framed photograph depicting a scene from the Degenerate Art exhibition (Munich, 1937), at which Nazi goons displayed artwork in a derogatory fashion to exemplify their perception of its lack of value to society. Hunter’s speech commanded the full attention of the gathered circumference as he explained how those derided artists were deported so as not to stain the Nazis’ Aryan vision.

To take that comparison a step further, it could be argued that, by diminishing arts groups’ access to the state’s economy, a similar tactic of exclusion is taking place.

Hunter’s parting encouragement before the flames died down was to “work together, act together in solidarity, in generosity, in reciprocity,” which will in theory be the underlying aim for The Uncut Society event and workshop at Madlab tomorrow, Saturday 5th March. It will be an open meeting encouraging everyone from artists to NGOs via community groups and political arts movements to attend with a view to setting up an informal coalition or network.

There will also be a further reaching protest tomorrow, 5th March. Manchester March Against the Cuts begins at 12pm at All Saints' Park on Oxford road and will continue until around 3pm. Make the effort to go along and make your voice heard, before Rupert Murdoch inevitably seeks to use his ever expanding media arsenal to shoot down opposition.

The attitude of hope for the future exuded through Hunter's parting words will be invaluable for the arts during this period of forced austerity. Pavlou is also confident that art will find a way through it: “In an economic downturn artists always speak out and significant art movements always appear. So I think something good will come for the arts, we are living in the wake of the YBAs and this should be the prompt for our generation to hit the art market and the press again.”

Finally, she adds as an afterthought: “Oh and carry a marker pen at all times, you never know when you’re going to pass a poster of David Cameron...”

Words: Ian Pennington

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