October 27, 2010

A Sustainable Future for the Rollerball Museum

Since May, the cultural workforce in the UK has been nervously anticipating the onslaught of the dark regime that now governs the country. The disaster that this will be for British culture is universally accepted – except maybe by intestate liberals in denial, who for the sake of realism can be ignored as hopefully they will be for a generation - Charlie Brooker commented in the Guardian this week that the liberals represent the acceptable face of abuse but we have to hope that they are treated as unacceptable for many years to come. The only question in most people’s minds is the degree of destruction we face. I think that the most telling comparison I have heard is with the Conservatives' last ideological attack: the destruction of the labour movement and the closure of the once mighty mining industry: culture’s future looks remarkably like the fate that befell the wasteland of pit villages and blighted a generation of workers. My epigrammatic assessment is that this government could destroy one hundred years of British culture in the space of three.

The ‘Arts’ and ‘Museums’ have been producing various briefing documents and lobbying campaigns that set out why the arts are so important and there are various online ‘save the arts’ websites and petitions. The problem with all of these is that they rely on the arguments that the arts have developed over 2 decades of New Labour target-driven non-culture imperatives which have fundamentally undermine chances of survival in the current situation. Basically, the arts argue for the economic/social/educational value they provide but the new government is only interested in costs (and that is charitably to give them an economic justification rather than the more likely ideological truth): in this simple equation, the value of the arts is irrelevant.

The dangers are compounded because of the clever nonsense of ‘Business Transformation’. For decades, cuts in public service have been referred to as ‘efficiency savings’. Everyone knows that this is newspeak bollocks; but the unprecedented speed and scale of this debacle implementation is dressed up with this new language which suggests that services can be saved by radical re-configuration: “Business Transformation” is more than a distortion of the language – it is a plain lie. The propagation of this lie is compounded by the naivety of a sector of museum/arts administrators who were trained in the ethos of neo-Puritan museums as useful – it’s a generational thing. They are quick to accept the cuts as inevitable – because they are conditioned by the methodology of the previous regime to hit the target, even if the target is perversely destructive. So you get nonsense out of them such as “it is better to have one good museum than four mediocre ones”. This is supposed to suggest that the recent times of plenty have resulted in too many museums, some good some mediocre, and therefore the new governmental cull is actually an opportunity! This is plainly bollocks. Maybe it would be better to have four good ones – good museums don’t cost any more to run than mediocre ones.

I am pretty frequently getting email bulletins now with titles like “Fuelling The Necessary Revolution”. Every single word of that title makes me want to slap the writer, who goes on to claim that “The funding cuts announced this week are bringing into sharp focus the need for us to consider different ways of thinking and different ways of doing. Whilst artists have a proud and promiscuous history of collaborating across every imaginable boundary, arts organisations have too often tended to work in isolation or in competition. It has been written especially for public and private funders in order to persuade them to encourage and support more collaborations. This guide includes an explanation of the competencies, qualities and attributes necessary, describes the early stage challenges and offers a framework for assessment. It explains what disciplined collaboration looks like...” The exasperation I feel reading this is nearly debilitating – maybe to reduce my use of expletives in this blog I could just observe that the cuts are so large that most of the thinking is already directed to not doing things rather than doing differently; that for those of us who have been ‘promiscuously’ collaborating with artists for years and crossing every imaginable boundary this is patronising shite; and explanation of competencies, qualities, attributes and frameworks for assessement (just what we need!) is the tiresome bureaucracy of HR-Fordist model imposed on arts management over the last decade which paradoxically has artistically de-skilled arts management while pretending to professionalise it.

The other delusional strategy being offered is that the way to survive is to focus on the young – “we need to illustrate to government and society that our organisations can teach young people about the past so they can construct their futures.” There are two misapprehensions in this: the first relates to my earlier observation – under New Labour, working with young people was a consistent governmental imperative (to the detriment, I would argue, to the quality of the arts themselves): the working with youth card is already in the game and clearly has no value to the rich bastards that now govern the country. The other problem with it relates to the sustainability of the Rollerball Museum, which I come to below. Sustainability is another bit of jargon that has a multiple life in the current situation. Until recently it was used as part of the green agenda, reducing the carbon footprint of museums and galleries, etc. Now it has an additional use, much as ‘transformation’ means ‘dismantle’, sustainability now means survival.

Along with the liberal “don’t hurt us because we are good with the poor and dispossessed” strategy of the arts (liberalism after all is dead in the final act of coalition), the other humiliation some are swallowing is “The Big Society”. This is the Government’s vision for replacing the ‘big state’. I can’t be bothered to parse this nonsense, but suffice it to say, that there are arts administrators arguing that there is an opportunity for the arts to survive by ‘delivering this new agenda’. I am just not convinced that enough of the cultural infrastructure will survive because the sentence includes its own demise “for the arts to survive by delivering this new agenda”. This assumes that the arts are supposed to survive; but this is an ideological dismantling of public life to be rebuilt in a different image much as it was with monetarism in the 80s-90s. It doesn’t need or want the past. One of the founding concepts of museums is that access to the past informs the future - “our organisations can teach young people about the past so they can construct their futures” – to dismantle the infrastructure of British museums and galleries is to overwrite history, to disconnect the past so that a different, forgetful future is forged. The new government’s schedule for destruction is 2014 (so that British society has been irrevocably changed before they can be kicked out in the 2015 election), but this story makes me think of a slightly later date: 2018.

By the year 2018, the Corporate Wars have ended and crime has been eliminated around the globe. To entertain and divert the bored masses, the sport of Rollerball -- a cross between hockey, roller derby, and motocross -- has been invented and become wildly popular. Veteran player Jonathan E. (played by James Caan) of the Houston team has become so big with the fans over his ten-year career that the corporate owners fear his stardom violates the team ideology of Rollerball and may inspire a revolution. Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), an executive with Energy Corp., the team owners, tells Jonathan E. “Corporate society was an inevitable destiny”. Increasingly suspicious, the previously dumb jock Jonathan tries to investigate the history of the game and the corporations by going to visiting the last library-archive in the world, which is Zero, the world's most powerful computer based in Geneva. Jonathan only finds more evidence that the world is all wrong. The head librarian is madder than a hatter and the computer is twisted. Somehow they have lost the entire 13th Century and who knows what else. To paraphrase George Orwell “Who controls the past, controls the future”. And how better to control the past than to lose chunks of it. You never know, maybe they’ll win a second term, in which case they will be in power in 2018 - with the unemployment in the arts that's coming, there'll be plenty of applications for the museum director.

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