Open up the gates

Manchester’s creative economy – where to next?

Based on his contribution at last week’s “Manchester’ creative economy – where to next?” urban forum at Twenty Twenty Two, David Gledhill, professional artist and co-administrator of Rogue Artists Studios, the largest studios in the North of England, writes …

Manchester has a particularly vibrant, resourceful and innovative visual arts community. We have great art schools, affordable group studios and plenty of artist-led initiatives and alternative spaces to exhibit in. Artists may be self-employed, working in the service sector or teaching to supplement their activities. Many of them may be exhibiting at a national or even international level and yet Manchester audiences rarely get the chance to enjoy their work and to benefit from the artistic status enjoyed by cities such as Liverpool, Glasgow or Leeds. Manchester isn’t mentioned in the Arts Council plan for 2011-15 which cites the BALTIC in Gateshead, MIMA in Middlesborough, the Hepworth Wakefield, Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the Liverpool Biennial as evidence of the strength of the visual arts in the North. (http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication_archive/arts-council-plan-2011-15)

If this doesn’t ring any alarm bells, the almost complete absence of any initiatives that may benefit, promote or support artists in the region may do. Manchester has no visual arts biennial, no art prize (like Liverpool), no annual open submission competition (like the London Open at the Whitechapel) no purchase schemes, and no artist residency programmes at its biggest institutions. We’ve never been in the running for European Capital of Culture. In fact you’re more likely to see a Manchester artist working as a gallery attendant than exhibiting in the city. If we want artists to live and work in the region, rather than moving south in search of opportunity, our major galleries must join hands with the artist-led sector to nurture a fully integrated visual arts ecology.

Artists contribute far more to a region’s tourism, academic, service and construction sectors than they ever absorb through direct public subsidy. They revitalize neglected zones of the urban environment and lend cultural prestige to a city’s portfolio of attractions. The Arts Council’s attempts to support excellence and diversity, including aesthetic diversity, are foundering on their agenda of driving public-funded institutions towards the open arms of the private sector in the attempt to broaden income steams. The commercial art world in particular, is founded on exclusivity, with self-appointed ‘gatekeepers’ promoting their own vested interests and excluding the vast majority of practitioners. Imagine turning up at hospital to be told that you’re not welcome because you haven’t been to dinner with the administrator.

An independent report (http://www.theroccreport.co.uk) concluded that there’s an urgent need for investment in arts production outside London. Nevertheless it failed to critique the rampant croneyism that is infesting the museum sector and leading to homogenization and stagnation in the visual arts. In his book ‘Dark Matter’ (2011) Gregory Sholette talks about the ‘structural invisibility’ of most artists. The passion and dedication of Manchester’s artists and the legendary DIY spirit of our great city can only carry us so far. Artists deserve the widest possible audiences and a platform alongside the international talent that visits the city. Manchester deserves to experience the greatest art in the world together with the greatest art from right here. The arts community must come together and make it happen!

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