We Out Here: Freelands Foundation

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We Out Here, is a series exploring the ways in which alternative organisations across the UK are helping to provide jobs, support and funding to the creative arts.

The creative scene in London is burgeoning with talent. Painters, graphic designers, musicians, dancers and sculpture artists can be found at almost every turn in many pockets across the capital. It’s why students across the country and across the world flock here every year and it’s why, this morning my Facebook feed is full of people ‘interested’ in fantastic sounding events involving audio visual installations, exhibitions and multi-disciplinary festivals.

This sense of positivity is counter-balanced by the negative effects concerning any oversaturated market where demand is in excess of supply. How do those without the means sustain themselves when the the opportunities to harness that talent, turning it into a creative career can seem so few and far between. 

As is well publicised, the creative community is at the pointy end of the sword when it comes to government cuts and while there are great opportunities to have your work seen or heard in the digital age, the pathway to financial stability alongside the pursuit of artistic expression is often blocked. There are however a number of organisations out there striving to create an avenue to that end. 

Established in 2015 by Elisabeth Murdoch, the Freelands Foundation is a registered charity with the mission to support artists and cultural institutions, to broaden audiences for the visual arts and to enable all young people to engage actively with the creation and enjoyment of art. By partnering with organisations such as Tate Modern and the Institute of Education at University College London, amongst many others, the Foundation has been having a positive impact when it comes to research, arts teacher training and helping to broaden a London centric approach to the arts. 

Henry Ward, currently Creative Director at the Freelands Foundation a former Secondary School arts teacher and Head Of Education at Southbank Centre explains some of the issues they are attempting to tackle.

"Certainly there’s a big difference between the challenges inside of London and outside of London and that’s getting even bigger. The challenges for young artists and emerging artists in London is very much about the erosion of spaces. If we go back 10-15 years it was far easier for people to be self starting in terms of space. So if you wanted to expose your work to audiences, and ultimately that’s what artists want to do, you could find a space, take over spaces that weren’t being used and self start. That’s becoming much more difficult to do and the pressure on real estate in London is so extreme. Alongside that, of course, studio space is rapidly disappearing from London. So just to get a foot on the ladder, to have a space to make work and to meet other artists is becoming much more difficult."

 
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He continues,

"Outside of London that’s far less of a problem, depending on where you are. There are lots of opportunities but the infrastructure of existing artists and more experienced mentors and opportunities to see things isn’t really there in the same way. You’re either going to be in the centre of where masses of exciting things are happening but you’re going to struggle to do anything yourself because there isn’t the space to do it, or you can go and move somewhere where there are fantastic spaces and great space for studios but actually there’s nothing going on." 

The dichotomy of life in the capital vs the rest of the UK far from a unique issue affecting the arts but some of the Foundations's research highlights some alarming divisions. 

Henry explains.

"We were very interested in discrepancies of funding between Greater London and the rest of the UK. We commissioned a piece of research quite early on in the Foundation’s existence that looked into that and discovered a frightening statistic showing around 15% of funding goes outside of London and 85% to London. So there was an amazing imbalance."

The imbalances don't stop there.

"We also did some research looking at opportunities for female artists and we discovered that while there’s a growing trend for the population of art schools to be more and more female - around 70% of Undergraduates are women - but within two or three years of leaving Art School we find that all the opportunities seem to be going to men. So, quite early on, we decided we wanted to do something that addressed those things." 

  Headphones, Music, Boats and Trains (Jacqueline Donachie at the Fruit Market Gallery)

Headphones, Music, Boats and Trains (Jacqueline Donachie at the Fruit Market Gallery)

One of those was the introduction of the Freelands Award in 2016. The award grants £100K to a gallery outside of London to hold a major exhibition with a mid career female artist who has been overlooked. So far award winners have been The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, with artist Jacqueline Donachie, Nottingham Contemporary, with artist Lis Rhodes and 2018's prospective award winners are currently down to a shortlist of six

"The issue that seems to be prevalent everywhere apart from Glasgow and London is that students coming out of courses - fantastic pools of talent - very often disappear from those places. Whether it’s Sheffield or Bristol or Cardiff, they gravitate towards London as the international centre for arts. What we wanted to do was look at how we might be able to help support areas outside of London to retain some of that talent and to retain their own arts eco systems."

If diversifying the ways in which funding is distributed can be maintained long term, it's likely to have a two fold benefit. First it will dispel the notion that to 'make it' London is the only option, allowing other cities to thrive, with the knock on effect being a less saturated field for those who wish to remain in the capital. The Freelands Artist Programme will see £1.5m going into four partners - one in Edinburgh, one in Belfast, one in Cardiff and one in Sheffield - to work with a total of 80 young artists over the next five years (20 organisation). The aim is to help to establish them, to provide them with the resources they need be it studio spaces, mentors or exhibition opportunities.

While those are the ways in which the Foundation is helping to make infrastructural changes at a career establishing level, much of their work considers those who have yet to make that occupational decision at school age. Against the backdrop of budget restrictions the importance of making an impact there cannot be over stressed.

Henry states,

"If we were to take the departed Education Secretary, Michael Gove, at face value he started talking about a broad and balanced curriculum. In that statement he was absolutely right. A broad and balanced curriculum should be exactly that. It should be broad and it should be balanced. That includes all facets of human activity. To cut out the arts, and a whole raft of ways in which people approach things about the word and develop ideas is just so nonsensical.

Of course Maths, English and the Sciences are equally as important subjects but the arts are vital for exactly the same reason. It’s not about people necessarily becoming artists but it is just about people realising the breadth of their own ability. I think that’s really important." 

Inclusivity is also key.

"I also think the reason why it’s so important as part of education is that education, if done properly, is the great leveller. If you’re fortunate enough to come from a background where you have books in the house and where your parents take you to see musicians and go to museums or the theatre or the cinema then to a certain extent, it doesn’t matter if you do it at school or not because you’re going to experience it. But if you don’t get taken to those things and if school stops exposing you to those things, you may spend your whole life thinking those things don’t belong to you. I think it’s so important that we make sure that every young person gets to experience and try their hand at different ways of operating in the world."

 

Largely due the Henry's background in Arts Education the Foundation has focussed a lot of its support on working with state sector teachers of art and design in compulsory schooling. Teachers are encouraged to push back against the current squeeze to embed arts within the curriculum. 

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"For the last three years we’ve been working closely with UCL - Institute of Education - which is the biggest trainer for secondary school arts teachers. We do a major project with them and we’re now looking to establish partnerships with other trainers across the UK."

It'll take a number of years to gather meaningful empirical data but anecdotal evidence suggests a positive impact is being made.

"Speaking to staff about what they’re doing now they’re two years into their teaching career, there’s more of a confidence and self belief. They think they can actually do this and that it is meaningful. We’re looking at how we can maybe support teachers so they don’t feel so isolated. Often there are only one or two art teachers in school so it’s very easy to become demoralised. We’re looking at ways of maintaining that contact and allowing them to share resources with one another." 

The positivity in a time of adversity continues. 

"There’s a lack of complacency compared to when things were better supported. I think people are having to be tremendously resourceful with enormous cuts to departments where they really are relying on almost no materials. Rather than wailing about it and feeling sorry for themselves, people are finding ways around that and doing things that are perhaps a bit more inventive. It is breeding a more active art teacher. I think that’s beneficial."

With that in mind, is the future of the sector in good health? There's positivity, certainly, but there's still some work to do around the idea of diversity. 

"There needs to be a breaking down of some of the still existing patriarchy and old boys club within the arts. There’s still a sense that once you know people, you’re more likely to get into a certain kind of system. I think we need to find ways of breaking that up and shifting away from that. I don’t know how we do that but one of the things we’re trying to do within the Foundation is to flatten out hierarchies within art practice."

 Brink Installation View (Peter Mallet, Courtesy of Freelands Foundation)

Brink Installation View (Peter Mallet, Courtesy of Freelands Foundation)

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Using their gallery spaces Freelands Foundation have been known to curate exhibitions with instantly recognisable artists' work placed alongside those who are completely unknown or even children.

"We don’t expose that and say this work was made by somebody who was 12, we just put it alongside another artist’s work. Those sort of things can be quite radical and quite difficult for the art world to take because it’s problematic - people might come in and prefer the 12 year old’s work and what does that say - but I think it’s important to force people to question what it is they’re looking at and why they’re interesting.

"I think that’s true of other art forms too, that’s why it’s so exciting what’s happening digitally and through social media. There’s a kind of meritocracy, if something is interesting enough then people are going to end up looking at it and it doesn’t matter who made it.  For me it goes back to that importance of education and telling people at the youngest age possible all of this is alright and all of this is open to you."

The idea of meritocracy permeates through much of the Freelands Foundation's initiatives and with their help, established ideas around who can become a working artist or where they're based will widen to the benefit of everyone. 

 

StoriesJamal Guthrie