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Dean Kenning: Statement of withdrawal from talk at FlatTimeHouse / Curator/Director’s Response (London, UK)

November 15, 2013

I was very pleased to be asked to take part in the event Proto-tools at FlatTimeHouse (16-17 Nov) described on the gallery website as ‘part-symposium, part-conversation, part-exhibition’. However I feel I must withdraw due to the non-payment of participants. This is not because I don’t partake in many artistic and teaching activities without being paid, which I do; it is because I believe an Arts Council England funded and otherwise supported arts organisation such as FlatTimeHouse has an obligation to pay all it’s artists and speakers. As I had proposed to speak on the question of art as a resource I feel this issue is relevant to the event.

Firstly, funded galleries and arts organisations should not presume that artists, writers, curators, etc. are either independently wealthy, or have stable academic positions to sustain them. Secondly, and more importantly, such non-payment encourages a reputation economy, which is rampant in the art world but deeply damaging to art. Artists, speakers and organisers of events, when they are not so well known and sought after, are supposed to be grateful to arts institutions for the opportunity to exhibit, perform, curate and speak, and to have their names listed on the institution’s website. Not only is their ‘esteem’ enhanced, but they may make connections (with the ‘right’ people) and thus initiate future possibilities to show work, to curate, write, etc.

The informal networking culture that operates at the heart of the art world’s reputation economy conspires against the ‘vulgar’ discussion of money (except as an abstract theoretical topic of discussion), and so silences those who, while feeling they should not turn down an opportunity, may feel unsupported, unfairly treated, or exploited by galleries which seek to increase their own reputational value by dedicating funding to international name artists, writers and curators. It is not a good career move to criticise those who hold, and potentially enable access to, power.

The policy of selective payment for those working at publicly funded galleries thus reinforces and reproduces art world hierarchies and exclusions, to the benefit of those at the top, through flattery (of power’s ‘generosity’), silence (at its iniquities) and competitive struggle for future visibility (where their should be solidarity and true collaboration). This is therefore a class issue, one which, lacking expression within the dominant system and it’s modes of operation, can become internalised, often painfully so, as personal failure.

FlatTimeHouse, built, supposedly, on the legacy of historical challenges to art’s exclusions, should understand how art as a social resource must begin with the equitable enabling of artistic, curatorial and theoretical production alongside the provision of platforms for visibility and discourse. How are we going to encourage a wider range of people to become artists or art workers if they are not going to get paid?

Regardless of the intentions of those involved, such an arrangement inevitably transforms the use of value of artistic encounter and discussion into the exchange value of art world status, as reputational credit replaces cash payment as the currency which will allow the ‘lucky’ few (the well-off and well-connected tend to be more lucky than others) to rise to the top of the pyramid – and only there unlock the big money.

Dean Kenning

Dean Kenning is an artist and writer based in London. 

Dear Dean

My name is Claire Louise Staunton and I am the Curator/Director of Flat Time House. This is an uncomfortable place in which to introduce myself, but I feel such an introduction is necessary since we have never met, spoken on the phone, nor even exchanged an email.

Had we communicated, I could have explained that the symposium of which you write was an externally organised public event. You were invited to participate because the organisers felt an urgent need for a forum in which artists and curators could openly interrogate ideas concerning the tools of art practice and the use value of art, and felt your voice would contribute to this discourse. The organisers/artists approached me to ask if FTHo could host this discussion since their former project space has closed due to a lack of funding and because they feel the intimacy and history of our house is conducive to the group discussion. I was happy to give them the space and time to do so without charge and without the constraints of larger and more inflexible institutions.

Had we communicated, I could have explained to you our funding structure wherein FTHo is neither a regularly funded organisation nor a National Portfolio Organisation. The Arts Council England funds some of our in-house public programming (when we always pay fees and/or production) but none of our overheads, salaries, externally organised events or the pretzels and orange juice that we served our guests over the weekend. The weekend’s symposium was not in any part funded by the Arts Council or any public funding body; rather I volunteered my time and offered our only asset, the house. Moreover, the house is under serious threat of closure (please see Art Newspaper July/Aug 2013 [ http://bit.ly/1f7I2Fl ] due to a lack of secure funding.

Had we communicated, we could have discussed, and no doubt found much agreement on the problem of faceless exploitative organisations in the art world. However, it is my firm conviction that neither we at FTHo, nor the artist-run group that programmed the event, are such organisations. That you did not take the trouble to find out before launching a public attack on us I find deeply upsetting. Your anger comes from real and shared concerns, but your aim is off. We are a very small team of individuals working to a challenging budget who care very deeply about our flexible, autonomous institute, and all of the artists that we invite to work with us.

Perhaps the biggest shame is that you missed a really interesting and intimate exchange of ideas between a group of dedicated artists and curators who met on equal terms.

Had we communicated, you might have been happy to come.

Yours sincerely,

Claire Louise Staunton
Curator
Flat Time House
210 Bellenden Road
London SE15 4BW
2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 22, 2013 10:14 AM

    I find it rather extraordinary that people find difficulty with Dean Kenning’s letter. Quite frankly, Mr Kenning has stood up for the right of all art professionals to payment for their services. Yes the letter was not sent to the correct organiser, but I feel that Ms Staunton’s reply very clearly shows a position that even if she was the organiser Mr Kenning would more than likely not be paid. It is long overdue that we stand up to this expectation of slave labour…

    The change has started to come. In Ireland and in Northern Ireland we have had a very successful campaign called ASK! Has the Artist Been Paid? run by Visual Artists Ireland (http://www.visualartists.ie). This has delivered clear guidelines for the payment of professional visual artists for the services that they provide – from exhibition making right through to sitting on selection panels and providing outreach programmes.

    Already, artists are feeling empowered to ask… What is the fee? as an upfront question. The system is scaleable, and provides leeway for negotiation and also for the ability to support organisations with little or no funding. However, when organisations can pay their curators, their technicians, and their directors, but not their artists, Irish artists are now comfortable calming turning down the “kind offers that will open up so much opportunities” with no hope of any fees.

    It is a shame that England is more slow in this matter, but let’s hope it won’t be too long before people feel safe voicing their desire to be paid in a professional manner by professionals of our industry and won’t have to fear be pilloried by individuals who live in the cloud cuckoo land where all art professionals can put food on their tables and roofs over their heads by writing cheques drawn on the Bank of Goodwill & Empty Gestures.

  2. Colm Lally permalink
    November 19, 2013 10:15 AM

    Dean of course while I agree with many of your points about the art world, as you know, and as you’ve acknowledge in private your statement ‘isn’t really about FlatTimeHouse’, which lets remember is a small underfunded institution operating under constant threat of closure, I think its important that you pick your targets more carefully.

    Also, as I am an artist I know that you feel you are speaking on my behalf but as the organiser of Proto-tools, an unfunded artist initiative, I wonder why you feel that this particular project is so representative of the problems you’ve outlined that you’ve felt the need to make this poised withdrawal and publish it in a (perhaps inadvertently) self-promoting way. A move that must know its own (alternative/reputational) currency very well..

    And I’m also surprised that all the nodding heads that ‘liked’ your ‘wonderfully put’ Facebook post don’t seem to acknowledge that you speak from a very privileged position.. you are, lets not forget, a powerful player in the art system, with associations to some very big art world brands.. CSM, Kingston, Art Monthly.. I’m sure the list goes on.. Its surprising you seem unaware that its eventually difficult to pitch yourself as a brave lone voice of protest against the institution while simultaneously playing such a pivotal role in the whole expanded regime.. in other words its alway good to keep an eye on the power that you yourself wield because this changes as your profile/reputation/institutional roles and positions become more established.

    So I just wonder why given your powerful position you felt that a remote commandeering of the platform provided by this project (a project initiated by an artist not as well established as yourself) from the safety of your armchair was better than turning up and having the discussion face to face. And to all those who obligingly ‘liked’ your post did any of you even bother to find out anything about Proto-tools or is it that all you’ll ever know about the project is what one high-profile artist says about his own ongoing point of view?

    But I don’t judge you too harshly Dean, we all have to take our opportunities when they present themselves!

    Colm Lally

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