Art to the masses

Antonia Marsh uncovers how Arts Council England are re-engaging the country with art
Art | 30 October 2018
Interview Antonia Marsh

Lorna Simpson artwork on BALTIC north face 2014 / Photo. The Baltic

This article is part of HERO Art Month

Welcome to HERO Art Month, our cross-sectional study of the international contemporary art scene during which we look at the key gatekeepers, from artists to gallerists, architects and curators, the established and emerging feature side by side as part of our month-long investigation into some of the most influential figures in the scene.

Now that the years of austerity which, for so long crippled UK arts funding, are reportedly behind us, one might assume that the future for fledgling artists in this country is looking up. Unsurprisingly, the path forward is not so clear cut and the challenges facing young artists and the wider arts scene in general today are as numerous and complex as they were ten years ago. Fortunately, non-departmental body Arts Council England, who are the most prominent of a large number of organisation providing funding and support to artists and communities, are addressing the imbalances that threaten artists’ practice and the availability of cultural resources.

Through individual project grants that will support thousands of individual artists, community and cultural organisations, to development funds that aim to tackle issues of diversity and target areas with low levels of engagement in art and culture, Arts Council is fighting back against the cultural drain that has threatened a vital outlet in peoples lives. Writer and curator Antonia Marsh speaks to Paul Glinkowski Senior Manager at Arts Council England to discuss how the organisation plans on helping young artists, diversifying access to the arts across the UK and how the Council has grown to embrace advances in technology.


Antonia Marsh: Today’s young artists face a myriad of issues, from ever-increasing rent prices to monetising their work. How does the Art Council help emerging artists with problems such as these?
Paul Glinkowski: Well, I went to the Royal College and was one of the first people to come off their curating course in the 90s, I actually did a PhD on artists and policy criticising the Arts Council [both laugh]. So, the issues you’ve raised have been around for a long time and every generation kind of thinks it’s encountering new situations or problems, but actually this has kind of always been the case. Doing my PhD I found that there were studies commissioned back in the 1930s about the poverty of the artist and how those working in the creative fields are the least rewarded. It’s interesting to see that exactly the same problems – the need for time and space and money – have persisted throughout the last century and into this one. Therefore the Arts Council have to think about how to respond to these issues over a longer period of time in order to change things on a broader level. I think with the explosion of degree-level practice and post-graduate, that’s something that’s new in the last 30 years, it used to be unusual for a lot of people to get a degree in art, but now everybody feels like they need to go up to at least post-grad level, and that increases debt and therefore puts people in a worse situation economically right from the beginning. Compounding that, as you suggest, studio space is also an issue. It always kind of has been, but it’s been accelerated because of raising property prices and the demand for land in London especially. Just on that point, the Arts Council is working with the Mayor of London on a project around affordable creative workspaces, which we will be announcing more on next year.  We’ve also got what we call a National Portfolio of Organisations, I don’t know if you’ve heard of that?

AM: Yes.
PG: So there’s about 150 visual arts organisations on there, everything from Baltic art gallery down to the more emerging artist level, and it also includes long-term support organisations such as Artquest in London, who provide information and professional advice. So that’s one of the places where we see we can make an influence and help support artists, by giving them an understanding of their professional practice. I think these services are particularly useful for young artists. When students are at college, they just want to get on with their work, it’s at the end of it when they sort of fall off a cliff [laughs] that’s when you reach that crisis point of what to do next? So we fund organisations such as Artquest who try and guide people through their networks and events, basically creating a community of practice at that emerging end. We also support artist-led galleries and spaces, many of them won’t be on our list of regularly funded organisations because the NPO’s are funded for four years, and often artist projects might be quite ephemeral or just built up in the moment. Some go on to develop and sustain themselves, but often that moment moves on and the individual will go on and do something different.

AM: Sometimes these projects are quite itinerant or they turn over so quickly that by the time they’ve secured funding it doesn’t feel relevant anymore. I’m sure it’s quite hard for the Arts Council to put money into something that they know might not have a continuation.
PG: Yeah, we’d probably help fund the initial starting point, so you might have got a space and you need some money for an exhibition programme for a year to get yourself started. That’s the kind of thing where people come to us and ask for help, also the advisory services we support, such as Artquest and a-n, the artists information company, are there to help provide information and guidance to help projects of this kind in their initial stages.

“When students are at college, they just want to get on with their work, it’s at the end of it when they sort of fall off a cliff [laughs] that’s when you reach that crisis point of what to do next?”

AM: I often find myself advising artists to do less. It seems there’s a tendency to want to do everything when you’re emerging, where as in fact I feel young artists need even more guidance as to what not to do at this early stage.
PG: Yeah, everybody finds their own path and invariably some will go by the wayside for various different reasons, especially in those two or three years after graduation.

Turner Contemporary -Turner & The Elements. Photo. Hufton & Crow

AM: Absolutely. So despite all the issues we’ve sort of spoken about, I think it’s a really exciting time across the UK. In the Arts Council, how do you look to spread resources and facilities across the country, so that it isn’t so London-centric?
PG: For historical reasons and the fact a lot of the big national organisations are in London, it’s perceived to have a disproportionate share of Arts Council funding. So there’s pressure on the Council to distribute more of our funding elsewhere, which puts additional pressure on the amount we have to spend in London. It’s really important to us that we are supporting arts and culture across England, so this is something we’ve very aware of and are responding to. Now we are seeing other places springing up –like Hull being the City of Culture last year which are places that aren’t historically as well known for art and culture but have quite a big student population and have had an interesting arts scene for quite a while.

AM: There’s a lot happening up there.
PG: Since the 90s we’ve also received funding from the National Lottery, starting in around ’95 under John Major, which helped us to invest in large art buildings that never existed before, like Baltic in 2000. Now every major city has a big art gallery, and even some smaller towns, Turner Contemporary Margate, for example. So, there’s been that growth of large scale infrastructure supported by the Arts Council. But yeah, there’s a sense that some artists might be looking for more affordable opportunities outside of London now, previously the regional centres were sort of worried about the drain away down to London, but I think now they’re encouraging their graduates to stay where they are, based on that idea of the cost of living and affordability of studios in places like Leeds or Liverpool, Manchester and Margate everybody seems to be going to Margate.

“The problem artists have identified to us is that they actually want to do research and development, they don’t just want to create something for the public, they want to just explore their ideas first.”

AM: What does the Arts Council look for in a young organisation that applies for funding?
PG: Exciting creative ideas really. But to get something like a project grant, they’ll probably also have to have an audience-facing aspect, so there’s got to be a sense of who you’re doing it for other than the artists themselves. However, we realise that can be a bit of an issue as well. The problem artists have identified to us is that they actually want to do research and development, they don’t just want to create something for the public, they want to just explore their ideas first. So, in response to that, there is a special fund artists can apply to for R&D, called Developing your Creative Practice, so you can do it without having to worry about figuring out the audience. It’s competitive though, we just launched it and there’s been a lot of demand because every time you launch a new fund for artists, it generates a lot of interest.

AM: How much is a lot? Thousands?
PG: We’ve now had two rounds. In the first round there were 894 eligible applications, with 103 awards. In the second round 111 awards were made, with 965 eligible applications received, and ACE has awarded over £1.8m in the first two rounds.


AM: In terms of new technologies, in an art world constantly shifting and evolving, how have you seen the Arts Council change in the recent years? And where have their priorities shifted?
PG: Well I think we basically know technology is accelerating like never before and there all sorts of amazing opportunities out there, so we need to try and make sure that arts organisations and artists are well positioned and can take advantage of whatever is coming down the line. It’s amazing, the pace of change over the last years. The internet didn’t exist until about twenty years ago and now we couldn’t live without it, so the art itself is trying to stay in touch with what’s going on and we’re making sure we can support wherever we can. Organisations also take advantage of those opportunities, for instance with National Theatre Live. We funded the first pilot experiment of that in 2009 and now it’s in cinemas around the world and its been a massive success. At the minute it’s things like VR, AR and artificial intelligence, those are what everybody’s talking about, and the government through its Industrial Strategy, want to make the UK a world leader in immersive technologies.

AM: Really? Wow.
PG: I know, big ambition. We’ve got to spot what the emerging opportunities are post-Brexit. So we work with organisations like Digital Catapult to create opportunities for creative companies and artists who work with VR and new technologies. We’ve worked in the past with Nesta on a programme called the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, which is for companies interested in exploring new technologies for the first time to try things out. We also reckon that audiences expect now to consume culture in an entirely different way than in the past, so much more art is being mediated or made to be an experience, sometimes in a digital realm or in public spaces, so we just have to be alive to all these different trends and possibilities that there are, making sure we can respond to that when people come and ask us for support.

“We also reckon that audiences expect now to consume culture in an entirely different way than in the past, so much more art is being mediated or made to be an experience…”

AM: It’s amazing actually how much galleries have changed in relation to new technologies. When we post a picture of the gallery on our Instagram, it gets the most likes, it’s so strange. I guess Soft Opening looks kind of strange in a tube station. Then there’s another gallery in New York called Jeffrey Stark, they’re inside a mall in Chinatown and they have a CCTV live stream on their website of the exterior of the space so their audience is constantly under surveillance. So this new technology is kind of changing even how we understand gallery viewership, I think it’s so interesting.
PG: Yeah, interesting. The idea of the object being the primary focus of art is constantly changing.

AM: A return to the image, the image is still so powerful, whereas the object isn’t really. Like Jordan Wolfson’s VR piece at the Whitney Biennial last year, forcing viewers to watch someone getting beaten up.
PG: Yeah, I mean things like social media change how you might function as an artist, both creatively and professionally.

AM: Yeah, it’s makes you wonder what the artwork becomes, is it too conventional existing on an instagram feed?
PG: I’ve just come back from York Mediale, a new festival about how digital can be incorporated into conventional practices or older practices, such as the performance of early music. It can create exciting collisions, to bring digital art together with traditional repertoires.

AM: I guess we have already touched on this, whether we feel like galleries are shifting to adapting to new art and tech, and creating more of an experience rather than a traditional exhibition format.
PG: I think absolutely yeah, with the bigger organisations that we fund, those that get the most money from us, we actually insist now that they have a digital strategy because quite often people have a huge amount of expertise and large staff but they also have to be on top of things like digital marketing, you have to have a good website, appropriate social media, it’s an important part of what every organisation does. It’s not only the art they put on, it’s the way they promote it.

AM: Kind of like a new sort of branch of PR – Instagram-friendly exhibitions.
PG: Oh, of course. That is where younger artists and generations are at an advantage because they’re the ones that are playing with all the new things and are in touch with how people want to consume and experience art, which increasingly is in mediated form. Although, things like National Theatre Live doesn’t stop people going to watch a live theatre performance, it actually brings more people in. I guess hopefully it will be the same situation in visual arts, it will expand into new possibilities for people to encounter art rather than stopping people from going to galleries.

AM: Moving towards the future, what’re you most excited about or looking forward to?
PG: Me? I just like the uncertainty of whatever is coming next, that’s the thing working in digital, you’re never quite sure what’s down the line, so it keeps me interested and excited not knowing what is going to happen next and trying to get there early and understand what’s going on.

AM: I was listening to Bill Gates’ desert island discs and he suggests that technology is the answer to a lot of the problems we are facing globally, but people seem to assume technology is itself a problem.
PG: But I think the most exciting thing is that artists can do completely unexpected things with new technologies, so they help to define the parameters, they help people understand what this new stuff can do. In AR and VR the hardware us developing at pace, so you know, Oculus Rift are bringing out headsets every six months but they don’t have the content yet, they actually require that kind of creative input, artists are really going to make this technology advance by providing that really interesting content that will engage people. You don’t even want to put [the headsets] on unless it’s something you can’t ordinarily experience, we need to create new visions using this new technology.

AM: And it’s trickle down really, if artists are at the forefront of everything, hopefully everybody will follow.
PG: Hopefully [laughs], that’s another big conversation.

Keep up-to-date with Soft Opening here.

See more content from HERO Art Month here.

Read Next