Measuring the Arts? That's like telling a spanner to be more fragrant. It's a nonsense because it ignores the essence of what things are. And yet, every time we apply for Arts funding that's exactly what we have to do. We have to apply outcomes to our endeavour and to fully quantify those outcomes; tickets sold, people of this or that group helped, number of ethnic minorities involved.
We live in a world of project planning, goal-setting, objectives and targets. The evaluation of our success then is “measured” against those targets. For decades now it's all we've heard, at work, in our health system and our schools.
The problem is that, in this quantification, there is no room for non-conformity or greyness. The only choice it leaves those on the margins is to change or drop out. If that feels like a harsh or revolutionary view just look around – expulsions from our schools are soaring, the homeless fill our streets, the elderly live in decimating isolation. They don't fit the matrix, they're squeezed out of the quantified whole.
The Arts really don't fit of course. In tough times Arts funding goes first. We kind of accept it. Communities get used to living with no music, performance or beauty in their midst. As individuals, we understand that if we want to make a living we have to turn to something more “useful” or “saleable”.
So artists do their best. Oh, you can tot up audience figures, calculate demographics and social groups reached but how does that really measure that moment when a youngster from the local estate discovers Art for the first time and knows in searing recognition and hope that an artist is what he truly is. Or the shining glow of visibility bestowed on someone properly heard and integrated into a community happening. These things are not subject to measure and, worse still, the attempt to quantify potentially corrupts and negates them.
Let the Arts BE
Instead, consider instead the fluidity of this alternative vision.
Let's allow Art to be supported, created, commissioned and developed by the people it serves. You could see the continuum as a kind of creative water-cycle. High up in the rapids it's the artists job to jump on and enjoy the ride. When community energy wants to meander and soak up influences from elsewhere then, dear artists, lie back and float. When it becomes ethereal, vaporous and rises into the heavens then spread your own arms, turn your face to the sun and rise with it - and then rain down the product of your co-creativity in glory, without discrimination and in Gift. Feeding the whole cycle, allowing it to go around again.
That's how a community-led arts project should happen. Let it BE, Funders. Stop dredging, diverting, culverting the flow with your directives, strategies and objectives – that is not Art.
So, yes, I will continue to ask our community to gift-it-forward into their own square kilometre (#Squilometre) so they can watch the transformative power of their gift as it goes around and around and I won't be applying for large-scale funding any time soon.
What is more sustainable, afterall, than my unending gratitude to the wonderful people who have come along to our shows, voted for the next one and popped something into the hat to make it possible. Than my pleasure in making friends with people who already devote themselves to teaching and guiding the young people of our community - St Michael's CofE Academy and 2nd Exeter Scouts and to support the elderly and those in poor-health - Friends of the Heavitree Health Centre, to uncover the richness of our shared heritage – Heavitree Local History Society and Friends of Higher Cemetery and to develop it's open spaces for community benefit – Park Life Heavitree and the Heavitree Community Association.
So take a look at what you think is meant by economic sustainability. Glance again at your project plan, your targets and objectives. Especially if you are an artist, take a moment to reflect upon the constraint of measure-ability upon your practice. Embrace instead the opportunity to bow into service, join the flow of community will. It doesn't mean you have to agree with everything you see and hear. An an artist, it's your job to highlight, reflect, focus and define – good and bad – so that positive change can happen. That is why your community needs you!
BE an artist. Embrace the flow.
JoJo Spinks is a Westcountry writer in love with her landscape and her life. She is a founding member of Interwoven Productions CIC and the creator of the Squilometre tool for sustainable community engagement. JoJo writes here on landscape, art, community animation and working in the gift,