Cultural value and social justice: towards a collaborative agenda

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Cultural value and social justice: towards a collaborative agenda

Report of a workshop held at the University of Warwick, on 15th July 2014 by Alice Borchi.

The workshop was part of the AHRC funded project ‘The politics of cultural value: Towards an emancipatory framework’ that aims to develop a social justice approach to current debates around cultural value. Dr Eleonora Belfiore of the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies is the Principal Investigator for the project, in partnership with David Lambert and Leanne Taylor of cultural solutions uk.

The event was an informal day of discussion around the findings and the challenges of the project, and included presentations by Eleonora Belfiore, Colin Clark, David Lambert, Leanne Taylor, and a provocation by artist Delaine Le Bas.


After the workshop participants introduced themselves, the day started with Eleonora Belfiore’s presentation, which focussed on understanding cultural value from a cultural policy perspective. Making the case for the arts has always been an issue for cultural policy makers, as suggested by Richard Hoggart’s statement that “there never will be enough money”. Cultural policy is based on “judgments between” different cultural forms that compete for funding that are hardly value-neutral. When it comes to define the value of the arts in policy, context, people and relationships of power are very important factors. Nevertheless, the politics of cultural policy have always been somewhat obscured in the focus of public debate on “making the case for the arts”. Promoting investment in the arts has always been challenging as it is hardly seen as valuable. In order to overcome these difficulties, cultural policy has developed an “attachment strategy”: investment in the arts is attached to bigger, more significant areas of policy which carry bigger budgets. For example, when the arts are attached to a social policy agenda, they are depicted as a significant instrument for social inclusion. When it comes to define its economic value, the arts sector has been defended as one with the highest value in terms of return on investment, with statements such “every single pound invested in the arts brings a £10 return”. This kind of rhetoric, where the arts are described as the best investment possible, due to their high economic and social return, sounds mostly dubious when taken at face value. The problem of evidence and need for objective quantitative data is another common issue when trying to define the value of the arts. Despite the existence of surveys that show that the British population is largely interested in the artistic sector, the greatest predictor of engagement in the arts (and most especially the subsidized arts) are a high income, a degree-level education and a professional job. This situation is confirmed by academic studies, showing that the part of the population that is highly engaged with the arts is only a high income 8%. Moreover, a great proportion of National Portfolio Organisations funding is concentrated in London (the picture is less unbalanced when it comes to other ACE funding schemes: 60% of GIA and 70% of lottery, although even so, spend per head of population is higher in London).

Given this situation, the issues at the heart of the project are:

  • What is the arts funding for?

  • Who gets to decide all of this?

Cultural value is a site for struggle over meaning and representation, it is not a monolithic entity immune to relationships of power. There are winners and losers in defining what is valuable, and funding is a key system for the allocation of cultural value.

The case study selected for this project, the gipsy community, allows to analyse the “underbelly” of cultural value. Cultural value is “in the eye of the beholder” and is often controversial.

MBFGW” is a creative industry success story: it has won awards, it is a success with the public and is one of the most discussed programs on social media. It has turned into a format sold abroad for millions pounds, and it has generated £ 3.5 m in 81 territories. As is the case with much of ‘reality TV’, MBFGW is a low cost/high profit cultural product, as participants do not earn any money, so profits remain with the programme creators. If cultural value is economic value, MBFGW is clearly a highly valuable product; moreover, if people like it, they clearly get some value out of it. Nevertheless, it is also a weekly public humiliation for a disenfranchised social group. The Gypsy and Traveller community is one of the most excluded groups in Britain. In the program they are a target of mockery and stigmatization. What goes on here can be understood within the framework of the politics of recognition: the harm that this kind of representation can cause to a group of people is real, but not a concern for the creators of the program. The harm taken into account is not only representational, but also physical and psychological. The show is the product of an institutionalized system of values that depict groups of people as inferior. Nancy Fraser suggests that patterns of cultural value need to be replaced with new, more inclusive ones. But how can one make policy change happen?

It is necessary to find a different way: part of the marginalisation of the Gypsy and Traveller community comes from being excluded from mainstream history; this AHRC funded research focused on a participatory project devised by cultural solutions uk in Lincolnshire which was of interest as it defined itself as being about ‘cultural heritage preservation’ and to give space and voice to members of the Gypsy and Traveller community to represent their culture in their own terms. The community is generally seen as disengaged and disaffected, but it is also the beholder of a cultural value that has been misrecognised; this project is an occasion to talk about their own cultural value. There is a distinction between the usual rhetoric of democratisation of culture against cultural democracy: the project the research is based on (and the research project itself) aims to redistribute cultural authority.

Helen Wheatley then presented a list of films and TV that displayed aspects of Gypsy and Traveller culture and characters in BBC programs until 1985; she described how it gave the opportunity to BBC to reflect on its own past and on the history of the Gypsy and Traveller representation in the media. The List ends with 1985 as the listings are more complicated and time consuming to search after that date.

Colin Clark then gave a presentation with the title “Sites, Schools & Civil Rights? - Gypsies, Travellers & the British State”.

20 years ago there were the same issues with civil rights and education for the Gypsy community. The reason, according to Clark, is that the British state detests Roma and Gypsies. The use of the term “detest” is not exaggerated: the 1956 Encyclopaedia Britannica entry for the term “Gypsy”, despite its aura of authoritative truth, is incredibly racist. Judging the actions of the British government, one can deduce that it has maintained a “care/control” attitude in its legislation about Gypsy communities. Since the 1950s, there have been issues relating to accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers and also problems of exclusion from schools that reflected an attitude of discipline, control and restriction from the government. Luckily, policies of containment and exclusion have eventually failed: evictions have a high cost, and Gypsy and Traveller families have responded to challenges and bureaucratic fascism in ingenious, creative ways. This situation, nevertheless, causes anger and energy for a new agenda in civil and political rights. “Antisocial” social policies, that classify and categorise specific groups in England as “un-citizens” are an example of the importance of relationships of power in human rights. Gypsies have been marginalised as the state is coercive in requesting them to have a paid job and a fixed domicile. To travel is seen as not to seek work officially and not wanting an education. Therefore, for the state Gypsies are the “enemy within”; moreover, it wants them to settle, but eventually evicts them. The representation of Gypsy camps in the media is always very critical: the Evening Telegraph defined their very presence as a fault of the local community, as they are willing to employ Gypsies in their companies, thus encouraging to remain in the area. The exclusion of Gypsies from society is well represented by anti-traveller boulders, obstacles put in private and public spaces to avoid gypsies to stop there.

Education for the Gypsy and Traveller community is a primary concern for the government, as 60% of the community has no educational qualifications. Nevertheless, formal school education is often seen as not relevant for a Gypsy child: what is taught in school is not about them, their culture and their needs; moreover, the whole experience is sometimes as detrimental, as there are barriers for gypsy children that are hard to overcome, such as language, segregation and bullying. An alternative to public school education is given by the Scottish Gypsy and Traveller education program that aims to make education relevant and revolutionary for these communities. There is a way to produce “coherent, concerted and respectful policy” for travellers, with simple and inexpensive means: why hasn’t this happened? The Scotland National Action Plan sets out to instil and promote a culture of human rights in Scotland for everyone and aims to make rights real.

Comment 1: There is a parallel with other vilified groups: people are treated like vermin.

Comment 2: When working with these communities, there is an issue of language: the term “Roma” is not comprehensive. Until the 80s the Romas where not even recognised as a group, and the status of the Romany language is dubious. Is it possible to build cultural value on a language?

Answer: There has been a debate within Scotland on the term “Roma”, as the Romas are mistaken for Romania and Slovakia migrants. “Travellers” is the broadest term, but the communities have ben creative with the use of language: there are “Romany Gypsies” and “Romany Travellers”, as distinct to “new age travellers”. In the European Council the term “Roma” is used as an “umbrella term”, but it really isn’t and there is a contestation also form linguists. Language is a marker of identity but can be a divider as well; it shouldn’t be at the expenses of a minority.

Comment 3: Would the independence of Scotland improve the situation?

Answer: Yes, because independence would promote social justice. An independent state would bring closer affinities to Europe and whatever government was in charge, it would promote human rights. The UK has a conservative government that is far from the Scottish tradition. Hopefully Travellers would benefit from a new state.

David Lambert and Leanne Taylor, from cultural Solution UK, presented their work “Our Big Real Gypsy Lives”, which is the case study under investigation in the AHRC project that Eleonora Belfiore is working on.

The project “Our Big Real Gypsy Lives” originated from a collaboration with the charity Lincolnshire Traveller Initiative. The project was devised and written to find new ways to engage the Traveller community with an art program. The charity wanted to provide Travellers of all ages with a valued educational provision that also included leisure activities. The aims of the project were to promote a social cohesive society where the Gypsy culture is valued; education for all age groups to be a normal expectation; to increase travellers’ life chances; increase confidence and self-esteem; to increase the number of qualifications; to promote access to health provision and to provide a model for all the country for the provision of these services to the Gypsy and Traveller community.

David Lambert of cultural solutions uk developed an interest and commitment to working with children and young people from the Gypsy and Traveller Community in Lincolnshire as a result of previous projects he had been involved in delivering. One of these was the ‘Arts & Word’ program, which involved 10 young people, 7 Romany Gypsies and 3 Irish Traveller. The project was not without its challenges, including logistical ones, as some of the children lived in Gainsborough and others in Lincoln. The program lasted 11 months with 3 meetings per week with professional artists and gave credits for qualifications to the young people involved. They enjoyed new experiences, from attending rap concerts to theatre plays; the tutors gained the trust of their parents and their extended families.

A new program was then launched with other 5 young people; the relationship of the tutors with the families involved grew so much that parents felt comfortable sharing their tales with them. The project was about reminiscence, where people would talk about their past and their everyday life as Gypsies. The creators of the project felt that they were slowly gaining trust and engaging with the community, but any further work with the young Gypsies and Travellers of Lincolnshire would require additional funding. They decided to apply to the Heritage Lottery Fund on behalf of the Lincolnshire Traveller Initiative, as the project they were now developing was aimed to train young people to record the memories of their families. The ambition of the project was the conservation of a culture, with outcomes for people, communities and heritage. The project involved 8 different traveller sites in an area of 80 miles and a strong artistic team. The outputs included a film, a publication, a cd, an education pack available to download and a travelling exhibition.

The relationship with the media was facilitated by a specialist media liaison office. There was no problem in getting the interest of the media, but the parallel with MBFGW was always mentioned. There was no possibility to get away from the influence of the Channel 4 program: when attending a large gypsy horse fair, the team found animosity and suspicion from the community, if not even an aggressive attitude. The local media was interested in the project, but also represented it in an alienating and mystifying way.

There were many challenges during the project: the short timescale, that did not allow relationships of mutual trust between the team and the community to develop naturally; getting permission for filming and recording was often denied by the male members of the families, even when the team had already got an agreement with the women of the community; sustainability and exit strategy presented some problems as well, as certain relationships were built, but it was hard to devise a way to build a legacy of the project.

Otherwise, the project was a success. The children got to know about the past of their families and their community and got new skills. One of the girls involved decided to go to college for a photography program, even though eventually she dropped out. The relationship between the media and the communities has improved. The project was not about giving qualifications to children, but about finding new ways of thinking, imagining and representing the community. The process and the product of the project were equally important.

From this project, there are some emerging findings:

  1. Can communities actually build on what has been achieved? In terms of sustainability, what will this experience generate? What ideas have been germinated?

  2. Ethical quandaries: working with young travellers for a limited period of time and then leaving causes some ethical issues. A girl is being trained in photography for free, but are there any other possibilities to continue to involve this group in other initiatives once the project has officially ended?

  3. How do you manage to have a place-based approach when working with the Gypsy and Traveller communities? Are there alternative models? To what extent are the structures appropriate to this kind of work? In a HLF system one is required to have HLF outcomes, but a mental shift is required.

  4. Time issues: it takes time to learn how to approach different families and build a relationship with them.

  5. Social justice: the team members need to get a fair pay for their work, and in this project members of the project team reported consistently working more hours than they were contracted for to ensure the success of the project and to avoid letting the children they were working with and their families down.

The day continued with a provocation of the artist Delaine Le Bas, who shared her experience as a member of the Gypsy community working in the arts sector.

There is a large number of people from the Gypsy community working in arts and education. The Gordon Boswell Romany Museum is self-funded, and most projects of these artists are done on a shoestring budget supported by the community. In participation and inclusion projects based in Gypsy communities, people can get antagonistic and be difficult to work with mainly due to previous experience. This is due to the fashionable representation of the Gypsies in the media: an example can be given by the Travellers Times article about Tracy Emin, with images of her artworks about pregnancy. The community was represented in a fashionable way without being sensitive to its sensitivities in this area.

Roma’ is a politically correct term, but there are many problems of language, as “gypsy” is sometimes felt as detrimental. There are accessible archives about the Gypsy community’s traditions: the Gordon Boswell Museum, Liverpool University and Manchester University, but it is not always easy to get information. Searching on arts websites, search engines can sometimes lead to nothing or very little. Using the term “Roma” in the arts sector sometimes presents some misunderstandings: when accessing “Paradise Lost: the First Roma Pavilion” at the Venice Biennale in 2007, visitors expected to find artworks from Rome or from Romania. The engagement of the Roma community in the arts is represented by websites for example“The Romani Elders”; one of the most famous people in the Romani artistic world was Ceija Stojka, writer, painter and musician who survived the Holocaust.

“To Gypsyland” is a project that aims to bring people out of history, give space to the history of the Gypsy communities and open a new dialogue about the historical role of Gypsies in society. Influential Gypsy people have always existed in society, but they have never been visible. It is necessary to talk about history because it is what informs the present context. The project “Safe European Home?”, inspired by the rising number of homeless people after the economic crisis, created a space that welcomed everyone and encouraged discussion. The Gypsy community has expertise in many fields, from the arts to architecture and recycling, but this knowledge is never picked up, appreciated or acknowledged. The Declaration of Human Rights, an inspirational source for Le Bas, says that everyone is entitled to have a cultural life. This means that one has to pay attention to the people one tries to cater for, beyond prejudice. The term “Gypsy” does not describe a lifestyle choice, but a culture and a language.

Comment 1: Today's presentations have made me think of how policies have changed within in the international development context where we have seen NGO's go from 'giving a man a fish' to 'teaching a man how to fish' - where it's less about imposing help from the outside and more about facilitating empowerment within a community. It's ironic but it seems (from what has been said today) that we might be guilty of adopting the 'give a man a fish' attitude and have been slow to adapt when it comes to working at a more local level.

Answer: The problem lies in education: people are taught a different set of skills in order to survive. It is not that people are not educated, it is just a different way of doing things. It is necessary to work within existing systems of power to find new ways to empower communities.

Comment 2: In my experience with working with Gypsy communities when investigating memories of flood, I found that the community was dealing with resilience more than with sustainability. The Gypsies and the ‘gorjas’ were working together in order to survive: a community, that had been invisible until that moment, was helping the other and teaching it how to live in a caravan. The communities were looking after each other in a resilient way. It is necessary to talk about resilient communities, more than sustainable communities, as there are no endless resources to guarantee sustainability.

Answer: Some projects are done for the sake of it without any project of legacy. It is worth to work with people who actually want to engage in a project.

Comment 3: Can a single girl going to college in a project where 15 were involved make a difference? How do you articulate the value of a project in relation to the idea of ‘best value’?

Answer: That single person going to college can go on to be a really empowering figure, and a role model that can change things and inspire people.

Comment 4: In 1980s, knowledge had to have “impact”, and still does. How do you prioritise projects?

Answer: I tend to do both big scale and small scale projects. There is only one I regret and it is because I felt I became the token Gypsy in the project. Generally my work is quite confrontational. Working with people from my community all over Europe requires flexibility, I just get on with it and try not to think too much about it. There no space for being an artist at home, I’m used to be flexible between different tasks.

Comment 5: Have you always collaborated with different people?

Answer: I got a MA in Fashion and Textiles in College, but I never wanted to be in one box. I enjoyed new exciting experiences without overthinking. It is important to collaborate to know that is happening out in the world. It’s also good to have time for conversations and debates.

Comment 6: There has been a strong presence of Gypsy culture in television and music programming since 1925 until 1960. Was there more space for Gypsy artists then than now?

Answer: There was an interest for Gypsy music and step dancing. Moreover, people back then were interested in documentaries, now they are more interested in mockumentaries and in the stereotypes imposed by somebody else. Part of the program of “To Gypsyland” is to create space for Gypsy arts.

Comment 7: In 2002 I attended the Romani International Conference in Spain, for which there was a large media interest. A renowned Gitano activist invited the press not to take pictures of the Gitano women wearing their traditional costumes as they represented the “old ways”, and to take pictures of the entrepreneurs in the room as they were the “new way”. Does it have to be only one way? Can’t we have both?

Answer: We can have both: in this way, we’re including more people. Keeping things flexible is useful. New generations are fascinated by the old traditions.

Comment 8: What would you like to see change in the arts support infrastructure that would make your life as an artist easier?

Answer: I’m lucky: I’m supported by the Arts Council, I work with interesting people and so on, but for other people in my community things are difficult. Children have people telling them what to do, instead of asking them “What do you want to be?”. Children are imaginative and should have the right to tell their own story, instead of always being told the same things. We should put money in something different, for example in educating the women. Their life doesn’t end at 35, and they could share their knowledge with their children, giving them an education.

Comment 9: In Brazil there is a “Museum of the Person”; there are so many project addressed to collective entities, as we have a culture of the number. Individuals should be able to share their own story and be in contestation with other individuals. Moreover, one can decide to be visible, but also to be invisible: how do you manage this tension between public and private life?

Answer: Everything depends on individual understanding. Some people in the media will get from you exactly what they want, and you need to learn how to navigate these situations and let people know something they did not know before. Nevertheless, nobody takes the responsibility to disprove stereotypes and there is a general accountability arrogance in the media.

Comment 10: Are there Gypsy collections in museums?

Answer: Most Gypsy material in museums is kept in storage. It wold beneficial to have more Gypsy exhibitions. Our artistic tradition includes folkloric, surrealist and naïf painting, but all is kept in the basement for example the collection in Budapest at the ethnographic museum or in storage. In Bucharest the director of a gallery displaying a Gypsy exhibition received death threats. Gypsy artworks are also symbols of positive stories of collaborations between Gypsies and gorjas.

Comment 11: Why is it not happening? Why are not there exhibitions of Gypsy art?

Answer: I don't know? I am only one person, not everyone wants to be visible in that sense. It would be hard to step out and take this responsibility for some people.

The last part of the day was dedicated to a group conversation. The main themes discussed were:

  • The importance of funding in the arts sector; the redistribution of arts funding in areas that don’t have large building-based arts organisations; funding as a form of power.

  • The time limits of funding allocations; the advantages and disadvantages of short-term funding for artistic organisations.

  • The problem of legacy and sustainability of socially engaged projects.

  • The ethics of working with disenfranchised groups, their rights and the risk of exploitation.

  • The language of cultural policy: impact, social inclusion, etc.

  • The role of universities in creating occasions for community engagement and debates between different professional communities and policy makers.

  • The importance of communication between arts organisations that work on similar subjects; the need to think in a creative and entrepreneurial way about one’s projects.

  • The relationship between arts practitioners and funding bodies/commissioners: a relation of power but also of mutual cooperation; myths around funding bodies being dispelled.

  • How to report value: some forms of value are not reported for and are almost invisible. How can we account for the individual experience?

The day was concluded with the proposal to continue the discussion around social justice, the value of the arts and the needs of the creative sector. The conversation is necessary to challenge the people who can go out there and make a difference in the world.

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