Get angry and do something
OK, it’s not my catchiest post title. No puns, no clever sideways references. But I mean it. Really. Because I’m sick and tired of reading about happenings labelled as ‘tragic’, and outcomes leaving people ‘disappointed’. We are way beyond disappointingly tragic. We have officially hit catastrophically, potentially permanently disastrous. So now is not most certainly NOT the time to keep calm and carry on.
In the last week or so, the papers have reported the planned closure of Inverleith House, Edinburgh as an art venue; plus the closure of the New Art Gallery in Walsall; plus 15 of Walsall’s 16 libraries. Just let that sink in for a moment. From 16 libraries and a gallery focussing on contemporary art (with a collection which also includes works Picasso, Braque, Gericault and Delacroix), to a single library. According to the last census, by the way, there are about 270,000 people living in Walsall, so I guess they’d better hope their next book request isn’t a popular one. And from a house and garden which similarly made available an astonishing array of exhibitions of modern art, to no exhibitions at all. The 20,756 people, for example, who saw that Edinburgh art sanctuary in the 2014-15 business year, will not be able to go back. Ever.
A great deal of my life is spent working with, and for, arts and education organisations who are in a constant state of having to prove themselves. They have to prove not only their financial viability (always held as the most important thing, depressingly), but also their expertise, their accessibility, their social validity, and their impact on the wider community. They are weighed in the balance, over and over again. They are pitted against other services, providers, methods, pay structures. They must demonstrate, with exhausting regularity, that they are ‘worth it’.
Apparently, neither Inverleith House nor most of Walsall’s cultural organisations are worth it. They are not vital. They are not crucial lifelines for people, places to meet, a chance at a different future through their educational potential, their bringing strangers together who share a passion for art, knitting, crime novels, or anything else. They are luxuries. The sort of paint-clad equivalents of handing out boxes of Milk Tray and bottles of bubble bath.
Rubbish. This is complete and utter rubbish.
One day each week – one very busy, and tremendously rewarding day a week – I work at London’s Foundling Museum. It’s a small, beautifully presented museum just around the corner from Russell Square and Great Ormond Street Hospital, and it stands as a tribute to the astonishing work of Thomas Coram, in establishing a place where abandoned children might find a home, an education, and hope for the future. (That mission lives on in the charity Coram, which is next door to the Museum.) When the Foundling Hospital first opened its doors, who was on hand to offer money and support? William Hogarth. He not only gave them time – as a governor – and cash, but also donated artworks and encouraged his colleagues to do the same. He made the Foundling Hospital into Britain’s first public art gallery. He knew that the opportunity to see such wonderful pieces on display would lure those who might in turn be persuaded to give to Coram’s cause. And it worked. Not long afterwards, George Frideric Handel also became a supporter of the Hospital, using his wealth and his creative abilities to help: he paid for the organ in the Hospital chapel, and conducted annual benefit performances of Messiah to raise funds, even leaving a score and parts to the Hospital in his will so that the tradition might continue. Over the course of the next 200 years, the Foundling Hospital cared for around 25,000 children. A few thousand more than the number of annual visitors to Inverleith House.
There are few people more eloquent in explaining the vital connection between the arts, culture and human compassion than the Foundling Museum’s director, Caro Howell – one of the many reasons why this is such an inspiring place to work. She is not only concerned to ensure that the story of those foundlings and artists past reach as many people as possible; but determined that artists and children should go on inspiring and supporting each other. The Museum runs art projects at Great Ormond Street, works with local schools, welcomes visitors from all around the world, and holds a staggeringly varied and high-profile series of exhibitions each year that bring together contemporary art, music, museum objects – and the stories of young people.
As the Foundling’s own history demonstrates so clearly, it is artists (in the broadest sense of the word) who step forward when things are bad. They seek to help, to communicate the reality of a terrible situation, to find ways to engage others through creativity and empathy. Art helps us think and understand the world. I was going to add in a few links here to art projects connected with The Jungle in Calais, but there are actually so many – so many volunteer projects, visits from artists, exhibitions and events bringing the message home – that I couldn’t fit them all in. Art at the Foundling quite literally saved lives, raising much-needed support to help vulnerable children. Hogarth, Henry Fielding and Daniel Defoe were all involved in campaigning for legal reforms in the mid-1700s, too, around the production of cheap gin that was causing major social problems across the UK and particularly in London. You remember Henry Fielding and Daniel Defoe? They wrote books. Of course, if you’re in Walsall, they might be a bit harder to come by now.
Yes, budgets are tight. Yes, the financial situation in this country is hugely uncertain due to Brexit and continued austerity measures. But to treat the arts as a luxury is to completely misunderstand them. They must be at the heart of school curricula if new generations are to stand any chance of understanding themselves, the world in which they live, and each other. Creative activities and pastimes should feature in all our lives, without question. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see press pieces on government ministers going to art galleries, libraries, theatres and concert halls? Like they actually wanted to engage with some of the amazing creative work that’s going on in this country? Like they cared, even if it wasn’t going to make us the richest nation in the world? Because lovely as all those creative industries value charts are, they’ve got damn all to do with why most of us engage with creative things.
So go on: I dare you. Get angry. Do something. Raise money for your local library, just because. Give an afternoon of your time to support an arts project that needs help. Support the National Literacy Trust. Give your old musical instruments to Don’t Stop the Music. Because if we don’t stand up and fight for it now, we are betraying generations of people who are going to lose the opportunity to explore their humanity through the most magical, moving, inspiring thing that humans have ever created. Art.