Last week I was at the 51st Art Matters forum, which took place this time in Kitchener-Waterloo during the Magnetic North Theatre Festival. Art Matters is a series of public forums on arts and culture organized by their Excellencies, Governor General Michaelle Jean and her partner Jean-Daniel Lafond. Some 230 people attended this iteration. The theme was Creating Art, Creating Communities.
Gavin Stride, director of UK’s Farnham Maltings, was one of the cultural practitioners at Art Matters who was invited to present some thoughts on the topic. He started with a funny and insightful anecdote:
On a visit to Brittany last year I was walking round a fairly austere cathedral in Vannes with my son. Above the altar there was a beautiful stained glass window of the crucifixion. We were following a fairly elderly English couple around and the wife turned to her husband and said ‘You see the sky around Jesus’ head?’ and the husband said ‘yes’ and she said ‘That’s the colour I want our bathroom’.
Everyone laughed at this. And Gavin immediately said, “You see, we laugh. But I would argue that this woman was making an artistic choice about the quality of her life. Art is everywhere.” Or, one could say – artists and cultural creators are everywhere.
It was a great opener to a great presentation that articulated many points and perspectives that I thought the Culture Days network have also considered, debated or would otherwise be interested in hearing. Gavin’s presentation continued as follows:
I would contest that for our communities and the arts to survive we need to disenthrall our view of what the arts are and are not. I like that word, disenthrall. To reject the things that we are enthralled to. We need to reject ideas that are too often posed as opposites. Excellence and popular, accessible or experimental, maker or audience, high or low art, amateur or professional. We also have to get away from the drug dealer attitude of getting people in on the soft stuff before we get them on to real art. People express who they are in all sorts of ways. As knitters and cooks as gardeners and cake decorators, we tell stories to our children, dance at weddings, sing songs to our country at the start of football matches. Art is everywhere.
In the UK the Arts Council of England has just undertaken a major piece of research on how the arts might thrive over the next ten years. A kind of 2020 plan. And the sector itself said “invest in participation.” The more people know how to make a pot the more likely they are to recognise the work of an extraordinary potter, understand the craft and be prepared to pay for it. You see, participation and excellence are constituents of the same ambition.
Of course this is what sport has been doing for years. You know the difference is between sport and art? Sport is less competitive. Picture those huge marathons that happen in London and New York and cities all over the world. Well some are wonderful athletes who will cover the course in 2 hours 12 minutes but there are also people finishing inside two three five hours. – and celebrate their achievements. People train for months in our parks and on our roads to be as good as they can be on that one day. They encourage each other. Buddy up, lend a hand, even stop to check someone is alright. Everybody gets that if we stay active we will live longer. That sport is good because it keeps your body healthy. Well I would argue that what sport does for the body the arts do for the mind. We need those events in the arts.
I am not sure if arts create communities but they do help us think, understand, feel and imagine. That’s what the arts do. They develop our emotional intelligence, bring us together, help us imagine, heal, build empathy and develop a vocabulary to make collective sense of the world.
When I first started working with Farnham Maltings I said that my job was to help people feel happier, live longer and be safer. And that if I didn’t get that right they could have their money back. I still believe it. It is a much more compelling argument than ‘I want you money to pay for my art’. I don’t know about in Canada but in the UK only about 10% of people are regular attendees of the arts. Well I am interested in the other 90%. That might mean working in new ways in new places through a different set of skills.
In the UK we have moved in the last month from a labour government whose emphasis was on the instructive value of art to a conservative government who are happy to promote the intrinsic value. Me? I am too busy trying to make the world a better place to get involved in politics. But there is something about the institutional value of art. The capacity they have to make sense of all our lives. I’m with Isabel Allende when she says ‘Art is to humankind what dreams are to the individual’ And it is everywhere.
What do you think? Did Gavin’s thoughts resonate with you? Share your thoughts – leave a comment below.
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