During the marketing stage of a solo show I held on the South Bank, a friend contacted a very well-known and respected gallery to invite them to the private view on my behalf. Their response, I quote ‘the problem with promoting young artists is that they have no history. So who her parents are and what they do is important. Why would you not go to art school?’.
Bizarre, if pedigree or in my case not-so-pedigree backgrounds are even mildly relevant here, it seems this person is in the wrong profession. Nevertheless, this insufferably elitist attitude is far more common than we care to admit and from my own experience as a working-class women of colour, navigating the art world has been rather demoralising at times.
Nick Morrison a journalist specialising in education spoke to Forbes in 2019 discussing the impact of government cuts on the arts. Unsurprisingly it seems the government’s budget cuts of artistic subjects are discouraging children from choosing the subject as well as teachers teaching them; ‘prompting fears they are increasingly being seen as an extravagance at a time when school budgets are facing an unprecedented squeeze.’ (Nick Morrison, 2019). One would assume the cuts would especially discourage children conscious of their socio-economic situation, as they are in a less privileged position to take risks or acquire exterior funding for equipment.
Two years on, a pandemic later, things have worsened. Exhausting Tory austerity coupled with tentacular, white, middle-class nepotism is making the future of working-class artists implausible. But 2020 was the year of championing diversity and inclusion I hear you say? Unfortunately, it seems a lot of inclusion schemes shouted about by trendy art houses have not scratched the surface. An official research report published in August 2020 claims that ‘despite growing awareness of the issue and action by business, government and industry stakeholders to promote greater inclusion, the likelihood of someone from a working-class background finding work in a creative occupation has remained largely unchanged since 2014’(NESTA). Begging the question, will galleries and artists in a position of power commit to real change or continue with performative gestures?
Opportunity and resources are basic requirements if you are to try and access the art industry. This brings me to my next point, a topic less spoken of: the gentrification of second-hand shops and its impact on working-class artistic means.
The question of second-hand shopping is multifaceted and complex. Often when we consider the gentrification of second-hand shops we think of the eco argument; the notion we need to stop shaming working-class people for buying from mainstream shops if the cheaper and ethical alternatives keep being claimed by bargain-hunting, wealthy, (from my experience) white folks. In recent years, many of my middle-class mates have begun to shop in charity shops and attend jumble sales and car boots. On the surface; this is progressive in many ways. We are pushing for better consumer and retail responsibility, supporting charitable causes is a good thing and we are being urged to buy less new. However, we must consider that this progression has wider implications. It has created its own problem with shops and car booters capitalising on the fact people will pay a lot for second-hand goods. The notion of buying cheap has been completely subverted with financially disadvantaged people unable to sustain the growing price of second-hand items.
How does this affect the arts? For some children, when they feel the flair or desire for adopting a new hobby or expanding their interests they are enabled financially and given the physical apparatus by their parents. This is not realistic for many families in the UK. Carboot sales and charity shops provide vital tools for children that come from financially limited backgrounds. Not only does it enable the means to gather and collect good quality equipment to experiment, learn and develop your craft, it also provides a guilt-free self-sufficiency. Emotional responsibility for your family can often come earlier in life for those aware of their financial difficulties, asking your struggling parents to support a potential cause that certainly does not have a good track record for success can be daunting. Second-hand equipment enables exploration into subjects whilst simultaneously ensuring no added financial pressure.
The Arts Council claim on their website ‘forging a career in the cultural and creative sectors isn’t easy, and research shows that if you’re not from a privileged background, you’re even less likely to succeed.’ A somewhat polite recalling of the obvious; our country has a void of working-class artists. I by no means wish to decry clearly talented middle-class artists that have floated through their careers at ease. However, due to the pandemic, the cultural sector is facing unprecedented change, the art world is crying out for diversity and as a collective we must all embrace a more inclusive and accessible future for the arts.