The day I talk to Robert Pacitti about the implications of the article he recently published on the SPILL website is, quite coincidentally but quite fittingly, the day George Osborne announces the new budget. Somewhere in the footnotes of all the reports on the new measures to come, there was a mention of a sum delegated to the catchy category of ‘other’ – a group that includes the brotherly areas of sport, international development and culture. In his article Pacitti confessed to the financial difficulties that meant the festival had to give up on seven projects, and predicted a very grim financial future for all of us – but he also announced SPILL Folk Academy, two days devoted to a collective artistic brainstorm session on the subject of funding and sustainability. With this action-led approach in mind, it’s not surprising Pacitti reminds me that Osborne’s speech is balanced by another important event: International Happiness Day.
The Folk Academy comes with a proposed structure, with the two days including sessions devoted to moaning, sharing, resilience and sustainability, but SPILL has been very open to the idea of the event taking a completely different form, if the participants come with other suggestions. The emphasis seems to be on an immediate, collective action and finding new funding patterns; there’s an evident sense of urgency around the Folk Academy, and in his article Pacitti suggests the economic reality of the arts has changed fundamentally in the last year. This change, as you might expect, comes from the outside: “I’m not an economist. But I think that it’s obvious to detect that the market is nervous. There’s obviously also direct cuts coming from the government and those are small numbers when you see them written as percentages, but their impact is real – people are losing their jobs, and in some instances their houses, whole livelihoods. That’s not biting us just yet. But if you’re working with Arts Council as your primary provider, then the second tier (of funding) might include local authorities, trusts and foundations. Trusts and foundations that we’ve been speaking to, are all saying a similar thing, which is the days of funding single projects are over, and it doesn’t matter who’s in government in 3, 10 or 20 years – it’s irreversible. I can think of one person who I spoke to in particular, a chief executive of a foundation, who basically said ‘use what you’ve got, look around and see what you’ve got collectively, because we are going to have to invest in sustainable projects’. I’m really fearful for those artists and companies who are just invested in their own work, however fantastic that work is – they are the frontline and they will be damaged really soon. In short, I think that the market is nervous.” There’s a slight pause before the Chancellor of the Exchequer makes another appearance in the conversation. “And a lack of trust in George Osborne, let’s call it like it is. It’s really blatantly obvious. They don’t have a democratic mandate to impose the level of deep cuts and its stings, because we know that these people tend to be individuals of high personal wealth. It’s completely stinging. It stings. It really stings.”
For artists across the UK there was another important announcement on the day, with Peter Bazalgette, the Arts Council’s new chair, giving his first public speech. It openly put into focus the need for arts to be funded from various sources, scolding any local councils considering cutting their arts budget completely and inviting businesses to ‘pull their weight’ when it comes to culture. Bazalgette was also very clear that AC will refuse to be the sole public funder – meaning any companies, or indeed whole areas, that find themselves without other sources of income will be left without the support of the council. In line with this thinking Pacitti admits that his “personal politics is that we need to head towards mixed economies”; this entails finding partners outside of the arts world. He cites an example of a company in Yorkshire who, having spent months negotiating premiums with their insurance company, now rent their van to artists in the area at a reduced price and earn an income from it: “What’s interesting about that example is that they spent their time talking to the insurance company – because we already knew, without having to discuss it , that that’s one of the things we might all benefit from. […] We’ll get benefits from the unexpected – the insurance company, the bank manager, the people running hotels, train lines, people that are connecting and moving groups of people to different cultural centers, perhaps people that run billboards. I predict that’s what Pacitti Company will be invested in for the next 12-18 months.”
While the urgency of obtaining funds from new sources might be obvious, Pacitti is also clear this doesn’t mean arts should give up on the fight to be subsidised. “As soon as you demonstrate that between you, you’ve made 5 million across the year, across the country someone somewhere is going to say ‘well ok, then you don’t need it from the public purse.”
“It’s absolutely crucial that we maintain the urgency of that campaigning message from a position of saying ‘there already isn’t enough money’, it’s not like we just need to protect that and then we’re ok. ” One of the problems with subsidy is how it’s perceived outside the circle of artists, art advocates and the audience – with the economic value gained from artistic endeavors almost always neglected. To combat that, and in anticipation of the problems to come, SPILL decided that one of their independent evaluations should focus on the economic impact of last year’s festival, held in Ipswich: “I now know the number of people who came, I know that a third were local, a third were people who came from outside that we could probably reach because they are connected in some way, and the third come from outside and we didn’t know who they were. One in ten in our guests was international. They spent 24 percent of their money on the festival, and they spent 76 percent of their money in the town, on accommodation, food, drink, taxis. There you go, there’s an economic model, one that straight away says how we prove a case for us.”
Another idea that Pacitti addressed in his article, is the “slippery slope” of announcing good art comes from hardship, a belief that leads “logically to offering a case on a plate for the removal of all state support”: It’s definitely an area of jeopardy. I do feel that anybody worth their salt who’s working in the arts should be able to make something really amazing happen on £20. Don’t take £20 000 if you’re not resourceful enough to make something with £2 pounds- with just you and an empty room and a bit of a paper. We trade in ideas as much as we trade in big public outcomes. But I am very nervous about that line that says good work comes from struggle and from hardship. Good work comes from all conditions and lived experiences, whether that’s hardship or observing the world around you or privilege. If we look at the history of art some great works of art have been made from the point of view of absolute, utter privilege that wouldn’t exist otherwise. I think that is a red herring in a way as logic.”
Folk Academy is open to all – from all walks of art, or indeed life. It’s a step in a direction slightly different to the one often taken by radical and experimental art, that can define itself in being institutionally excluded from the rest. Pacitti emphasises several times that when it comes to Folk Academy, it’s not that easy to define who the collective ‘we’ taking action might be, but that there’s also not much room for exclusivity: “I think that we need to form a broad coalition, but I also think that there are some very specific difficulties around the area of work that I’m invested in. It’s basically a really hard sell to a commercial or a private funder and I think that comes with a whole load of difficulties, and not to sound glib about it, but exciting opportunities as well. I think we’re just going to need to take a big breath and get on with it, otherwise we’re going to miss an opportunity right now and it’s going to be really hard and we won’t be ready. That’s why I titled my article ‘weathering the storm’ – it sort of says we need to be a bit future proof now. Interestingly, on Twitter and other platforms, and through general email correspondence, we are starting to get a much broader range of people – people who work in venues, fringe type theatre, people who work with kids, people who work with puppets – people are saying ‘this seems relevant, we’re self-including.” Other than redefining the connotations of the word coalition, Folk Academy will first and foremost serve as a way of trying to encourage the artists to share – their tactics, knowledge, ideas and problems. There’s been some doubt over whether everyone will be open to this idea of transparency for the common good, and to an extent Pacitti agrees it remains to be seen: “We have a huge resource in each other, but that’s predicated on artist risking and taking the trust. That seems to be the first thing we have to cross – taking the risk of being a bit vulnerable to each other, if you want to see it in a very traditional frame of ‘in this country we are shit about talking about money, no one says what they get paid, It’s kind of slightly embarrassing’. I think we have to get past that. We really have to take that risk.”
The two days of Folk Academy are only going to touch the surface of the problems facing the arts and potential solutions – so it seems only logical to ask what happens next, after a community and a consensus have been formed: “We’ve been talking about it a lot. Pacitti Company is getting ready for the Folk Academy days and we’re already thinking about how we put in place plans, so that if those during those days people say they would like us to do the next bit – which is about sharing information and connecting people – that we’re ready for that. But I’ve been really clear I hope, all along, that if people come along for those 2 days and someone has a different idea on how to spend that time and other people want to pursue it , then maybe what we suggested and what they come up with happen in tandem, or maybe we just jettison what we’ve proposed and we go with another idea or another set of ideas. I’m not looking for a mandate. I’m mindful of that, so we’re looking at how we can resource the next bit if people want it, but we’re also really careful not to be seen in any way to claim any outcomes.”
Spill Folk Academy is on during Spill Festival of Performance on the 9th and 10th April 2013. For more information visit the Spill website.