Stella Duffy: 4 ways to make the arts for everyone, not just the chosen few

Fun Palaces, such as this one held on London's South Bank, aim to involve the whole community in creating theatre. Photo: Helen Murray
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Another week, another call for the death of Arts Council England. If it’s not the Daily Mail, it’s an opera tsar charmingly suggesting that problems at the English National Opera would be solved by killing the arts council, thereby taking money away from the likes of Creative Black Country who are working with local artists in an arts-hungry community. Nice.

Alternatively, we could stop shouting at each other and better use what we do have. We could stop blaming the middle man and persuade the Treasury of the value of our work. We could take the money from Trident nuclear missiles and spend it on people.

Seriously, we have an election coming, we can make a difference. And then, yes, we can encourage the arts council to consider other ways of allocating funds, whether it’s the minimum that our anti-arts coalition government allows or the dream of a fully funded cultural ecology – fully-funded for all arts, that is, not just for some.

On February 25 it will be 50 years since Jennie Lee’s white paper A Policy for the Arts stated:

Compared with many other civilised countries we have been in the habit of financing some fields of the arts on no more than a poor law relief basis.

On the anniversary, many of us will share a response to the white paper, celebrating how far we’ve come and looking at how much is still to do.

Last October, 130 communities across the UK made locally-led Fun Palaces, based on Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price’s dream of radical access to all culture for all people. On February 19 we open Fun Palaces registrations for October 2015, with the community again firmly at the heart of our campaign. By access for all we mean all, we’re proud that a large proportion of 2014 Fun Palaces were run by local people who had never before worked in the arts in any way.

This year, spurred on by the gap between hopes and achievement in Lee’s white paper, inspired by the learning from our pilot Fun Palaces, and determined that whatever government we get in May understands the importance of cultural activity for all people, I want to do more, and better. Here’s a few ways I think we might, finally, make arts for all:

Stop building, we have enough buildings

Better use of the ones we have is sustainable and sane. Use the offices that are empty at night, the school halls empty at the weekends, the churches unused all week. Hand these places over to those who can’t afford rehearsal, performance and gallery space, and let them make of it what they can.

Use all the spaces, including the big glass and concrete foyers of those massively funded arts buildings, their cafes, their over-shiny bars and elegant courtyards. Let young poets tell stories in hallways, elderly people’s craft groups show their work in the cafes that make more money than the galleries anyway. There’s every chance that what the community has to share is as enjoyable as whatever is in the main space.

If we must build, let’s build to human scale, locally, instead of nationally. Let’s build small, neighbourhood arts centres so we can walk, instead of driving or getting ever more expensive public transport to the arts.

If a company has the word ‘English’, ‘National’, or ‘Royal’ in their title, make sure they live up to it

If it truly belongs to all of us, let’s have them make their work for all, not just those who can get to the tourist destination in which their building is planted. Yes, touring costs a great deal, but so does yet another foyer or gallery with yet another rich person’s name on it. There will always be overheads. Don’t some rich people just want to give? I can’t believe they all need their names on the outside of a building. Can’t we just say: “Thank you for your proposed donation for our gallery, but so many more would gain lasting value if we used use your money to tour and work with new and would-be creatives across the country for the next 50 years”? I do not believe that the rich are so vain that they want to sponsor cold stone when they could enliven lives instead.

We currently have a system where it’s easier to find capital costs than it is to fund the core costs of even part-time producers, those who could take the work to the people, who could – better still – help the people make their own work. Right now, funding bodies, especially trusts and foundations and philanthropic businesses, find it easier to fund concrete and steel than to fund actual people. That’s got to be wrong, especially when it comes to our national institutions.

Fun Palaces at the Deptford Albany. Photo: Helen Murray
Fun Palaces at the Deptford Albany. Photo: Helen Murray

Stop with the excellence

It’s time that people gave up on the Reithian belief that art is good for people and that ‘high art’ is best. The belief that arts are better than craft, professional is better than amateur, full time better than part time – tell that to the engineer Dostoevsky, the doctor Chekhov. Stop with the idea that one tiny group gets to decide that some work is excellent and some isn’t. We know that any engagement is good for people. A singalong in a pub (remember them?) engenders as much spirit and community as attendance at the hottest of immersive new work.

Drop the ‘excellence’ lie altogether. Anything subjective can only be true for one judge. What if we considered that this idea of subjective excellence might be wrong? If what we need is excellence of engagement above all?

Stop treating artists like we’re special

Artists are taxpayers and community members too. As Joan Littlewood would have it, everyone is – or can be – an artist. We have no idea how many brilliant artists, scientists, academics, inventors of the cures for cancer exist, because we’re still not educating everyone equally. Give more kids opportunities to experience great arts and then see who’s special. Help them to know, to feel, in their bodies as well as their spirits, that they can be the artist. It’s a slower process than just taking some (subjectively) great artist around a dozen schools, but actually allowing all of our kids to be active in arts is the only way we’re ever going to truly create arts for all.

We don’t need the death of the arts council, but we might need to elect a treasury that values, not just the high arts or the tourist-appealing arts, but all arts, made by and for all the people. Almost 60 years since the beginning of the arts council as we know it, it’s probably time to get really radical. My mates now in their 60s are radical. Let’s be radical with them. Let’s make arts for all.

Stella Duffy is a writer and theatremaker and co-director of the Fun Palaces initiative