The Queer Art of Fundraising

The Queer Art of Fundraising

Written by AFP Fellow and Out of Joint Assistant Producer Tom Ryalls

The Queer Art of Fundraising

 

I am both a producer and an artist, it’s almost like having two brains, and each side is often having an argument with the other. One of the most common clashes I have is articulating queer performance to funding bodies in a way which respects the work but also speaks the language of the funder. I want to try and tease out his tension in this blog and do some thinking about how we might change the funding landscape to better support queer performance and art. 

 

The Artist-Brain

 

I had no desire to be a writer or an artist in school, the arts in my Doncaster school were largely represented by seemingly ancient Shakespeare plays we laboriously studied in cramped classrooms. It wasn’t until I found a copy of “Beautiful Thing” by Jonathan Harvey in a charity shop that this changed, suddenly this idea that art was something to be owned and created by working-class queer people took hold of me. I became obsessed with one stage direction:

 

“Tentatively they take each other’s hands and start to slow dance to the music. They are lost in each other” 

 

However, when I was reading that play at 18, the story of another gay man my age was hitting the local headlines. Steven Simpson was an 18-year old autistic gay man who was set on fire and killed at his birthday party not too far from where I lived. It felt like the world had a simple message for me:

 

Success in society = heterosexuality. 

 

The two boys dancing obviously didn’t conform to the idea of success society had so diligently taught me to crave. If I wanted to be an artist and tell these stories, did this mean I would be a failure instead? I didn’t really know how to answer that at 18 so I buried it instead and tried to forget about this idea of being an artist.

 

Subconsciously though, I began to be drawn to failure but it was always framed as simply an unfortunate step on the way to success. It was “The Art of Failure” podcast by The Tate really helped me change this. After talking about failure as a route to success, at the end Scottee offers a more radical notion. They mention a project they did called “The Worst of Scottee”, In it, they got a psychotherapist to ask people why they hated Scottee. They say in the podcast it’s about “his failures with other humans” and I think the most interesting thing for that piece of art is that, failure is the point of it, it is a performance and a staging of failure. 

 

In staging the failure Scottee opens up the space for people like me, newer artists who are scared to fail, queer and working-class artists who have that unresolved question at the centre of them stoping them making art. That piece of work unravelled the tension inside me and allowed me to answer the question that had held me back for so long. 

The Worst of Scottee. Performer: Scottee. Photography: Darrell Berry.


We live in a world that still equates success with heterosexuality (as demonstrated by Poland’s recent election) so failure is a way of life for queer people, and I say that with no shame. Jack Halbertstam writes in his groundbreaking book The Queer Art of Failure 

“Queerness offers the promise of failure as a way of life...but it is up to us whether we choose to make good on that promise in a way that makes a detour around the usual markers of accomplishment and satisfaction.” 

Queer art must embrace and own failure because it can never truly succeed in assimilating in to the heterosexual ideal of art or life. 

 

But then we get to the practical question here, how do queer artists fail when failure often means being erased? Our history of radical failure has been scrubbed from history, our artists have been killed and our art has been destroyed or deemed unworthy of record in the first place. The western canon of art and performance is largely the story of our own eradication. 

 

I need to ask them to help me rebuild a canon of spectacular, radical queer failure. But this is entirely incompatible with most models of funding which are success-orientated.

 

The Producer-Brain 

 

Articulating ideas about radical queer failure in a funding application is even more difficult because often we want to fund art that we know will be successful, if there is risk involved in a piece of art then I find myself having to talk a lot about how I, as a producer, will mediate that risk in order to ensure there is success at the end. What I’m talking about is a culture shift in funding and fundraising which is not something I can provoke in one blog post but I want to see what happens when we change some of the language around success.

 

In Arts Council England’s (ACE) guidance notes for their under £15K project grants, in the Quality section (page 24) it asks you to think about:

 

“If you have demonstrated your project is likely to achieve its ambition”

 

it inherently requires you to plan to be successful. There is little encouragement of experimentation and radical or surprising outcomes. As an alternative, what would happen if they asked applicants “In the event you fail to achieve your ambition, how could you make use of that failure?”.This changes the language to be about being “useful” as opposed to “successful”. 

 

Similarly if you look at the Art Fund’s “Respond and Reimagine” funding stream, the form asks:

 

“How will you know if your project or activities have been successful, and how might you measure against the outcomes you’ve told us about above?” 

 

It asks you to plan for success but what if it asked “How will you know if your project or activities have failed, and how will you use this failure?” this would make space within the question to plan for a radical failure that still can be used as part of the activity. Just by taking a few examples we begin to see a possible way of moving forward which is to look at language are “useful” instead of “successful” as this can encompass art that entertains, challenges and that fails. There is space in this language for the development of queer art.

I access this argument through my queerness but a lot of marginalised people access this through other viewpoints. Success is also white, George Floyd can teach us that. 

 

Success is not something arts funding has to aspire to, we can make a different choice, one that supports more people. I don’t know exactly what that choice looks like yet, but I think it looks more like two boys dancing on a council block than it does a dusty tome of Shakespeare. 

Photography: Tom Ryalls


 

You can follow Tom on Twitter @BoyAndPen.
 

Are you a queer artist navigating failure in your art? How do you think fundraising structures can/should change? Let us know your thoughts @artsfundraising

 

Reading List

 

There’s a book called “The Queer Art of Failure” by Jack Halbertstam which puts forward the argument that failure is a queer goal. It can be quite heavy so here is a video lecture he gave which contains the heart of the argument: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZP086r_d4fc

 

The book “Impro” and its sequel “Impro for Storytellers” by Keith Johnstone is a really comprehensive methodology for creating performance that embraces failure. 

 

This is a really great article by Lisa Le Feuvre about failure as art - https://www.tate.org.uk/tate-etc/issue-18-spring-2010/if-first-you-dont-succeed-celebrate

 

Nathalie Olah has written a book called “Steal as much as you can. How to win the culture wars in an age of austerity”. There is a chapter about how ideas of “good taste” have come to make art that doesn’t imitate the middle-cass ideal seem somehow invalid. 

 

I also talked about Scottee, they are much better at talking about their work than I am so you should check out their website at: https://www.scottee.co.uk/