A recent article on The Stage's website began: 'Arts practitioners have raised concerns about the government’s plans to give the public more say in how funding is allocated, warning that such a move would favour “populist” art work at the expense of “quality, diversity and risk taking” in the sector. ' It was bridging off a new publication on Participatory Budgeting And The Arts. It brought on one of my not infrequent 'get over yourself' moments.
Participatory budgeting is a fairly horrible-sounding term for giving people control of budgets - usually small ones at local level. It's beginning to be used by local government in the UK, though so far the community development use of the actual process is often as important as the actual budgeting decisions. Some places have experimented with supporting arts projects in this way, and there are examples in the report. It's an interesting and challenging read, which looks at potential scenarios if the process is more widely adopted. The report also makes some recommendations for how to encourage best use of participatory budgeting. Key to this are communication and good information, clarity about need and outcomes, making time for learning and using the 'tool' appropriately.
There are clearly threats to the arts as well as opportunities in this way of deciding funding, and it's not a simple thing to do. Finding a way to talk about what an arts project actually is, and what it does or could do, is really key to this. Of course I feel frustrated when the populist vote seem to choose the mediocre and avoid what I think is brilliant, via the participatory budgeting called 'consumption'. But that's their choice and who, ultimately, am I to say that they're not getting out of their choice what I get out of mine? I'm only depressed by people who make no choices at all - though I'm not sure i know any.
If we can find better ways of talking about the wide variety of things people mean when we talk about “quality, diversity and risk taking”, avoiding our arts jargon, the public will make informed choices, albeit different ones perhaps than those schooled in curation and production. Tools can then be developed which support this - such as small grants schemes for localities, or Own Art-style interest-free loan schemes for customers, or free/discounted ticket schemes - that then support the public rather than the provider. Information, discussion and good communication can then do what time usually does and give the public ways of understanding and enjoying what at first seems bizarre, bad or 'arty-farty'. (I mean the way things move in from the margins over decades until they become the mainstream.)
One final thought: if 'arts practitioners' really have so little faith in the people we live with and amongst - the people we are - that we really think the public are currently incapable of being part of this kind of discussion without simply picking 'populist' rubbish, how do we change that?