The Right to Art Manifesto

Part of the mission of my Art For A Change web log is to invigorate the arts scene, turning it from its isolation and lethargy to a newfound engagement. Here’s a bit of news artists around the world should take note of, particularly those living in the United States who insist that art should remain detached from social action.

Professional artists in the United Kingdom are banding together to write and issue a modern manifesto on art. The unparalleled unity of working artists and gallery directors has as its purpose the issuing of a Right to Art declaration that will transform the status of visual arts in the UK.

Under the patronage of the Visual Arts and Galleries Association (VAGA), some of the biggest names in the UK art scene, along with some of the most powerful arts advocates, are collectively hammering out a plan to pressure the government to live up to its promises of full funding for the arts. The manifesto is due to be issued sometime in August of this year.

The group working on the manifesto includes Nick Dodd of the Sheffield Galleries & Museums Trust, Andrew Nairne of Modern Art Oxford, Sandy Nairne of the National Portrait Gallery, and Sir Nicholas Serota of the Tate Gallery. Sir Nicholas explained his thinking on the matter, “The important thing is to raise general recognition of the fact that people who live in contemporary society have as much right to access culture as they do to education or to health. It shouldn’t be regarded as a frill.”

The manifesto is expected to call for full government funding for the visual arts; extended hours for all museums and galleries so that the public’s access to art is expanded; full funding for schools to teach visual arts; requirements for schools to plan field trips to museums—guaranteeing children’s exposure to visual art; government planning that will include visual art in everything from hospital design to urban regeneration; and the establishment of programs that will introduce the general public to professional artists working in their communities.

Bill Woodrow, one of the artists working on the manifesto, said “There’s always been this emphasis on the three Rs (reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic), it’s an old cliché. But there should be four and the last one is art. It’s never had that recognition.”

The united front writers of the Right to Art Manifesto took their cue from Article 27 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts.” The writers and planners behind the manifesto insist that as a signatory to the UN Declaration the British government has a “responsibility to make this aspiration a reality.”

That the UK arts community can organize itself around a set of demands to be used to pressure the British government is a praiseworthy undertaking. But it is the unity of thought and action that will confront the failings of the UK government. Still, I have major reservations about the project. When you have a “united front” of the biggest names in the UK art world working with gallery owners, I think that’s cause for concern. Read the full working document, The Right to Art: Making aspirations reality.

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