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Looking North: The Arts Ecology in Manchester

Rogue 3

After Maximo Caminero, an artist from Florida, deliberately smashed a vase that was part of an installation by Ai Weiwei at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, he made the following statement to the Miami New Times: 

”I did it for all the local artists in Miami that have never been shown in museums here. They have spent so many millions now on international artists. It’s the same political situation over and over again. I’ve been here for 30 years and it’s always the same.”

In a recent Open Letter to the Curators of Manchester: http://www.manchesterconfidential.co.uk/Culture/Open-Letter-To-City-Curators-And-Exhibition-Programmers, 89 artists (and counting) made a similar claim. In this article, MIRIAD researcher David Gledhill, one of the authors of the letter, scrutinizes the arts ecology of the North and discusses what he sees as a ‘severe blockage’.


Looking North

Greater Manchester is incredibly rich in first class art schools, group studios and artist-led initiatives. It has one of the most resourceful and innovative visual art scenes in the UK.

But there is a severe blockage in the regional visual arts ecology and a growing chasm between the artist-led and museum sectors. Manchester is losing ground to Liverpool, Leeds and Glasgow as the UK’s best city for artists outside London.

What’s the problem?

Our major public funded venues do far too little to support, promote and exhibit regional emerging, mid and late-career artists that have chosen to live and work here. As a result it’s very hard for artists to reach wider audiences, with the inevitable result of a loss of cultural prestige for the region and a loss of talent to the South.

In Manchester we have no visual arts biennial, no open submission art competitions, no Manchester art prize, no purchase schemes or residency programmes at our major galleries, and there hasn’t been an inclusive survey exhibition of Manchester artists in a public funded space since ‘Thermo 03’ at the Lowry in 2003, and that was in Salford! Needless to say, one-person shows by Manchester based artists in public galleries here are extremely infrequent.

Manchester artists have the work; the big venues have the space. But at the moment you’re more likely to see work by Manchester artists in London or abroad than in Manchester.

This would sound like another artist’s complaint if it wasn’t for the fact that public money is involved and some kind of accountability is overdue.

Why is this happening?

A large part of the problem lies with the Arts Council criteria that all their funded organisations have to stick to. These criteria talk a lot about excellence whilst admitting that this is a contested term, that there are many different views about excellence. They talk about diversity, even aesthetic diversity, while admitting that there’s a long way to go in this area and in the meantime encouraging collaboration with the private, commercial sector. As we know from other public services such as health and education, where there is any doubt about quality, the market will end up setting the criteria. The commercial sector pushes in.

So what’s wrong with the commercial sector?

The commercial art world is based on exclusion. As Gregory Sholette puts it in his book Dark Matter (2011):

‘Consider the structural invisibility of most professionally trained artists whose very underdevelopment is essential to normal art world functions. Without this obscure mass of “failed” artists the small cadre of successful artists would find it difficult, if not impossible, to sustain the global art world as it appears today.’

In a world with huge numbers of artists and a vast amount of art being produced, the only way to confer value on artists and their work is to actively exclude the majority from any kind of wider exposure. The most powerful commercial galleries are pushing, or being invited to push their artists into the public-funded spaces that are meant to be defending diversity, and dare I say, risky and experimental art. This situation is leading to homogenisation and stagnation.  Critical, traditional, difficult or even simply ‘different’ kinds of work get left out.  Public-funded museums and galleries like all other public services in this country should be run on inclusivity not exclusivity. They exist to serve the whole community. Of course there needs to be a constant drive to widen audiences, but at the same time widening participation by greater numbers of artists is crucial too. In Manchester, artists are more likely to be spotted working as attendants in our museums and galleries than exhibiting as artists.

Our curators, who are public employees, have internalised this commercial agenda and are more likely to be spotted at Frieze art fair than around the studios of the region. In Manchester, lists of approved artists are drawn up by commercial gallerists and circulated to collectors via public-funded organisations and anyone who isn’t considered an investment in current market terms is kept out. The livelihoods of the vast majority of committed artists in Manchester are directly compromised.

As Daniel Miller wrote in Art Monthly magazine:

‘Representing a net transfer of wealth from the general public to a small, elite group of well connected individuals and institutions capable of generating plausible, bureaucracy ready applications, the system is a case study in how a vested technocracy is capable of compelling the public to support the interests of private individuals and companies with no democratic accountability or control.’


Who decides who’s in and who’s out?

The art world is notoriously socially driven and cronyism is rampant, with the same tiny handful of regional artists featured over and over again by Manchester museums as a kind of inoculation against accusations of elitism. Far too much power is concentrated in too few hands. One couple runs three major cultural institutions, commanding over £5 million of Arts Council money between 2012 and 2015: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/funding/our-investment/funding-programmes/renaissance/renaissance-major-grants-programme/renaissance-major-partner-museums/

There is undoubtedly a margin of subjectivity in judgments about art and this kind of cost cutting and doubling or even trebling of roles has a detrimental effect on the very diversity the Arts Council talk about. Needless to say if you aren’t socially or professionally embedded with those in power, you’ll struggle.  And it’s not a question of quality. Museums and galleries have a big part to play in producing the perceived quality of art by curating and displaying work to the highest standards. It’s just not the case any more that art made by artists around the country is not as good as art made in London, or that there aren’t many good artists in Manchester. It’s an ideas-driven arts economy and with high-speed communications and travel there’s no quality gap.

What’s the solution? 

Manchester’s legendary DIY spirit will only get us so far. We need much more joined up thinking. Our major public funded institutions need to programmatically support Manchester artists, giving them a platform alongside the international names they exhibit at great public expense. This is not a new idea; it’s a tried and tested approach to sustaining a functioning creative ecology and it’s a model that needs to be adopted throughout the UK. At the moment after showing your work to an audience of friends and contemporaries in a disused office, shop or factory, or your own studio, you effectively drop off a cliff.

If artists are going to settle in the North West it has to be minimally financially viable for them to do so. According to DACS (Design and Artists Copyright Society) artists earn on average £10,000 a year http://www.dacs.org.uk/latest-news/artist-salary-research?category=For+Artists&title=N. Most of course, earn far less or nothing at all as artists, supporting themselves through part time jobs or teaching. Nevertheless, in return they stimulate cultural tourism, as well as the construction, education and service sectors, providing revenue for a host of small businesses involved in fabrication, retail of materials, and transportation.  When artists open studios in neglected areas of a city, redevelopment is quick to follow.  When Rogue Artists Studios opened in its current location in 2000 it was surrounded by scrubland. Now it nestles amongst flats, hotels and cafes.

What do we do now?

Things change when a critical mass of people act together to change them. As a recent independent report called ‘Rebalancing our Cultural Capital’ (2013) http://www.theroccreport.co.uk/ pointed out; during 2012/13 the Arts Council and the DCMS spend £69 per head on culture in London as compared with £4.58 everywhere else. It recommended an investment of £600 million in arts production outside London. That’s production not display.  At the moment in Manchester even the £4.58 is mostly spent promoting London or ‘international’ artists. And there’s no point in building more art galleries if all we get is more of the same.

In the ‘Arts Council Plan for 2011-15’ which describes how they are implementing their mission of providing ‘great art for everyone’ it says:

‘We will strive to create the conditions for the North as a place where artists can live, work and thrive, for example by building on the availability of studio spaces and exploring methods of encouraging national and international recognition of the North’s artists.’


As the co-administrator of the largest group studio in the city I can vouch for the first part of this statement; the rest is a moot point. There is no mention of Manchester galleries amongst the ACE funded organisations in the North that are praised for achieving this requirement.

Manchester’s public-funded museums and galleries must do more to support artistic production in their home communities. Let’s work together to promote the artistic vitality of the North with passion and flair. As Melvyn Bragg said:

‘London is simply eating up the resources. This is wrong, short sighted and undoubtedly unfair and I think it is time the rest of England fought back.’

We need to start the fight now and take some pride in the great work being made in Manchester today.


An Open Letter has been written calling on Manchester’s curators to consistently support it’s emerging, mid and late-career artists. If you are interested in supporting the campaign you can ‘like’ or comment on the letter or the reply from the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery, at the Manchester Confidential website.

The Open Letter is here: http://www.manchesterconfidential.co.uk/Culture/Open-Letter-To-City-Curators-And-Exhibition-Programmers

The reply from the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery can be found here: http://www.manchesterconfidential.co.uk/Culture/We-Do-Support-MCR-Artists-Say-Galleries

Coverage of the debate can be found on the a-n website here: http://new.a-n.co.uk/news/single/manchester-artists-call-for-consistent-support-from-citys-public-galleries

If you would like to sign the letter please write to David Gledhill at: manchestercurators@yahoo.co.uk


If you have a response to this article use the ‘Leave A Reply’ box below. If you have an opinion on any other issue relevant to MIRIAD postgraduates, staff and a wider Arts & Design community that you’d like to share, contact Lewis Sykes, the MIRIAD Online Co-ordinator using the form or details on the ‘Contact’ page.

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