Aspiration, poverty & art

I haven’t blogged for a while but a couple of things recently made me start thinking about this all over again. One was the article by Dawn Foster on the ‘poverty mindset’ ( ) providing rather harder evidence than my gut reaction posted as ‘Hard Times‘ back in November last year. The other was conversations last week, one at What Next? Southwark’s ‘Election Reflection – Feast or Famine for Arts, Culture and Heritage’ and another at Devoted & Disgruntled’s open space about socially engaged arts. Hanging over all of this, like a dark cloud full of sleet, is the continuing demonization of the poor by the Conservative government and sections of the UK media.

At the end of the Open Space on Tuesday I found myself offering two things in the closing circle:
To set up a crowdmap to map socially engaged practice (projects, practitioners, organisations) – I’ve done this and if you are working in this area please ‘submit a report’ and map yourself on:

The other was the rather basic statement ‘it’s OK to be poor‘.

Why would I say such a thing?

In both the Open Space and at the Election Reflection there had been challenges to the idea that artists/arts practitioners should be funded to make a living out of their work. There were suggestions about the need for them to not rely solely upon the Arts Council but to find alternative ways of making it ‘work’ whether through collaboration, fundraising or increased commercialisation. There were also voices (sometimes the same ones) saying that artists needed to be freer to make their work without having to pre-justify it – or justify it at all. There were also artists who were making work that required a transaction with their audiences (in both cases requiring stories or conversations) rather than money – and that to commercialise that would effectively destroy the intention of the work, but for them to carry out the work required funding so that they could ‘get by’ (ie pay for accommodation and food).

In talking about socially engaged practice and trying to find a definition, we quickly ruled out any kind of amateur arts. I queried this and this is a difficult area for me – on the one hand arts that are carried out for no financial gain by the participants are a large and vibrant part of the UK’s cultural life – around 11m people are estimated to be involved. For example there are more than 2,500 amateur theatrical groups putting on around 30,000 plays a year. I don’t know if anyone is counting the other things – like painting clubs, craft groups, choirs and so on? I imagine they also run into thousands. These groups are defined by being open to anyone but they are not exclusive to the purely ‘amateur’ – my experience is that many ‘amateur’ theatre groups contain a good proportion of professionally trained actors, and backstage crew (costume makers, set dressers, etc). Painting clubs also often have a mix of professional and amateur artists and a range of people in between who sell work but might not have had professional training. Looked at from the ‘amateur’ side the difference is fuzzy and moves along a sliding scale. Looked at from the ‘professional’ side it is a sharp distinction. Why? Because the professional feels the need to protect their position – they DO want to make a living from the arts – they don’t want to ‘give it away for free’ and they have been professionally trained and they have worked to develop their practice and put a lot of themselves into that work – probably making significant financial investment either through sacrifice or actually putting in savings, legacies, selling their car and so on. There are also practical considerations – the scope and ambition of professional art can not always be replicated on an amateur scale – whilst an amateur theatrical production of – say – Shakespeare might be every bit as artistically adventurous, well designed and well acted as a professional one – it isn’t impossible and I’ve seen them – the nature of the way they are put together is only possible on a very short term time scale – the average run being 3 or 4 nights – at most a week – beyond that and the local and community audience has been exhausted and ticket sales would diminish to a point where they were unviable. The actors and backstage crew all have day jobs, many take time off during ‘show week’ but could not do that indefinitely – they certainly couldn’t take a show on tour. Many of them do not want a professional career in the arts – many of those professionally trained have given it up because the life style or the way in which the professional world works did not suit them – thus voluntary arts are not a competitor for the cultural space taken up by professional work and that sharp distinction is not necessary.

I find myself constantly having to justify my position as someone who seeks both professional work as an an actress and director and who seeks to sell my work commercially as an artist and writer, and yet also embraces working with amateur groups and non-artists – not as a parachuted in ‘professional guide/leader/collaborator’ but simply as one of them as a person who enquires into what it is to do that ‘thing’ and who is interested in the different ways that that ‘thing’ is done – the hierarchies, the etiquettes, the tribal requirements that differentiate the professional and amateur worlds. I’m interested because I don’t believe in the status quo and doing things the way they have been done forever but finding out new ways of doing things – by ‘doing things’ I mean the processes, the starting points, the working methods, the interactions – rather than the end products or productions. So why do I persist – why not just throw my lot in with the ‘professionals’ and pretend I’ve never had anything to do with anything ‘amateur’? Well apart from being dishonest I think that working in both these ‘places’ sliding up and down that scale, crossing that divide (depending on where you are coming from) enhances me as a creative person, provides me with more inspiration, more drive to get things done and ensures that what I do stays rooted in the real.

Which leads me to the next thing… aspiration. A couple of young people I have met recently who have engaged in these various debates have been challenged, both rudely and more kindly, on their aspiration to make a living in the arts – and the arts alone. I do want to live in a world where that is possible, but this isn’t it right now. That doesn’t mean that artists should give up that aspiration, but they should make it one about changing the society we live in so that it becomes a place where that is possible. I also question what that ‘making a living’ aspiration actually includes? Most of the young people I encounter now have been born and brought up in a society that embraces the capitalist reality; they have been effectively brainwashed into believing that you have to own your own home, that you have to have money to get married and have a baby, that you ought to be able to afford to go somewhere nice on your holidays, and so on and on. That to not have or want these things is to have failed. Even though they accept that these things are not immediately within their grasp as young artists starting out, they still aspire to them as being part of what defines their success – not just as people but as artists. I think this is probably quite alien to many older artists – the 60s and 70s (and a bit of the 80s) of squats and communes and people deliberately rejecting capitalism meant that artists could be successful and poor at the same time. There is a sense now that to do something else as well (yes the dreaded ‘day job’) is to somehow make oneself impure, sullied, only partly an artist. I have come to realise that as long as you get the balance right – as long as the ‘day job’ is something you believe in and can make a difference at, but also leaves you enough time and flexibility to do your artistic work – then it is actually a beneficial thing. Beneficial not just economically, giving you that breathing space financially to have fallow periods artistically – breathing time to let things settle, to reflect and consider and research, but also by providing fresh input into your creative life. It takes you out of your art world bubble, roots you firmly in the real world. It has taken me a long time to get to this point!

To accept these things is not to lack aspiration – it is to have aspiration – to make your life work for you – to ground yourself in reality so that you can do the work that will change society so that everyone can have a creative life – even if they don’t choose a creative career. To undertake socially engaged work whilst being socially engaged in your own community. We should not limit our aspirations to just ourselves, our comfort, our short term futures, but have grander aspirations to make the world a better place and also to save it from the destructive effects of climate change. Artists struggle with making a living, but so do many other people, I have a friend who lost her job in the financial crash, retrained as a translator, couldn’t find a job as a translator and is now back in the financial sector, we aren’t the only people making compromises. There is nothing wrong with ambition, with wanting to do the big and the beautiful and having the budget to match that – but we don’t all have to do that and/or we don’t have to do that all the time.

Poverty – I started this by saying ‘it’s OK to be poor’ – and it is and it isn’t. There are children growing up in poverty who don’t have enough to eat, who are wearing poor quality, inadequate clothing, who are living in defective housing and who’s health and ongoing development will be effected by these things. Added to that the stigma of being poor will hold them back in education and that will hold them back in life. This is not OK. What is OK is having somewhere secure to live, budgeting for your food sensibly, not buying stuff all the time, not going abroad on holiday, not having a car and not always knowing where the money is going to come from. It is OK because you can have a life rich in other things, the things you do, creatively – or not creatively – running marathons, working out, volunteering within your local community, and there are plenty of things you can get for free – art galleries, theatre, film, workshops, lectures, etc, etc. It is a perception of poverty not the real thing – yes it means a low income, but it is one that is set within a different context of what being ‘poor’ is. I talk about my lack of money, and write about it, proudly and with no shame – yes sometimes it’s difficult and I think, ‘oh if only I could win the lottery’, but most of the time I’m pretty OK with it. I want to share that – I’m not a slacker or a shirker and most people who are poor aren’t either. I’m standing up for it. There will be many people – thanks to Government and media – who are ashamed of it. If you are poor and happy – let people know – counteract the capitalist myth that aspiration is only about aspiring to own, with a truth that aspiration can be about aspiring to be and aspiring to change.

Posted in acting, arts, arts funding, directing, Politics, theatre | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A vote for austerity is a vote for death

Warning – this post is quite upsetting, if you are depressed, or likely to become so, have something handy to cheer you up at the end.  Any other human being – have some tissues handy…

This came into the Artists Assembly Against Austerity inbox from Vince Laws, he is standing as a candidate in the election in Norwich for the DANDY party – which stands not as you might think for ‘better dressing’ but for Disabled and Not Dead Yet.

Vince wrote to an organisation called Black Triangle to try and find out more about UK Welfare Related Deaths:

Hello John

I’m a poet, artist, and campaigner in Norfolk.  I want to list the people who have died within 6 weeks of their benefit ending. I think it was at 10,200 or something when the government stopped counting. And any subsequent deaths that are due to DWP/benefit cuts. Does such a list exist?

Hi Vince

I’m afraid that was based on a number from a DWP statistics release, and there is no list of names available. However, Black Triangle have an ongoing list of cases that have come from media reports of welfare-linked deaths. Last time I looked, they were just short of 100 names.


The Black Triangle List

In Memory of those we have lost In Hope for those who remain

Terry McGarvey, 48.

Dangerously ill from polycytheamia Terry asked for an ambulance to be called during his Work Capability Assessment.  He knew that he wasn’t well enough to attend his WCA but feared his benefits would be stopped if he did not. He died the following day.

Elaine Lowe, 53.

Suffering from COPD and fearful of losing her benefits. In desperation, Elaine chose to commit suicide.

Mark Wood, 44.

Found fit for work by Atos, against his Doctors advice and assertions that he had complex mental health problems. Starved to death after benefits stopped, weighing 5st 8lb when he died.

Paul Reekie, 48

the Leith based Poet and Author. Suffered from severe depression. Committed suicide after DWP stopped his benefits due to an Atos ‘fit for work’ decision.

Leanne Chambers, 30.

Suffered depression for many years which took a turn for the worst when she was called in for a WCA. Leanne committed suicide soon after.

Karen Sherlock, 44.

Multiple health issues. Found fit for work by Atos and denied benefits. Fought a long battle to get placed into the support group of ESA. Karen died the following month of a heart attack.

Carl Payne, 42.

Fears of losing his lifeline benefits due to welfare reform led this Father of two to take his own life.

Tim Salter, 53.

Blind and suffering from Agoraphobia. Tim hanged himself after Atos found him fit for work and stopped his benefits.

Edward Jacques, 47

suffering from HIV and Hepatitis C. Edward had a history of severe depression and self-harm. He took a fatal overdose after Atos found him fit for work and stopped his benefits.

Linda Wootton, 49

A double heart and lung transplant patient. Died nine days after government found her fit for work, their refusal letter arriving as she lay  desperately ill in her hospital bed.

Steven Cawthra, 55.

His benefits stopped by the DWP and with rising debts, he saw suicide as the only way out of a desperate situation.

Elenore Tatton, 39

Died just weeks after the government found her fit for work.

John Walker, 57,

saddled with debt because of the bedroom tax, John took his own life.

Brian McArdle, 57

Suffered a fatal heart attack the day after his disability benefits were stopped.

Stephen Hill, 53.

Died of a heart attack one month after being found fit for work, even though he was waiting for major heart surgery.

Jacqueline Harris, 53.

A former Nurse who could hardly walk was found fit for work by Atos and her benefits withdrawn. in desperation, she took her own life.

David Barr, 28.

Suffering from severe mental difficulties. Threw himself from a bridge after being found fit for work by Atos and failing his appeal.

David Groves, 56.

Died of a heart attack the night before taking his work capability assessment. His widow claimed that it was the stress that killed him.

Nicholas Peter Barker, 51.

Shot himself after being told his benefits were being stopped. He was unable to work after a brain haemorrhage left him paralysed down one side.

Mark and Helen Mullins, 48 and 59 years old.

Forced to live on £57.50 a week and make 12 mile trips each week to get free vegetables to make soup. Mark and Helen both committed suicide.

Richard Sanderson, 44.

Unable to find a job and with his housing benefit cut forcing him to move, but with nowhere to go. Richard committed suicide.

Martin Rust, 36

A schizophrenic man who killed himself two months after the government found him fit to work.

Craig Monk, 43.

A vulnerable gentleman and a partial amputee who slipped so far into poverty that he hanged himself.

Colin Traynor, 29,

suffering from epilepsy was stripped of his benefits. He appealed. Five weeks after his death his family found he had won his appeal.

Elaine Christian, 57

Worried about her work capability assessment, she was subsequently found at Holderness drain, drowned and with ten self inflicted wrist wounds.

Christelle and Kayjah Pardoe, 32 years and 5 month old.

Pregnant, her benefits stopped, Christelle, clutching her baby son jumped from a third floor balcony.

Mark Scott, 46.

His DLA and housing benefit stopped and sinking into deep depression, Mark died six weeks later.

Cecilia Burns, 51.

Found fit for work while undergoing treatment for breast cancer. She died just a few weeks after she won her appeal against the Atos decision.

Chris Cann, 57.

Found dead in his home just months after being told he had to undergo a medical assessment to prove he could not work.

Peter Hodgson, 49.

Called to JCP to see if he was suitable for volunteer work. Peter had suffered a stroke, a brain haemorrhage and had a fused leg. His appointment letter arrived a few days after he took his own life.

Paul Willcoxsin, 33.

Suffered with mental health problems and worried about government cuts. Paul committed suicide by hanging himself.

Stephanie Bottrill, 53.

After paying £80 a month for bedroom tax, Stephanie could not afford heating in the winter, and lived on tinned custard. In desperation, she chose to walk in front of a lorry.

Larry Newman

suffered from a degenerative lung condition, his weight dropping from 10 to 7 stone.

Atos awarded him zero points, he died just three months after submitting his appeal.

Paul Turner, 52.

After suffering a heart attack, he was ordered to find a job in February. In April Paul died from ischaemic heart disease.

Christopher Charles Harkness, 39.

After finding out that the funding for his care home was being withdrawn, this man who suffered with mental health issues, took his own life.

Sandra Louise Moon, 57.

Suffering from a degenerative back condition, depression and increasingly worried about losing her incapacity benefit. Sandra committed suicide by taking an overdose.

Lee Robinson, 39.

Took his own life after his housing benefit and council tax were taken away from him.

David Coupe, 57.

A Cancer sufferer found fit for work by Atos in 2012. David lost his sight, then his hearing, then his mobility, and then his life.

Michael McNicholas, 34.

Severely depressed and a recovering alcoholic. Michael committed suicide after being called in for a Work Capability Assessment by Atos.

Victor Cuff, 59

suffering from severe depression. Victor hanged himself  after the DWP stopped his benefits.

Charles Barden, 74.

Charles committed suicide by hanging due to fears that the Bedroom Tax would leave him destitute and unable to cope.

Ian Caress, 43.

Suffered multiple health issues and deteriorating eyesight. Ian was found fit for work by Atos, he died ten months later having lost so much weight that his family said he resembled a concentration camp victim.

Iain Hodge, 30.

Suffered from the life threatening illness, Hughes Syndrome. Found fit for work by Atos and benefits stopped, Iain took his own life.

Wayne Grew, 37.

Severely depressed due to government cuts and the fear of losing his job, Wayne committed suicide by hanging.

Kevin Bennett, 40.

Kevin a sufferer of schizophrenia and mental illness became so depressed after his JSA was stopped that he became a virtual recluse. Kevin was found dead in his flat several months later.

David Elwyn Hughs Harries, 48.

A disabled man who could no longer cope after his parents died, could find no help from the government via benefits. David took an overdose as a way out of his solitude.

Denis Jones, 58.

A disabled man crushed by the pressures of government cuts, in particular the Bedroom Tax, and unable to survive by himself. Denis was found dead in his flat.

Shaun Pilkington, 58.

Unable to cope any more, Shaun shot himself dead after receiving a letter from the DWP informing him that his ESA was being stopped.

Paul ?, 51.

Died in a freezing cold flat after his ESA was stopped. Paul appealed the decision and won on the day that he lost his battle to live.

Chris MaGuire, 61.

Deeply depressed and incapable of work, Chris was summonsed by Atos for a Work Capability Assessment and deemed fit for work. On appeal, a judge overturned the Atos decision and ordered them to leave him alone for at least a year, which they did not do.  In desperation, Chris took his own life, unable to cope anymore.

Peter Duut,

a Dutch national with terminal cancer living in the UK for many years found that he was not entitled to benefits unless he was active in the labour market. Peter died leaving his wife destitute, and unable to pay for his funeral.

George Scollen, age unknown.

Took his own life after the government closed the Remploy factory he had worked in for 40 years.

Julian Little, 47.

Wheelchair bound and suffering from kidney failure, Julian faced the harsh restrictions of the Bedroom Tax and the loss of his essential dialysis room. He died shortly after being ordered to downgrade.

Miss DE, Early 50’s.

Suffering from mental illness, this lady committed suicide less than a month after an Atos assessor gave her zero points and declared her fit for work.

Robert Barlow, 47.

Suffering from a brain tumour, a heart defect and awaiting a transplant, Robert was deemed fit for work by Atos and his benefits were withdrawn. He died penniless less than two years later.

Carl Joseph Foster-Brown, 58.

As a direct consequence of the wholly unjustifiable actions of the Job centre and DWP, this man took his own life.

Martin Hadfield, 20 years old.

Disillusioned with the lack of jobs available in this country but too proud to claim benefits. Utterly demoralised, Martin took his own life by hanging himself.

Annette Francis, 30.

A mum-of-one suffering from severe mental illness, found dead after her disability benefits were ceased.

Ian Jordan, 60.

His benefits slashed after Atos and the DWP declared Ian, a sufferer of Barratt’s Oesophagus, fit for work, caused him to run up massive debts in order to survive. Ian was found dead in his flat after taking an overdose.

Janet McCall, 53.

Terminally ill with pulmonary fibrosis and declared ‘Fit for Work’ by Atos and the DWP, this lady died 5 months after her benefits were stopped.

Stuart Holley, 23.

A man driven to suicide by the DWP’s incessant pressure and threat of sanctions for not being able to find a job.

Graham Shawcross, 63.

A sufferer of the debilitating disease, Addison’s. Died of a heart attack due to the stress of an Atos ‘Fit for Work’ decision.

David Clapson, 59 years old.

A diabetic ex-soldier deprived of the means to survive by the DWP and the governments harsh welfare reforms, David died all but penniless, starving and alone, his electricity run out.

Chris Smith, 59.

Declared ‘Fit for Work’ by Atos as he lay dying of Cancer in his hospital bed.

Nathan Hartwell, 36

died of heart failure after an 18-month battle with the ­Department for Works and Pensions.

Michael Connolly, 60.

A Father of One, worried about finances after his benefits were cut. Committed suicide by taking 13 times the fatal dose of prescription medicine on His Birthday.

Jan Mandeville, 52

A lady suffering from Fibromyalgia, driven to the point of mental and physical breakdown by this governments welfare reforms. Jan was found dead in her home after battling the DWP for ESA and DLA.

Trevor Drakard, 50 years old.

A shy and reserved, severe epileptic who suffered regular and terrifying fits almost his entire life, hounded to suicide by the DWP who threatened to stop his life-line benefits.

Death of a severely disabled Dorset resident, unnamed, who took her own life while battling the bedroom tax.


The black triangle was a badge used in Nazi concentration camps to mark prisoners as “asocial”  or “arbeitsscheu” (work-shy). It was later adopted as a lesbian or feminist symbol of pride and solidarity, on the assumption that the Nazis included lesbians in the “asocial” category. More recently it has been adopted by UK disabled people’s organisations responding to increasing press allegations that disabled benefit recipients are workshy.

08457 90 90 90

It doesn’t have to be like this there are better alternatives like the UK Disabled People’s Manifesto

Text found and edited by poet, artist and campaigner Vince Laws in collaboration with film maker, digital artist, and campaigner Andrew Day.

Made for Dandifest! Norwich launch 27/5/15 with Arts Council England funding from the National Lottery, and donations.


Attachments area


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Blast from the past – how much has changed though?

Just a quicky post re the Election.  I was talking about this to someone this morning and got out my great-grandfather’s electoral address for the 1892 London County Council elections.  He stood with Lawrence Stevens for the two seats in the Southwark (Rotherhithe) division as candidates for the Progressive Party.  Both he and Stevens won their seats.  Sadly Stevens died in office and my great-grand-father resigned two years later.

The Progressive Party was set up in 1888 and centred around the Liberal party and the leaders of the labour movement and had support from the Fabian Society (Philip Webb stood on the Progressive Party ticket for the first LCC elections in Jan 1889).

My great-grandfather, Dr James Macnamara, was the dockers’ man.  The issues seem to be health, housing, living wage, fat-cat landlords and employment.  Not much has changed it would seem in over 100 years.  I also note that he makes a lot of the fact that he and Stevens were ‘workers’ – not career politicians, or rich men with nothing else to do.  James Macnamara was a medical doctor, born and educated in Ireland he came to London to begin work as a Doctor.  He was also involved with the Board of Guardians and finished his career as Medical Officer of the Ladywell Institute in Lewisham (this was a new type of ‘workhouse’ that acknowledged that the old and infirm were entitled to their rest rather than to work until they dropped).

“To the Electors of Rotherhithe


Having been selected by a Public Meeting of the Progressive and Labour Organisations of Rotherhithe to contest this Division at the forthcoming County Council Election in the interests of the workers and the cause of reform, we now, in asking your support, desire to state as briefly as possible the principles which shall guide us if elected by you.

  1. We shall endeavour at all times to so limit the hours of labour for employees of the Council that every opportunity shall be afforded to them of enjoying those mental and physical recreations necessary to the development of good citizens. As a means towards that end we shall insist on one day’s rest in seven.  We shall also see that they be paid the rate of wage acknowledged as fair in each particular trade and calling.
  2. We shall use every effort to secure for the Council all those powers which will make it a veritable Parliament for London, with full authority in accordance with the wishes of her people to control the Water, Gas and Electric Supply; also Docks, Tramways, Omnibuses, and Markets, and perhaps most important of all, to control and revise our Hospital system.
  3. We shall push forward the important question of providing suitable dwellings for the workers, to compete with, and, if possible, supplant the six-per-cent-philanthropy hovels where necessity now compels them to reside.
  4. The question of Sanitation, of municipal lodging-houses, of the proper supervision of our Theatres and Music Halls, and their provision if necessary by the Council, shall have our earnest support.
  5. In the equitable adjustment of taxation, we as workers ourselves take a strong interest, and earnestly believe that ground rents and values should pay a larger proportion of the rates now levied on the occupiers for the permanent improvement of our City, thereby relieving the already over-burdened ratepayers, the shopkeepers who are fleeced by their landlords for the right to live, and who in turn are driven to inflict a tax upon toilers that these same landlords may live in luxurious ease in West End Mansions. We must end all this, and you workers of Rotherhithe can do your share towards that end by returning us at the head of the poll.  We desire that the shopkeeper, the artisan, the labourer shall live in comfort and in peace, and not be starved into premature graves in order that, as we have said   before, a few landlords and capitalists may be able to indulge in a cheap kind of 6 per cent. Philanthropy.  Are there any other points on which you require information?  If so, we shall be only too pleased to see you, and answer them at the various public meetings we intend to address.

Do you wish the Council to have control of the police?  Then give us your support.

Are you anxious that no honest toiler shall be without work, and consequently without bread, if the Council can prevent it?  Then go to the poll and make your friends go too, and record their votes for STEVENS and MACNAMARA. We do not appeal to you for your support.  We simply say the record of our services demands it from you.  That record is before you.  One of us claims to have given you three years’ faithful service to you on one of the Local Vestries, and two years’ service to the poor on the St. Olave Board of Guardians.  Do these services deserve your recognition?  It is for you to decide.  We make one appeal to you, and one alone.  Do not allow personal considerations to weigh with you.  We do not ask your support on personal grounds.  We ask you votes because the principles we profess, which principles we believe are most conducive to the welfare of the community, and if you support them it is your duty to vote for both of us.  The man or woman who does otherwise stultifies the vote of Rotherhithe on the Council, and retards rather than advances the cause of Progress.  Remember, therefore: NO PLUMPING. Vote for the men who forward your cause to the best of their ability.  Again we say: GIVE ONE VOTE TO STEVENS AND ONE TO MACNAMARA.  Return us at the head of the poll.  Do your duty to yourselves, to Rotherhithe, and to London, and believe us, whilst you are true and faithful, it shall always be our pleasure and our pride to remain,

Your obedient servants,J T Mac but taken in Ipswich



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Towards a Progressive Arts Policy – cultural contracts

This week gone by has been another big week for talking about the arts and where we are headed.  I was unable to attend the RSA/Arts Council event on their proposal for a Cultural Contract.  I did however watch the livestream (later) and follow the debate on twitter.  I missed out on the table discussions but have provided my own artist/artistic response here, at the bottom of the page.  It is a personal and visceral response and clearly more thought needs to be given to this.  Also, one might question if it is even possible for a group of people to make a contract on behalf of the millions of people involved in the arts and culture sector as both individuals and organisations.  From watching the event it seems others also had concerns – more work for us all to do!

Here’s the page on the RSA website with the info and hopefully they’ll post the video of the live stream here soon)

Yesterday I was proud to be part of the South East Region TUC conference on the future of arts and culture in the UK.  In my role as a steering group member of the Artists’ Assembly Against Austerity I was part of the committee organising the conference and also facilitated the session on Public Ownership, Privatisation and Gentrification.  There were so many good ideas and good thoughts going on I cannot capture them all here – hopefully I will be able to post here later a link to the report on proceedings.  In our group one of the overriding things that came out was the need for us all to support each other, across the sector and across issues – artists can help with those campaigning for homes – union members can strike for the rights of the public in maintaining ownership of what is currently, but may not always be, ours – as well as for their own rights as workers.  We all as individuals can do more than we think – just by giving our support and continuing to ask difficult questions of those ‘in charge’!

One thing that came out of both the plenary and our own session was a question around arts policy itself.  Eleanora Bellfiore, who is an academic at Warwick University and has been part of the Warwick Commission, warned against complacency in the value of arts and culture.  Our work is still mostly only consumed by the top 10% of society.  No matter how hard we work, how many goals we set – we are not making art for all – not yet.  We use the small success stories in this field – people like Immediate Theatre – working on estates in Hackney – to bolster the argument for larger institutions who are having much less impact.  We have failed to create a progressive arts policy that achieves arts for all.  In asking my workshop for suggestions of actions and pledges to take back to the final session of the conference someone suggested ‘create a progressive arts policy’. I presented this to the conference – because unless we, the people who are working as artists, as activists, at the grassroots level start working on this arts policy, it will never be the thing we want it to be.  If arts policy continues to be driven and created by those who already benefit from the arts policy that exists, things will never change enough to make it work.  I made a plea that all involved should start thinking, talking, writing and blogging about what a Progressive Arts Policy – an arts for all policy – would look like.  How would we achieve it – what elements should it have? What are the questions we need ask and to answer to get to that policy?  What are the aims and definitions we need to agree to make it happen?  If you are reading this – then you are the person who can do this work.

If you make it public please use the hash tag #showculturesomelove and tweet it to @showculturesomelove or me @debdavemason so I can see and retweet it.

If you are holding an event to talk about it – let me know

If you are just writing down some thoughts and don’t want to share so widely – please email it to me at

If you are making art/work about it – let me know by any of the above methods.

Or just leave a comment below.

Response by Deborah Mason to RSA draft Cultural Contract

My response to RSA draft Cultural Contract

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Re-Balancing Act

Rebalancing more than money  (from #ArtsPolicy50 collage set)

Rebalancing more than money (from #ArtsPolicy50 collage set)

There has been a lot of talk about re-balancing the economy to diminish the dominance of London and boost the ‘regions’ – forgetting of course that London is a region!  We have particularly heard about this in the arts and the ROCC Report – if you read it thoroughly, it gives a good view of the situation.  A lot of the discussions around this re-balancing have taken the starting point of limited financial resource – no more money – and ignored the possibility that actually there is money – you could just take a bit more off the rich – for example!  Also that investment in the arts brings a good return – I think I saw a figure quoted of every pound invested brings a return of six back – so you’d actually have more money for the other things we are supposed to be cutting back on if you did invest in the arts!  Even so this rebalancing needs to be seen as that – a tricky balancing act – not a see-saw.

It also has to be recognised that one of the reasons that London sucks up so much of the arts cash is that it is home to many national institutions, galleries, museums etc, which would just eat up more cash if they were relocated elsewhere.  Accepting that protecting our cultural heritage and keeping it free as a public resource, is accepting that these institutions continue to need funding.  However that does not mean that to rebalance things we need to create new fixed galleries and museums elsewhere.  This is not a competition between who has the largest and best buildings, opera company, theatre company.  What we are trying to do is feed the ecosystem – re-invigorate the habitats that have been neglected.  This means investing in grassroots, regional and touring organisations, and in projects such as Creative People and Places so that culture does not centralise into metropolitan areas (as it has done historically – which is why we have the situation we do in London) but gets out to as many people as possible.  It is not just about the North, but about rural Cornwall, rural Lincolnshire, Northumberland – not just Newcastle.

But we don’t just have a regional imbalance.  We also have gender imbalance and ethnic imbalance and other imbalances that need to be addressed.  Diversity benefits us all, but currently it is best found at the grassroots (the place of least investment) and in the smaller scale organisations.  These are the types of projects and organisation at most risk from funding cuts, where cutting what might seem a small amount of money, or refusing a project grant can make the difference to that project happening, or the organisation continuing to be able to do work.  I have yet to meet anyone working in the arts who is not also working to make their organisation more diverse, to give more equal opportunities, to attract people from the widest range of backgrounds – and yet, 40 years after sex and race discrimination legislation it seems we still have a long way to go.

A lot of us are working away at the bottom, and in the middle and a little bit at the top.  But right at the top, on the boards of directly funded Government organisations, there is much less diversity than one might expect.  DCMS makes around 400 direct appointments to government funded organisations.  It gets one of the best reports on its appointment process from the Government auditor of such things.  Yet the fact remains that the balance is not there: if you look at just the arts and culture Executive Non-Departmental Government Bodies – the proportion is 66% male, 34% female and 87% white.  Something, somewhere isn’t working.  Given that DCMS are considered to be doing a ‘good’ job here – what are other sectors like?  Recent appointments (over the last year) have seen the gap narrowing – but not enough to redress this balance:

appointments 42% female / 58% male and

reappointments 41% female/ 59% male

Unless those proportions are reversed the status quo will not alter in favour of 50:50 male/female.

Something any political party might like to add to their manifesto is this:

A commitment to 50:50 male:female government appointments by 2020.

A commitment to a better ethnic balance in government appointments by 2020 (given the current situation it might be a lot to ask for 50:50 but perhaps we could go for 60/40 and see where we land?)

We can all do our bit for better diversity, and equality – and the Government can lead the way – let’s make it happen!

Note on the stats:

There is no published data on equality and diversity of Government appointments (so much for transparency).  For the Executive Non-Governmental Bodies I used the DCMS list of organisations, for the sake of time I did not look at gambling or sports bodies.  I then looked at the websites or each organisation and their list of trustees/board/council members, where no photos were available I googled the individuals to check ethnicity/gender where it was not clear.  (I did this on 10 February 2015)

For the information on recent appointments I looked at the DCMS press releases relating to this from end of February last year to the present day (11 March 2015)

This is not a scientific way of working I appreciate – however there is the information and whilst it may be challenged that not all these boards are completely appointed by Government – the stats still stand – that is their make up – those are the appointment/reappointment figures.  It is a shame that the Government itself has not made a commitment to audit and publish equality and diversity figures for all its

appointments – but that is another story!



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Show Culture Some Love

This is a campaign I am running on Facebook and Twitter for Artists Assembly Against Austerity as part of their involvement in the PCS Union conference on the Future of Arts and Culture in Britain.

Bob & Roberta Smith Show Culture Some Love

by Bob & Roberta Smith

The idea is that on Valentine’s Day (Sat 14th Feb 2015) instead of posting the usual romantic pictures you show Culture some love instead and post a selfie on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #showculturesomelove

What do you have to do?

We are asking that people and organisations post ‘selfies’ of themselves ‘showing culture some love’.  Examples:

Hugging a statue

Hugging part of a building (a column of the Globe Stage, a corner of the National Portrait Gallery)

Hugging or kissing a cultural object of significance to them: their favourite book, favourite film, favourite video game, their musical instrument or other object that represents their own art or craft endeavour.

@DebDaveMason for Show Culture Some Love campaign

@DebDaveMason loving #Titian #Showculturesomelove

These would then be posted on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook etc with the hashtag #ShowCultureSomeLove

What if you don’t do social media but want to take part?

Just take the picture and send it to with a short caption (100 characters or fewer) and the @showculturelove account will post it for you.


The campaign is part of the TUC conference on the Future of Art & Culture in Britain – 14 March 2015 and the hashtag #ShowCultureSomeLove will also be used by organisations taking part in the Conference to link to the conference programme (once finalised and published) and also to a webpage hosting information about the campaign and the conference.  This is the message we want to get across:

People and organisations are posting selfies to ‘Show Culture Some Love’.  We would like to see National and Local Government doing the same – show culture some love – help sustain and support arts and culture in the UK so that it remains available for everyone to enjoy and participate in.

 You can find out more about the Conference here:

More info – from me (Deborah Mason) at or via mobile on 07957 145992

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Dear Labour

Dear Labour

I used to love you.  I’d like us to get back together, but you’ll have to change.  It’s not me it’s you.

Once, long ago, that time before, when you weren’t in power, I loved you then.  Not just enough to vote for you, but enough to put leaflets through letterboxes to get other people to vote for you.  And then they did, and then you changed.  It all went to your head.  You forgot about the people.  The people like me.  You started to worry about the rich people and the business people and the banks and the city boys, the greedy capitalists.  You changed.  I didn’t like it.

Now, though, I’m a bit stuck.  Because you are all I’ve got.  But it feels like there is only one café in the UK right now.  And the only thing on the menu is Cow Shit or Pig Shit.  We’ve had four and half years of Cow Shit, and you’d think by now I’d be ready to try the Pig Shit again.  But I’m not quite.  I can still remember the nasty taste it left in my mouth last time.  We are in a ‘dictatorship of no alternatives’.  But you could be the alternative.  If you wanted to.  If you tried a little bit harder to get out of the loop of Westminster policies.  If you stopped brushing the dirt off the next zombie policy to be resurrected and started using  the creativity and imagination of your members to create real, new, alternative ways of doing things.  But you got sucked in, didn’t you.  To the old boys club.  To the world where everyone got the same kind of education, did the same jobs, came from the same backgrounds and all that separates you is the colour of your ties.  You need to get back to your roots.  Listen to the people.  The real people, the 95% not the 5%.  Only you can do this now. Only you can do this in time for the next election.  Only you can prevent the catastrophe of a Conservative-UKIP coalition.

What I’d like you to do is this. FOCUS.

Focus on:

Creating an alternative to the capitalism of the market economy

Yes it will be hard work and it will take a while.  But it is possible to have an economy not based on the market.  Not based on growth.  There are perfectly respected Professors of Economics publishing books on this – you should read some.  Maybe give it a go.

And you really, really can’t sign up to TTIP.  To do so would be to sell the people, whose democratic freedoms you are supposed to protect, into slavery – owned by big global business.  It would also be seriously bad for the planet.  Yes, I know you say you’ve asked for changes, but just reject it.  Walk away from the table and see who follows you.  It will be a brave act but someone has to do it.  Make it you.


Not some crowd-pleasing policy or pledge on waiting times.  Really focus.  Sort out the major issues.  You say you are committed to turning back the clock – to preventing the privatisation of the NHS.  You need to be really clear about what you mean by that.  You need to actually do it.  Put it all back together as an integrated NATIONAL health service, owned by the people, designed for the people (and that includes the people who work there).

Start with the staffing.  It’s a huge cost.  It’s the thing that people want: to see the right person, within the right time frame.  So you need to work on better ways of staffing the NHS.  Maybe that means joining it back together for employment purposes.  If everyone worked for the NHS (not different trusts and organisations) you couldn’t have the situation where someone can be made redundant with a handsome pay off and then start work in the same hospital in a new job the next week.  If you were better able to use your staff flexibily, you wouldn’t need so many temp workers and locums.  If you get the staffing right, then a lot of issues around waiting times, availability, dedicated doctors for the elderly just melt away.  .


It is so essential to every person in this country – you really need to get this one right – not just tinker about with it.  This is where ‘equal opportunity’ starts.

Consistency – that’s what we need now.  It’s pointless to have a national curriculum that only applies to less than 50% of schools.  It’s fine to have choice, but there need to be minimum curriculum requirements for all schools whether they are faith,f ree, academies, state or private.  Where changes are made they can’t just be implemented at the drop of a hat – people need time to phase things in and out – this is somebody’s future in your hands – you can’t just change the rules on a whim.  You need to make sure that creativity and the arts are part of EVERY child’s education.  Creativity not just in the way that lessons are delivered, but a real focus on encouraging and engaging pupils in classes whose sole focus is creativity: art, drama, dance, music, creative writing.  Giving every one the ability to develop and express their creativity will enhance their futures whether it is as a parent, an engineer, a teacher, a scientist, an entrepreneur, a financial sector worker or someone who is part of the ever growing and world dominant UK creative sector.  It will give them the adaptability to change and cope with whatever life throws at them.

You need to relook at University fees and student loans.  They are stifling diversity, they are stifling the arts.  Student loans don’t work, they cost the country more than grants.   They set recent graduates up for poverty and that prevents them from really getting the best from their education.


Do something about poverty

Encourage measures that promote social cohesion

Provide real help – not just policies and legislation – that enable local people to make a difference locally.

Support arts and creativity nationally and locally and ensure that support is fairly apportioned across the country.

Don’t ignore the environment.  Without a planet your political rhetoric is meaningless.

There is so much more…

But let’s start with this.  Let’s start with you coming back to the people, let’s start with you standing up to global corporations and the needs of the 5%.  Let’s start with you actually saying something real not just something you had a chat with a real person about.   Start with actually stating what you stand for – not just what you might do.  No-one believes politicians’ pledges anyway.  So why not just tell us about the future you want to see, and the things that you will do and the things you need  us to do, to get us all there.  And I really hope, after all this time, that somewhere in your heart, the future that you see is a better, fairer, more sustainable world.

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