MY STORY Art Is Essential - the drawing on the wall

Paula Orrell, a curator, is the director of the Contemporary Visual Art Network (CVAN) and has just launched Art Is Essential, #ArtIsEssential, a campaign to raise awareness of the importance of visual art 

What is CVAN?

Operating across nine regions of England, the Contemporary Visual Art Network is a sector support, lobbying and advocacy organisation, working regionally and nationally since 2012. We are a network that advocates for and represents a diverse community of artists, creative practitioners, arts organisations, institutions and art galleries across the whole of England’s visual arts sector.

Our role is defined by the three core goals:

  • To lead the national campaign for the visual arts and fairly represent the great work that takes place across the country, informed by the nine regions.
  • To ensure a sustained future for the broad ecology of the visual arts in England.
  • To represent and amplify the voices of the diverse range of visual arts professionals in England.

The network brings together individuals ranging from artists, independent creative professionals including technical professionals, academics, students, national portfolio organisations and organisations (including studio providers) with investment models outside of NPO and ACE funding.

Our representation of the whole visual arts ecology means that we can consider and articulate the individual segments of the sector in relation to its whole.

We work with our nine national networks to develop programmes of activity that are specific to their regional needs. This provides direct benefit to the visual arts sector, ensuring an impact at grass-roots level informed by extensive consultation with artists and arts organisations about what their needs are. Most regional groups have a core group of members that make up a steering group. This group oversees the work of the regional co-ordinators, programme delivery and expenditure of funds (where applicable).

While our regional networks cannot necessarily deliver provision or support to every need within the visual arts, they also partner up with other networks and organisations to provide support, accepting that their impact has to be where they feel, strategically, that the demand is greatest for their region and where they can adequately deliver.

I work with a national steering group made up of regional CVAN chairs to set and deliver a national advocacy agenda for CVAN. Together, we connect each of the regions with key sector and creative industries organisations to ensure that the voice of the contemporary visual arts sector is clearly heard by national creative policymakers.

While priorities and delivery differ at regional level, all regional networks subscribe to our collective mission, vision and values which detail our overarching ambition. It is this unification of message that is met through delivery at regional level via each of our CVAN groups.

The campaign is a co-operative - also involved are The Artist Information CompanyBALTICDACSCHEAD, the Council for Higher Education in Art and DesignChisenhaleCVAN regional networksGasworksInternational Curators ForumJohn Hansard Gallery in Southampton, Manchester Art GalleryMIMAModern Art OxfordMOSTYNNottingham ContemporaryPlus TateTurner Contemporary and Visual Arts Group Wales.


What will #ArtIsEssential do? How will it work?

Art Is Essential is a campaign that has been devised to unite the sector as one voice, demonstrating the far-reaching impact of visual arts within our lives and communities, contributing to a value case that we will present ahead of the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review. 

It is a particularly uncertain time as we continue to understand the long-term effects of the pandemic on our lives, and the impact of Brexit on how we live and work.

The arts and culture sector contributes £2.8bn a year to the Treasury via taxation to the UK economy, and provides 363,700 jobs, but recent events have exposed the delicate ecology of our sector leaving it vulnerable.  We need to ensure that policy and decision makers are considering the real needs of our sector and see the far-reaching impact the visual arts have in our communities and the contribution it makes to our economy.

This campaign has been set up to unite us as one voice – initially through sharing individual stories through social media networks.  As a sector, we need to come together to be visible throughout 2021 and the run-up to the spending review to demonstrate that #ArtIsEssential.

So we are inviting artists, arts freelancers, arts educators, arts professionals, venues, organisations, networks or anyone in between – to make a difference by being part of this campaign and sharing how art has been essential to them on their social media platforms. The campaign will unite the sector to influence policy and decision-makers to do the right thing by our sector.

The campaign invites you to tell your story and show the far-reaching impact of the visual arts sector, its contribution, and the vital role in building back the health and wealth post-Brexit and during our COVID-19 recovery.


You have only been in post since September. What were you doing before and was this initiative already in your mind when you started the job?

 We are finding a way to bring the sector together and celebrate our value whilst gaining attention for the visual arts was at the forefront of my mind. CVAN’s role is to support the sector, and even at a pre-pandemic level it is challenging and hard work to maintain a career and profession as an artist or art worker in the visual arts.

I’m based in Bristol, where there are few opportunities as budgets are very restricted and salary levels are very low. There are many things that I am concerned about for our sector and now, with the pressure of COVID and Brexit, at least what we can do is allow our sector to identify together why art is essential and start a long journey for caring for people in our professional art form. 

Before taking on my role as director of CVAN I was working in New Zealand in a totally different funding system for three years, where the percentage of public spending on funding was minimal. There was a huge reliance on patrons and sponsorship – personally I don’t feel that this is the way any first world country should expect culture to be funded. There are different invested pressures from boards and too many varying stakeholders.

When I returned, I spent some time at Arts Council England to understand the changes. Working in policy with ACE gave me the appetite and also passion to want to change how the visual arts are viewed and experienced. 

I am passionate about the role of the artist in society and hence I am in this role with CVAN, I am also responsible for Visual Arts South West which is one of the nine CVAN regions. This initiative has always been in mind, how as a sector we can come together and show our value further.


Why does visual art deserve special treatment from public funding?

While we’re not suggesting that our sector deserves special treatment over others, we believe that we need to protect our sector. We need to find ways to support our stakeholders to understand the impact of the visual arts – for example how they have been integral to transforming the placemaking agenda that changed the whole landscape and economies of cities and regions such as the east end of London, Bristol and Gateshead, these are prominent examples. 

Our business model is very different and non-commercial; we believe in regional civic public art galleries operating as not for profit organisations which should remain free to access. Therefore, this principle leads us to rely heavily on a social system of government funding to enable this for communities and people.

We believe that there needs to be a levelling up of funding distributed to all art forms.  In respect of the non-commercial sector, the visual arts are not a commodity; it is an art form that should always remain open to all and free.

However, I believe where we do need special treatment, and would like to see more funding focused on grassroots artist-led activity, investing in talent development, studio provision, artists, and independent practitioners. These are CVAN’s priorities. 


You say that the government’s rescue packages have not scratched the surface for visual art while the government and Arts Council England say they have dealt a fair hand. Why are they wrong?

We reviewed the government’s Covid impact report – in particular the section from the DCMS - and found that the final report had no mention of the visual arts at all, when we presented data and analysis of the impact on artists’ livelihoods. Our message is not getting through to ministers – we are seen as “okay”. We need to see the visual arts reflected more in the government’s narratives and represented equally alongside other art forms.

The COVID recovery funding from the government is extensive and supported organisations who in the first round needed to apply for over £50,000, I understand it has halved in this second round. Understanding that it has rescued many organisations, but the funding is not getting to artists. There was a precedent set with the recovery funding for visual artists – it was significantly less than other art forms.


Is your lobbying target the government or are you reaching wider with your message?

Essentially, we want our message to be heard about our value. That may seem a cliche but the impact of culture on people’s lives and well-being is our priority including the livelihoods of grassroots organisations and independent art workers. There is a strong message that has already reached our sector about coming together and feeling greater than being isolated in our homes. This campaign just felt like the right time to do it.

Some examples of the stories we have received so far include: 

“My heart, soul, life has been given to creativity and the Arts in South Wales and the importance of ART in all its guises being available to ALL is my driving force. The impact of connection, expression and HOPE that Art brings when it is able to is I believe vital to life, health, mental wellbeing and cohesion generally.” 

“#artisessential campaign opens a vital discourse into the true meaning of art in our lives that goes beyond commerce or trend. I'd like to join in & talk about authenticity & fairness. Art is essential 4 all & we need all voices represented” 

“I’ve worked in the arts professionally for 6 years.  As an artist I have seen the impact arts and culture has had on my community and how it connects us together during and post Covid=19.  Art Is Essential to who I am and to my mental and physical wellbeing”


For ten years public subsidy of the arts has been shrinking. What can you say to influence a reversal of that trend?

£1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund (CRF) is a large commitment by the government  - what we would like to see in the next phase of the recovery is funding that is specifically directed to support the livelihoods of artists and independents. 

The furlough scheme and the CRF have had their impact on organisations, offering a rescue programme for infrastructure, which is a lifeline. However artists and freelancers have lost their incomes – with contracts cancelled and teaching roles lost. What worries CVAN the most is the loss of talent. I’d like to see innovative thinking, looking to other examples such as Creative Scotland and the hardship funding.

In my experience I have seen large scale investment from ACE, and exciting programmes come online such as Develop Your Creative Practice, and the Cultural Investment Fund. This is where the change is happening – and refocusing priorities to this grassroots target for arts investment is where CVAN would like to assert more influence. The problem that the whole arts and culture sector has faced is the cuts to Councils budgets, which were already predicted to decrease further pre pandemic!


How key is Brexit to the visual arts and what sort of renegotiated deal would you like to see?

Free movement for the arts is essential.

The government went in to bat hard for other industries, so it really is saddening to see the impact of Brexit given the economic return of the creative industries to the GDP. The sector’s contribution to national and regional economies, and to society in general, far outweighs the small amount of public subsidy it receives. For every pound invested in arts and culture, an additional £1.06 is generated in the economy [CIF Report 2015].

Artistic creation accounts for 25% of the total GVA for the cultural industries. The non-market segment (that’s public galleries and other subsidised arts) accounted for an estimated 20 per cent of the GVA contribution of the entire arts and culture industry [Contribution of Arts & Culture to the UK Economy Report, 2017].


Do you think there needs to be a fundamental change in the arts funding system?

If I had my turn at the top I would turn it all upside down and invest in those who see the talent at the beginning of a career, those who are interlinked in their art and public communities – this is often found in the smaller spaces, studios, artist led galleries and socially engaged projects where talent is truly nurtured. So I would work with major institutions across the country to find solutions to releasing capital to drive this change and see our art grow from the roots upward.

Here are some examples of where this kind of grassroots work takes place.


Turf Projects, Croydon

Caraboo, Bristol

Peer, London

Spike Island, Bristol

Eastside Projects, Birmingham

East Street Arts, Leeds

Take a Part, Plymouth

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