Oct 152011

A disclaimer about the title of this post: I’m not ‘anti’ the Frieze Art Fair, which concludes today here in Londontown. I’ve never actually been to Frieze and won’t be going today, although I have any number of friends who seem happy enough to shell out the £27 required to gaze at the latest and supposedly greatest that the contemporary art world has to offer.

But not attending Frieze (or even being particularly interested in it) isn’t the same as escaping it altogether, in much the way that not watching the Premier League isn’t an antidote for being endlessly bombarded with minutiae about Wayne Rooney. Like Mr. Rooney, Frieze somehow leeches into the cultural atmosphere whether we like it or not.

In that spirit, I have not been able to dislodge from my head the most startlingly raw appraisal of Frieze and all that it represents, offered last week on Radio 4’s FrontRow programme by Godfrey Barker. An excerpt:

“The word ‘art’ is bankrupt, and thank god for that. It’s no longer about soul. It’s about money. And Frieze is unmistakably a festival of money.”

I realise that Mr. Barker’s comments are largely reflective of the state of play in the contemporary art world, where cynicism is the raw material for creating art that evokes yet more cynicism (Exhibit A is surely Damien Hirst’s diamond skull.) And it’s not as if artists are just recently waking up to getting rich off their work, as anyone who has visited Rubens’ Antwerp manse can attest. At this year’s Frieze, I gather there’s a yacht that costs one price if you buy it as a yacht and another if you buy it as an artwork. Exactly the same yacht, different price to call it ‘art’…and in doing so to buy in, literally, to more meta-level commentary on the commodification of art itself. 

So what is it that niggles, then? Is it the broad idea that Frieze-as-moneyfest is still considered acceptable, even cool, in a world where extreme wealth is perhaps at its historic zenith as a weapon of mass social destruction? Is it that so much contemporary art feels far more interested in being winkingly clever than conveying actual meaning? Is it the fact that being concerned about such questions, let alone commenting on them, may inevitably come across as naive, laughable or perhaps even contemptible?

There was one happy piece of art news this week, at least for me. The influential magazine ArtReview named Chinese artist Ai Weiwei as the most powerful person in the art world, ahead of buyers, gallery owners and other prominent artists. Ai, who earlier this year was detained by Chinese authorities for nearly three months, said in response that he “doesn’t feel powerful.” And yet by many measures the work he creates–and the fact that he’s brave enough to create it–puts him on the frontline of the tumultuous changes underway in his society…so much so that his own government finds him a serious and ongoing threat.

It was, in fact, the news about Ai and not Frieze itself that gave me the title of this post. Art isn’t bankrupt; art is still, often enough, about soul. It isn’t always about money, and thank god for that.


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Oct 072011


first published in ArtsProfessional on 19 September 2011 (www.artsprofessional.co.uk)

Austerity, debt crisis, end of days…whatever. I seem to be positively inundated with job prospects of late. It must be said that these are rather particular prospects, all being opportunities of one sort or another around the business of non-profit fundraising.

In the past four days alone, I’ve received about a dozen fundraising job opps via e-mail from a single head-hunter; the previous week saw about the same number. Throw in a few phone calls (‘Might you be available…?’), note that ArtsPro and ArtsJobs are a-wash in new FR gigs, and the sensible conclusion is that it’s happy days right now for those practicing the dark art of fundraising. (Disclaimer: I was a full-time practitioner of said dark art for more than a decade, but this blog post is in no way intended as an advertisement for future work therein. Faced with the choice of returning to the biz full-time or diving into a vat of battery acid, I’d get my trunks and goggles on. Still, it’s nice to be asked.)


Most of the gigs I’ve seen are for new positions in small to mid-sized organisations, including many dealing in the arts and culture. This is entirely understandable. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has made much noise about “professionalising” the arts, which means finding money elsewhere. This presumably would make it easier for Government to further reduce the current trickle of public arts funding to a barely discernable moistness.


To loosen up those privately held purse strings, Government has deployed a £100m matching fund. There’s also been some modest tinkering with a few philanthropy-relevant tax rules. And now comes the inevitable rush to weapon-up with professionals, the better for organisations to grab all that soon-to-be-free-flowing private cash. If only it were that easy.


Fundraising is mainly the business of building and maintaining relationships. That takes time. Even in this recession/depression the Tyrannosaurs of the UK arts scene will wield their fearsome fundraising machines to good effect. This isn’t because their cultural ‘product’ is inherently better than yours: rather, they’ve painstakingly built strong donor networks and long ago integrated into their daily workings (and budgets) the legions of professional fundraisers needed to turn devotion into dosh. Unfortunately, less experienced organisations often view hiring a full-time fundraiser as akin to recruiting a fiscal alchemist: if you hire them, the money will simply materialise.


There are other ways forward. Fundraising isn’t rocket science; a good consultant can bring meaningful fundraising nous to existing staff. If traditional funding sources are tapped out or locked up—an increasing likelihood—DIY solutions like crowdsourcing may offer a better path to success. And of course, there are cross-organisation partnerships: pooling resources to hire project-based fundraising help could prove cheaper and more effective than going solo.


Sadly, in the current rush to hire full-time fundraisers, there’s a real possibility that dozens of organisations will burn precious resources for little gain. There’s also a broader irony. The time to build a fundraising operation isn’t when things are tough but rather when an organisation is strong. Donors can smell desperation, which is no more appealing in fundraising than it is on a blind date.

Greg Klerkx is Co-director of Nimble Fish (www.nimble-fish.co.uk)


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Mar 112011

…seem of late to be coming in multiples for we Nimble Fishes, which ain’t no bad thing. Of course, it’d be nicer if they didn’t all pile into roughly the same timeframe (between now and, oh, September) but we’re pleased that all the shuckin’ and jivin’ we’ve been doing over the past six months or so is beginning to pay off so nicely.

More details soon, but we look forward to working on behalf of new funders and collaboratively with new partners (and in the case of one project, in a new country!)

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Nov 092010

If you only have 10 minutes to spare right now, skip the rest of this blog and go straight to this article. If you have a few more minutes, stay with the blog (I’m not typing for nothing here, folks.) But I’ll keep it brief.
The link is to a Newsweek article published this past July (in the vast Webiverse, you never know when you’ll stumble onto things). Its premise is that the US—global engine of innovation on so many fronts—is losing its creative edge: that is, its innate, societal ability to innovate and create.
That might seem like potentially good news for the UK. But it is in fact very bad news because the article unpicks, lucidly and in detail, the reasons this may be happening. And many of the wrong turns it reveals are about to be taken here, not least in the proposed scaling back of ‘creativity’ and creative provision as key focus areas for our schools, not to say society in general. I’ll stop there, the better to allow you to read the article.

Ok, one last comment: this is precisely the kind of case that we need to be making right now to government, whether local or national (it’s also the kind of mainstream journalism we need, but that’s another blog). The great irony of the Newsweek piece is that it cites the UK as being among the countries doing it right, creativity and innovation-wise. There’s still time to keep it that way: if you like this piece, don’t hesitate to forward it to your local MP or if you’re feeling bolshy, to the PM or appropriate minister.

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Oct 272010

It's half-term now, time for many parents to shove most of their work to one side and reintroduce themselves to their offspring. Me, I've taken the wee bairn back to the 'hood, which in my case is across the Atlantic in and around the storied Motor City, Detroit. And while you'd think 3,561 miles (according to the handy in-flight map) was enough distance between me and the economic pillage being wrought by the ConDems in Old Blighty, here staring me in the face is the future of UK arts and culture. Or at least, one potentially horrible version of it.

I speak of the travails that presently face the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, consistently ranked as one of the America's finest. The DSO was one of the earliest cultural products to roll off the philanthropic assembly line created by the US automakers that still make their home here. And therein lies the problem: the Big Three have been in decline for, well, as long as I can remember. As a result the DSO has fought off economic peril from every quarter: ticket sales sinking (because of high unemployment), sponsorship dwindling (because businesses are cutting back, shutting down, or moving out), and private endowment shrinking (because of bottom-dwelling interest rates and the need to dig into principal due to previously-mentioned reasons).

The upshot is that DSO management are asking its musicians to take a whopping 33% pay cut (and into the bargain, to give a few free public lessons to show good will.) The musicians, world-class in most cases, are having none of it: they thought the 22% pay cut they proposed was pain enough. And so, as of this writing, the music has stopped in Motown…at least, the classical kind.

What's worse is that most folks seem to think this is just fine. Detroit is a city in decline; why on Earth should it have a world-class symphony? This was essentially what a Wall Street Journal article said recently about the debacle. Such sentiments understandably provoked anger among DSO musicians…but not, sadly, among the city's general populous. Its economy still on the ropes (though improving) and its physical infrastructure in some quarters approaching post-apocalyptic, Detroit doesn't seem to have the energy to fight the erosion of its cultural provision. It's generally agreed that big cuts will happen, big players will leave, and the DSO will be reduced to a regional treasure, rather than a national one. Worse still, DSO's fate is also mooted for the city's world-class art gallery and national (if not quite world) class opera company. Thus does a city's decline, both real and in reputation, self-perpetuate.

Detroit's saga begs questions that communities across Britain should now be asking themselves as they stare down the massive retrenchment in the nation's cultural funding. What part of a community's pride and self-image is comprised of its cultural provision?  How Big can your Society be, really, if theatres, museums, galleries, and arts organisations are priced out, closed down or radically scaled back?

If nothing else, the DSO saga gives the lie to the ConDem fantasy of a more robust cultural world through private funding. Ironically, Detroit's automakers this week are posting bumper profits again. But it takes time for profit to translate into munificence and therein lies the Achilles' Heel of privately-driven cultural funding, versus a system that supports the arts–which will always suffer commercially in hard times–as a matter of national principle. While the banks (and Detroit's auto industry) got zillions to keep from going belly-up, America has no public bail-out plan for its many dying galleries, museums, orchestras and arts companies. Even if Detroit's philanthropists cough up as they once did, it may be too late for the DSO and its sister institutions.

That said, at least the US government isn't actively seeking to wreck its cultural sector (yet). In Britain, the kind of stark choices facing Detroit are being aided and abetted by a slash-happy government clueless about the role of arts and culture in its own society. And so, we must ask the question. Which city here will be the first to face Detroit's bleak cultural future?

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Aug 162010
Well, it’s done now. Twelve short weeks of planning, devising and creating and the weekend event called re:bourne is now history. Or not…plenty of the installations and performances elicited creative, tangible feedback from audiences that is being collated and kept and may appear again in not too long, whether through exhibitions or otherwise (watch this space…) And keep an eye on the re:bourne website plus our site and that of our partners, Workers of Art, for plenty of photos and videos of the event.

Days before re:bourne happened someone asked the question, ‘Why Sittingbourne?’ As in, ‘Why put all of this energy and creativity into an event here, rather than somewhere else?’ A simple question on its surface, but there’s a subtext, isn’t there? The question is really, ‘Why put all of this energy and creativity into a community with no experience of this kind of arts experience…and which is unlikely to understand it, let alone appreciate it?’

The answer to both questions is the same: Why not Sittingbourne? Why always London or Brighton or Canterbury? What intrinsic cultural advantages do audiences in those communities have over people in and around Sittingbourne, other than more regular exposure to interesting, engaging creative work? In which case, a vicious circle ensues: if one assumes that folks in the sticks won’t ever ‘get’ ambitious arts-led events, no one will bother to offer them. If they’re never offered…

But if nothing else, we think re:bourne has proven our case, not that of the cynics. We were told again and again that re:bourne should be taken as an experiment and that we shouldn’t be disheartened if our largely local audience didn’t get it, or were even hostile to what was on offer. Kind words meant here, but for us, missing the point. As demonstrated by the following sentiment, scrawled by a re:bourne audience member as part of an interactive installation, our re:bourne audiences did ‘get it’. They engaged fully in re:bourne, whether through something wonderfully simple like underwater UV body-painting (wait for the photos!) or through more abstract film and audio installations. Did everyone get it? Probably not. But not everyone gets what they experience at the Edinburgh Fringe or other high-profile, like-themed happenings (it’s just that fewer are ready to admit it).

Thanks to everyone who helped us make re:bourne happen. There’s a huge list of people involved so we won’t bang on here, but suffice to say that along with artists, officials, funders, and production crew, the people of Sittingbourne deserve our thanks as much as anyone. They gave shape to re:bourne. It’s their triumph as much as ours.

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Jul 202010
The re:bourne event will happen on Sittingbourne High Street, but it’s where on the high street that makes it interesting. Yes, there will be activities on the pavement and even in the streets; there will be nooks and crannies to explore, interesting things happening under carriageways, in churchyards. This is one of our goals with re:bourne–to find innovative and intriguing ways to bring alive places that, on a day to day basis, never get a second look.

But perhaps the most exciting type of space we’re working with is even further off the proverbial beaten path. Due to the hard work of some friends at Swale Borough Council and the generosity of some private landlords, several re:bourne events will take place inside unused commercial spaces. You’ll have to come along to find out which ones (and what will be happening), but we can guarantee that no one who enters these spaces will ever seem them again in quite the same way, regardless of their future as commercial units.

Loosely, this aspect of re:bourne connects with something called the slack space movement. Calling it a movement, though, is perhaps a bit grand. Rather, it is a fairly recent recognition by artists and civic and commercial leaders that something more interesting than boarding and hoarding can be done with commercial properties that remain unoccupied over long periods of time, an unfortunately frequent phenomenon in these recessionary times. A Guardian article late last year estimated that as many as 70,000 commercial units were to have become vacant last year. That’s an awful lot of empty space. And when that space is smack in the middle of a high street, it tends to cast a pall over those businesses that are making a go of it.

Some slack space activities, like the Brixton Market, have become viable commercial activities in their own right. But more often, the creative or artistic use of these unused spaces is a temporary affair of mutual convenience: landlords like the positive attention, artists like the opportunity to have an interesting (and of course very public) space to work in. Is it an affair to remember? Come along to re:bourne next month and decide for yourself.

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