The two clear and obvious messages we’ve managed to gather from our mostly failed attempts to communicate with the still rather aloof Arts Council England over the last couple of weeks are, whatever you do don’t ever try to be in any kind of way “self-sufficient” and please don’t attempt to stand on your own two feet. And whatever you do, do not make a point of trying to engage with the public, don’t you dare try to reach out beyond the closed-door art bubble, whatever you do, don’t open your doors, don’t try to walk it, best to just talk it and the longer the words and the statements the better – wordy art-talk written from behind closed doors is the way. Apparently I don’t qualify for support as artist and we don’t qualify as Cultivate (I always saw Cultivate as part of me as an artist, part of both Emma and I as artists, the gallery and the shows are artistic statements). Support from Arts Council England isn’t for the like of us apparently. We did eventually hear back from their annoyingly named Customer Services Team, just the once, well not directly, the so called Customer Services Team passed my communications on to their Complaints Team who responded just the once and said in their one e.mails that they were happy to answer any more questions and then they didn’t answer any more, I did try an number of times before I gave up, seems they weren’t that happy really….
And so, far from the maddening turmoil, the (Far from the) Turmoil show opened, our latest group show, just 41 artists this time, two less this time than than April’s on-line show #43Artists. A second on-line show during lockdown and once again quite a number exhibiting with us for the very first time – we do pride ourselves in terms of bringing in new blood – yes, we are (very) picky about the art we show but we do like to offer space to those who so often aren’t part of the various art systems, those who so often don’t get the chance to get involved unless they can afford to pay (art is way too much of a rich person’s sport these days, you need to have deep pockets to take part, that or the pot-luck of funding of some kind of course). It really is tough for a young (or not so young) artist these days, getting tougher all the time, really is tough for a new artist to even get a foot in anywhere these days. We like to think we’ve offered quite a few artists a way in over the last half-a-dozen years or more. Cultivate is, in so so many ways, about open doors – open doors in terms of letting artists in and crucially, open in terms of actually having our actual physical doors open for those who might like to come in to our shows – we’re constantly told by people that there’s nothing more intimidating that a locked gallery door and a bell that demands you ring it, we hear that again and again from people who thank us for always having our door open – I’m insistent on it, rain, shine, snow, wind, the door must stay open! So many art galleries, so many of them funded by the damn Arts Council, seem to go out of their way to make it difficult for people to actually find them and then when they do find them. to actually get in and discover what might be hiding inside, they seem to enjoy making it uncomfortable, intimidating, hell, I find it intimidating myself and I suspect I go to shows and exhibitions more than most people (as those of you who read The Organ probably know), those who aren’t so familiar with it all tell me they just don’t feel welcome in most art galleries. So yes, open doors are very important, making people feel welcome and comfortable is very important, offering artists a space is very important, yes we are picky, but it is important.
So during lockdown, while our physical spaces are (rightly) closed, we’ve taken to on-line shows. This May we gathered together 41 artists for a second unplanned on-line show, some of the artists this time around came in via an open call process, some artists we found ourselves via their social media feeds and such, some of those taking part in both of the recent on-line shows were artists who had been involved in previous Cultivate (physical or on-line) shows – we’re rather pleased to have so many artists involved who are new to Cultivate yet again – new blood is important, open doors are important, making people feel welcome is important, engagement is important, the kind of thing you’d think the Arts Council would agree are are important maybe? Surely running a (just about) self-sufficient engaging welcoming friendly art gallery is a good thing? The kind of thing the Arts Council would surely want to try and support through the tough times we are currently experiencing? Surely that’s what the emergency funding they just got from the Government is for? Surely?
Two on-line shows opened during the time of lockdown then, one at the start of April and one in the middle of May, the 7th and 8th on-line shows and the 154th and 155th shows in all. That’s a track record of surviving and putting on some 155 shows from the artist-led battle of a thing that has been Cultivate during the last night rather tough years – that’s not a bad record even if we do say so ourselves. But now we’ve been stopped in our tracks, stopped mid-show in mid-march when the lockdown came, half way through another month-long run of three physical shows in the Columbia Road space that we were again hiring throughout the month of March.
Cultivate was (and hopefully still is, although the future looks very bleak right now) an artist-led initiative, and this bit is very (very) important, this bit coming up is something the Arts Council don’t seem to get, or at least they don’t seem to want to get (or maybe they do and they just don’t care?).. Cultivate isn’t a commercial gallery. we’re not one of those commercial art spaces that base the decisions on what will and won’t sell, that’s not a dig at the commercial galleries that are run on those lines, we just needed a (hopefully self-sufficient) space that showed work that wasn’t always going to be about sales, a space where we as artists could invite fellow artists to join us, to make statements, a space where we could engage with the public, where people could engage with our art, a space where the art wasn’t always going to have to satisfy those often rather conservative commercial requirements the galleries that are all about sales need to understandably impose on themselves and their artists. Yes, we do sell art at some of the shows, it is how we just about keep it going, and I personally subsidise some of the shows through my own sales (indeed this recent month needed the thirsdd oand final week long show, a solo show of my work, to cover the costs of the things that had gone before in the month) but surely it is vital that art isn’t about selling, that art that is going to sell can be seen, that artists who don’t ever have a hope of selling can engage, perform, paint, install, isn’t it important that it has to be about more than just a glorified art shop? I’m not an art dealer, I’m an artist who thinks engaging art is important, that art is, on the whole, a force for good, that it has to be about more than the price tag and we don’t have to decide based purely on what will sell? I’m an artist and a slightly reluctant curator who yes, has tried to keep something going without putting my hand out for funding, but now, in these times of lockdown and emergency and circumstances way beyond our control, we need to, and the way I understand it, that funding was meant for things like ours, for art spaces like ours? For artists like us?
Some of those galleries, commercial or not, are very cynical though, if they don’t see the prospect of a healthy sale or two they will rather happily turn to exploiting artists and treat us as their cash cows. We exist as Cultivate to offer both ourselves and our fellow artists an alternative to the cynical ways of most of those galleries who pretty much exploit artists like us with their open call fees and their dubious competitions and their often outrageous amounts of money asked to rent wall in their spaces for the shortest of times – this is old ground, we’ve said it far too many times before. We did originally set up Cultivate because we didn’t like the way galleries were treating artists, the way curators were treating us as artists, and especially the way they would treat new young artists trying to make their first moves. We also set up Cultivate an alternative to the oh so often unfriendly closed door world of the elitist art spaces, the aloof world of the Arts Council and their friends where a wordy gallery statement seemed to so often mean so so much more than actual action, where the aim so often.appears to be not to engage with anyone beyond their unwelcoming art bubble, where the aim seems to be to keep it elite, to cocoon themselves is a world where everyone seems to want to be an art student for ever and ever, an elitist world, an unfriendly private club where the name of the art school you went to seems to mean far more than the art you make (and no, that is not an argument for dumbing art down, it is an argument for giving the public more credit that the art world seems to want to give them – “I don’t really get art” is something we hear rather a lot at Cultivate shows where as in fact if you start talking to people, they understand it perfectly).
And so the (Far from the) Turmoil show opened on-line last Thursday evening, 41 artists and over 200 carefully selected pieces of art. it took a long time to pull it together, to get all the images and files in order, to “hang” it all, to make it flow, these things don’t just happen, days and days of work, long shifts staring at screens, playing e.mail tennis, tracking down details and the rest, far harder and far more time consuming that the pleasure of a physical show – but it is worth it, it is worth all the time and the stress and the tired eyes and the rest of it.
The (Far from the) Turmoil show opened on-line last Thursday evening, four days on and it has already been viewed over 30,000 times, visitors from all over the world. the majority for the UK, all parts of the United Kingdom, alongside on-line visitors and positive feedback from all over the globe. The previous show, #43Artists, enjoyed similar engaging numbers, both shows featured artists who regularly show with us both on-line and in our physical shows, alongside artists joining us for the very first time, artists who never logistically get a chance to take part in our physical shows here in London – we’ve got a great artist from India in the latest one, a painter called Devi Seetharam, do please check out her work, I really love it, it excites me, she responded to our open call, she said she was both shocked and delighted when we said yes, I see from her social media, that other Cultivate artists have been connecting with her, so have some of our regular visitors, brilliant! Did I say I was a reluctant curator?Actually I love it, I love showing other people’s art, so does my co-cultivator Emma Harvey, Emma just doesn’t have such a big mouth as I do! We love running Cultivate.
Both of the recent on-line shows featured an open call element (as have most of our physical shows), both of the recent on-line shows received thousands of responses to those open call elements – if we were one of those organisations that cynically charge artists just to submit an e.mail to take part in an open call we would have made a fortune! Maybe that’s what the Arts Council would like us to do? Personally I’ve always detested the idea of charging artists just to simply open their e.mails (and detested those galleries and curators who do do that), some of those galleries do it all the time, some of them base their entire business model on the “admin fees” they charge artists who don’t yet know any better, we’ve documented it here many times before, we won’t go over it all yet again (some of those rather cynical curators do seem to be regularly funded by the damn Arts Council though!)
So Cultivate has existed as an artist-run thing for around nine years now, we had a permanent home for the first four of those years until the property developers did for us and knocked our Vyner Street home down, we’ve kept it all going though, we’ve battled on, we’ve been nomadic in recent years, old ground again, but we’ve put on shows all over the London, in all kinds of spaces – here’s ten of them – it has been tough though, very tough at times, it has often felt thankless, we’ve exhibited the works of a couple of thousand artists now – the work of contemporary painters, sculptors, film makers, performance artists, print makers, street artists, old artists, young artists, artists from all works of life, we’ve enabled lots of artists to show work in public for the first time, we’ve seen a number of them use us as a stepping stone and go on to do some significant things, we’ve put on 155 shows now (did I say that already? This thing has been quite a commitment! A heavy workload). And yes, we’ve always kept the doors open, we’ve always been about engagement – not for us, as we said the other day, the aloof ways of those Art Council supported closed door spaces that don’t seem to ever want the inconvenience of engaging with the art-curious public.
We have turned to the Arts Council now and again in tough times, we tried to get some help when all of Vyner Street was going down, personally I’ve turned to them as an artist several times, and never ever have we had even a hint of a positive response out of them, I really in all honestly held out no hope when we first learnt of the Covid emergency fund the government were trusting them to distribute, I did fill in their forms though, and I did write about the annoying criteria a couple of weeks back when the government announced that there would be funding for those artists and curators directly affected by the current lockdown and the virus and well you know the rest already….
We were actually halfway through a run of three physical shows in a small East London space that we had rented when the lockdown hit us right between the eyes, one and a bit shows in to a month long run in an east London art space that we had rented for all of March. We had just opened the second show on the Thursday evening before the lockdown rightly brought that six-artist show to a short sharp halt The opening itself was of course badly affected, understandably so, we shut the doors and took all the art down that weekend, the lockdown was (rightly) officially imposed the Monday afterwards. We had hired the space for a whole month though, we still had a rent bill to pay (we still do actually), the owner of the space wants his money, as does the landlord of my live/work studio, as do the other people who fire bills at us (we might not have charged any of the artists to be in our shows, but we still have to pay the internet bill and the hosting bill and the rest – on-line shows cost us money as well), the world might have stopped but the bills certainly haven’t.
We had thought we’d be just the kind of artists and just the kind of artist-led engaging space that the Arts Council would encourage and indeed support at a time like this, they never have in the past, they’ve supported that closed-door gallery up the road again and again, the one with no signs outside, the one that hides behind locked doors and wordy press releases, but then the Arts Council have always looked down their noses at us. Okay so they’ve occasionally come in to out shows and made themselves known and blown smoke up our arses and told us how wonderful we are as thier drink our free booze, but any kind of attempt to talk to them in an official capacity as always been greeted with the coldest of aloof shoulders. I did write about all this in a blog a couple of weeks ago, we are going over some of the same ground again, but I had though that at this time, even though we’ve somehow, against all odds managed to keep on going as a loose collective of engaging artists without any moral or financial support from the Arts Council or indeed anyone else for nine years and 155 shows now (as well as all we do for other artists and other shows via the pages of Organ, yes, don’t forget that – how many times would shows and events and artists go undocumented if it wasn’t for Organ website?), I had stupidly thought that at this time, during this time of lockdown the Arts Council might feel it right to help us keep it all going, so we filled in the damn forms and battled their dreadful website (not easy when you have eyes like mine) and well, not a chance! Go away, not for the likes of you was the predictable response…
Realistically now it rather looks like Cultivate won’t survive this awful Covid thing, and yes I know far more has been lost by so many others, who cares about an artist-led art space in the great big scheme of things? I get that, but the Government, for all their faults, appeared to say they did think pro-active artists like me, that things like Cultivate, were worth helping, they gave emergency funds to the Arts Council and trusted them to do it. The Arts Council started dishing out the emergency funds, quite baffling to see who they have actually dished it out to frankly – what him? Really? What does he actually do? And her?! Not for us though, we got a short sharp brush off via the complaints department.
So yes, it does look like this virus will take us down in terms of physical shows, both me as an artist and Cultivate as a pro-active series of events and exhibitions – it was getting tougher anyway, but I see very little prospect in us carrying on in terms of physical shows – the March rent bill is still hanging over us, there simply won’t be money to put on any new shows, there probably won’t be time to put in to on-line shows either, not unless we start making them far more commercial and playing it safe and “no, we can’t sell that so no you can’t show your work with us any more”, we could make our shows just about sales and commercial viability rather then just artist-led self-sufficient engagement, we could try and do that? But that’s not what we’re about,, we’re an alternative all that. None of those feminist group shows can happen again, and that brilliant painter wouldn’t get to show with us again, we couldn’t do those bits we did, oh you know the history, you know what we’ve done, no we don’t want to be one of those commercial galleries pushing the next conservative print release and telling the really exciting artists we can’t show their work because there’s no profit margin in it. that’s not what arts about. ,
The Arts Council in the last two weeks have pretty much told us they’re not interested, they did actually respond to the last blog, they did write, they did send us an e.mail, just once, in response to that previous blog page, I did send them the link to it, they did write to tell us they weren’t an aloof organisation and that they were sorry we though they were, “we remain appreciative of having the opportunity to respond to your queries” they said “I was sorry to read of your past experiences with us and I would like to apologise if any prior communication with us has been unhelpful and vague. I can see there are a number of concerns which you have raised across your writings. I have therefore tried to address your main concerns in this email, however please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any further questions.” – i did have further questions, I didn’t hesitate to get in touch again, alas they didn’t reply to the further questions. they clearly didn’t actually mean it when they said “please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any further questions.” I tried to ask questions four of five times in response to their “please don’t hesitate” e.mail….
In that one and only reply they did say that “having read both your emails, and the blog post you have written, I was disappointed to read of your concerns about the eligibility criteria for our Emergency Response Funding. I hope you can appreciate that, when designing the criteria for these funds, we have had to balance the need for these funds to be fair and open alongside an obligation to ensure our funding continues to support the sector that usually relies upon us. In making a track record working in the publicly funded culture sector one of our criterion, we are trying to ensure that we continue to support those who typically rely on grant funding from public bodies, and those affected by the closure of organisations reliant on public funding as their main source of income” – seems out long track record of public engagement and our track record of just about hanging on in a self sufficient way is our downfall, our crime – not that we hadn’t tried to get funding before you understand, seems our mistake here is in battling on in the face of no funding for nine tough years, it seems we’ve proved we don’t need funding and right now during this period of lockdown we apparently still don’t need it.
The message from the Arts Council basically is, as I read it, the simple message is “f**k off”. Now the shut-door gallery up the road, the one that’s never ever open, the one that won’t even put up a sign to let people know they’re there, the one with all the wordy press releases, they just sent out another wordy press release to tell us they’ve been awarded emergency funding so they can hide behind their always locked doors until at least the end of the year – indeed the Arts Council seems to be dishing out all kinds of emergency funding to all kinds of people who spend their time talking it rather then actually walking it, people are gleefully announcing support and funding this week, and I’m thinking why? What do they actually do? What do they actually contribute? We on the other hand are getting nothing but irate calls for those we owe money to in our self-sufficient way, our crime it seems is engaging with the public while trying to be self-sufficienct, something I’m pretty sure I heard Darren Richard Henley (OBE), head of Arts Council England saying they wanted to encourage on the radio recently? So Darren? Just what the hell is going on here? Why is self-sufficiency a crime? Why only fund those you’ve already funded? What the hell is that about?
So yes, we did eventually get one response, I suspect they don’t like people like me writing blogs about them, but that’s the thing, I’m not the sort of person who just shuts up and quietly goes away, I’ve got a big mouth, it gets me in to trouble now and again – “When designing these programmes, we were keenly aware that, as an organisation with limited funds and resources, there will be many who we will not be able to reach. This not only includes those who have not recently relied on public funding but have nevertheless incurred drastic losses as a result of this crisis, but also many artists who meet the criteria. We are truly sorry that we cannot do more during these trying times” – those of you who have already had hand outs can have some more, those of you who have tried to do it yourselves, however much you wave now, you can just go drown
“I am also sorry to hear of the difficulties you experienced” said the Arts Council person I won’t be rude enough to publicly name in their one and only email (even though I did reply several times to that e,mail and even though they did say, as I’ve already pointed out, say they’d be happy to answer further questions), that one and only email did go on to say “although I appreciate that you may not be elegible for this funding at present, it may be useful to know that we want these funding opportunities to be accessible to everyone. As such, we are able to provide financial support to prospective applicants who may experience a barrier to applying. If you do intend to apply in the future, and would like any further information on this, I would be more than willing to forward over more details” – did you figure out that one? I think he or she tried to say, we’re not going support you this time but you can fill in all all our annoying forms on our nightmare of a website yet again so we can turn you down again next time. Not that it looks like there will ever be a next time for us, we really are drowning here, we really did need jsut a tiny bit of that emergency funding.
“As a final point” the e.mail went on, “I would like to apologise if any prior communication with us have promoted a perception that we are aloof, unapproachable, or elitist. I hope my correspondence has gone some way to showing us to be open and willing to engage in a dialogue on these issues” – well, let me see, one e.mail and a failure to respond to any of the follow ups doesn’t really make for a “dialogue” or show signs of a “willingness to engage” does it? Maybe we need to employ one of those professional application writers who seem to make a good living getting through the Arts Council bulshit on behalf of artists? I have heard from several other people that really is the only way? I have been told I should shut up and just keep trying, that my big mouth doesn’t help anyone
So where were we? Going under by the looks of things, not that the Arts Council gives two figs, and so I ask once more, only this time with a slightly more angry tone to my voice than last time, What is Arts Council England actually about during these days of lockdown? Or for that matter at any time? Not for the likes of us so it seems, but then it never has been has it? – “I have therefore tried to address your main concerns in this email, however please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any further questions.” said the person in the complaints department who apparently had had my e.mail sent on to him/her from the annoyingly titled “Customer Services team” – flip me, there’s a whole installation based piece of wordy performance artwork to be had based just on the tittles they give themselves isn’t there? Actually they’d probably fund us for that one!
“Dear Sean, Thank you for your email to our Customer Services team. Your email has been forwarded to me so that I can provide you with further information. This doesn’t mean we are treating your email as a complaint and, as always, we remain appreciative of having the opportunity to respond to your queries” – what an absolute pile of steaming horsepoop! The arts council has always appeared to be about those who talk it, they have never been about those who actually walk it, it has always appeared aloof, elite, it has always felt like an unfriendly closed shop, a jobs for the the girls and boys situation, a not for the likes of you operation – we’ve not supported you before so you don’t deserve our support now is the answer we got! Go sink, we don’t care is what they said. we’ll hand out the support and the emergency funding to those who make no effort to do it themselves, to those who keep coming back with their hands out again and again. Come on arts council, at least at least make those damn bluffers up the road spend some of the money you give them on a damn sign, make them put a sign outside! Hey Darren, at least make them tell the public they exist and make them keep regular opening hours and make them actually engage while you carry on funding them to carry on with their wordy bulshit! Cultivate then, all that engagement and empowerment and all those shows, yeah, it was good while it lasted, so were those two recent pro-active on-line shows that we’ll leave there while can just about to afford to keep the websites on-line. Frankly. f**k the Arts Council. bollocks to whole lot of ’em. they’re clearly not for the likes of us, what a bunch of aloof elite closed-door self-congratulating bastards, f&*K the f*(&&%ing lot of ’em. That’s all folks, bye… (sw)