Monthly Archives: July 2022

English Language Barriers

Last week, to break up a long drive, I called into the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. I’ve not been for a while. It got me thinking about English language barriers.

I love the Yorkshire Sculpture Park but must confess; that I used to love it more before they built their new buildings a few years ago. Along with the swanky new architecture appeared a lot of signs – telling off signs – ‘don’t do this’ signs, ‘that is forbidden’ signs.

I’m an arts professional – a bit middle class – confident in arts environments and situations, yet I still feel uncomfortable around these signs. I feel like I’m being told off even though I’ve not yet transgressed. They make me feel a bit guilty for being there. I understand the reasons why they don’t want dogs running loose and why they don’t want people touching or climbing on the artwork. It’s not the message but the way it’s communicated. Imagine how someone might feel if they were already a bit anxious about being there.

We all experience threshold fear. For me, I would be terrified about going into a betting shop. I’ve never done it, don’t know the culture, and I have an irrational fear that I’ll do something wrong and be told off or laughed at. If I went into a betting shop and was immediately confronted with a sign telling me off, it would only serve to reinforce my conviction that ‘this is not a place for me’. A lot of people have a similar threshold fear about arts situations. 

If Arts Council England’s ambitions in Let’s Create are to be achieved, we need to break down barriers to engagement and threshold fear rather than reinforcing them. I don’t object to reminders about how I am expected to behave in a certain situation – in fact, they can be very helpful in a context where I might be a bit anxious. We must be more careful about the language we use in communicating such reminders. 

The day after my visit I was in Rawtenstall, helping install an outdoor exhibition in the town centre. The council have recently finished re-landscaping the urban park in front of the bus station. I saw this sign. It communicated a rule that I needed to know and didn’t tell me off. It explained why the rule was in place. I felt like I was being trusted and respected.

In fairness to YSP, when I arrived, there were two staff members standing in the rain beside a booth checking pre-purchase tickets or selling one if necessary. I was greeted by big warm smiles from under umbrellas. We chatted and laughed about the great British weather, and I was made to feel very welcome. I also noticed that on some of the temporary exhibits, the word ‘please’ had been added to the ‘do not climb’ instruction. 

You have a message

It’s Friday evening, the first of July. Most people have left work to enjoy the start of a sunny weekend.  An overworked Arts Council England administrator is still at their computer, sending emails via Grantium, the overworked arts grant application portal. A backlog of decisions, already delayed due to high volumes, needs posting. 

We had been expecting an email all day in response to an application we’d submitted back in March for eleven new commissions. 

The email is neutral. It alerts you that a message has been posted on Grantium. You have to log on. You have to remember your username and password before learning your application’s fate. For us, it was good news. I hadn’t realised just how stressed I’d been awaiting the decision. The rational part of me knew that it was a good application and that if rejected, it would be due to oversubscription rather than a damning indictment of our ideas and values. We could apply again. We wouldn’t have had to close down without this revenue.

The relief was physical. I sat in the sun and read the application appraisal on my phone, which was glowing with no conditions. Now, we need to deliver it.

Some background. In the heady days before covid, we were awarded a similar sum to deliver several commissions, including two digital art pieces (Hit the North by Matt Wilkinson & Monument by Elliot Flanagan), two tourable outdoor theatre shows (Cabinet of Curiosity by Eye of Newt & Conference of the Birds by Frolicked) and a new show, specifically for libraries (Miss Nobodies by Ruth E. Cockburn). 

All these commissions we co-curated by groups of people from Lancashire, including young librarians, a promoters group from Burnley, the Friends of Fairhaven Lake and women in Great Harwood. 

All were successful, but we learned a lot along the way, not least how to manage a commissioning programme during a pandemic. We have broadened our reach and pre-appointed artists to engender a more collaborative process between artists and the curatorial group. 

What we plan is: 

So far, we have accepted Arts Council England’s offer of funding. We have told our partners and informed the artists that we have been given the go-ahead. I plan to use this blog to record progress. There will be ups and downs, but that is the creative process. I will also go back and tell some of the stories from our previous commissioning programme. I hope readers will find our journey interesting, and we welcome you on our learning journey over the next few months. We will need to hit the ground running as we plan to have most of the creative work done by the end of March 2023. In the middle of this (October 2022), we are due to find out if our application to become an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation from April 2023 is successful. Another nervous fumbling for the Grantium login details awaits.