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Why Creativity Takes Courage

Alan Morris

Long form Journal article: Alan Morris describes changes to art education in recent decades

Above the entrance to Assembly Arts the sign reads ‘Studios. Ceramics. Print. Photography.’ Directly below, depicted in sharp upper case magenta, ‘CREATIVITY TAKES COURAGE’. The phrase reflects the organisations desire to assert the importance of creativity, whilst acknowledging the feelings of vulnerability and risk that those entering the building may experience. In times of seemingly increasing economic, ecological and political turmoil, the importance of creativity remains as strong as it has ever been. 


When entering the former Georgian dance halls on Lancaster’s historic King Street, visitors to Assembly Arts immediately encounter a high and light gallery space, with polished floor boards and white walls.  The building straight away asserts itself as a place where creativity is at once practiced and shared.  


The wide and open staircase at the rear of the gallery leads to partitioned studio spaces in the main hall. Rented by a number of professional artists, the spaces are as individual as their occupier. One is plastered with the chaotically colourful detritus of splattered paint and opened pigments on its floors and walls, its vibrant patina punctuated with empty prosecco bottles and dirty coffee mugs. Another contains a simple modern chair and desk, itself hosting little more than a computer screen and neatly arranged pens.  A third is home to an ancient wooden bench covered in old tools and other assorted instruments of creativity, whilst the occupier has provided herself solace from the exertions of making by the addition of an old and worn floral comfy chair.  


Across the corridor the dedicated Art Room provides a light and airy teaching space, with easels and tables and industrial aluminium sink. Making it unique among the cluster of studios in the quarter of Lancaster shadowing beneath the castle, Assembly Arts also provides a range of facilities for use by both the resident artists and the wider community, including a kiln and potter’s wheels, screen-printing equipment and a photographic darkroom.  


Assembly Arts was officially opened by the Member of Parliament for Lancaster and Fleetwood, Cat Smith, on 23 September 2023.  A few months earlier, after an eighteen month period of negotiation, planning and construction, the three founders of Assembly Arts, (ceramicist Rae Tribbick, glass artist and print-maker Sarah Galloway and myself), invited expressions of interest from potential artist tenants.  


To our delight the response was both immediate and positive, with the studios filled within a matter of weeks. A new community of talented and committed artists had been created as we successfully responded to the needs of a number of individuals, each with their own aspirations and motivations to be part of the newly established studio group.  What were those needs and motivations and how will Assembly Arts go about meeting them? Who is Assembly Arts for and why do we think the organisation needs to exist? 


Driven by a number of underlying philosophies and beliefs, from the onset we established Assembly Arts in order to both support professional artists at different stages of their career along with providing opportunities for the wider community to learn a range of skills through the provision of art classes in various disciplines.  


Creating the organisation from scratch meant that we were able to exploit the one and only opportunity to select and curate a group of practitioners whose skillset and personalities chimed with our aspirations for the building. Having secured a mix of inter-generational experiences, insights and opinions, our artists include graduates in their twenties and emerging practitioners in their thirties, along with established middle aged and sexagenarian practitioners.


Irrespective of their age or experience (many have been to art school, including Glasgow School of Art, the Ruskin School, Edinburgh College of Art and the Royal College of Art) it was important that each artist would be open to new ideas and experiences and be willing to learn from each other.  Indeed, the creation of a kind, supportive and collegiate ethos has been at the forefront of our minds when establishing Assembly Arts.


We believe that the prevalence of a happy and nurturing atmosphere and work environment is crucial for our artists if they are to feel supported and confident whilst engaging in their work. Creativity can rarely happen independently and individuals need the encouragement and validation of others. 


Appreciating as we do that that creativity is invariably a shared practice (our name Assembly Arts reflects this whilst  also paying homage to the name of the former Georgian dance hall building)  it is arguable that such an understanding is sometimes at odds with aspects of main stream art education, which in recent decades has placed an increasing emphasis on such notions as ‘employability’ and ‘entrepreneurship’.


The majority of higher education art and design establishments now prioritise the apparent needs of their students as individuals, training them to compete in a market.  At Assembly Arts we are seeking to question such notions, whilst actively encouraging our artists to share their practice and to both provide and signpost opportunities for them. We help our artists share their practice through teaching, making available the Art Room at a reduced rate.  


The small nature of our organisation ensures that our artists can maintain their independence of spirit whilst being creative in their teaching styles and methodologies. This is in contrast to the reality of increasingly hard pressed teaching staff within a higher education sector that has normalised the corrosive aspects of target driven cultures and the pervasive effects of managerialism.


In addition to the oppressive command and control models of management now endemic within many art schools, the marketisation and commercialisation of the sector has led to other trends which stifle creativity and dialogue.   At Assembly Arts our aim is to be as ethical as possible whilst being as transparent and honest as we can in order to manage expectation with integrity.  


In an environment where institutions openly compete to secure the greatest number of fee paying students - now regarded as customers - it is clear that the higher education sector has experienced a broad policy shift away from the Keynesian welfare state settlement towards a paradigm based on a new liberalism, with associated mechanisms of the market and managerialism. As a consequence some believe higher education has been ‘de-churched’, with academics being forced to react to the damage caused by corporatisation and commodification. Independent and on the periphery of main stream creative education, Assembly Arts nevertheless exists within the context of a much larger pedological landscape, populated by a  wide variety of organisations, ranging from small independent studios run by artists-teachers, to large multi-million pound institutions operating across many continents.


 Whilst higher education was once defined by its remit for the search for truth, in recent decades in the UK it has become an instrument for training for the purpose of supposedly facilitating social mobility.  A better trained workforce, politicians have argued, is likely to lead to greater individual prosperity, leading to increased life chances.


However, in the past couple of decades the burden of debt for young people has increased, not least through the rampant rise in house prices, leading to ever higher rents and mortgage costs and, ironically, the imposition of excessive tuition fees. Such trends continue to stymie any positive impacts of social mobility brought about by a supposedly better trained workforce and are indicative of the way unfettered capitalism and the consequences of de-regulated commercialism has corrosively permeated all aspects of society, leading to ever greater divisions and inequalities.


It is in this broader socio-economic context that we have established Assembly Arts in order to provide opportunities for artists to make, exhibit, network and promote their practice. Some eighty years ago James Boswell (1906-71), the activist artist involved in the Artists International Association, wrote “In the end you can’t make painters, you can only make opportunities for them”. 


Despite rhetorical platitudes to the contrary, the psychological and monetary value of the arts and humanities continues to be undermined by successive governments. Whilst the so called ‘creative industries’ make a substantial contribution to the UK economy, nevertheless in education the arts are demoted in favour of science, technology, engineering and maths.  The message to aspiring artists is that the pursuit of their creative passions is likely to be futile, inevitably leading to a poorer standard of living.


That society generally is denying the motivations and desire of individuals to create work for its own sake is both dangerous and short sighted.  Art is supposed to be divorced from necessity. Art is supposed to be free from practical application.  In his paper On the Aesthetic Education of Man written in 1794 the German philosopher and playwright Friedrich Schiller encapsulated these ideas stating “Art is a daughter of freedom and must receive her commission from the needs of the spirits, not the exigency of matter”.


Whilst in the past twenty years or so there has been ever more emphasis placed on the apparent importance of STEM subjects, in the UK the prevailing views that under value art education are sadly not new. In 1960 Sir William Coldstream was commissioned to examine the status of art and design education. Whilst Coldstream argued that art education at the time was intellectually respectable, his government report nevertheless led to the closure of nearly 200 art schools.


In the context of the diminution of the value of creativity it is perhaps unsurprising that our artists have told us that one of their motivations for joining Assembly Arts is that they wish to be amongst like minded people. This has a positive impact on their confidence,  which in turn boosts their sense of status and self esteem.  Despite the continued undermining of the place of the artist in society, historically artists enjoyed high social status.


The links between social acceptability, intellectualism and drawing had their roots in the European academies, where educated artists had to be capable of producing history paintings to the most demanding artistic level.  Run on the French model established in the mid seventeenth century by Charles Le Brun (1619-90) on behalf of his royal master Louis XIV, the European academies were reforged for a British public in the founding theories of Sir Joshua Raynolds, which were expounded to the public at London’s Royal Academy in the second half of the eighteenth century.


With its high ceilings and copious daylight when designing the interior spaces at Assembly Arts we consciously referenced the European academies.  In the main studio we have maximised the benefits of the six large sash windows, painting all the walls, partitioning and doors pure white.  Whilst providing each of the artists with a simple non distracting space and being practical as the surfaces can be easily repainted, the art school like environment also confers both credibility and seriousness of purpose.  Moreover, along with the provision of numerous electrical sockets and day light balanced lighting, the white studios at Assembly Arts communicate that we are invested in our artist tenants whilst articulating to visitors the role and purpose of the space. 


As creatives ourselves the co-founders of Assembly Arts understand that the occupation of studio space is deeply personal. Although a prerequisite for creativity, some art schools do not provide adequate studio space for their students whilst it is not uncommon for institutions to deny students the opportunity to put artworks on the walls. Typically modern buildings constructed as part of private finance  initiatives, the ‘protection’ of the shared, multidisciplinary space is deemed more important than the learning experience of the students. Something is surely amiss when financial assets are considered more important than the intellectual and creative curiosity of learners.


Along with studio spaces for artists, Assembly Arts also provides benefits for the wider community as a place to creatively experiment and play.   In some respects we are proactively addressing  a recent trend where aspiring artists of all levels and abilities are struggling to remain in touch with their inner creative selves.  Many art students, with the pressure of fees and often having to work in poorly paid and insecure jobs, are fearful of failure and losing the ability to play.  Who can blame them when they are told that their education, with its exorbitant financial costs and accompanying debt, must be seen as a ‘personal investment’.


Often students are risk averse, unable to freely experiment, requiring ever increasing levels of instruction.  Assembly Arts exists to provide a safe space in which to undo some of the wrongs propagated by a main stream art education system which has lost sight of its inherent ludic principles of experimentation and play.   As a small organisation, offering only small teacher to student ratio and one-to-one teaching, we are able to closely listen to our learners and respond appropriately to their needs.


Big institutions, including art schools which have been subsumed and branded into a university system for which they were not designed, now typically have large student to teacher ratio’s as a consequence of increasingly large numbers of students being recruited without the requisite increase in staff numbers.   


In addition to providing a space where practical work can happen, Assembly Arts also exists to facilitate debate and criticism. We encourage our artists to give informal feedback and advice to their peers through ongoing conversation and dialogue.  The artists have opportunities to exhibit alongside one another and curate each others work.  In addition ‘extra curricula’ activities for sharing and bonding take place.  Each Friday afternoon, for example, we meet socially to discuss the week gone by along with forthcoming plans, whilst the group uses WhatsApp and social media to exchange ideas and information.


Having first visited the then empty Assembly Rooms in February 2022, when subsequently considering the potential use and design of the main studio space it would have been possible for us to create a number of small work stations for computers and for this to have been more profitable.  However we wished to create spaces where artists could create relatively large scale work with their eyes and hands.


 As digital technologies continue to pervade all aspects of our lives, including our creativity, and artificial intelligence becomes ever more capable it is likely that people will increasingly crave human authenticity in all forms. In the face of the advancements of A.I. at Assembly Arts we are consciously seeking to provide a place where art is at once produced and experienced through human interaction.  


Although seeking to operate in clearly defined and specific ways, the promotion of the importance of creativity is at the core of Assembly Arts.  The organisation is driven in part by a philosophy that is derived from a conscious effort to address some of the ethically questionable trends prevalent in art schools.  Nevertheless, Assembly Arts has to succeed financially and as creatives we wish to have autonomy and control over how the organisation is run and activities occur on its premises.


In the future it is likely that where we are eligible for grant monies we will make applications. However we do not wish to be reliant on a competitive and perpetually under funded grant giving sector, which is itself reliant on the largesse of others through charitable initiatives, sometimes conveniently reframed for a digital era, epitomised by the seemingly anodyne ‘crowdfunding’ trend.  That the creative arts are reliant on such funds is itself indicative of how society values them.  


To warrant financial assistance art invariably has to be seen to meet a need, like any other commercial transaction, leading to the daughter of freedom being stifled, unable to objectively comment upon the exigencies of the human condition.  The fact that the desire to create art for its own sake, however funded, is deemed to be in some ways problematic, counter to societal norms and expectations, is perhaps axiomatic.


Historically it seems artists have always struggled. It was, afterall, around a century ago when the French modernist Henri Matisse wrote creativity takes courage.

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