Monday, 1 April 2013

Guest post: "The arts in everyday life", by Tim Joss (UK)

A few months ago, my friend Caroline Miller forwarded to me Tim Joss´s Christmas message, where he was sharing his thoughts on the challenges the cultural sector faces today in its relationship with people. Tim is the founder of Public Engagement Foundation which aims “to open up markets for the arts in daily life”. In this post he explains to us why he thinks the arts have such a powerful role and value in our everyday lives. mv

5 Soldiers, by Rosie Kay Dance Company (Photo: Brian Slater,
Soon after taking office, the current United Kingdom government announced that it wanted to start measuring people's happiness, bidding to be among the first countries to officially monitor psychological and environmental wellbeing. It would add to purely economic measures, such as gross domestic product. The UK Office of National Statistics got to work and, last September, published the list of the ‘domains and measures’ to be used to assess the wellbeing of the nation. It was then that we heard that the arts are unimportant to the UK’s national wellbeing. The statistics office took no notice of representations and decided that there would be no measure specific to the arts.

We need to be much more articulate about the powerful role of the arts.  So here are three promising signs and stories about the value of arts in our daily lives.

1. For those outside the arts and not engaged with them, ‘the arts’ often mean high art in plush venues for the better off – opera houses, national theatres and major galleries.
Through the Rayne Foundation I meet many charity chief executives working inside and outside the arts. Steve Wyler is the Chief Executive of Locality, a nationwide network of over 700 community-led organisations, each helping community enterprises grow, increasing community ownership of local assets and backing social action within their communities. Early in 2011, Locality won a £15 million government contract to train 5,000 community organisers and set up an Institute of Community Organisers. Steve thinks of ‘the arts’ in this exclusive sense. I asked him about his plans for training all these community organisers: ‘You’re about culture change, aren’t you?’ Steve agreed. I asked: ‘Do you use culture to achieve culture change?’ Steve said no. It led to a breakfast together. I avoided talk about ‘the arts’ and instead took Steve through some of the roles different artforms can play: music for celebration; drama for exploring conflict; photography for documentation … Steve was excited by storytelling and its power to pass experiences and wisdom between community organisers. I introduced Steve to Hugh Lupton, one of the UK’s leading storytellers (I knew Hugh from the Bath Literature Festival which I founded in the mid-nineties.) The Rayne Foundation gave a small grant for three diverse storytellers to contribute to a summer gathering of community organisers. It was a success. Reflecting on it, Steve highlighted not only the value of storytelling but also the importance and potency of artistic quality. He didn’t need to be an arts specialist to understand the power of expert storytellers.

2. Those working in the arts talk often about the arts’ transformative power. Realising that power is largely limited to experiences in concert halls, theatres, cinemas and art galleries and at home listening to music  on the radio and watching television. Where people spend their daily lives away from home – in the workplace, in hospital, in local communities and in schools – the arts are thought of as low priority, nice-to-have ‘fluff’.  

Arthur Koestler is best known for his novel Darkness at Noon, an anti-totalitarian work which won him international fame. He is also remembered for founding the Koestler Trust and its awards programme to recognise the artistic skills of offenders, secure patients and detainees. It was the first arts in criminal justice programme and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Today, 200 organisations belong to the Arts Alliance, the national body for promoting the arts in the criminal justice sector. As well as the Koestler Trust, notable members include Clean Break women’s theatre company and Music in Prisons (in a typical project, a group of around 10 to 12 participants will be encouraged to try out different instruments, develop song ideas and write lyrics as part of the process of creating of new and innovative music). The work relies heavily on fundraising (little is paid for by prisons) and is vulnerable. For example, in 2008, the then justice minister Jack Straw cancelled comedy workshops in Whitemoor Prison and circulated an order that similar activity was to stop.

But evidence of interventions being more than ‘fluff’ is growing. Arts charity Good Vibrations uses Indonesian gamelans (beautiful, calming percussion orchestras) to work with the most difficult prisoners: violent men and prolifically self-harming women. An evaluation by the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology of its work with women who prolifically self harm was able to demonstrate long-term reductions in their self harming.

Too often mainstream arts organisations – subsidised and commercial – give low or no status to participatory activities. Despite financial encouragement from Arts Councils, the work is still the poor cousin of professional work in arts venues. Some artists adopt a patronising tone, talking of ‘giving something back’. ‘Outreach’ can have patronising connotations too.

Talking to artists and reading about them has led me to a different view. At best there is a dialogue between artist and context, enriching the artist, the context and the artist’s creations.
I created Rayne Fellowships for society’s ‘bridge-builders’. The first wave addressed a problem identified by senior dance figures: choreographers are too often caught in a dance bubble, not connected enough with the rest of the world. One Fellow, Rosie Kay, had a placement with the 4th Rifles Battalion and Headley Court (a centre for the rehabilitation of soldiers). She created a work about soldiers in Afghanistan who told her ‘You got it! You got it! You understand what it’s like.’ Rosie became, I suspect, the first choreographer war artist.

This year is the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth. In 1945, he and Yehudi Menuhin performed a concert for Bergen Belsen survivors. Britten later revealed that the experience coloured everything he had written subsequently.

The Hepworth Wakefield gallery currently has an exhibition of Barbara Hepworth, one of the greatest British sculptors of the 20th century. The exhibition is of her hospital drawings. They were the result of Hepworth spending many hours in operating theatres. The experience helped crystallise her view of abstract painting: “Working realistically replenishes one’s love for life, humanity and the earth. Working abstractly seems to release one’s personality and sharpen the perceptions ...”
Artists’ experiences away from arts venues and other artists can have a profound effect on their work.

Tim Joss is Director of a charitable foundation, the Rayne Foundation. In 2008, Tim wrote ‘New Flow – a better future for artists, citizens and the state’. He was appointed visiting Senior Fellow in cultural policy at City University and created the Public Engagement Foundation which aims to open up markets for the arts in daily life (in community development, schools, prisons and so on). The first focus is on health. Previously Tim was Artistic Director & Chief Executive of festivals in the city of Bath where he revitalised the Bath International Music Festival and founded the Bath Literature Festival. He is a graduate of The Queen’s College, Oxford (in mathematics) and Royal Academy of Music (in piano and composition). The French Government appointed him a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2005.

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