Assessment: Structural and Cultural Conditions

During my time interning at the Whitechapel Gallery, a number of structural and cultural conditions, both motivating and constraining, became apparent to me.

Since I was working in the Development Department, the conditions affecting the Whitechapel that were most relevant to my team’s work were those to do with funding. With little to no revenue from ticket sales (there is only one ticketed show per year, the rest of the exhibitions are free), Whitechapel is forced to rely upon external sources of funding that are becoming increasingly scarce in the current economic climate. While money comes from many sources, including individuals, trusts and foundations, and corporate sponsorship, the primary source of cultural funding in the UK has traditionally been the government; unfortunately, the government has cut this funding significantly over the past two years. Amidst the cuts, the current government has been advocating for a mixed-economy approach to arts funding, a strategy whose pros and cons we have debated extensively in my Cultural Policy class (for an in-depth look at the privatisation of the arts, see P.B. Boorsma et al. Eds. 1998: Privatization and Culture: Experience in the Arts, Heritage and Cultural Industries in Europe, while R. Benedikter 2007: “Privatisation of Italian Cultural Heritage” provides an example of when privatisation of cultural funding has prompted huge debate and has resulted in detrimental effects, particularly upon heritage sites, in Italy). Ed Vaizey, the minister of culture, wrote in the Autumn 2012 of the Museums Association Journal, encouraging development teams to seek out more private funding while defending the government’s position: “But let me make clear, for the doubts, that this government believes in public subsidy for culture. We are not seeking to boost philanthropy in order to compensate for cuts in Exchequer funding. Even in what might now be seen as times of plenty, there was never enough public funding to realise the potential of our cultural institutions. We need to broaden our sources of income in order to strengthen financial resilience against whatever further challenges face the wider economy. We also need to ensure the strongest possible legacy for future generations. Private sector support … will be vital to that future.” (E. Vaizey, “Cultural funding, we all need to dig deep.” (Museums Journal, Issue 112/09 (1 September 2012), p. 18.) This decrease of government funding, while having huge repercussions across the sector, is particularly impactful at the Whitechapel; with no collection of its own (excluding the archive) the gallery cannot mount less-expensive exhibitions of already held works when funding runs low, and since every show varies from the last (different artists of different nationalities working in different media and confronting different issues), sources of private funding cannot be relied upon for continuous support. For example, if the gallery were presenting an exhibition of the late Italian conceptual artist Alighiero Boetti (this is purely hypothetical, although the Tate Modern recently hosted an exhibition of his work) they might appeal for funding based from the Italian Embassy or Italian foundations, Pakistani or Afghani interest groups (he travelled to both countries extensively and had works made by Afghani craftsman), groups with an interest in funding contemporary and conceptual art exhibitions, craft and textile companies and supporters (Boetti’s most known works are his large embroidered maps) etc. None of these supporters would necessarily be interested in a different exhibition, say of an American female photographer, for instance. Further complicating the issue is that the Whitechapel is far from alone in this fight: London, and particularly East London, where the Whitechapel is located, is saturated with arts organisations, all desperate for funding. East London is a real-world example of ‘cultural clustering,’ a topic explored in the course by Andy Pratt (see A. C. Pratt, “Hot Jobs in Cool Places. The Material Cultures of New Media Product Spaces: the Case of the South of the Market, San Francisco” 2002). The gallery’s location in East London has both advantages and disadvantages: 1) the glut of arts organisations within a mile radius of the Whitechapel, while allowing for casual visitors to visit many galleries in a single trip, can overwhelm an art lover (and potential sponsors) with choices 2) before the Olympics, East London did not attract tourists in the same numbers as Central London and 3) it is far from Tate Modern. Proximity to the Tate is a particularly interesting issue as it too has a mix of pros and cons: while being too close to the Tate might make differentiation (and therefore competition) difficult, being too far away not only makes it difficult for any of Tate Modern’s 6 million annual visitors from planning to visit both in one day, as most tourists, with a designated ‘museum day’ would want to do, but also means that the Whitechapel does not get to participate in the burgeoning South London art scene, whose development has been driven by the Tate’s presence and regeneration projects as well as the availability of inexpensive rents and the appeal of an unsaturated market (http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/11107/1/coldharbour-london).

I also wanted to briefly mention another issue that I noted during my time working at the gallery that resonated with what we were discussing in our seminars about creative management and creative work at the time.

As I described in a previous post, the gallery staff of 70 (excluding the gallery attendants) was divided physically across four different spaces: the development and communications departments with the editions team and the special event producers in one office, the chief curator and director’s offices and curatorial and education teams on the floor above that, the operations and events team in an office in a different wing of the gallery, and the finance department in a completely separate building from the gallery across the street. This physical separation, however, both reflected and created divisions and tensions within the departments that had a very real effect on the way that they worked. When in cross-departmental meetings, especially those that took place between the curators from the exhibitions department and the development department, there were times when members of the development team felt some of the curators were treating them with unfair disdain, in what I believe to be a reflection of a concept raised by Nick Wilson in his writing about the potential hazards of management in ‘creative’ industries (N. Wilson, “Learning to manage creativity: an occupational hazard for the UK’s creative industries. 2009). The tension between the teams was the result of the development department feeling that their curatorial colleagues didn’t regard them as equals or creative workers, but rather as number-crunchers wouldn’t let them do what they (the exhibitions team) wanted because of financial restrictions. It is true that many of the development department members had not necessarily come from arts backgrounds originally, as opposed to the curators who had fine arts and art history qualifications; but to cast them as uncreative, budget obsessed administrators is deeply unfair. Every member of the team that I worked with was deeply passionate about the Gallery and their work, determined to work tirelessly to secure funding to help achieve ambitious and impactful exhibitions (all in exchange for little pay… classic characteristics of creative workers as described by Ros Gill in her lecture that discussed the affective nature of cultural labour.)

 

While there are a number of other conditions that affect the Whitechapel Gallery, these mentioned above were most apparent during my experience as an Intern. This assessment of the structural and cultural conditions impacting the Whitechapel Gallery, required by King’s as part of our assessed internship experience, will serve as my final blog post as a KCL student. I will, however, continue to post about my experience interning (and hopefully one day, working!) in the Cultural and Creative Industries.

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