PhD Research Project

Artist-led initiatives and cultural value/s in the contemporary art sector in Britain from 1990s to the present

Yesterday I announced that I’ve been awarded the Amanda Burton Scholarship to allow me to undertake PhD research within the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. Here are some brief initial thoughts on the shape of that research into the artist-led initiatives (art spaces, roving curatorial enterprises, publishing, activism, alternative models for art education etc) that have been one of the key features of contemporary visual arts practice in Britain over recent decades.

Given this pivotal role within the art ecology (for example, the obvious support that they give to early career artists through the provision of studio space and exhibition opportunities post graduation), I have for a long time found it frustrating that there has been remarkably little in the way of systematic and critical analysis of artist-led activities. It’s difficult to find anything that considers their structures and formation, or aims to evaluate their effects and place within the increasingly commercialized and centralised administration of contemporary art.

It has been a full decade since ‘Measuring the Experience’, Susan Jones’ important research paper on the scope and value of artist-led projects, was published and there have been material changes to the sector since then. And although it’s encouraging to see artist-led organisations engaging in collaborative research on the subject (for example Eastside Projects recently offered a fully-funded PhD at Birmingham City University for a researcher to look at ‘Making Art Public: Expanding the Role of the Artist-led Space’), there is still much to do to ensure that a consideration of the artist-led sector makes its way into some key current debates, through agencies such as Arts Council England, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Culture Forum North or the Creative Industries Federation, to name a few.

The AHRC’s Cultural Value Project (2013-15) looked into the question of why the arts and culture matter, and how their effects on individuals and society are captured. The project’s final report, ‘Understanding the value of arts & culture’, was published in March 2016. This drew on 70 pieces of original research which collectively made up the Cultural Value Project, along with critical reviews of the literature on cultural value, and specialist workshops. Whilst the report cites research on the voluntary or amateur arts, it has nothing specific to say on the artist-led sector. Its 32 pages of references to works cited within the report contain very little of relevance: only two such reports are cited, and both of these relate more specifically to the role of artists in regeneration and the built environment.

Professor John Holden has also written on cultural value. His 2015 report commissioned by the AHRC considered culture as an ecology of ‘complex interdependencies.’ Holden suggests that the ecology of culture could be thought of as the three highly interactive spheres of what he calls ‘publicly funded culture, commercial culture and homemade culture.’ My study will consider where the artist- led sector sits within Holden’s useful ‘ecology’ structure, since the artist-led frequently displays characteristics of all three types of culture he identifies. For example, some artist-led organisations receive subsidy (directly from the state or philanthropy) which might characterise them as ‘publicly funded culture’; however, many artist-led organisations are largely or even wholly self-funded, which may locate them more within Holden’s concept of ‘homemade culture’. This however is problematic in relation to the amateur or voluntary nature of much of what he terms ‘homemade culture’. It is also true that many artist-led organisations have a relationship with Holden’s ‘commercial culture’, given that they are increasingly engaging in activities such as representing artists at international art fairs.

Holden’s concept of interdependency is useful in thinking through the artist-led, and he acknowledges that in reality ‘all three spheres described above operate as mixed- economy models’, but his report does not specifically address the artist-led sector itself.

The Cultural Value Project also omits mention of Jones’ 1996 report, and completely overlooks the work of the Common Practice (London) group. Common Practice is an advocacy group for the small-scale visual arts sector in London. It has commissioned research on the value of small-scale visual arts organisations with relevance to the artist-led sector, and to organisations outside of the capital, with whom it has engaged through events such as symposia. The work of this London-based group has now encouraged the creation of similar forums in New York and Los Angeles, also now engaged in commissioning research relevant to this study.

My research will aim to study and assess the value and impact of artist-led initiatives, and to propose related strategies both for their continuation (even under the increasing pressures they have experienced from changing economic conditions since 2008), and their potential relevance elsewhere within the sector. Among many other questions I’ll be asking how relevant the artist-led sector is today in sustaining artists’ networks, nurturing collective/collaborative practices and talent development, and ensuring that there is space and time for artists to take risks within their practice.

The study will hopefully have relevance to the development of the contemporary art sector and curatorial practice broadly within the UK; to research on cultural value and the ‘case for support’ of the arts; to the formation of funding policy and priorities; and to growing relationships between the HE and cultural sectors.

The trajectory of my career from artist to curator over the last 20 years, which includes co-founding the artist-led projects Vitrine (2004-6) and Project Space Leeds (2006-), which led to the opening of The Tetley in 2013, will be of relevance and has created the impetus for this focused research. I’m also excited about the opportunity to engage with the incredibly active artist-led sector in Leeds, which continues to flourish and flower, and which adds immeasurably to the cultural richness of the city. And the study will inform my own continuing practice as a newly independent curator.

I’m keen to hear from new artist-led projects around the UK, existing projects with whom I’m not yet connected, and anyone interested in talking about the research further, so please get in touch. I’ll keep posting updates here as my research gets underway from October…