As lockdown commenced I found myself in the interesting position of starting a new role as Managing Director at The Showroom in London’s Edgware Road area. This has been strange, not just because I’m diversifying my work life, but because managing a gallery I haven’t seen and working with colleagues I’ve only ever met online sometimes feels rather abstract. I’m still delivering planning work through Smart Urban Limited during this period too and so stay in touch with friends and colleagues in the development world too.
Arts and culture has long been a key foundation of London’s economy. Currently the challenges that face the capital’s cultural bodies are huge. Large organisations face major running costs, rely on visitors and membership for their income and are struggling immensely while closed. Smaller institutions, like The Showroom, tend to rely on grants and donations to support programming but due to the pandemic this funding has shrunk. The Arts Council England has pooled all its funding, reserves too, to put together a programme of emergency support for the sector. This has been a fantastic move on their part as without it, no doubt, many organisations would not stand a chance. But the sector continues to face challenges.
My own concerns are both very imminent and relate to long term strategy. In the short term can staff and visitors can travel safely to the gallery; can they be safe within the gallery; can artists travel to work with us on their shows and is there confidence amongst supporters to return and visit us? Financial confidence is also important so that donations will return. In the longer term how deep will the recession be; how will the business model need to change; how can arts still deliver what Londoners want and need; how much will society really change its longer term behaviours particularly around proximity to others, how can arts organisations support town centre revival, what strategies and partnerships do we need to put in place? It is hard to guess the future for cultural institutions in London without answers to so many other questions.
For now a lot more culture has moved on-line and while this has been a bedrock for many of us during lockdown; a haven of interest and escape to help us cope, this model has not financially supported most of the organisations and artists that create it to survive. Musicians have been grappling with this issue for 20 years now but despite the onward march of IT this is still a relatively new issue in the visual arts. On the positive side it has reached new worldwide audiences to the arts but on the other hand viewing on screen does not give the same experience as a physical artwork nor necessarily provide income to the institutions.
Virtual arts is a wonderful arm of culture but eventually people will crave the painting not the image; the sonic wave of a bass not an i-phone rendition of the song. I am not sure that we will live forever separated as some commentators suggest. In terms of our shared spaces already the 2 metre rule is being reduced and I think people naturally love to group together, for meals, for art, for dancing. People have suffered plagues before and they still return to each other eventually; the question is how long will that take this time? For now though socially distancing remains a key part of our lives.
The Showroom is lucky to have a mural project which we host on our building, thanks also to a supportive landlord who just happens to be Sir Terry Farrell. This remains an important artwork in the community especially since in lockdown we have something to share with the local neighbourhood. Throughout lockdown passing locals have been our main audience. For 10 years The Showroom have delivered a programme of artworks, called Communal Knowledge, in which we coproduce artworks with our neighbours. Elvira Djangani Ose, our Director and Chief Curator, has more recently embedded this coproduction approach into most of our programming. This has broadened our audience drawing people from all parts of the community; groups that don’t often participate in art including, for example, local youth groups, refugees; single parent households; social housing tenants. The Showroom works to both serve its local Church Street Market community and act as another anchor to bring vibrancy to the area, sharing cultural energy and forging placemaking.
The pandemic and resulting economic crisis are not our only concerns. At the start of this pandemic Arundhati Roy encouraged us all the see ‘the pandemic as portal, a gateway between one world and the next’. Hers a call to action to recognize that some things were already broken such as the environment and social inequality and for us to use our collective isolation to imagine solutions and a new way forward. This drive has been heightened in the wake of the George Floyd killing and the black lives matter movement shining a light on race inequality; on the deaths in BAME communities and on the poorer housing and working conditions of too many in our society, and that many of those people are at the frontline. Those whom we clap but we need also to constructively assist.
The Showroom has always maintained a focus on socially engaged art; we don’t hang an exhibition as such. Our last exhibition, ‘Affection as Subversive Architecture’, was with a Spanish architecture collective Recetas Urbanas was focused on the role of community buildings and self-build projects in empowering communities. It was locked down midway through and now remains online. We had hoped to be able to use the exhibition to host discussions; with young people about their needs; with residents about their housing situation and self build groups about their projects and plans. Actually these are issues that concern many of us but for the community when discussions take place in an art environment they have the potential to draw out hopes, worries and concerns in a sensitive, creative, learning environment. I was looking forward to being part of it. Now though we are working with Baltic, Gateshead who were due to host the show later this year and hope together we can revive and reshape these discussions so they can happen, probably virtually this autumn.
We want to forge new partnerships together so that there can be a fresh approach to exploring the societal issues affecting us all using art as a platform for exploration and ideas. We maintain a strong vision and programming that explores major issues of the day in a culturally vibrant, exciting way and welcome new partners and new patrons.
We will all need a lot of creative space for thinking and evaluating as we move forward – lets work together. I invite those of you who are interested in new ways of exploring these issues in your work to get in touch as perhaps we can find mutual areas of practice.
Seema Manchanda is Managing Director of The Showroom, a contemporary art space focused on collaborative approaches to cultural production within its locality and beyond.
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