Audience Engagement in Welsh Visual Arts
Recently, (Oct 2015) Frie Leysen’s keynote Speech has been highlighted by people involved in the Welsh Visual Arts and praised. This has caused some alarm for me. Because, although I agree with around half of what Frie Leysen says I come to a very different conclusion when it is placed in the context of the Welsh Visual Arts.
Frie Leysen’s keynote speech
My whole professional life has also been dedicated to the arts, specifically the Visual Arts, and like Frie Leysen I believe love allows criticism.
As Leysen says in her speech, I also want to point out where I believe there is “hurt“. Like Leysen, I do not want this article to be seen as a personal attack on any particular people or organisations, I recognise that I am not alone in being prepared to give as much as I can for the arts and, there are many people who have given more than me in service of the arts in Wales. The fact that we have the arts scene in Wales that we do, and that we can have these debates, is testament to the extraordinary endeavour of others. Sometimes, given our marginal position within Welsh society it is difficult to criticise. Perhaps we are too fragile or to put it more crudely, we don’t want to fart in the team bath. Forgive me.
As Leysen says, we are indeed lucky that we live in countries that fund the arts. However, it should be stated that this does not come without offering a service to government, and too often we artists are guilty of assuming that public funding is a right, rather than a service.
Leysen talks about travelling the globe to find younger generations who have a relevant vision of the world. How they make us shift perspective by seeing the world through their eyes. How when, “these three elements come together, their personal vision, the specific artist language and the need to share with an audience – fireworks happen!!!!” In Wales, I haven’t seen any fireworks, there is a missing ingredient. In fact, she mentions this missing ingredient several times during her speech. This is where I agree with Leysen and highlight the importance of the audience.
However, the important part of Leysen’s question is to whom is this young artists view of the world relevant? To a taste maker looking for a new ‘fix’ of otherness for their art world posse, or for their friends and communities? Leysen is absolutely right that “Internationalism includes the very local. Only the local can be Universal“. Art must first succeed in its own environment, with a genuine relevance and emotion, before it can have any relevance internationally. It is here I depart from Leysen – In the context of Welsh Visual Arts what is the nature of succeeding in art and are the international arts really based on local success?
I have little to say on part II of Leysen’s speech as these are fairly obvious requirements of good international curating. In an ideal world these would also be applied to local curating to. Too often we see artists being judged by one work alone and not being given the chance to put across something more subtle and nuanced, or to really communicate with an audience by showing a body of work. It could also be said that in the visual Arts in Wales we don’t have venues that are capable of displaying the work of emerging Wesh artists in this way to the public or can afford to change the exhibitions as regularly as they should. I also often suspect that the cry for professionalism in the arts has an ugly counterpart that is selection by CV. However, this is all going off topic.
In 11. (V) Leysen goes on to talk about the audience. This is important.
I too share Leysen’s absolute admiration of the audience. It is worth hearing from Frie Leysen to re-iterate this;
“For me, it is still a mystery. When I’m at the entrance of a theatre and watch all these people coming over to see a show, I wonder: why do they come? What are they looking for here? Why are they not at home in their slippers with a nice glass of wine, watching tv? They invest so much to be there: financially, they have to buy tickets; organisationally, coming home early from work, picking up the babysitter, seeing that there is enough coke and chips for them, dressing up, rushing to the theatre, and, most of all, spending one or two hours listening and watching the artists. Spending their intellectual and emotional capacities all this time for this artist, means quite something.
Just to say that I have a huge respect for the audience and, most of the time, we underestimate them. Thinking for them that, after a hard day’s work, they need something entertaining, something light. Mistake. It is not because I’m tired that my brain doesn’t function any more.”
In fact, I would go to the extreme of potentially placing the audience above and beyond the artists in terms of importance. For, in reality, the artistic moment, the bit we all get hooked on, happens in their heads and is created by them in response to the work. What the artist feels is not always directly relevant.
However, the idea of the Audience being underestimated is important too.
This is a bit of survey of the issue and regrettably doesn’t go into much depth, but I hope that you will forgive me for this. In the post war period British society generally included very few university educated individuals. Lord Maynard Keynes set up the Arts Council to protect the ‘high arts’ from being out competed by the popular arts that were available on increasingly successful media, first Radio, then TV, now I guess on mobile devices. Without support, the skills needed to give live performances and gallery shows of challenging and intellectually relevant work would not have survived. Many significant institutions were born of this era, such as the Royal Ballet, Hayward Gallery and the Arts Council Touring Shows. Much has been said about the debate of high art over low arts, but it has to be remembered what context these decisions were made in. At the time an argument for high arts was reasonable. Today, at a guess, around 40-50% of the adult population are university educated (Please check my guess…). Leaving aside any debate about the standards of education changing, it is now reasonable to accept that we have a very large audience of people who are willing and capable of engaging with contemporary thought in the Sciences and Arts. For example, there is now a whole field of literature in the popular sciences and philosophy which never existed before. My electrician has a PhD, my partner, a middle management accountant, has an MSc in Astrophysics – I could go on. Government should not be funding the Arts to boast about the liberal values and creative economies as portrayed by a few artists, but funding the arts to boast about the audiences and audience figures who are capable of revelling in these issues. For it is this that reflects well on a balanced and open society. (A lesson in all round education that Government might want to listen to…)
Although participation rates are still increasing as Universities commercialise, with the rising costs of education this may not be like this for much longer. However, for now the arts have a unprecedentedly large potential audience. So why are they not attending the Visual Arts events?
I occaisionally attend openings when parental responsibilities allow me, although I have to admit I find them extremely awkward affairs – (Im never quite sure what I am allowed to say or who I am allowed to speak to). Too often the only people there are the arts professionals and friends of the artists. The galleries are closed after work hours, or even closed on Bank Holiday weekends!!! Is there a range of work, family friendly exhibitions, collaborations with other forms of entertainment and interest?
The Visual Arts venues in Cardiff do worse than underestimate their audience, they seem to actively dismisses them. Perhaps, it is believed that you can’t be both popular and critical? I hope I have at least opened your mind to the idea that this needn’t be so. Leysen is concerned that there is a blurring of Art, culture and entertainment, heaven forbid that the arts could be entertaining to an educated audience!!
In Wales, we are privileged to have exceptional contemporary theatre at the moment. Productions such as Beneath The Streets (Punchdrunk Enrichment and Hijinx Theatre), Mametz (National theatre Wales) or Bordergame (National theatre Wales) point the way in terms of exciting novel engaging theatre that is both entertaining, critical and relevant to its audience. Why can we not do this in the visual arts? What is wrong with seeking to be popular and defining your audience?
There is more than a whiff of cronyism here. We have the audience but they are not deemed worthy enough. Instead, determine what is relevant are tastemakers and small circles of people, educated in the same Western Art theory with the same cultural referents. They are the people who decide whether work is successful. This then, is the local success that is feeding the International Arts scene. Where is the relevance to the local culture, where is the real diversity? This is not the bottom up system that Leysen is talking about, but a top down system telling people what they should be interested in. Little wonder then that people are uninterested.
So for me the problem is not encroaching capitalism or the threat of popular culture, but the bubble that the Visual arts have built around themselves to protect them. The bubble that keeps everyone else out and maintains their exclusivity. As mentioned, I think this has an impact on the International Arts scene that Leysen goes on to talk about in relation to theatre. Maybe in theatre it is different, but the range of topics she touches are precisely those topics that don’t connect firsthand to local art producing and consuming communities.
I feel that in order to try and appear relevant International Arts curators and artists labelled in this way are tempted to draw from the international news media. Of course there are numerous evils in the world, The Naxalite Indians should not be displaced, the Middle East is an incomprehensible mess in which we are wholly complicit, Wars have happened that should never have happened – in our name! Capitalism breeds greed. There is considerable hurt in these and many more issues that define our times. However, are the Visual Arts the most appropriate vehicle to spread those complex multi-faceted political messages?
For the people in these situations art has very little relevance at all, after all, art is normally considered a luxury and can certainly only exist after subsistence has been well and truly achieved. Art is made about these situations by outsiders who feel affected by it, so its already second hand experience. Situations that are this urgent can never produce Art in that moment. Perversely, the thing that often makes Art that is described as political successful, is their lack of politics. More often than not they just highlight the emotion, the politics only serves to cloud this. For example, Guernica could refer to any number of conflicts, and is not specific to the Spanish Civil War.
Furthermore, Fine Art is a lousy medium to carry a message of injustices to the masses. I think of Asian Dub Foundations hit single ‘Naxalite’ and can’t help but feel that this track selling well and being played to crowds of thousands in gigs all over Europe had more effect than an artist’s Artes Mundi nomination a good few years later – so why bother using the visual arts in this way?
If we want International Art to be that bottom up system, then it is the very real pains and extreme beauty of daily life on a more intimate scale, or – heaven forbid, what is interesting and popular to particular audiences, that will resonate most and give us that international diversity.
Put simply, it can be dictated by the interests of its audience and curators have to do more to recognise this. We are all capable of distinguishing between Britain’s Got Talent and the Turner Prize (although the degree of difference is worth debating), and I think we can have faith that there is a desire for that complete range of culture from the public. In fact, the arts have to be connected to an audience if they are to have any legitimacy.
The Arts Council of Wales is currently in a drive to increase audience participation in the Arts. Consequently, some galleries in Cardiff are using funding to research engaging with niche audiences and run projects with these audiences. This is admirable and an inevitable due to the ACW’s shift in priorities. However, Im not sure that this is going to create a sustainable increase in the audience for the Visual Arts.
I feel a bit sorry for the artist run spaces and contemporary galleries in the Fine Arts that have little option but to respond to this funding criteria and try to reach new audiences. This is despite my belief that art should be responsive to a larger audience.
After all, for years they were allowed to develop their own niche interests and invite artists to exhibit under a more hands off approach. Many of the exhibiting artists were under the impression that their creative expression was free from government control in an artist run or contemporary space. In fact they beleived that their work could be divorced from a local audience and respond only to a few other artist/curator experts, because that is essentially what a lot of people believe Fine Arts is. They could aim above, wide of or beyond the interests of the visiting public in the name of Art. If you target an audience isn’t that Design or entertainment?
Obviously, I don’t agree with this, but these galleries are in the position where they have a number of artists producing work that is irrelevant to the public and a funding body that wants them to engage the public.
There is no quick fix to raising audience numbers in the Visual Arts and, ultimately, it has to come from artists who are making work that is relevant, engaging and interesting for sections of the public. The ‘Made in Roath’ Festival in Cardiff or perhaps Lwcs in Swansea are excellent testing grounds for this sort of work, but ultimately the idea of targeting particular audiences with your work needs to percolate into the arts colleges for there to be any real success in engaging new audiences. Targeting audiences allows for targeted publicity and venue strategies that can support the work and allow audiences to engage with the Visual Arts.
Recently, Jenny Savage came up in conversation and I think back to her STAR Radio project as an excellent example of one form of this approach.