A culture of amateurisation

I’ve had a couple of conversations with colleagues in the arts which have crystallised something for me about what is happening to the arts and culture under this government. It’s basically the amateurisation of the arts – the opposite of the professionalisation of our sector which we been urged towards over the past 15 or more years.

I’m indebted to my colleague Catherine Sutton at Arts Inform for the phrase – we were discussing how the Big Society idea seems likely to end up with some of us doing for free what we used to do for a living. This was sparked by an article in Classical Music magazine in which the Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey, seemed to suggest that if we were dissatisfied with our local library service, then we could improve it by going in and getting “behind the desk” to run it ourselves. In other words, if we think we can run the service better than a professional librarian can, we should do it ourselves as amateurs – incidentally, putting a professional librarian out of work thereby. (Presumably then the librarian could go and deploy his or her talents working in the local supermarket.)

Now I’m far from being opposed to amateurs. In my musical life I’m partly an amateur – and enthusiastic and long-serving member of the horn section of the Milton Keynes Sinfonia and other ensembles. I owe a great debt to amateur music-making, as other members of my family do to amateur dramatics. I admire the work of Making Music and the Voluntary Arts Network. But I mourn the loss of the support from government for a professionalised sector and the recognition of professional performers, artists, managers and others. I also think that the people who run Making Music and the Voluntary Arts Network are exemplary professionals.

A further perspective came from another friend of mine who said that she felt that the professionalisation of the arts had become a missed chance – that we have mistaken professional attitudes and practices with spending a lot of money on nice offices and high-class print. More money should have gone into the actual work and into developing our own skills, rather than producing plush leaflets and aping the ways of top business executives. I don’t entirely agree with her that the arts sector has done that badly – but I don’t entirely disagree, either, as we uncover new ways of saving money in our drive to cut costs.

However, I’m also reminded of  a regional theatre which some years ago very nearly found itself being run by a local lawyer who thought the job of general manager would be an ideal early-retirement hobby, especially as it would obviously be mostly in the evenings…

We have to stick to our guns – to preserve the professional pride and standards of arts management (and arts education, arts marketing, arts development) while keeping the ship afloat in dismal times. We need to hold our own, not only against the relentless reduction in funding, but against the renewed tide of assumptions that the arts are just a hobby and could be done in their spare time just as well by any moderately educated person who loves art.

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Published in: on June 12, 2011 at 14:31  Comments (5)  

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  1. I quite fancy “having a go” at neurosurgery, after all it can’t be much more difficult than trying to earn a living as a musician ?
    though I suspect that the “Bog Society” really only extends to things that are seen to have low status and to be disposable , after all no one really thinks that writing books, music, dance or making visual art are really important.

    I was recently doing a short consultancy at a (nameless !!) school where they don’t have ANY music teacher, when asked what I would suggest they do I could only really reply that
    “If I was a parent of a child here I would try and get you prosecuted for failing to teach the mandatory curriculum”
    the response being
    “we have a plan though, Geoff who teaches geography plays a bit of guitar so he can come and do the music !”
    Maybe we should use the same technique for all appointments ? So at the end of an evening of crispy duck and too much beer the person who is most able to work out who owes what should be given the post of head of mathematics at Oxford or made chancellor ! (so that’s you sorted then Cathers !)

    of course once music disappears from the national curriculum as is predicted then this ceases to be a problem !

  2. I agree entirely: I wish the same was true of the hard-pressed, sparsely-funded fixers of local choral societies, whose intention it is to book ‘professional’ players, whom they often then both mix with (mostly good) amateurs for the same money, offering a rate of pay that often equates to less than the recommended minimum wage.
    Oh, and I’ve just been sounded out about leading an Inset for a local music authority for the same (three hours’ slave-rate) pay that the delegates will receive for attending…all part of the Big Society, I assume?

  3. Well I’m dissatisfied with the service from my Culture Ministry so I’ll just give up running my company, employing lots of people and doing all my charity work and get “behind the desk” to run it myself…. oh…. hang on….

    I just love the idea that there are lots of competent, reasonably educated, totally idle people out there who can work for nothing to provide vital services, education and welfare, not just with total organisational reliability and skill but *even better* than the existing professionals. What a GREAT IDEA. And apparently you can just decide to do it off your own bat. You can just turn up and take over.

    How can pronouncements like this get past the “oh, here’s a random idea I had, d’you think they’ll swallow this” stage?

  4. I personally am dissatisfied with the Duchess of Cambridge. Her knees are too bony and she has too much eyeliner on. I demand that William divorce her and marry me instead.

  5. At a meeting of the voluntary Darlington for Culture group, which has been set up in response to the Council’s threats to close Darlington Arts Centre, we were asked to pay our membership fee and all the details of the share structure were explained. After I encouraged 3 other individuals who were reticent about joining, to do so, in an effort to show the breadth of support, I asked for a receipt for my £10. I was told they aren’t doing receipts by the organisation’s new Secretary, the new Chair overheard and laughing asked if it is for tax purposes. Eventually the Secretary realised I was serious and that I did want a receipt.
    I have been working in arts for over 10 years, and freelance for 4. This incident was one of a number recently that really made me realise how completely out of touch with the reality of the industry these new volunteers are.
    I still support the involvement of volunteers, it’s an incredible form of community engagement, consultation and audience development; but in no way replaces a professional infrastructure.


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