‘I mean, I distinctly remember one of the first times I went to a contemporary gallery…I was 17. I walked in the door and I was made to feel like a piece of shit.’ (anonymous)
‘Art & Class: Is everyone welcome?’, programmed by artist Rebecca Chesney as part of the series Into A Better Shape, aimed to unpick some of the issues around social class in the arts, particularly focusing on the visual arts. As Chesney described in her introduction to the event, class is a messy subject; tricky to define and quantify, and therefore difficult to discuss. Being working class is about more than financial circumstances, though that is certainly a huge concern. Chesney made the case that galleries who perpetuate the culture of unpaid and low-paid work in the sector are actively discriminating against working class people.
As well as money, class is also about background, education, profession, tastes, language and so much more. Some say that working in the arts at all means you are middle class. Framing the event around the idea of being ‘welcome’ was a good way in to a difficult topic. There are some people who, thankfully, have surely never felt as horribly unwelcome in a public arts space as the person quoted at the beginning of this article – a black, female British curator, artist and writer, interviewed for the 2018 report ‘Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries’. What is it that makes the arts such an exclusive club?
Sociologist Dr Dave O’Brien, co-author of the ‘Panic!’ report, provided a helpful scene-setter by interrogating some of the paper’s statistics. O’Brien quoted a DCMS ‘Taking Part’ survey which found that, with the exception of cinema, not engaging with the arts is the norm for the majority of the British population. Just 19% of respondents had visited an art exhibition in the past year, dropping as low as 3% with contemporary dance. The ‘Panic!’ report also confirmed the stereotype of the arts as a left-wing, liberal arena, with its workers occupying the far end of both these political scales in comparison with other sectors. It was a timely reminder, as the ramifications of the Brexit referendum play out, that the arts is a bubble. This was borne out by a diagram showing the narrow social circles of those working in the sector. If a large section of the population doesn’t consume art, or share its values, these are significant barriers to face up to and tackle.
Marlene Smith, an artist and curator, gave a thoughtful and intimate response to the question of who is and isn’t welcome, illustrated by photographs of her own life, as well as her practice. She mined an image of a herself as a little girl on a family trip to Weston-super-Mare in the 1970s for meanings, producing her own set of personal statistics, in contrast to the academic data of the ‘Panic!’ report, on her mother’s situation at that point. 12 years of NHS nursing and incalculable night shifts; 10 years of parents’ evenings; 1 year of having a child old enough that she needed, as a black mother, to worry about stop and search. Smith described how, for her, social class is intertwined with race and gender in creating ‘thresholds’ that have been present throughout her entire career, and that are shared by the young artists of colour she works with now.
Rebecca Davies spoke about her work as a socially engaged artist, working on a number of participatory community projects. Her extensive work in the distinctly unglitzy 1960s Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre in South East London shone a defiant and celebratory light on its many independent South American and Caribbean traders. Davies is also co-creator of the Oasis Social Club, a touring project in the tradition of working men’s clubs. It was a delightful surprise to hear that it was inspired by a residency at the Hen Lane Social Club in Coventry, a stone’s throw from my childhood home and one of my dad’s old haunts. Davies is keen that her projects are not just entertaining, but also serve a useful purpose – providing participants with a platform to discuss important issues such as housing and social spaces, and tooling them up to get involved in conversations with those who hold the power to effect change.
Artist William Titley shared extracts from a work in progress, about the movie ‘Whistle Down the Wind’ which was filmed in Pendle in 1961. He has invited members of the local community to describe what they could remember of the film, and re-stage one of its key scenes. The video snippets screened were warm and often funny, and also a reminder that regional accents are not commonplace in contemporary art galleries. Titley’s artwork, like Davies’ and Smith’s, is shaped by his working class background. It would be wrong to suggest that art can only be appreciated if you have a direct connection with it, but surely a greater diversity of voices producing art can only be a good thing for broadening the audiences who come to experience it.
Mike Pinnington and Laura Robertson, co-founders of The Double Negative online arts magazine, talked about the importance of hearing directly from working class people. Inspired by burgeoning conversations around class in the arts – in particular, an interview Pinnington conducted with working class artist Larry Achiampong, who stated, ‘I can be frank: class is such a big deal’ – they invited readers to share their own experiences via the series ‘Class IS a Big Deal’. I contributed my own piece, with no small amount of trepidation; I’d never written anything personal for public consumption before. Robertson articulated some of these concerns – about being seen to have a chip on your shoulder, for example – and hoped the series would help ‘give permission’ for these voices to be speak and be heard. As Smith observed, race and gender can’t be hidden, and are often uncomfortably foregrounded. Class, however, can be internalised; but what impact does this have?
At the end of the evening, an audience member asked a pertinent question: where do we go from here? Speaking up and starting conversations is important, but will change follow? O’Brien was pessimistic. His research points to an overconfidence in meritocracy, something touched on by several other speakers; those who are most successful in the arts are also most likely to believe this is a result of merit, rather than any social advantage, and therefore least likely to recognise problems relating to class. He views museums as historically prejudiced institutions, slow to embrace lasting change. Others were more hopeful; Pinnington, a former employee of a large arts institution, had witnessed a recognition, albeit not universal, of the need to better represent audiences through its programming. Smith was similarly cautiously optimistic – those in positions of power ultimately decide who is welcome, but she believes change is possible. Hopefully, the increasing discussions from working class voices in the arts will be a catalyst for taking the next steps toward that.
Denise Courcoux is an arts writer based in Merseyside. Her interests include issues of class in the arts, popular culture in visual art, and artist-curators. She has written for publications including The Double Negative, Corridor8 and The University of Manchester’s Institute for Cultural Practices blog. She is one of The Double Negative’s Fellows for 2018, and her commissioned piece on Liverpool’s public art is due to be published in a forthcoming book. Denise has worked in museums and galleries for over ten years, and has an MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies. Denise will be documenting the event.