July 28, 2012

I'm Back!

The publication of my interview about the Text Festival with Derek Beaulieu in Jacket, which was actually concluded just after the Festival, turns out to be coincidental with my ability to return to blogging. It’s been an odd year or more social media-wise. Almost overnight, I went from active and frequent verbosity to near silence, which probably seemed a bit odd to people who follow these writings. Initially there was an element of exhaustion post-festival exacerbated by the urgently depressing/infuriating battle to save cultural services from the sado-monetarist onslaught of the evil which is the coalition government. Paradoxically, the solution to the threat that I came up with precluded even more public comment. To the many participants and followers of the Text Festival, an inclusive open maybe even rambling dialogical event, it may be counterintuitive that my next major cultural project has to be developed in large part through confidential negotiations but that has what has been engaging me for the last 12 months.

Finding the solution to the threat to cultural provision was an interesting challenge. The problem could be defined thus: the arts in the UK had spent the last 20 years justifying their legitimacy by association with other fields - mainly social, education and welfare policy. The arts had developed a body evidence tailored to impacts on government indicators for social cohesion, learning, health & well-being, etc. The problem came when the new fundamentally anti-social government re-defined public policy as simply related to its cost. By this criterion, the arts are buggered – all that social good stuff is meaningless to politicians whose rightful place is in the Museum of Dead Bastards Heads.  The knee-jerk response from the arts sector was to re-double its use of the arguments and evidencing of arts as social value, because this had mitigated the worst extremes of previous cost-cutting assaults – although tellingly not without notable cultural losses. By definition this was a doomed strategy this time round and there developed almost a feeding frenzy of cultural cutting. Going to museums meetings during that period involved seeing lots of haunted resignation. It occurred to me early on that the arts’ response was inadequate – primarily, I suppose, because I was never convinced in the first place that art needed to be justified through its contribution to non-cultural agendas. Readers of my blog will have observed this over the years as I have criticised, for example, art in regeneration where you get bad environmental development because it is driven by the artistically compromised; or my attacks on the nonsense of the Kids in Museums organisation which turns cultural facilities into vacuous crèches; or my smugness over my "intrepid resistance to interpretation", etc. All the solutions on offer in those early days were either administrative or financial – move around or share the deckchairs, shed staff or cut budgets. Once you head down that road, you have lost the argument and might as well shut up shop straightaway.
So I set up to find an artistic solution.

The answer turned out to be unexpectedly simple: We should curate our way out of trouble. The arts should do what Art does. Specifically: to curate exhibitions and projects aimed at international galleries and networks; to move the cultural horizon beyond the constricted UK context to where there were still opportunities for funding and partnerships committed to culture qua culture. It may seem simple now but I lost count of the number of meetings at which someone said: why has no-one thought of this before?

I had imagined that this would be the way forward for Bury, but unexpectedly galleries and museums across the north threw their hats into the ring realising that it offered opportunity to all. Pretty quickly I had lost count of how many had joined the project – it is somewhere around forty now, I think.

I planned to focus on Japan initially, as we had experience working there; but as the British Council got involved we were quickly steered to China as the UK’s top priority: hence my trips to China in October 2011 and April 2012 to negotiate and set up projects. As much of the detail was delicate, diplomatic and intensely demanding, confidentiality became essential to progress the plans: so behind the scenes me and my team (who have been remarkable) have been working on the hardest, most complicated project we’ve ever attempted; meanwhile outwardly, my social media presence was near silence.

However, as the first project of this new vision is close to opening, it’s now time to resurface. I’ll expand on the project in a future blog, but suffice it to say our team has put together an exhibition called “Toward Modernity: 300 years of British Art” - drawn from 19 UK museums and touring to 6 national museums in China. So I’ll be in Changsha (Hunan Provincial Museum pictured) again in September for the opening and then again in Beijing in November. In between I’ll be in Austria and Italy setting up a new partnership in the area of public art and creative industries and in the early new year I’ll be in Japan and maybe South Korea working on more touring exhibitions. (It’s not just me; by the way, members of my team are booked for the European Sculpture Network in Celle, Germany in September and the Glasgow Europe conference in November. As I write the incomparable Kat McClung-Oakes is in Tampere, Finland, setting up our Turner exhibition and Josef Minta has just come back from an EU digital museums conference in Barcelona).

Having ‘worked through’ the transition from the Text Festival to world tours, I thought that my observations in the interview with Derek would now seem out of date but I think it still covers what I thought of the Festival. As I predicted despite my protestations I am now working on a 2014 Text Festival, and as I projected then, the questions that seemed to me unacknowledged challenges for poets will probably surface; although maybe not, as poetry has seemed less and less relevant as the year has passed: my latest poetry book will be lucky if it is read by 50 people; the exhibition I have organised in China will be seen by 4 million. Maybe this was one of the reasons why my book was called “The End of Poetry”. 

I have missed blogging: I originally started blogging because I liked moaning about crap books, films and exhibitions. And over the last year there have been many things I could and should have moaned about, but now I’m back! 

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