"Art for art's sake is no longer an option"

| by Lyn Gardner

Tags: Culture after Brexit series Arts and disability Cultural diversity Dance International collaboration Theatre

Exploring the arts, inclusion and Brexit, IETM Hull was a wake-up call, says Lyn Gardner. If the arts sector fails to diversify and engage more people across social divisions, it's in danger of becoming irrelevant. Part of our Culture after Brexit series

Image of Middle Child Theatre in Us Against WhateverHull based theatre company Middle Child in Us Against Whatever, a love letter to the city of Hull performed in both Polish and English. Photo: Sam Taylor

It's the last weekend of March, and on the North East coast of England Hull is sparkling in early spring sunshine. At Hull Truck Theatre, delegates are gathering for the plenary meeting of a huge European culture network, IETM.

Recent IETM events have been held in Munich, Porto, Brussels and Bucharest. So coming to Hull – a place which is still haunted by once being voted the UK's "most crap town" – is a welcome act of faith in the city which feels as if it is in the act of reinventing itself.

UK City of Culture 

Hull is still basking in the halo effect of being UK City of Culture 2017.  The city has embraced the idea that the arts can be part of everyone's lives, whoever they are and whatever background they come from.

Steve Brady, leader of Hull City Council, tells the opening session proudly that 97% of Hull’s population took part in cultural events in 2017. In part that’s because the City of Culture went to them and didn’t expect them to trek to it. It’s something that great international arts festivals such as Edinburgh could learn from if they are to maintain funding and relevance.

The question is: how do you sustain that momentum in opening up culture and embedding it in the everyday life of a city? Being a UK or European City of Culture can provide an injection of funding, optimism and engagement, but it’s not a magic wand. It is the long hard slog that continues after the last firework has burst and the crowds have gone home that brings about longterm transformation.

Liverpool, 100 miles away in the North West, has proved that. It was European City of Culture over 10 years ago. The city was heavily hit by austerity imposed following the financial crash. Yet the council's commitment to investing in culture has ensured the arts industry has played a significant role in the story the city tells about itself. This has resulted in a palpable sense of confidence and ambition for Liverpool and those who live there.

Increasingly, those working in the arts – from cultural policymakers to tiny independent companies – understand that if we are to be a mechanism for change, the arts sector itself must change too. 'Everyone and Anyone' was the title for IETM Hull: a recognition that perhaps the arts industry has not always created places where everyone can feel at home and anyone's voice can be heard.

"The arts can be part of everyone's lives, whoever they are and whatever background they come from"

Everyone and anyone was the theme at IETM Hull.Everyone and Anyone was the theme at IETM Hull 2019. Photo: Thomas Arran


But there is another reason why IETM Hull felt important. It took place over three days that included the 29 March 2019. That was the date when the UK had been due to leave the EU, following the 2016 referendum in which the country narrowly voted for Brexit. Although it wasn’t a narrow decision in Hull, a city where 70% voted to leave.

In the end, Brexit was delayed. Yet the presence of so many artists and cultural leaders from Europe and beyond felt like a generous act of solidarity. As Arts Council England’s Darren Henley stressed in a welcoming speech: “We are open for business and you are very welcome in our country.”

UK companies and arts institutions have been lead partners on around a third of projects supported by the EU through Creative Europe. In Hull, delegates from many countries told me that if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal, the pain will not only be felt by UK arts organisations but also by those far away. They have admired the thinking and practice going on in UK arts, particularly around diversity – Britain has often been an innovator in inclusion in the arts. While UK arts has plenty to learn from practice abroad, it also has plenty to give. 

"The arts sector has failed to really address the social divisions that the Brexit vote highlighted"

Fat Blokes by Scottee at ACCA in Brighton Rosie Powell photographyFat Blokes by Scottee, an LGBTQ+ artist with no formal education, formed part of the IETM Hull artistic programme. Photo: Rosie Powell

Arts and inclusion

The artistic programme at IETM Hull reflected that with performances that ranged from Face In/Let's Talk about Dis from Candoco, the dance company made up of disabled and non-disabled artists, to Fat Blokes by queer, working class artist Scottee. There were shows about mental health (Silent Uproar's A Super Happy Story About Feeling Super Sad) and about how we might work together to make decisions (Kaleider's gloriously slippery The Money). In none of these pieces was aesthetic compromised by accessibility.

The UK arts industry has been thinking a great deal about diversity, equality, inclusion and its civic responsibilities. The last few years have seen significant changes around who gets to tell their stories and in which spaces. However, the paradox of IETM Hull is that the industry played little role in the Brexit debate and had almost no influence upon it.

With a few exceptions, the arts sector has failed to really address the social divisions that the Brexit vote highlighted, either on stage or within its own buildings and workforce. With similar divisions apparent across Europe and populism on the rise, this is a failing that needs to be urgently addressed – not just by arts in the UK, but across the whole of the EU.

It can no longer be business as usual for the arts. If the arts sector of any country is to play a role in the daily lives of its citizens and in public debate, then things must change. This point is driven home by keynote speaker Sade Brown, whose organisation Sour Lemons addresses the lack of diversity in cultural and social leadership. She observes that arts institutions and audiences for the arts must “look like all taxpayers”. Because all taxpayers pay for the arts, even if they never engage with them.

"The arts must look like all tax payers"

While pointing to the fact that “onstage diversity is often just a sticking plaster”, Brown suggests that as the arts industry changes its own narrative it could “also change the narrative for other people”. Or as arts activist and theatremaker Jess Thom of Touretteshero puts it: “Access is not a task to complete. It is a process.” One that never stops.

Occasionally at IETM Hull I was part of conversations in which the artist’s vision felt prioritised over the questions of who has access and who doesn’t. Some fear does persist that artists could be led by funders’ diversity agendas rather than their own passions. However, anyone who saw the shows in the artistic programme would be confident that the artists were making work they wanted to make. And there is a new understanding that the arts industry cannot stay in its liberal bubble and that art for art’s sake is no longer an option. It must be art for all our sakes.

Particularly in an increasingly bracing funding climate. But there was also a realisation that there is a funding sweet spot where what is important to artists can align with what is important to a wider community. That they can work together and be true collaborators. Diversity enriches the creative pool and brings creative advantages when it is embedded throughout an entire organisation like lettering through a stick of rock. 

And it's not just about funders – maybe sometimes it's artists who need to get out of the way. This can allow people in local communities to self-organise and to create space to use as they wish, sometimes co-creating with artists and sometimes creating their own art. 

"Taking place in a city that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit, IETM Hull served as a wake-up call" 

Fountains in Hull's Queen Victoria squareFountains light up Hull's Queen Victoria Square during its tenure as UK City of Culture 2017. Photo: Neil Nicklin

Inspirational examples

Whereas many traditional arts spaces are exclusionary, new civic cultural spaces offer a different vision and way of working which responds to local need. La Tabacalera, a former tobacco factory in downtown Madrid – as described in a session on civic spaces and cultural democracy – is a self-organised community in which music, art, theatre, dance, health services and legal advice are all part of the offer.

The international movement Fun Palaces, co-founded in the UK by Stella Duffy, offers another model. “The arts are always saying they want to be for all the people, but Fun Palaces are made by all the people,” explained Duffy. Fun Palaces take place in local communities and are organised by those who know their community and reflect its diversity. Like Tabacalera, Fun Palaces is a cultural initiative that is collaborative, self-sustaining and democratic. As Duffy says: “I am not leading, I’m supporting other people to lead.”

Taking place in a city that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit, IETM Hull served as a wake-up call. If the arts sector fails to diversify and engage more people, it is in danger of becoming irrelevant. The arts industry needs to take the lead less and listen more. As one delegate put it, nobody working in the arts in Hungary knows anyone who voted for Victor Orbán and nobody in UK arts knows anyone who voted for Brexit.

But there are exceptions, like local Hull company Middle Child. In Us Against Whatever, the company showed us a popular piece of music theatre performed in English and Polish which examines the beating, bleeding heart of Hull. It is a love letter to the city and its people, its different communities, its contradictions, its frustrations, its optimism and its pain. It is also a great night out. What makes it all the more thrilling is that its makers have really listened to the people of Hull, creating a show which doesn't judge but which gives the unheard a voice. 

On the night of 29 March, as the clock ticked towards midnight, Middle Child held a post-show discussion:

“From day one we knew that there was no point in making a play which everyone sitting in the audience would agree with. And throughout the play there will be moments when some will agree, and some disagree. We were also aware that everyone is suffering from Brexit fatigue. But we felt that we had to tackle it and look people in the eye and say: ‘How did we get here to this moment and what are we going to do about it?’ We need to have a conversation about the divisions and Us Against Whatever is trying to be part of that conversation.”

"Everyone is suffering from Brexit fatigue" 

Us Against Whatever 1 Photo by Sam TaylorMiddle Child's Us Against Whatever gives a voice to unheard people of Hull. Photo: Sam Taylor

What next?

Writer Maureen Lennon reminds us that while the arts can bring transformation, cities also need sustained, longterm investment of all kinds: financial, social and cultural.

“Being City of Culture has been great for Hull but it hasn’t solved Hull’s problems. It has helped give us a new identity, made the rest of the country look at us differently. But unless there is more money and investment in Hull, people will still be living in deprivation and still be feeling forgotten.”

The question for theatre and the arts is: how are we going to address this, both in Hull and in the rest of Europe?


Lyn Gardner is Associate Editor of The Stage, has written about performance for The Guardian and The Independent, reviews for the Stagedoor app, and is an author of children’s books. @lyngardner

This feature is part of Culture after Brexit – a conversation, curated by the British Council, about the future of the cultural relationship between the UK and the European Union after Britain exits the EU.



Find out more:

Join the next IETM in Rijeka, Croatia

> Read more from Lyn Gardner about IETM Hull

> Discover more about Hull's City of Culture legacy


Follow the Culture after Brexit series:

> Visual arts in Greece: "We are the hares running in front of the dogs"

> Greek theatre: "Culture has always been crisis in Greece"

> Circus: "The future of circus is social"

> Playwrights: What draws British playwrights to Europe?

> Artsadmin: Two insider views on how Brexit will affect UK arts

> Tim Etchells: "When we first went to Europe we found another world"

> Edinburgh: Will Edinburgh continue to be a marketplace for European theatre?

 > Holland Festival: What does theatre have to say about democracy?

> Ruth Mackenzie: "There's an awful lot of British theatre I couldn't programme"

> Lyn Gardner: Making a new future at the Holland Festival

> Outdoor arts: "We need to keep the traffic between the UK and Europe"




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