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How might we use our power through the arts?

Moira Sinclair, Chief Executive

As part of Marmalade 2017, 82 artists, cultural leaders, funders, investors, entrepreneurs and others interested in art and social impact gathered at the Old Fire Station in Oxford on 7 April 2017.  PHF Chief Executive Moira Sinclair responded to Jeremy Spafford’s, Director of Arts at the Old Fire Station, provocation on Art & Power.

Tony Benn famously asked:

“What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you use it? To whom are you accountable? How do we get rid of you?”

He ended by saying that anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system. I have found those five questions to be a useful starting point in framing my contribution to the ongoing debate on power dynamics within and of the art world and how they help or hinder social change. And they’ve helped me to think consciously about the role of funders, and particularly the Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF), the ‘why’ we chose to invest in work to increase access to and participation in the arts, and the challenge of deciding where to place that investment.

At Davos in 2016, the artist Olafur Eliasson wrote: “Art does not show people what to do, yet engaging with a good work of art can connect you to your senses, body, and mind. It can make the world felt. And this felt feeling may spur thinking, engagement, and even action.” And I think this is right. It’s not a precondition that art is made to change the world (and indeed imposing such a precondition would take a work from art to propaganda and would arguably be less effective in its power to move), but many artists do feel a responsibility, a need to make work that responds to injustice or to world events:

  • The power of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, depicting the futility of war crosses cultural divides with its violent imagery;
  • The impact of ‘Strange Fruit’ by Billie Holiday in reinforcing the rage that drove the American Civil Rights Movement;
  • The words of Maya Angelou that Michelle Obama said taught all women that self-worth “has nothing to do with what the world might say;
  • Jeremy Deller’s ‘We’re Here’ which connected 63% of the UK adult population to a nation’s reflection about the Battle of the Somme.

All of these are good and powerful examples. So my assertion is that the arts do have power – to change the lives of individuals, and potentially to change systems and structural power dynamics by insisting: ‘The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.’ Art changes people, and people change the world.

And if I hold this belief to be true, then opening up access to the arts is, in itself, a political and powerful act, one of social justice – that assumes that the arts are not a privilege, but a right; that there can be relationship between culture and change. And I also believe that power is not only a force of oppression and control. It can also be a force of creation and liberation, especially if that power is acknowledged and the control ceded in some way. In such cases, power can become empowering.
So the question then is what barriers might there be in place and how might we support their removal to ensure that access to the arts is as equitable as possible and that the organisations we fund are mindful of the inherent power dynamics at play.

The bubble of cultural production
All the data shows that there is a significant over-representation in the cultural sector from those from affluent, ‘middle class’ social backgrounds and under-representations of those from ‘working class’ social origins, as well as exclusions based on gender, ethnicity, and education.

The lack of diverse leadership in the sector is not just representation and what it says to people thinking of joining our sectors. It also means that the content of creative expression, of voice, are potentially shaped by other, more dominant narratives. And in the worst cases, it shuts people out from experiencing the power that art and creativity can unleash in them.

At PHF, we support leadership development at all levels, in schools, in our cultural organisations and in networks and movements such as What Next? and the Cultural Learning Alliance. This cannot be a tokenistic approach. The well-meaning, but short term initiatives have to be replaced by sustained, long term investment and by an appreciation that this is a much bigger issue than our sector alone. Higher education policies and industrial strategies have their impact, but so does personal action, so if you aren’t signed up to Speakers4Schools, why not? If you aren’t asking questions of your Board representation, you should be.

Excluded voices
It also follows that the attitudes of the cultural sector may be at odds with many parts of the population. How many of us were caught unawares by the strength of feeling expressed through the Brexit campaign and how many have since asked why we were so surprised?

If we believe that in art we can create the space for disagreement and embrace difference, we should be able to, once again in the words of Olafur Eliasson “transcend the polarising populism and stigmatisation of other people, positions, and world views that is sadly so endemic in public discourse today.” But we have to let those other voices in, in the first place. So as a funder, we say that it’s not enough to talk about numbers. You must be able to demonstrate an understanding of the needs of your existing and potential audiences and participants (by which we mean you must have a relationship that extends beyond the transactional) and a strong rationale as to how the work you want funded will address that need.

In a recent blog, the wonderful Francois Matarasso reflected: “I have never delivered a community art project. I’m not a milkman, quietly placing a healthy pint on stranger’s doorsteps. Community arts does not give you calcium. I want only to share a part of my journey with someone who wants the same.” So there is something here to assess about tone as well: the principle of not entering into people’s lives without invitation, the need to fight against our natural instinct to bestow the benefits of the arts in an act of middle-class munificence, the recognition that the ability to resist your ideas, counter your suggestions, or veto decisions is an important type of relationship power.

As Jeremy Spafford offered in his discussion of art and power, we are explicit in our desire to see the balance of power shift and we want to see artists use their power. We want to see active partnerships with communities and that requires an organisation-wide approach. It’s no longer the domain for us of the education or outreach department alone, we expect to see it translate into the way you use your venue, your marketing, your governance.

All this is well and good, but it is not without challenges. There is an issue of geography we are still grappling with – it is much easier to make grants to established organisations, and because of critical mass, these tend to cluster; and much harder in areas of low cultural infrastructure – which are unsurprisingly also areas of low cultural engagement and areas incidentally which are demonstrating a tendency to support the populist voice we are currently hearing. So the preparedness of the funder to travel and meet new voices and organisations, to take risk in the untested and to see the possible links and connections is paramount.

There is a concern about the type of art that we support. Our US partners in the migration space Unbound Philanthropy are in the initial stages of creating a pooled fund dedicated to pop culture and social change – with the stated intention of harnessing and influencing pop culture, and with the goal of (and these are their words) “improving public opinion and behaviour toward migrants, people of colour, and other strategic constituencies”. Their argument is that to achieve real change, you need to be working at scale and with culture that has the potential for reach. We don’t currently fund TV, film, pop music, comedy but it’s got me thinking. I am exercised by the directive hazard of the programme, but excited by the idea you could create shared space for artists interested in social justice.

There is the reality of complexity and other forces at play
In talking about change, we are talking here about complex social challenges – situations in which real lives, complicated lives, matter. Ones that involve multiple stakeholders, changing realities, interrelated incidents – and that’s tricky stuff. Our perspective of individual or institutional power in this context may shrink. It’s hard to focus effort and keep up morale as the service provider if it feels as though one is hammering one’s head against a very large and intractable wall, and we also have to recognise the strains that this lived experience can have on our potential audiences and participants.

Jeremy’s talk made me think about who else and what other sectors are a powerful force in the lives of people who have less opportunity and what role the arts play in working alongside these sectors. This is cropping up more and more in our applications and reflects learning from PHF’s Our Museum programme and, to a certain extent, youth sector partnerships across Tate Circuit.

Art at the Old Fire Station’s partnership with Crisis is a good example, Battersea Art Centre’s proposal to become a Theatre of Sanctuary is another. And this makes me wonder whether we are really alert to the possibility that the sector is potentially most powerful when it works in collaboration rather than in isolation. Do we project too much exclusivity and not enough ‘shared ground’ with others interested in social justice?

In this brief text, I can do little more than start the conversation and the act of writing this has been thought provoking for me, so I hope it is for others too. In summary, I assert that:

  • Artists and arts organisations undoubtedly do have power and have choices about how to exercise it.
  • To me, the sharing of power seems to be a non-negotiable, founded on a deep respect for those that influence and in some cases co-create art.
  • In order to make that real, we need to see an approach to equality and social justice that is embedded in the vision, the leadership, the business ‘on stage’ and off, in all aspects of an arts organisation’s work.
  • And in the end, that’s much more about a set of values and behaviours that translate into action than it is about fulfilling the requirements of a funding application.


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