After the cuts, the Darlington Arts Enquiry process rumbles on. What are we going to do without the generous support of Darlington Borough Council in the future? The first wave of policy statements coming out of the process were effusive in their enthusiasm for the arts in the town. The presence of Darlington for Culture ensured that a sense of inclusion and cooperation was being urged upon the mix of officials, councillors, arts organisations and community activists that make up the various enquiry groups. Thus An Arts Vision for Darlington states:
Darlington will be a place where art happens, where the arts matter and where the arts and creativity are central to Darlington’s future identity and economic success.
It goes on to say:
We will seek excellence and inclusion in the arts in Darlington through a broad and diverse arts offer addressing the interests and aspirations of all our citizens, and a unique specialism in a specific area of practice that will mark out Darlington as a place where excellence in the arts flourishes.
Quite rightly, in trying to define ‘excellence’, the enquiry process is looking both inward and outward. But ultimately, how can it be defined?
Critical acclaim? Today, the world of the art critic is much the same as the world of journalism generally – dominated by the world of the PR agency. Artists and arts organisations jostle for attention from a shrinking number of critics. Like the rest of their newspaper, there is an agenda to satisfy. Art is routinely ignored or bypassed on ideological grounds. In England, there is the geography of art criticism. If the art is based in London, it is of interest. The very same art, when exhibited in say, Newcastle, is more likely to be off the radar. I know this from very direct personal experience. And of course some art is not even seeking critical acclaim. As one found item of graffiti explained:
Since writing on toilet walls is done neither for critical acclaim, nor financial rewards, it is the purest form of art. Discuss.
So what about financial rewards. Commercial art seeks success through audience numbers. Audiences are important, but popularity alone does not make excellent art. Indeed many would argue that, because of the need to make good art challenging to the mainstream, popularity can be taken as a sign of cultural poverty. The best art avoids crude commercial measures of value, and instead creates an audience better defined as a community of interest that is engaged in the content of the art. This is best illustrated in our own field of film, where crude formulaic scripting is the norm for the majority of commercially successful films. Despite this, because of their huge marketing budgets, big money films always get the attention of critics. Yet many critics will admit that, in creative terms, such films are dross.
What then about arts funding. Does the best art get the funding? Arts funding has seen radical changes in its structure and outlook in the thirty years of DMG’s existence. In the early 1980’s, John Bradshaw, the film and photography officer based at Northern Arts in Newcastle, saw his job as getting out and around the region to find out where serious and challenging film and photography were being produced and exhibited. John encouraged artists to think in terms of engaging audiences, whilst focussing primarily on their creative production. Policy was straight forward. The best work was supported financially. The more good work there was, the more the limited pot of funding had to be spread. In those days, directories of artists, facilities and venues were constantly being produced to keep abreast of the changing landscape on the ground. This approach was reflected across Europe, where the Directory of European Photography Galleries required an annual reprint.
Then in the 90‘s funding structures began to change. The Arts Council began to define its own priorities, strategies, policies. Over the course of the next 20 years, artists and arts organisations were judged not for what they were doing, but against a set of policy goals. Then in 2003, what were originally autonomous Regional Arts Boards were subsumed into Arts Council England. These policy and structural changes have increasingly distanced funders from unique initiatives on the ground, until today we are told that London-based Arts Council England is only going to fund “big” ideas, presumably also requiring “big” marketing budgets in order to achieve some kind of attention from down south.
Marketing is an important issue to consider in a small town like Darlington. Drawing attention to art requires energy and time and these, unless enough artists and their supporters are willing to do the leg work unpaid, cost money. But the connections between art and audience is changing. Communities of interest around art – particularly in our digitally connected world – now exist at numerous levels, across varied geographical matrixes, and within an enormous range of sub-cultural interests. In the world of film, where once there were simply commercial and independent film festivals, today there are underwater film festivals, bicycle film festivals, fly fishing film tours and a whole raft of celtic film festivals. Films can and do become global cult films within these sub-cultures. Yet mainstream media, particularly local media, typically misses out on this global impact.
This is important for Darlington. To imagine that Darlington is going to pursue hollywood production-values is elitist, irrelevant to most local film-making, and anyway absurd. Where we look to for our definitions of excellence are important. But as mentioned above, definitions of excellence require inward as well as outward reflection. This brings us to the next key word in the world of art, innovation. Truly innovative art is self-confident, self-defined, and demanding of an audience. Rather than play to the assumptions of the gallery, it challenges these assumptions. Such art can only really be produced by artists who are committed to constantly improving their own work, on their own terms. It is rarely bought by the latest Arts Council policy statement.
Quite rightly, local authority support for the arts has been on the basis of an insistence that it engage with local audiences. By taking this on board, on a modest, local level, we can now begin to define for ourselves what we mean by “good art”. We need artists who are passionate about their creative work, who are searching for innovative ways of working and expressing themselves. But they also need to be understood by audiences. On this point, it is worth quoting from an online article on good art/bad art:
What is the purpose of art? Some would say that the purpose of art is “anything”, “nothing’, or “impossible to define”, but that’s as foolish as claiming that chairs, hammers, or buckets can be used for anything or that they are impossible to define. Art exists in order to express ideas, and it does this through a specific means (means different from those used in journalism, temper tantrums, or exposition) which is to selectively recreate some aspect of reality in order to represent the idea. Some might call this “fictionalizing” or “stylizing”.- from goodart.org
If we are here to discuss the future Darlington Arts Offer, we need creative artists who are engaged with Darlington audiences. So The Forum is a key component, as it is primarily addressing Darlington audiences. But of the many bands that work and perform there, it is the composers of new material that hold a special interest for a Darlington Arts Offer. Such creativity needs to be cherished and nourished, not because it offers a road to London and commercial success (which may well be the way most successful Darlingtonians go anyway), but because of the creative content of the work.
In other words, the most important debate is about creative content. Relationships based on such debate are what makes creative collaborations, builds creative communities, and establishes lifelong networks that stretch across the globe. Creative and innovative artistic production, within the context of a relationship with local audiences, with a global creative reach. That, for Darlington, is excellence in the arts.