What I didn’t do in September 

By Una Walker, Northern Ireland


Avoidance activity can take many forms. Some people watch cricket, others gamble online, I play fantasy cultural conference – it’s a bit like fantasy football league, you can pick and choose the best and worst of the various upcoming conferences being held around the world to better our lot as artists, and the beauty is, you don’t have to sit through them. These are two of the best and worst I didn’t attend in September.


I didn’t get to discuss the question “Is it a contradiction in terms to expect public funds to commission artistic autonomy?” at the a-n think-tank “Social Space – dynamics of artists’ practice in the social realm”.

Originally called Artists Newsletter, A-N Magazine is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and marking the occasion with the publication of a series of pamphlets under the heading of Future Forecast. The aim of these publications is to “focus discussion on the pros and cons of future frameworks and expectations for artists”. A forum to debate the issues raised has been organised following the publication of each of the pamphlets. I had been invited to take part in the think-tank to discuss points raised in the Social Space publication researched by Becky Shaw. (I couldn’t attend because of travelling to Poland for the Site-ations project covered elsewhere in this issue. Sorry to have missed this.).


In the 8 years since the election of the Labour government artists in the UK appear to have been polarised – you can either be toilers in Tony’s vineyard, bringing in the harvest of the socially excluded (the many) or contributors to the gross national income through sales (the few). In reality, many (most?) artists fall outside of these categories, struggling to make sense of and engage with the contradictions and uncertainties around them. I hope the Social Space think-tank managed to begin mapping this activity and providing conceptual frameworks for future work.


It is ironic that while artists were dealing with the lived reality of their practice in Birmingham on the 13 – 14 September, an altogether different cultural event was about to get underway just up the motorway In Manchester and Liverpool which I also didn’t attend.


The Catalyst Conference (15 – 17 Sept) was organised as a contribution to the UK’s Presidency of the EU. “Catalyst” may not communicate much, but at least its more appealing than the turgid programme headings –  “European Cultural Entitlement through citizenship and learning”; “European Cultural Entitlement through Development and Regeneration”; “European Cultural Entitlement through Values and Society”; and (finally) “European Cultural Entitlement - from Policy to Practice”. The organisers pointed out that ‘cultural entitlement’ was a term being used in the UK but not common elsewhere in Europe – they obviously intended changing that, if only through repetition.


If this event had turned up in fantasy cultural conferences, nobody would have voted for it. The opening day consisted of two “mirrored” conferences in Manchester and Liverpool, requiring bifurcation if you wanted to pick and choose speakers. From 9:30 to 4:30 topics were to be addressed in unremitting five or ten minute segments. Among the many topics addressed by both parts of the conference “The Creative Class” (10 mins) looked like the most relevant to artists.  In Manchester this had the subtitle “treating practitioners as professionals” and addressed the question “What infrastructures, networks and models of professional development are required for cultural and educational practitioners to work more effectively and have a greater influence on policy?”  In Liverpool it was subtitled “citizenship, learning and the cultural workforce” and I can only be thankful that I missed it.


It is a truism that the most useful part of most cultural get-to-gethers happens during breaks. Pity then the people attending the Manchester conference, who, during lunch were treated to “a short reflection…of how the day’s key issues can be addressed by governments across Europe” by David Lammy MP. It is to be hoped that not too many of Europe’s ministers of culture choked on their lunch.


During the following 2 days, according to the timetable, the pace was due to slow down considerably, in fact slow down so much as to be almost stopped. Why, after the hectic pace of the previous day, was Benjamin Zander allocated 2 hours for his keynote address?  Maybe because the organisers expected that the politicians and policy makers would all leave after the first day leaving the practitioners to talk amongst themselves.


Anyone else wanting to play fantasy cultural conference need only log onto Euclid’s Cultural Conference Diary. According to this I missed no less than 17 international cultural conferences in September. It is wonderful to think of the diligence with which the politician and policymakers devote themselves to our welfare. In the meantime I’m looking forward to missing the World Summit on Arts and Culture in Gateshead next year.


Belfast, October 2005




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