The Artist as the Catalyst: Creating to Serve
I live in a city currently undergoing mass redevelopment. From any vantage point, Birmingham appears to be a giant construction site and in select circles, the development is a positive step. In others, people are wary. We know that the scale of this regeneration, which continues to exclude masses of the population, is little more than a plaster over the wound of our city’s greatest challenges.
I live in a city that is being sold off to the highest bidder. We’ve seen the signs of gentrification. We know how it works, who benefits, who is displaced, who suffers. I’m curious. What does it mean for our culture (in every sense of the word) if our city is being shaped, not by the citizens of Birmingham, but by money?
Why is it that the people most passionate about our communities and spaces, are usually the ones most disconnected from the resources needed to make meaningful change?
The notion of service is important to me. I expect it of our civic, civil and public institutions. And it is an integral part of my day-to-day. I’m an artist that creates things that serve others. I’m interested in art that has a function, and while decorative art surely has its place in the world, my artistic practice is invested in producing, building and developing things that serve an external purpose.
I realise that art, and therefore the role of the artist, is often a misunderstood concept or vocation. When I speak about art, I’m speaking about the act of creation in a broad sense, as opposed a particular medium. It’s also not just about the outcome or product, but often the most value comes from the process in which artists operate. While design thinking has become a sought-after process, thinking like an artist is still alien. Yet there lies a wealth of ideas, intelligence, research, learnings and so on. There is no unchartered territory regarding the work of artists. There is nothing artists aren’t already exploring and responding to.
Indeed, artists working in civic capacities and systems change isn’t new. When I think about the way creativity and culture can play a monumental role in societal change, I think about:
1. Knowle West Media Centre: a Bristol-based arts charity whose projects include 'We Can Make', a community-led housing initiative and 'The Factory', an innovation space for making, digital fabrication and product design.
2. Theaster Gates, a potter who established the Rebuild Foundation, reviving and beautifying a deprived neighbourhood in Chicago through the creation of usable, culture-based spaces.
3. ACE Dance & Music opening up their capital project design process to the young people who use the space.
4. Ellie Harrison’s Radical Renewable Art + Activism Fund, which aims to turn electricity generated by a wind turbine into a funding stream for radical art projects.
5. Art Against the Grain: a female-led collective primarily focused on decoloniality.
I don’t believe in being prescriptive about art. Nor do I believe in putting artists on a pedestal. The term “high art” that places aristocracy, hierarchy and status as exemplary and above community-engaged practice, is problematic at best. The idea that artists are disconnected from the world and communities around them is elitist and dangerous. It is precisely these rigid definitions and binary categories have been used to perpetuate the idea that I, as a Black woman can only make small works, only intended for Black audiences and my artist mates.
Understanding how artists can be a catalyst for change requires us to widen our thoughts on what art is, what the process of creation can involve and who gets to be an artist.
I want to stress this, particularly in light of Artfinder’s recent report that says 82% of UK artists earn less than £10,000 per year, the majority of which earn £5,000 or less. While the report centres on the visual arts, it wouldn’t take long for the artists of other disciplines to back this claim. It may or may not surprise you that many artists aren’t paid for their services at all and since diversity became a primary agenda in the arts, more artists of colour are being exploited for their networks, contacts and ideas than ever before. This matters.
I want to stress this because I live in a place where artists and practitioners of marginalized identities increasingly feel excluded from the cultural spaces that are supposed to represent and serve them. I live in a city that prides itself on being young and ethnically diverse, yet spaces for young and/or ethnically diverse people are minimal.
The beauty in this is that my peers are no longer waiting for the “mainstream” to open doors for them or grant acceptance. They are creating their own spaces and platforms to document their stories, raise the voices of others, share opportunities, have agency and create the changes they want to see.
Like them, I come from a strong line of “something-out-of-nothing” people. Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can is a familiar mantra in my community. Sometimes, when your back is against the wall, the act of creation is necessary for survival. If you can’t find a way, you create your own.
Inheriting this mindset is what led to me setting up MAIA, as a way to create opportunities and a healthier ecosystem where I had trouble accessing this in my own artistic pursuits. I quickly grew disillusioned by making art-for-art’s sake and I wanted to find ways to connect other people to some of the opportunities I had. Creating things that serve others became my artistic practice. Documenting and raising voices through performance became one outlet, but so did incubating the ideas of others. Building platforms and spaces became extensions of my practice. Finding ways to share resources, like PROTOTYPE or P.O.C. became extensions of my practice.
The Artist Hotel concept stemmed from this will to create functional, artist-led forms of service. Through training, employment, commissions and other provisions, the hotel will attempt to create sustainable income streams and opportunities for young people, artists and citizens, all while serving as a community-driven hub for people passionate about arts and culture in the West Midlands. Thanks to funding from Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Arts Council England, we will be opening up the research, development and designing phase in 2018, as we seek the best building (or bit of land) for the operation.
We get this right and we can start to look at other forms of artist-led systemic change. What would interventions look like around homelessness, decoloniality, austerity, children's services? We can look at all of the facets of life, exploring alternative financial and banking systems, sustainability, childcare and family life, education and alternative learning, housing and neighbourhoods, affordable work space, alternative property development initiatives… the list goes on.
Please consider this my open invitation to explore how we might we collectively play a hands-on role in shaping our own environments. Between us, we have the passion, weight and will to build the changes we want to see. Lets find better ways to collectively serve each other.