Whilst the How to work together collaboration between Chisenhale Gallery, The Showroom and Studio Voltaire is in the process of realising a series of artists’ commissions that will be the most visible aspect of its partnership over the three years for which it is funded, its title suggests a more managerial or social set of questions that implicate, not simply what comes into appearance, but how and through which process it does so. My interest is in how the pragmatic details of the organisational structures of these arts institutions shape the daily life of work, its ethos and economics; and whether new forms of working together, both within these organisations and in their collaboration, emerge that might inform a larger debate about the politics of artistic and curatorial production. How do people employed in arts institutions of this scale work together and how have these processes changed over the past decade, a period in which Chisenhale, The Showroom and Studio Voltaire, like many of their peer institutions, have had to modify their practice significantly to suit the changing demands of the financial and cultural networks in which they are embedded?
The very real tension between how organisations would like to work, both internally and in collaboration with sister local and international organisations, and the way they must work in order to sustain themselves financially and promotionally, is an increasing concern in the not-for-profit arts sector.
Organisations find themselves caught between radically different modes of managerial practice and must increasingly mobilise very different – and increasingly competitive – communities of interest to survive. This has an impact on the working lives of the people that shape and sustain the organisations. New skills must be developed, new support structures and financial constellations are sought, all of which must sit alongside any ongoing ethos that the institution, through its programme, wants to propose.
Over the past year I have interviewed the directors of the How to work together organisations and spent time working with them on the edits that appear here. What is immediately revealed is that in each case, the directors have experienced and had to manage a huge organisational change, largely due to shifts in the climate of cultural funding in the UK in which a significant move from nominally public to private funding has been imposed by successive governments on Arts Council England and other funding bodies. Indeed, the How to work together project is funded by Catalyst, a government initiative made up of investment from Arts Council England, Heritage Lottery Fund and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, that has been set up to support cultural institutions in the development of new sources of sponsorship and patronage; as well as develop new commissions, the organisations have worked together to raise, through the promise of their collaboration, an impressive amount of such income.1 But it is not only shifting funding structures that these organisations have managed. They are also ‘quietly ambitious’ (to quote Joe Scotland of Studio Voltaire).
This ambition is complex however, for it is not necessarily ambition for growth in terms of scale or turnover (the aspects of ambition we might identify with a small-scale business), but in terms of autonomy and the ability to be free to produce and promote cultural wealth.
The interviews are significant in that they demonstrate not simply the skill, care and commitment of Polly Staple, Emily Pethick and Joe Scotland, but also the degree to which each organisation has had to negotiate similar questions surrounding organisational change, diversification and growth. These questions are largely political: they concern the ways in which the organisations understand their values to shift as they develop conversations and commitments that are shaped not simply by curatorial choice but also by economic facilitation. Whilst the organisations vary in terms of the types of artists they support and the ways in which artworks they commission are displayed and distributed, my conversations with the directors suggest that they share key values and experiences. These include:
— A commitment to equality both in the ways the organisations are run and the way audiences are encouraged to experience the exhibitions and events that they produce: this includes being committed to fair pay and attempting not to exploit worker’s labour, and providing structured training to develop people’s careers. This is often difficult, as all organisations have a small and close-knit staff, all of whom are used to various forms of self-exploitation within an artistic culture that is in many ways premised upon inequality, financial mystification and non-transparent judgments of taste;
— A growing expertise in the negotiation of entrepreneurialism: whilst all three directors expressed concern with the way that entrepreneurialism has become dominant both within the arts and more generally, they have also become adept at diversifying the bottom line, have all implemented successful patronage schemes (at different stages of development) and are all currently dealing with the managerial transformations and staffing implications that such demands bring.
Each is committed to translating entrepreneurialism to serve values that are socially and artistically, as well as financially, beneficial.
Each understands that their roles as value generators are important, especially for audiences’ experiences and artists’ careers, but also precarious and potentially exclusive;
— A desire not to grow for growth’s sake: as leaders of small-scale partially publicly funded galleries, the directors of these organisations all express an aspiration not to grow much larger. They all worry about doing too much instead of doing too little, and each wants more time to invest in in-depth research on and with artists that they feel market pressure does not allow. Each organisation wants to invest more time and effort in their current expertise and to assert their specialisms rather than become more generalist providers. Each organisation values its autonomy and independence, not only seeing these as precious commodities, but also as factors that are unique to the scale and history of their organisation and worth fighting for in this regard;
— Artistic methodologies: it seems significant that all three current directors of these organisations trained as artists, many of the staff are practicing artists, and many of the values they impart emanate from the way artists approach planning and problem solving. On the one hand this does produce the forms of self-exploitation mentioned above; on the other it produces an open and questioning culture in which there is no fear of experimentation and risk, and where new and often challenging ideas are embraced without having to be diluted.
In the transformation of organisational structure each director has made — which have involved employing more people, particularly in the roles of communication, education and development — Pethick and Scotland talk about moving from ‘horizontal’ employment structures, and Staple discusses the importance of discussing decisions with all the team, but at the same time taking on the burden of decision-making herself.
All directors discuss, on the one hand, the advantages of putting new people in place to allow for a sharing of workloads and, on the other hand, a worry that certain formulations of equality as well as autonomy get lost in this hierarchisation.
In terms of management, my guess is that this is a fairly normal set of concerns that occurs as all small organisations grow, whatever the business is.
Chisenhale Gallery, The Showroom and Studio Voltaire work on a regular basis, not simply with patrons, but with the galleries and collectors that buy and sell work; relying on the support of these individuals and businesses and, at the same time, creating economic as well as social and cultural value for them and their client-network. All three need to develop and sustain this patronage. All three directors are clear that their patrons are not simply essential to the day-to-day running of their organisation, but are also interesting and interested people whose role is more than simply to donate resources to allow them to continue as is. But this creates tensions too. As described in Value, Measure, Sustainability: Ideas Towards the Future of the Small-Scale Visual Arts Sector, a research paper by Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, commissioned by the advocacy group Common Practice (of which all three institutions are founding members), the recognition of the contribution of small-scale art galleries to chains and infrastructures of financial investment on the basis of deferred reputational value creation sits uneasily with many arts workers. There is both a desire for recognition in these terms (as those higher up the feeding chain are seen to gain increased public and private funding from the initial artistic and labour investments of the small-scale sector), and a concern that the recognition of such a chain might well already have led to its financialisation (indeed, this is visible not least in the number of art investment products on the market that seek to monetise art as an alternative asset class).
Polly Staple says: ‘what I’m figuring out at the moment is, as our activities and staff develop and the organisation grows, does the existing operational structure and culture of sharing still work? So there’s a tension, and it’s a very big transition.’ All express a tension between the workload and the desire for autonomy that is, circuitously, satisfied by the centrality of their position. All, in this sense, play a role in a cultural meritocracy in order to sustain and promote their visions (all of which are lauded by peers, artists and audiences). In each interview we discussed the difficulty of sharing labour within the art world, which focuses so heavily on the importance of autonomous production. Each organisation has an established cultural capital. Each has clear values.
For Staple, the centrality of her engagement with artists – and the idea of this as a model in which nothing is dismissed or manipulated for the public – is where she asserts the importance of Chisenhale as an artistic platform. For Pethick, the Communal Knowledge programme, which is a specific and long term collaborative project with neighbourhood organisations, produces an alternative and more porous, flexible and non-market orientated value.
Pethick says: ‘we’re independent, but at the same time we obviously have various dependencies. We depend on various sources of funding, but also on our network and communities, and all the relationships that we have built around us, including those with our supporters. Collaboration is another value, and related to this is non-hierarchical, horizontal knowledge, and non-bureaucratic relationships.’
For Scotland, the relation between the values of entrepreneurialism and what he calls ‘social good’ are not necessarily so contradictory as to cancel each other out. He enjoys using entrepreneurial skills, but also asserts the subjectivity of Studio Voltaire’s programme in which his politics are embedded: ‘I want to contribute to culture and make a difference, however small it might be. I believe in the inherent power that culture plays in shaping our everyday lives and understanding our existence. I’m certainly left-leaning – however much Third Way/New Labour I might be with all the entrepreneurial/engaging in commercial aspects – I’m in it for social good. And importantly I identify as queer and feminist – this comes out in the programming, which again relates to wanting to add something to our culture – providing a platform for women and homosexuals.’
These artistic spaces are in transition. They are all adept at creating and managing support structures that enable artists to make unique and open works that do not have to respond to the directives of any funder or audience, though they also understand the limits and conditions of such autonomy. They each have an increasing amount of power both within the UK gallery sector and beyond it, within the aesthetic and financial structures of international exhibitions and markets. They each want to keep being able to ask questions and provide unresolved spaces in which images and objects made by artists are encountered by publics; and they are currently successful in this. The question of how long this model is sustainable looms, however.
The cultural capital that Chisenhale Gallery, The Showroom and Studio Voltaire have is insecure. Not in the sense that it might disappear (though this is of course possible), but rather that the attention that it brings to the business of artistic organisation is accompanied by demands of budget inflation, marketisation, spatial and cultural expansion and aesthetic domination.
It is for this reason that we need to understand such organisations within a broader ecology of social and representational accountability; not in order to measure their profit, but in order to understand the role they have in promoting alternative ways of imaging and thinking in a culture that relies more and more heavily on processes of fiscal accountability.
But in order to do this we need to understand them as producing, perhaps ironically, the very opposite values that they might seem to promote on initial analysis: artistic and creative autonomy, independence and freedom. In order to survive, and in order for the workers within them and with whom they collaborate to stop being exploited by the wider cultural funding system on a quotidian basis, these institutions need to be properly funded from the public purse. They need to be dependent on the public. They need to be able to be – really – not for profit.
The concept of social wealth, often set in opposition to fiscal or economic wealth, implies a set of values that might be differently generative to more generally recognised ideas of profit. Whilst the arts have been understood broadly to be part of this non-economically reductive value generation for at least 150 years in the UK, the terms of this value have largely been understood to be socially and psychologically private. The concepts of individual autonomy and freedom of speech that are capitalised and legitimised by this privatisation — consistently and historically at work in the art world —are the benchmark that we all now largely accept. But art also has a long tradition of asserting itself as that which is non-productive, communally recognised, intellectually intriguing and pleasurably produced. The three directors interviewed here all suggest values that are embedded in various versions of such a heritage.
These values are those of autonomy and freedom of speech and creative production as a public right rather than as a privatising process.
The question is, how can our arts institutions help us define and defend such public values when all around them are models that have capitulated to social and psychic privatisation?
Over the next few months I will be working on a manifesto for arts institutions with input from Chisenhale Gallery, The Showroom and Studio Voltaire.
1 ‘Catalyst is a £100 million culture sector wide private giving investment scheme aimed at helping cultural organisations diversify their income streams and access more funding from private sources. The scheme is made up of investment from Arts Council England, Heritage Lottery Fund and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).’ http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/funding/apply-funding/funding-programmes/catalyst-arts/