‘The New Rurals?’ at the Merz Barn

The New Rurals?
Friday, 25 July 2014 at the Merz Barn

In the UK, the need for a comprehensive rural arts strategy has brought practitioners together many times across the past fifteen years and more. There’s demonstrable disadvantage in terms of access, artist development and national profile. There’s been crisis after crisis in the agricultural sector following foot and mouth, mad cow and other pandemics, whose national response did not yield the kind of strategic approach that gave new confidence in government’s understanding of public policy and the social. There’s the commonly expressed desire for the development of a new vocabulary for articulating rural arts so as to inspire a strategic approach. And yet, this need is not felt by the UK Government, with Arts Council England (ACE) recently releasing not a strategy but a positioning statement on rural arts. Now several years old, the sector’s own Rural Cultural Strategy needs revisiting and actioning, which was the theme for a diverse gathering of local, national and international colleagues at Littoral’s Merz Barn in Cumbria.

The day’s discussion was explicitly framed around the tension between the Rural Cultural Strategy and the ACE paper, with brief presentations on each to start the discussion, and then an afternoon of conversational contributions towards resolving that tension into some practical next steps. A curious new concept for me here was Rural Proofing, a government policy-making imperative whereby certain approaches must be taken when creating or reviewing any rural policy. A set of principles guides the approach, however, to the gathered group, the concept came across as something of a negative, the way one might water-proof when one wants to keep the water out. So while the ACE document is not a strategy, the overall approach must be rural proof.

Littoral is an arts research and development Trust which promotes new creative strategies, artistic interventions and cultural partnerships in response to issues about social, cultural and environmental change. Director Ian Hunter spoke passionately about the role that artists have played in framing new aesthetic and cultural discourses. Artist-driven reappropriations of former industrial spaces and other unwanted real estate, Ian argued, led to the reinvention of cities and places for innovation. The city need not write the rural; artists have an active role to play. In 2004 Littoral was commissioned by ACE to produce the New Rural Arts Report, which offered a Rural Cultural Strategy as a basis for further sector focus and public advocacy.  The Rural Cultural Strategy is a series of proposals for initiatives of significant scale and impact, ranging from a national rural arts centre, to an ambitious photography documentary project, to a rural biennale of international significance. Each initiative recognises a set of priorities around accessing new resources, boosting the rural economy, addressing disadvantage, and opening up new experimentations and modes of practice. Reframing the Strategy around these priorities, rather than the initiatives, will be an important step in transforming the document into a lightweight, practical, and ultimately strategic, tool: as a list of initiatives following statements on the current context, it will remain ungraspable and unattainable without a clear and formal approach that can be adopted into government thinking. An arts and cultural strategy must accept the challenge to represent diversity, while offering a set of visions with stepped platforms from which to leap to that vision.

Following all this policy discussion, just fucking do it was a theme that emerged early in the afternoon. Do we really need public funding, a strategy, a policy? Isn’t artmaking proceeding very happily thank you very much? This of course turned out to be a straw man. If government does not take a strategic approach to rural creativity and innovation, then its overall approach in those vital spheres will be impoverished. Arts funding and policy bodies come to understand the nature of artistic practice through their relationship with what they fund. Opening this circularity is vital: such bodies must be empowered to understand more than what they fund, and further, to use that knowledge to inform other relevant government policy areas, which in the UK context include farming, the environment, public health, social welfare and so on. Connecting policy instruments is crucial to this, as is remaining in a position to understand the diversity and the change that characterises rural arts. A challenge to the desire to just fucking do it was the ideological divisions that people described among the rural arts sector. The Rural Cultural Strategy was by no means a representative document despite its consultation process, and the Strategy makes this clear at the outset.

The idea of a rural biennale was hotly debated in the afternoon. This had been one of the seven key initiatives proposed in the Rural Cultural Strategy – initiatives characterised by big impact. Why a biennale? Discussion showed them to be impactful politically as well as artistically, setting agendas whose influence could be felt far beyond the interest group. My contribution here was to discuss the Australian context: the rich history of Mildura Palimpsest, the Castlemaine State Festival and more recently, the TarraWarra Biennale; the city-based events, including the short-lived Melbourne Biennale, and the Sydney Biennale with its fraught sponsorship controversy; the evolution of the Regional Arts Australia biennial, and Regional Arts Victoria’s role in its past and future innovations as an event. Within the context of the highly cluttered Australian festival landscape, events of duration and place fight hard for artists, funds, critical engagement, media coverage and public attention. A biennale faces the additional pressure of the inevitable comparison to the might of Venice. If festivals make art public, biennales make art political, inevitably presenting what will be perceived as an authoritative survey of contemporary practice designed to institute a particular agenda.

As with Regional Arts Victoria’s regular Regional Cultural Forums, a key part of the experience of being there was one of being heard. Practitioners working in isolation need to leave such gatherings with the confident conviction that there are others working among similar constraints – others who can be drawn upon for their expertise, their opinion or simply for their sympathetic ear. Frances Rowe, undertaking a PhD on rural arts organisations with a contemporary visual arts focus, was keen to foster discussion on academic research priorities to assist rural arts development. “We’re in a very strange world,” she noted, “one that’s increasingly uncomfortable, where governments are rolling back the state at tremendous speed… What can local actors do?” Steve Messam, Director of Fold Gallery and the Fred Art Invasion of Cumbria, noted that mechanisms for showing work locally are ironically not as sophisticated as mechanisms for showing international. One model that was offered as uniting advocacy and practice effectively was that of Indian artists, curators and activists the Raqs Media Collective who had been the founders of Sarai.

While one hope for ‘The New Rurals?’ was to reach some shared agreements on specific strategic directions, without purposeful facilitation this was ultimately impossible, and in being heard, colleagues were able to leave with some new connections. The day ended with spoken commitments to come together on a handful of rural events connected to a central event – first, to develop advocacy positions, and then, to present those positions with confidence in London prior to the May 2015 elections. Vicky Prior, Director of The Culture League, invited collaborators for such an event. The Culture League aims to unite arts advocacy campaigns across the UK to build and strengthen a common voice. Also there in the timeline consciousness was the current Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry into ACE, which is being led by a rural MP, thus presenting great expectations for change. I look forward to remaining a part of the conversation.

 

Image: discussion at the Merz Barn. Photo by Esther Anatolitis.