Photo of Jannis Kounellis, Image: Claudio Abate
Jannis Kounellis

Modern Art Oxford
15 December 2004 - 20 March 2005


Page last updated 1 December 2004

how it works?

The 2004 Frieze Art Fair saw some 42000 visitors through its doors over four days and sales estimates of £26million. This is a phenomenal success economically, culturally and artistically. All over London galleries and artist led projects grasped the opportunity and put on special events, alternative ‘fairs’ and short-term projects and exhibitions, many of them initiated by and working with young emerging artists. The creative and entrepreneurial energy associated with the Damien Hirst et al that put UK artists at the centre of the world stage in the 1990s is still alive and kicking.

Through out the country contemporary art is enjoying unprecedented levels of public interest.[1] New and refurbished spaces, re-invigorated Local Authority and Arts Council supported galleries and a growing number of contemporary art events such as the Liverpool Biennale are indicative of the art form’s strength, inventiveness and vitality. This vitality is matched by the vision and commitment of cultural organisations to commission new work, create exhibitions, train individuals and provide opportunities for many different levels of engagement with the new and the challenging.

The success story is only partial, despite growing awareness of the richness cultural facilities bring to communities and, recognition, in a world of increasing uncertainity, that contemporary art provides room to explore both past and present and to venture beyond the accepted and the familiar,. The bare statistic that 40% of Arts Council visual arts expenditure is spent in London and only 4% in the Eastern Region presents a very different narrative, as does the portfolio of research commissioned over the past four years by the Clore Duffield Foundation into the health of visual arts in schools. Their latest contribution is a review of the state of art and design education in schools at the end of " five years of intense change in policies and programmes relating to education and creativity" . This telling review highlights a growing divide between the well resourced and resourceful, those schools where adventurous and varied cultural experiences are integral to the curriculum and those where there are few opportunities. To quote Richard Wentworth, a member of the review panel: ‘There is something being ironed out of children, or sealed off, or walled off in some way. Not belligerently, just programmatically … just part of how it works ….’. [2]

It seems that part of how it works stems from lack of political will. The task is both to find a language and a vision that can address both contemporary arts practice and the broader cultural dialogues of audiences, creativity, learning and personal development. VAGA has been working with the think tank Demos to look at the concept of a Right to Art, not just as a series of entitlements but as an overarching principle to which every one can sign up and which if founded in public legitimacy would lead policy rather than follow as an add-on. Demos proposed looking at the Right to Art through the lens of public value–"public value as an aspect of democracy – where individuals are citizens not consumers, and choice is not a synonym for the inequalities of individual wealth." The challenge for policy makers is to establish how the legitimacy of public value (and its counterpart empowerment of the individual viewer or artist) can be described and evaluated and for the art world and its immensely varied publics to articulate what a Right to Art would mean in practice.

1. A recent Mori poll,for example,revealed that eight out of ten people feel it is important that their local city or town has its own museum or art gallery.

2. Richard Wentworth, Artist and Master of Ruskin School of Drawing & Fine Art, Oxford

Hilary Gresty, VAGA Director