Working in the arts is a real job – don’t you dare ask us to retrain!

Arts workers are among the worst hit by the COVID-19 employment crisis. Professor Almuth McDowall asks why the government is so reluctant to offer support.

As a former classically trained dancer, I have been deeply moved by the plight of my colleagues working in the performing arts across theatre, music and dance.

Our pioneering research with PiPA in 2018 highlighted that over 54% of people working in this sector are self-employed, almost four times as many as in the UK general population. One in three don’t have a steady contract. Unlike in any other industry, it is common and expected that people finance the work which they love through other income. Teaching, cleaning, waitressing – you name it, they’ve done it. Taken together, this has always made for a toxic cocktail of precarious work. But never more toxic than now, as theatres are closed, orchestras can practice socially distanced at best (witness the recent ‘come back’ streaming of the Royal Opera House), and dancers now rather famously, thanks to social media posts aplenty, train in kitchens, bedrooms, on balconies or in the park.

Yet, the notion remains that work in the arts is somehow not real work, but a privilege that only the few can indulge. Recent controversy about the ‘Cyber Add’  illustrates the point. BA Acting student Ruby Hoggarth shares an alternative view about life in the arts during the pandemic:

“Graduating during a pandemic into an industry that is in complete crisis has been hard enough, but being nationally downgraded and humiliated by the very people who allegedly have our best interests at heart has been an embarrassment like no other. Not only has this media strategy grossly disregarded the importance of our industry, especially at a time of national crisis when people turn to the arts for healing, it has shown us that this government have little humanity and no ability to believe in the beauty of art.”

It’s a feeling BA Musical Theatre student Alex Conder can relate to:

“I chose to move away from home to study in the UK as a Musical Theatre student as I knew the spirit and quality of the art made in Great Britain is second to none. To then graduate and be told my career in the arts is viewed as a hobby or “not viable”—after the world has done nothing but devour art in the pandemic—is not only a slap in the face to our current artists, but also tarnishing an incredible historic legacy of fine art and creativity in this country.”

Along with hospitality, retail and manufacturing , the arts are the one of hardest hit sectors in the UK. Companies had to make judicious use of the furlough scheme which is now coming to an end. What next? Theatres will find it hard to put on productions at a profit with social distancing measures in place, as even the sell-out run of an adapted Jesus Christ Superstar in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre demonstrated. We can’t very well take the roofs of all our theatres to aid ventilation, either!

So who’s responsibility is it? Chancellor Rishi Sunak has said that all workers need to adapt to the changing world of work and life in the wake of COVID-19. Well, those working in the performing arts have shown formidable resilience and adaption skills to date, our data shows that many juggled two if not three jobs to make ends meet and have a reasonable income. Tom Rogers, a soloist with Birmingham Royal Ballet has long branched out, initiating his own podcast series, Tom & Ty Talk, and as a guest editor for his company.

Tom says “For me it is vital that people working in the arts respond to the times we are in through creativity and self expression. Despite the political and social upheaval brought about by COVID-19 and our current government, the desire for art and culture remains. By continuing to be creative and bringing art to our communities, we will remind society and this naïve government of the true value arts and culture plays in all our lives.”

Chancellor Sunak seems to have forgotten that the arts and culture industry contributes £10.8 billion a year to the UK economy and gives jobs to 363,700 people.

The enjoyment and quality of life the arts bring to our lives is, however, much harder to measure. I know that I am privileged as I earn a reasonable income which I spend first and foremost on the arts. Life has lost its technicolour, since frequent carefree visits to the Royal Ballet, Sadlers Wells, Birmingham Royal Nutcracker seasons at the Royal Albert Hall, and London musicals are no more. I miss the bonding experience of going to see live music with my three teenage girls or treating my mum to a classical concert visit together.

These are small worries in comparison to existential crisis. The stress and worry caused by the uncertainty and lack of support is taking a toll on those working in the arts. Is Universal credit really an option? Of course it isn’t, as this quote from Geddy Stringer illustrates vividly:

“I timed my move to London terribly, having just finished a somewhat interrupted year on the MA in Musical Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music. There’s been no clear support from the government and no industry to work in. I’ve been trying desperately to get a part-time job elsewhere, but the job market is a minefield to say the least. My only option has been Universal Credit. I know that this can’t last forever, nor do I want to take it for much longer. But until the government sees the arts as a viable and lasting career option – instead of a hobby – and gives it the support it has long justified, then there isn’t really anywhere else to go.”

So what is the answer? A government funded rescue package doesn’t come soon enough. But a rescue package is exactly that – a sticking plaster. What we need is a long-term strategic solution, as COVID-19 is not going to go away in a hurry. More than ever, we need to continue to celebrate the past, present and future of the arts as  part of our legacy and identity.

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(Art) History Matters

Dr Sarah Thomas, from the Department of History of Art, shares her experience of museum curation in Australia and discusses how we should interrogate the ‘hidden histories’ that underpin current debates. 

In 1993 when working as a curatorial assistant in a public gallery in Sydney I was involved in a project which I’ll never forget. Yamangu Ngaanya. Our Land Our Body was an exhibition of paintings by a group of Aboriginal artists from a remote desert community in Warbuton, Western Australia. The dazzling canvases, derived from ancestral ‘Dreaming’ stories that were traditionally painted onto the body, were accompanied by forty-five Ngaanyatjarra men and women, most of whom had never visited a city in their lives and who had travelled to Sydney by coach over several days and nights. Besides the paintings they also brought with them sixteen tonnes of red sand from their land, which over the course of several days was dispersed over the gallery floor. What had been a standard ‘white cube’ interior was radically transformed into a space for ceremony: over several days and nights separate groups of women and men prepared and performed Dreaming ceremonies, filling the space with traditional song, language, dance, swirling dust, bodies painted in ochre, the smell of smoke and sweat. This was not what an art historical training had prepared me for: ‘performance art’, ‘installation’, and ‘body art’, even ‘painting’, were all wildly inadequate terms for what I observed over the course of that week.

I am reminded of this moment by the global repercussions recently of the Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests. The Australia I grew up in was deeply racist, and it remains so. Sadly, despite years of protest, public and scholarly debate, and a government apology in 2008 for the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families by national and state agencies, Indigenous Australians remain the most incarcerated people on earth. Leading Aboriginal artists have long been highly critical of Australia’s colonial past, and the pervasive hold it has on the present. Daniel Boyd, for example, critiques the nation’s foundational myths by reworking white Australian imagery, from heroic depictions of Captain Cook (statues of whom are currently the subject of heated debate) to encounters between Aboriginal and European settlers. I included Boyd’s painting We Call Them Pirates Out Here (2007) in an exhibition I curated in 2015 called Colonial Afterlives, which brought together the work of contemporary artists from former British colonies including Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, Canada, New Zealand, as well as Australia.

: Colonial Afterlives exhibition catalogue cover. Image by Christian Thompson, Trinity III, from the Polari series, 2014. Christian Thompson is represented by Sarah Scout Presents (Melbourne) and Michael Reid Gallery (Sydney and Berlin).

Colonial Afterlives exhibition catalogue cover. Image by Christian Thompson, Trinity III, from the Polari series, 2014. Christian Thompson is represented by Sarah Scout Presents (Melbourne) and Michael Reid Gallery (Sydney and Berlin).

Over the past decade, I’ve been researching the European representation of enslaved people in the 18th and 19th centuries across the Caribbean, Brazil and antebellum America (the subject of my book, Witnessing Slavery: Art and Travel in an Age of Abolition). More recently, I’ve been talking to museum professionals and scholars across the UK about how their institutions might publicly acknowledge the cultural legacies of slavery. The work of UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership project has uncovered a wealth of data about slave-owners at the moment of British emancipation in 1833, when a grant of £20 million (40% of Britain’s national budget) was paid in compensation, by British taxpayers to slave owners. My research draws on this work, focussing on the impact of slave-owners as art connoisseurs, collectors and patrons on the early history of British art museums.

There’s no doubt that such ‘hidden histories’ are troubling. The toppling of the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston on 7 June was not simply a spontaneous action born out of collective rage, but one with a long and more complex history of thwarted community attempts to acknowledge publicly Colston’s role in the slave trade. Madge Dresser points out that when the statue was erected in 1895 (over 170 years after the subject’s death), it coincided with the building of monuments which glorified the Confederacy in the United States, and others in Britain and across its Empire, which: ‘similarly extolled the virtues of British imperial figures whose relationship with colonised people of colour ranged from the paternalistic to the genocidal’. Historian Nick Draper is right when he says: ‘Historians need to be realistic about their reach and influence. But for more than 30 years scholars have worked towards an adequate post-colonial account of Britain’s history as a colonising and imperial power.’ He cautions: ‘We have tried to establish an evidence base that can be drawn on by all parties. The hegemonic view of British exceptionalism, its unique commitment to liberty and its glorious imperial past, has been challenged, but it has survived. Had we collectively succeeded, then some of the paths not taken would have been pursued. The binary of leave it alone/tear it down might have been avoided’. There is a sense of disappointment in this statement, as if historians themselves have in some sense failed in their attempts to challenge the status quo. But it is this ‘evidence base’ that is so vital to what we do as art historians as well, and why in our teaching we often speak about ‘authoritative sources’ and the importance of primary archival research.

Australia has a longer history of grappling with its colonial (British) past. As a curator in a big state art museum in the late 1990s, I was part of a generation that began to question the traditional separation in collection displays of ‘Aboriginal art’ and ‘Australian art’, interrupting Euro-centric chronological displays by introducing works of contemporary Indigenous artists, such as Boyd. (European visitors had no doubts about what constituted ‘Australian art’: they headed straight for the Aboriginal art collections.) My first sustained encounter with Aboriginal art and its makers in 1993 was profound, and its complexities and contradictions have stayed with me over the course of my career and feed now into my teaching. In Britain, museums are starting to engage more directly with the deeper implications of empire (see, for example, The Past is Now: Birmingham at the British Empire, 2017), but there is still much work to be done.

Art historians today are attentive to the complexities of social context, and careful to avoid the simplistic dualisms that newspapers, politicians and much social media commentary thrives on. Public statues have garnered attention across the world as lightning rods for heated and often bitter debates about national identities, yet the very fabric of our cities and countryside  – street names, public buildings, museum collections, archives, country houses, to name just a few examples – is steeped in the residue of history. This reminds us that colonial business is unfinished, its legacies are raw; history is now, and it matters.

 

Sarah Thomas is Lecturer in Museum Studies and History of Art in the Department of History of Art, and Director of the Centre for Museum Cultures. In Autumn term 2020, she will be teaching the seminar ‘Slavery and Its Cultural Legacies’ as part of the MA Museum Cultures and MA History of Art.

 

 

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Making Monuments Matter

As the debate about the removal of historical statues rages on, Professor Annie E Coombes reflects on the significance of statues in the discussion and commemoration of history. 

Sethembile Msezane performs 'Chapungu - The Day Rhodes Fell', April 2015.

Sethembile Msezane performs ‘Chapungu – The Day Rhodes Fell’, April 2015.

Since the 2015 call to arms of the #Rhodes Must Fall and #Fees Must Fall campaigns started on South African University campuses in a drive to get universities to finally address the legacy of racial inequalities produced by colonialism and apartheid, the baton has been taken up by other students worldwide. They have demanded that educational institutions address colonial amnesia and actively decolonize the curriculum. Birkbeck and other colleges of the University of London have slowly begun to put some energy behind addressing these demands closer to home, although some of us have always had this at the heart of our research and teaching agendas. The recent protests initiated by Black Lives Matter have reignited awareness of the deep structural legacy of racism in the wake of George Floyd’s hideous murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. The ripple effect around the globe has strengthened the long-repeated calls for legislated action to ensure equal rights and their implementation.

Here in the UK the Black Lives Matter movement has lent support to the voices of Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon OBE and David Lammy MP in their insistence on the necessity of implementing, rather than ignoring (again) the recommendations made in the numerous reports and reviews on racial inequality in Britain (including the 1997 inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s death, Lammy’s own 2017 review into the treatment of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the justice system and Wendy Williams’ review into the lessons learnt from the discriminatory treatment of the Windrush generation (2018 & 2020).

Municipal statuary has often been the visual centrepiece of these protests. For the past twenty years, I have been fascinated by monuments and their afterlives. The love, hate and ridicule they inspire, and the ways in which even those originally standing for the very worst aspects of human endeavour can become reanimated to generate a rallying cry for the most progressive solidarity. The recent toppling of the much-maligned statue of the Bristol slave trader Edward Colston during a Black Lives Matter protest is a case in point. That activism and energy were able to accomplish in one fell swoop, something that campaigners and academics in Bristol had been working towards for many years – a greater recognition of the ways in which the history of slavery has shaped the city of Bristol and the removal of celebratory monuments (including Colston’s) to the glory of that hideous trade.

Those who criticise the action as the erasure of history, fail to understand that the gesture has actually reignited an awareness of the importance of an understanding of how history shapes our experience of city spaces and either reinforces or excludes a sense of belonging in swathes of the population. In Bristol it has foregrounded the work of Madge Dresser, David Olusoga and others who have produced deep research on the often hidden histories of slavery and colonialism lurking in street names and municipal landmarks. (Dresser, Slavery Obscured: The Social History of an English Provincial Port c. 1698 – 1833, 2001) Perhaps iconoclasm and the deeper histories it draws attention to, can also enable a greater public recognition of the lives and deeds of men and women from BAME and other underrepresented communities. Or as Jared Brock says, writing on the hidden history of the ‘real’ Uncle Tom of the eponymous book – Joseph Henson, an unsung champion of the Underground Railway – “As monuments topple around the globe they leave space for worthier replacements’.

Research I conducted in Kenya at a moment when a new national history was being written in the wake of the unbanning in 2003 of the guerrilla organisation (Mau Mau) that had fought for the creation of an independent Kenya against British colonial rule in the 1950s and 60s, reinforced the potential power of monuments, but also their complicated valencies. In a quest for representativeness and a bid for national unity, following a wave of post-election violence that had rocked the country, local constituencies nationwide were asked to nominate heroes and heroines for national commemoration. While having many beneficial outcomes for some disenfranchised Kenyans, the nationwide competitiveness occasioned by the government ‘Taskforce for National Heroes and Heroines’. ended up reinforcing, rather than diminishing, the perceived and historic ethnic differences that had led to some of the worst post-election violence in Kenya’s history in 2009. ( Coombes, “Monumental Histories: Commemorating Mau Mau with the Statue of Dedan Kimathi”, 2011) But it is also true that the inauguration of these monuments (for example, to the Mau Mau leader, Dedan Kimathi in the heart of downtown Nairobi) provided the occasion for one of the few acknowledgements by the State, of the role of Mau Mau veterans in the creation of an independent Kenya.

On the other hand, perhaps it is worth considering that sometimes ‘disinterest’, can be as powerful a means of countering the hegemonic presumptions of any monument.  In 1994, in the wake of the first democratic elections in South Africa, I began research on the ways in which histories were being re-thought and re-written in the public sphere in relation to different kinds of visual commemorative practice (monuments, memorials and museums). I took a photograph, later used on the cover of my book, History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa (2003). It shows the gigantesque bust of J.G. Strijdom, Prime Minister from 1954 -58 and member of the white supremacist wing of the ruling National Party which established formal apartheid.

At the time the picture was important to me because it showed Black South Africans walking through the square, oblivious to its original significance, to the extent of using the space as an expansion of the entrepreneurial informal economy and setting up market stalls in the shade of Strijdom’s bust. It seemed to encapsulate a complete lack of interest in the overbearing sculpture commemorating a brutal figure in the apartheid regime. I wondered if the act of ignoring the violent history embodied in the monument and the square’s name, could be seen as constituting in and of itself, a form of resistance. In a neat and entirely appropriate twist to this tale, the monument (the head and the surrounding arch) subsequently collapsed, apparently of its own accord ! It has now been renamed Lillian Ngoyi Square after a member of the multi-ethnic crowd of 20,000 women activists, who marched on J.G. Strijdom in the Union Buildings in Pretoria, to present petitions against the extension of the hated Pass Laws to black women in August 1956 – which finally in 2000, gained its own monument commemorating the bravery of the womens’ action, “The Monument to the Women of South Africa”.

Looking back at a moment twenty years ago when monuments were similarly the visual flashpoints at the centre of protest in the UK, what struck me then seems as pertinent in the current statue debate: “… monuments are animated and reanimated only through performance and … performances or rituals focused around a monument are conjunctural. The visibility of a monument is in fact entirely contingent upon the debates concerning the reinterpretation of history that take place at moments of social and political transition. Their significance is consequently constantly being reinvented but always and necessarily in dialogue with their past”. (History After Apartheid, p.12) Thus the knowledge provided by the historian and art historian is absolutely crucial to a more complex understanding of that past and the lived experiences that contribute to its various and often competing interpretations in the present.

If living in Covid times has taught us anything, it is the value of social connectedness, of ‘community’ sought and found in unusual places, of the street as a valuable locus of social interaction. With this in mind, monuments and public memorials could play a critical role in reclaiming those streets and making many who have been disenfranchised and dislocated from British society feel more ‘at home’.

Annie Coombes is Professor of Material and Visual Culture in the Department of Art History and Founding Director of the Peltz Gallery. In Summer term 2021, she will be teaching the MA seminar option ‘Curating Difficult Histories’ as part of the MA Museum Cultures and MA History of Art.

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