Blog post by Frances Williams, PGR policy correspondent for the Art of Devolution Conference.

Director of the Whitworth, Maria Balshaw, began her keynote speech at the conference, The Art of Devolution: Culture and the North, by quoting at length from an editorial in The Guardian.[1]

Journalist Charlotte Higgins surmised only good things from the re-launch of the Whitworth. Balshaw repeated Higgins positive affirmation: ‘There is an understanding in Manchester that investment in culture makes it a better place to live for all.’[2]

Here then, was a case of democratic and economics values working in harmony, the reporting of which was presented back to us as evidence that ‘something is going right.’ Balshaw admitted she could not have put the narrative any better herself. She was also wise enough, in front of this mixed audience of other Manchester-based arts professionals, to admit that while the editorial matched her own best self-description, ‘our best days are not always our every days.’[3]

I, for one though, was sad not to hear her set out her vision and commitments through her own account instead of through the reflections of a correspondent who had visited Manchester overnight from London. It felt like a tautology was being performed: hearing what we wish to hear as a means of making it happen.

Marketing may depend on such fictions. But such discursive short-circuits are a result of the arts sector’s painfully weak capacity to reflect meaningfully on itself, with itself, in relation to its role in society. It is as though the common language for this task simply isn’t available, forcing the employment of substitutions, or the use others people’s words as one’s own. Any shared language of learning or critique has been pushed so very far underground as to become barely audible.

Perhaps Balshaw was merely seeking to be modest. Yet my own long experience of seeing the arts sector struggle to justify itself on many public fronts – funding ones in particular – suggests there is something worth questioning here about a strategy of always putting one’s ‘best self-forward.’[4]

Habitual self-justification amongst arts bodies has become so engrained as to become actively corrosive. If arts bodies only offer best accounts of themselves to each other, let alone wider publics, there is a risk that everyone will grow more skeptical, not less, about the kinds of claims it makes on their behalf. More creative, diverse and representative forms of exchange must be allowed by which we speak and are listened to (not just ‘voting with feet’ – or bums that refuse to sit on seats – or through any inability to stick hands into pockets for any financial ‘return’).

Other exchanges are surely possible. The lack of serious discourse amongst arts management is a kind of poverty in itself. Curiously, it takes place in the very same artworld, over-populated by artists all too aware of the politics of representation, with critics incessantly debating the terms and conditions of their own Conversation Pieces.[5] Why do these conversations refuse to add-up?

To be fair, Balshaw argued that in order for the Northern Powerhouse to be successful, there needed to be ‘less suspicion and more honesty’ with tensions aired and ‘disagreements taking place in the same room.’[6]

Yet she and other powerful delegates (including Darren Henley of Arts Council England) did indeed appear to leave both their seats and the room once they had spoken, preventing them from listening to what any of the other (less-rich, less powerful) delegates had to say.

These kinds of ‘expert panels’ cannot provide formats conducive to any real debate. Neither are large peer-audiences necessarily the kinds of forum one wants to raise a hand to ask an awkward question. (Some brave souls did try, but many others used it as an opportunity to self-announce, echoing Balshaw’s own reverberating pitch).

This left open the option of the tweet, a very public, yet under-the-table form of parallel commentary (an option taken up by Ben Walmsley: ‘I am thinking that if the Northern Powerhouse is going to work for everyone then its power must be much more evenly distributed’).[7] This form of marginilia, which so often borders the illicit, now suffices as the major artery for communication.

There is a risk that orthodox vehicles for ‘conversation’ can only prove divisive if they cast individuals as either (outside) trouble-makers or (insider) loyalists. Indeed, there was much spoken at this event about demarcation as a form of exclusion. Did delegates have to actively opt out, or opt in, to the Northern Powerhouse brand? One delegate confessed he found it problematic to be told that the Northern Powerhouse could mean anything that anyone wanted it to mean. ‘What meaning could it have then? None!’

Despite polite conviviality an air of prohibition pervaded. There was just so much one couldn’t say, say here, or say now. Henley, for example, announced that he had simply ‘banned the word subsidy’ in favour of ‘investment.’[8]

His injunction didn’t stop a few delegates later using the word, even daring to believe in its social currency, but its repeated mention was, by this time, well out of the earshot of the departed Chief Executive.

No wonder there was so much talk-before-the-talks of which ‘hats’ delegates were wearing as they spoke (‘three and none’ in the case of Balshaw). Such forms of ‘hiding in plain sight’ seem sadly necessary for anyone taking a position in this public realm. The gaps between different panels weren’t just temporal, as David Stevenson observed, but worlds apart: ‘The case studies of local place based activity seem totally alien to the doublespeak of panel one.’[9]

The conference ended on a ‘performance’ by Manchester Left Writers which involved a group reciting various contrasting texts. The four speakers lined-up on stage and all talked at the same time, making listening impossible, save for one or two repeated ‘buzz’ words. ‘Connectivity.’ ‘Authenticity.’ ‘Place-shaping.’[10] As commentary goes, this performance seemed pretty apt and not so removed, in the least, from the linguistic power-dynamics of the conference itself.

Endnotes

[1] Editorial. “The Guardian view of cultural cities: Manchester shows the way.” The Guardian, 16 February 2015.

[2] Maria Balshaw, Keynote presented at the Art of Devolution conference, Manchester, 14 June 2016.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Frances Williams, “Cohesion or Conflict?Arts Professional, 19 February 2015.

[5] Grant Kester. Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. (Oakland: University of California Press, 2004).

[6] Maria Balshaw, Keynote presented at the Art of Devolution conference, Manchester, 14 June 2016.

[7] Ben Walmsley Twitter post, 14 June 2016, 3:55 p.m.

[8] Darren Henley, Paper presented on ‘How best to invest in Northern art and culture’ panel at the Art of Devolution conference, Manchester, 14 June 2016.

[9] David Stevenson Twitter post, 14 June 2016, 3:40 p.m.

[10] Manchester Left Writers. ‘Cacophony,’ performance presented at the Art of Devolution conference, Manchester, 14 June 2016.