Jumping Through Hoops

DATE: June 2008

INTRODUCTION:

Jumping Through Hoops asks if the enthusiastic commitment to justifying art’s role in regeneration does more to perpetuate the illusions of social inclusion and community cohesion through regeneration than it does to effect real change for the communities regeneration purports to be for.

ARTICLE:

Jumping Through Hoops. Why do we continue to lie on funding applications and evaluation reports?

Thoughts of an anonymous evaluator

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Audre Lorde [1]

In this short essay I want to focus on funded art in the context of regeneration and resistance to its evaluation. By working out our positions in relation to the wider economic and political contexts of regeneration, I invite you, the readers in all your roles, to imagine futures, not necessarily utopian, that could exist if we continue on our current path. You may identify with some of the possibilities of regeneration and/or you may have some concerns as to who is benefiting from the process. Rather than assume evaluation is a necessary evil, I want to evaluate the implications of our continued reliance on and commitment to justifying art’s role in regeneration. It has become an open secret in this country that providing ‘facts’ and figures to meet funding criteria sometimes allows money to be released and then for that money to go towards doing what the recipients of the funding really want to do. Evaluators, administrators, curators and artists are well versed at ‘funding’ language and over the years have learnt how to efficiently jump through hoops in order to pursue their ‘real’ interests, which may or may not tally with funding criteria. I suggest that by continuing to validate a role for art in regeneration, evaluation is often employed to perpetuate the charade of empowerment promised by the regeneration industry.

I am not saying that people always purposefully lie in evaluation reports, but rather the system as a whole relies on accountability at the expense of real change. I want to ask what the repercussions are of continuously providing dubious evaluation reports. Giving the funders what they want in evaluation reports seems to be another way of showing support for that system. This seems an unusual game to play when those applying for and spending public money may fundamentally disagree with the systems that have made the money available in the first place. The reasons for these disagreements are diverse. I want to ask you to identify what you think is wrong with the role of public art in regeneration and encourage responses from those of you who consider yourselves inside and/or outside this industry.

Resistance to evaluating public art has been put down to a ‘lack of motivation or inclination, lack of time, lack of resources or skills, lack of understanding and fears concerning the appropriateness of available methods’ [2] . Resistance to evaluation is also equated to the fact that it fails to ‘reflect the spirit of arts activity, stifle creativity or reduce the arts experience’ [3] or because it exposes the ‘mythic narrative’ of the work [4] . Such notions of resistance, however, perpetuate a myth of the role of art and, I would argue, that what these reports fail to identify is a resistance to evaluation (and indeed the commissioning of public art in general) based on major disillusions with regeneration itself. Such mistrust is based on the way public art for regeneration strengthens (rather than weakens or redistributes) the hierarchies and power structures, furthering the suppression and displacement of those people regeneration purports to ‘help’. It is this dilemma I am concerned with here and one I ask your opinions of too. [5] By continuing to tell these lies to get what we want we are perhaps following the tactics of developers who promise better lives for the people living in areas labelled as deprived. It is not necessarily the aims of regeneration we have a problem with, more the illusion of ‘social inclusion’, ‘community cohesion’ and capacity building’ that the industry is based on that we find so disappointing. I would like to propose we find ways of revealing this sham and imagine worst-case scenarios, presenting the hypocracies of these developments back to those who have masterplanned them. How are we best placed to critique the implications of continuing to produce evidence to strengthen the regeneration machine? Do we strike or do we stop resisting and ‘over-identify’, by highlighting these hypocracies, creating genuine fictions, adopting the languages and tactics of regeneration to reveal some of these absurdities. [6]

How have we got to this normalised situation of perpetual deception? I suggest we launch ourselves into an onslaught of evaluation and the regeneration industry, but one that parod ies the system itself, rather than continue to supply utopian alternatives. Let us share our concerns. I invite you as artists and evaluators, funders, commissioners, curators and advocates of public art to present this cycle of pretence to each other, anonymously if we have to. Through the protection of anonymity and rejection of the exclusionary language of resistance (often claimed by artists as their territory), and by embracing the language of property development, planning and regeneration we might start a playful conversation that invites a critique from the insides of this machine. This may also redress the balance of contributions to this ixia forum. I am trying to find ways of moving the debates forward without relying on defensive arguments that only aim to strengthen and secure our roles. These critical essays on public art aim to stimulate discussion and debate but who are the readers? As usual it is the artists, students and curators who feel more compelled to read and respond. This is not a forum where developers, planners, council representatives or communities are flocking. Why is this? Maybe it is because the language of critical writing is alienating, that the format of an online forum does not invite those people that we want to talk to. Without the baggage of having to speak on behalf of the organisations you work for or in fear of damaging your career or losing you job, this is a chance to speak freely and openly about the conflicts of interest in the regeneration field. Change your name, become someone else for an hour and let it all out!

This invitation carries on from a point raised during the Art Council’s recent Arts Debate [7] :

‘it seems that no funding system should try to iron out the tension inherent in the creative process around the singularity of the artistic voice and the collective desire to communicate and share experiences with others. Rather this seems a tension to be enjoyed, celebrated and debated on an ongoing basis.’

My question is, how does the need for continued debate and celebration of tension effect change in the regeneration machine and not just continue to happen in a parallel universe among frustrated artists who are feeling compromised and used? Rather than focus on how we continue to evaluate and justify our work this is a chance to question, argue about and celebrate some of the fundamental differences there are for justifying or rejecting regeneration money. Perhaps by presenting hypocracies we find troubling and absurd, we can reveal the political and ethical consequences of top-down regeneration and complete privatisation, and arts implicated role in this. Taking a cue from the Arts Debate, then, I suggest we take some steps back and continue this debate and question the reasons why we have an evaluation profession today.

In the minutes of an international seminar run by the Arts Council’s Community Arts Working Party in 1974, a Mr. Botbol (who worked for UNESCO) was noted as suggesting

‘that the animateur [8] should question the value of what he/she was doing. However the method was packaged, however much subtle suggestion and non-direction were used, the 19th century elitist conception of art handed down from the top of the cultural pyramid often survived. In underdeveloped countries there was no need for animateurs. Art and culture were part of the life of the country – life culture integrated into art. It is the technologically advanced countries where alienation during work has spawned an equal alienation during leisure that animation has found a role’.

This quote puts the role of funded public art and its evaluation into perspective. The evaluation industry is flourishing because of the need to account for public funding.

We have become conditioned to evaluate and justify spending public money on art. The increased need to provide evidence and to monitor public spending has filtered through to the arts (traditionally removed from such monitoring). This is based on the development of monitoring a target-based economy. The arts have to defend their role as either improving social cohesion; creating capital through the creative industries, or demonstrate objectively how excellent they are [9] . In terms of accountability, the Arts Debate report states there was consensus on the fact that accountability was important to everyone, ‘both in terms of how funders account for the way they distribute public money and how recipients of funding account for what they achieve with their share’ but also recognised the issue of how systems of accountability (evaluation) could ‘stifle creativity and hold back development of artistic practice.’ [10] It is an issue that has long been recognised that evaluation has become more about ‘accountability’, another form of marketing, gathering evidence to justify and sell the work of public art, than a form of reflexive practice or action research that can effect change by challenging the funders of public art and those who commission the evaluation. What lies behind our unquestioning commitment to accountability may be our eagerness to please and satisfy funding criteria. We have forgotten to argue for our differences and to sustain our conflicts. But can the funding system cope with such a variety of political, conceptual and ethical approaches that contest bullet-pointed lists of aims, objectives, priorities and outcomes?

In promoting the arts as being able to achieve many objectives from wellbeing to decreasing crime rates, public art commissions are able to receive more money. But with this comes more monitoring and with that, a crisis. There has been a lack of ‘robust research evidence of the reach and effects of the visual arts on individuals, communities and localities’. [11] This cycle of demand for evidence and the subsequent desperate supply of case studies and qualitative data of how art does improve lives is then followed by further requests for performance indicators and an overall framework for measuring the impacts of art. [12] This crisis has missed the opportunity to reassess the wider implications of aligning practice with power. In the bid for justifying a role for art we are not interrogating the structures we call upon for support and the underlying issues of alienation brought about by capitalist society.

For example, in the 2005 ixia report by OPENspace [13], the authors recommend an evaluation framework and assessment tool for public art. While this can possibly lead to the release of further funds and convince developers and councils to invest in public art, does it also have the potential for those involved to question the values, criteria and politics of the motivations and effects of such public and private investments? Do such evaluation toolkits offer the option of scrapping the toolkit altogether? Referring to Andre Lorde’s quote at the opening of this essay, is there a danger such toolkits can be only be used to help build the house and never the opportunity to dismantle it and bring about genuine change? The reliance on toolkits and our continuing work to validate the work we do according to the terms set by regeneration funding potentially means we are incapable of changing anything about those terms. To what extent do toolkits and funded evaluations enable us to question those writing the questions and setting the targets? Is commissioned public art and evaluation really an opportunity to be paid to be critical and if so, how can we go a step further to reveal some of the fundamental problems of the situation of regeneration we find ourselves in?

I invite you to share your frustrations and aspirations over this dilemma and to suggest multiple alternatives for exposing our different or shared concerns for moving forward.

NOTES:

[1] Title of an essay by Audre Lorde in her Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 1984, Crossing Press, USA

[2] Helen Jermyn, The Arts and Social Exclusion: a review prepared for the Arts Council of England, 2001.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Research on Public Art: Assessing Impact and Quality, ixia report by OPENspace, 2005.

[5] These concerns have also been articulated by Freee in their (http://www.freee.org.uk/) and by the Cultural Policy Collective in Beyond Social Inclusion – Towards Cultural Democracy (http://www.culturaldemocracy.net/). The focus is not on how artists can be better paid but rather how do we negotiate our implicated roles in furthering the very systems we think we are critiquing.

[6] The recent publication, Cultural Activism Today. The Art of Over-Identification edited by BAVO / Gideon Boie, Matthias Pauwels, published by Episode Publishers, Rotterdam states, ‘Instead of succumbing to society’s pathetic demand for small creative acts, artists should over-identify with the ruling, post-historical order and take the latter’s immanent laws to their most extreme, dystopian consequences. By ruthlessly closing off any space for creative, utopian thinking – which today is nothing but a farce anyway – it should confront society with its own closure.’

[7] In 2006 the Arts Council of England launched The Arts Debate to survey arts audiences, participants, artists, the wider public, arts managers, funders and other stakeholders about the value of arts and the role of public funding to inform future strategies for funding the arts.

[8] The use of the term ‘animateurs’ is used in this context to describe ‘community artists’, artists involved in education or community activism. This quote is from unpublished material in the Arts Council archives.

[9] See the McMaster Review: Supporting excellence in the arts – from measurement to judgement, DCMS, 2008 which proposes a process of self-evaluation and peer review that focuses on objective judgements of excellence.

[10] Catherine Bunting, Public value and the arts in England: Discussion and conclusions of the arts debate, November 2007, p.27

[11] The Power of Art. Visual Arts: Evidence of Impact, ACE, 2006, p.8.

[12] Ibid, p.13.

[13] Research on Public Art: Assessing Impact and Quality, ixia report by OPENspace, 2005.