On a sunny evening in June, a small group of us gathered next to the Flagpole by the Jubilee Gardens on the Southbank. We had come for a personal tour by architect Mark Power (Mark Power Architects) of the newly built public loos as a departure point for our discussion on whether it is the need that dictates the art, or the art that dictates its content and form. In short, with a warm breeze rolling in from the river behind us, we were ready to thrash out the meaning of Art and its place in society. No small feat for a Thursday night.
As we were lead inside, I believe we were all a bit awed to discover how much careful research and thought had gone into the design of what are, essentially, toilets. Mark showed us early concept drawings, and explained how the themes of theatre, recreation, and the working life of the Thames were integral to the location and the building. Musings on the tide, Shakespeare, the shape of barges, and the collection of rainwater for a sustainable flushing system, have all found their way into the architectural structure. After such a splendid tour, I don’t think any of us will ever use a public convenience in quite the same way again.
Moving on to the Royal Festival Hall for our discussion, the Jubiloo made us reflect on how essential the arts are in our everyday life and, as we learned more about the process of the toilet’s construction, how we all, as working artists, struggle to strike the balance between money criteria and the integrity of our work. Sharing our experiences, we discovered that no matter if it was acting, writing, filmmaking, visual arts, or architecture, the difficulties in finding ways to fund our arts affect us in similar ways.
Our group FAG (an RSA network for fellows who are artists), was following the RSA pamphlet on the arts funding published last year. Several of us were disheartened by its argument that emphasised an instrumental use of the arts, and found that it regurgitated an instrumental understanding of our field, so often found in commissioners, managers, and government officials, where art and utility are easily confused.
Instead, we wanted to refigure the debate to include the artists’ point of view, and soon found that we shared a frustration in having to adapt our art to fit the rigorous boxes of public funders, or the whimsical ideas of private commissioners (could anyone ever forget those Union Jack those toilet lids!), habitually trying to force the perennial round peg into a square whole. Our debate covered funding, cash-flow challenges, questions of rigid notions of identity (can you only make art from the perspective as a member of a particular community?), and the (dwindling) right to keep control of any intellectual property rights.
FAG plans to have a follow-up meeting in October to dig deeper into some of the questions raised, and hopefully come up with some ways we can tackle these challenges. If you are a Fellow and an artist, or just have an interest in these issues, we would be delighted to have you join us for our next discussion.
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