Our 'great art for everyone' conference at The Sage Gateshead this week was really stimulating - and gratifying, as the debate was exactly the sort we are trying to encourage. 160 people there were able to debate what the hell 'great art for everyone' might mean for them, with very little defensiveness or weariness, and with a lot of humour, understanding, challenge and creativity.
Questions were raised about ‘great’ – who decides, why does it need to be great, what values does that carry, how can you know without years of hindsight?. And about ‘art’ – do people know what they enjoy can be classified as ‘art’, especially when the Active people survey rings, is it on off-putting term? And about ‘everyone’ – does the Arts Council mean everyone-all-the-time, does it mean things with small audiences are not valid, does everyone have to enjoy great art? (The answer to those at least is No in every case.)
As I said (smilingly) in my closing remarks, a shameful lack of attention was paid to the word ‘for’ in the Arts Council’s mission. I drew attention to the idea of great art for everyone not as provision and uptake-or-neglect but as gift or exchange. (I was drawing on ideas from Lewis Hyde’s great book The Gift.) If we see what happens when art happens as an exchange between artist and audience, and between audience and artist, which commerce may complicate but not fundamentally destroy, perhaps the issues around the other words become clearer - and less disabling. Think of the end of a performance when the conductor, the singer, the dancer thanks the audience, and the audience thank them. That’s often an emotional climax to the evening – precisely because of the mutual exchange I (perhaps overstretching!) suggested is implied in the little word ‘for’. If it’s not mutual, there’s something important missing from the 'great art' and 'everyone' ends of the equation.
Anyway, it was a great day, though my brain was rather struggling to contain the stimulus by the end of the day, when I went over to Northern Stage be rehearsed for giving out the Arts Council Award at The Journal Culture Awards. I managed to walk and carry a trophy at the same time, and happily present it the AV Festival 08, and then engaged in some highly unstrategic enjoying myself.