Artists Make Places: Joanne Coates

For the second instalment of our Artists Make Places series, Joanne Coates peels back years of underinvestment and political apathy to summon a rural counterpoint to the ubiquitous urban-centric cultural project, arguing for a place of community, care and mutual support. Hers is a programme marked as much by its intersectionality as its rurality, activated by its UBI-funded artists and the involvement of all beyond the curtain of ‘culture’.

Imagine 5 million pounds of funding… really imagine. Soon it could be a fantasy. Recent announcements from Suffolk and Nottingham councils of 100% core arts / cultural budget funding cuts, together with news that the National Theatre Wales will have all of its funding cut, greeted us in 2024. Arts funding: it’s starting to become a distant dream. Long gone are the egalitarian visions and hopes of arts for all. Where are the local councils that funded the likes of Frankie Raffles’ Zero Tolerance? Projects that were artistically excellent, supported artists and provided exemplary social justice campaigns that went on to change the life of countless women. It starts to become impossible to dream such changes are a possibility.

Ahhh, so that’s it: my starting point is simmering rage, but a quiet and considered rage. Rage at a time when arts funding is slashed, people struggle to heat their homes, and a lack of hope. 

Let us begin then. 

(It is, of course, easy to critique, wrapped up in a blue fuzzy blanket with cold fingers typing without actual pennies to give out to change society. Instead, I’m here with ideas to peddle. This text should be read with a pinch of salt but also taken seriously. We are in worrying political times. These are serious issues. This is practice in imagining what if. I think we should imagine ‘what if’ more often. Wouldn’t it be great if we all were given the chance to imagine what if and actively encouraged to do so?) 

‘Congratulations! You have been shortlisted to receive £5m of public money which must be spent on developing the ‘cultural economy’ and improving the lives of both residents and art practitioners where you live.’

This imagination activity is going to take place on the border of county Durham and North Yorkshire: a very beautiful, albeit very sparsely populated, bleak landscape where the main areas of work are tourism, hospitality and agriculture. 

The wording of the funding terms – this is key – to improve the lives of artists / practitioners and residents of where I live. Well… they should sit on a panel that makes decisions.OK, that’s simple enough, right? Well,not really. People often move to the countryside because it’s cheap for them and they see its idyllic potential. They want change here and are loud or confident, but often not through their own labour. Fertile ground for us (them) but not for the likes of you. Personally I don’t really care for or about those folks. Look, there’s my personal bias, identified straight away. 

So first things first. We need a panel because one person’s opinions are often WRONG. I need to accept my biases and let them go. Let’s have a locally-led panel which makes decisions around the money: its members need to be different ages, backgrounds, experience. Made up of the regular public community and artists from the area. Informal but important. Folks who know this place and are already doing great shit on low budgets. I really think this is where many programmes fall short: What is already there? How do we value that?  

The current language around placemaking schemes suffocates their radical and transformative potential. ‘Zones’ ‘investing in development’ ‘retain creative talent’ 🤮🤮🤮

They are often council-run or governed. I am going to argue against this. Councils, as we have seen, are stretched. To create transformative change in the arts you have to live it, breathe it, study it (not necessarily at university), know about it already. You need to be an expert in the arts (‘arts’ as a wide term, encompassing design, theatre, visual arts, performance, sound etc!). Looking at this geographic region, the council is Conservative. I don’t hold much hope it won’t be. The district has been a safe seat for the Conservatives since 1910 (19 bloody 10 lads) and is known as one of the safest in the country for the Tories. The ethos of that party gets embedded into what those councils do. Many artists and communities feel crushed in the current political climate. Extraction. Exploitation. 

Placemaking schemes can be paternalistic and hierarchical. Often creatives are seen as a brand (they rarely even use the word art or artists). Ideas – ‘profitability’ – are borrowed from business. On more pessimistic days, I question whether the people running the schemes believe in the potential and value of the arts themselves. Those who succeed need to be consumable and delectable for the middle and upper-middle classes (yum). Personally I don’t really want to be consumed, wrung dry and disregarded. No thank you. It is hardly transformative or sustainable. 

It becomes a question not of how artists and the community might grow but what can you grow for us? The myth of graft (see Thatcher or Liz Truss) and tenacity. Placemaking can feel violent (in that middle class passive-aggressive, irritating, innocent and seemingly innocuous, despite incredibly harmful, way). Complacency over change, competition over collaboration. Does encouraging artists to compete allow for a culture of care?

I think it is cow shit — and if there’s one thing I do know about it is cow shit (I work as a farm labourer to support my arts practice!).

Now then…what is the alternative? 

I’ve dreamt of a rural arts space for a long time. (Trying my luck here. If anyone does think yeah I’d love to fund that, work with you, gimme a bell pls). A stone barn set on a working nature friendly farm. A progressive arts-based physical place. Complete with eco toilets, and solar panels. A live / work space. A darkroom. A place to gather.

Seeing as we have £5 million, let’s have some accessible sleeping lodges (family friendly of course). The community panel will participate in (paid) planning regarding both the building and the events. 

Some kind of dining hall. An outside community space for thinking. A space to grow (food, as well as emotionally and metaphorically) which would host talks, exhibitions, performances with the community, researchers and artists. An online presence would be vital combining elements of the programme. 

A space for everyone? No, actually.  

I can’t think of one space that is for everyone, despite their best intentions. Making a space for everyone can easily be superficial and tokenistic.  

Class is often only considered as an add-on. The last factor to be thought of. Is everyone welcome? YES! Is it designed for everyone? NO. Our space would intersect and look at issues like disability (rural populations on the whole have higher levels of disability with less facilities). 

Key strands would be urban / rural connection, especially for those who think of the countryside as inaccessible to them;programming an alternative educational system outside of the institute (is this influenced by the Black Mountain College? CLEARLY); bringing together separate worlds that form the basis of this society in this place (tourism, farming). How can it avoid a neoliberal agenda? By building on social spaces and places that already exist with people already based here. Events will be planned and programmed with the community, who will be paid, not volunteers:valued for their knowledge, which will be key.

Obviously I don’t have the panel to consult with but here are a few things I think would make a difference:

💚 pay 10 artists Universal Basic Income for one year (£1600 per month) 

💚 pay for three artist residencies (urban working class, BIPOC, limited access) per year for five years 

💚 an alternative learning programme which is community-led 

💚 build and create a future for a physical space 

💚 travel bursaries to attend networking events in Newcastle, Darlington, Middlesbrough (with a community electric car provided) 

💚 meals, gatherings, happenings: one event a month, reviewed every 12 months. 

💚 a yearly co-created gala

💚 an online presence and space – beyond a public website – that contains conversations, dialogue, writing between rurally based artists across the UK. Creating a conversation where it may be geographically difficult to replicate in person. 

💚 the Big Chat (a symposium that isn’t) which brings other rural arts organisations together to talk about issues, hope and dreams. 

This would be the hub of activity. Crucially for this to work it needs to not rely on arts funding. It needs to think about how to do that. Does it lean towards tourism? Does it create goods and food for sale, encouraging a lower carbon footprint? The space could be hired, and could include courses focusing on farming skills. 

One idea that stuck is membership. Like a Substack or Patreon subscription, this would be a members’ club (one where no fee and pay-as-you-feel are options). It could create an ongoing pot for events and happenings. The idea that those who use and care about the space want it to have a future. It would in other words be maintained through community. How delusional and 60s of me.

I think about organisations who have helped me to imagine something better, for myself and for others; Jerwood (sadly no longer funding artists); Navigator North; Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art; The Maltings). They gave me space to imagine something better. 

I propose the growth and cultivation of what exists, with injections of new and exciting things from all around the UK and internationally. Invite experts in food sovereignty, regenerative agriculture and social justice to join artists. Value what and who is already there and their expertise, and build on this. The foundations are there already. It is hardly radical, but it is hardly ever done. 

There is room to lay a different ground; to cultivate a different system to nourish and to grow. This is an exercise in imagination, but if we do not imagine these possibilities for ourselves we risk losing the radical potential of hope. Vitally for change we need long term investment, not pennies at the bottom of the barrel. Just imagine a space for your community to collectively imagine. What if? ♣︎


References / further reading
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space
Navigator North
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art
The Maltings
Jerwood Arts
New York Times, In the Spirit of Black Mountain College, an Avant-Garde Incubator

Main image: Joanne Coates, From the series Liznojan

About the Author

Joanne Coates is a working class visual artist working with the medium of photography. She lives and works across the North East of England.

Her work explores rurality, hidden histories, and inequalities relating to low income through photography, installations, and audio. She uses photography to question stories around power, identity, wealth, and poverty. She was first educated in working-class communities, and then at London College of Communication (BA Hons Photography). Participation and working with communities are important aspects of her work.

In 2022 Coates was the winner of the Jerwood / Photoworks award. Over the past five years she has achieved worldwide recognition from Magenta Flash Forward, British Journal of Photography, The British Council, Arts Council England, Women Photograph, Firecracker and more. In 2021 Joanne was a recipient of Shutterstock Females in Focus Award.  In 2023 she was a nominee of the Prix Pictet. Her work is held in the collections of MIMA.

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