Tate Encounters: Britishness and visual culture


Editor for this Issue:
David Dibosa

Editorial Board:
Andrew Dewdney
David Dibosa
Morten Norbye Halvorsen
Mike Phillips
Sarah Thomas
Isabel Shaw
Victoria Walsh

[E]dition 2:
Spectatorship, Subjectivity and the National Collection of British Art

This is the second of six planned reports on the progress of the Tate Encounters Research Project – a collaboration between Tate Britain, London South Bank University and Wimbledon College of Art, University of the Arts, London. The project is part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s national programme under the title of Migration, Diasporas and Identities. The aim of [E]ditions is to report upon the progress of the project through the sharing of research material and perspectives. It further aims to engender debate and discussion among research colleagues, museum professionals, students and others seriously interested in the social and cultural role of museums in Britain in the 21st Century.

In the light of the recent announcement by the British Government that schoolchildren should be offered at least five hours of high quality cultural activity per week, it seems timely that this second issue of [E]dition should address issues concerning spectatorship, subjectivity and the National Collection of British Art by focussing on gallery education. The heated debate within which Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, and Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, found themselves, following the launch of the new initiative, ‘Find Your Talent’[1], demonstrates the importance of appreciating the disputability of any terrain comprising both education and culture.

The advancement of egalitarian agendas, in the wake of the 1960s social upheavals, still impinges on debates concerning mass education and the dissemination of cultural values. At the same time, clarion calls for a return to selective or even elitist approaches to art and knowledge, as criteria for excellence, can be heard. Such appeals underscored the remarks of the former Culture Secretary James Purnell. Launching the recent McMaster Review of government support for the arts, in January 2008, Mr Purnell underlined a shift away from targets but towards excellence within funding criteria, saying, “I want us to review the role that Government and public funding can play in enabling excellence, how we can move from top-down targets to empowering and risk-taking[2].”

Although Tate Encounters has not rendered an analysis of government policy, per se, as a primary object of research, we acknowledge that key aspects of our investigation remain susceptible, albeit indirectly, to shifts in government policy. By such means, we remain mindful that the contestability of education and culture stems from their proximity to fault-lines that are sensitive to fluctuations in policy as well as to deeper historical shifts. Such awareness renders the discursive terrain of art and education increasingly complex.

The complexity of the discursive terrain inhabited by art and education continually undermines the direct applicability of policy propositions regarding their efficacy. From the perspective of research, there is a prior need to articulate the ways in which different social forces and political interests have allied themselves with declared aesthetic positions. By focusing on Tate Britain, the Tate Encounters research programme aims to refract emerging questions of audience experience, through the lens of a national arts organization situated at the heart of the ongoing debate. The naming of Tate Britain and its relaunch in 2000 placed it at the centre of critical enquiries concerning Britishness and culture as well as the future role of a national art museum, housing the National Collection of British Art.

[E]dition Two approaches the issue of Tate and its education culture through the selective presentation of current and ongoing research material. The six planned [E]ditions were always intended as work-in-progress reports of the research programme, published to encourage dialogue within the research communitiy. This second publication comprises critical reflection in the form of two further research papers, together with video interviews and participant material in the form of slide-shows and photo-essays. ‘Faction’ – a combination of fact and fiction – has also emerged as a further means of foregrounding critical reflexivity on the part of the research team. In faction, a series of personalised narratives, both factual and fictional, become vehicles for drawing into research activity the emotions, affects and attitudes that are traditionally excluded within conventional approaches to research. Faction as a transvaluation of affect within research is discussed by Mike Phillips in this [E]dition.

Material has been drawn from across the Tate Encounters research group – consultants, investigators, co-researchers and participants – as a means of investigating Tate Britain, its galleries and its education projects. It must be acknowledged, however, that many of our deliberations have taken place against the backdrop of a range of critical interventions in debates concerning art and contemporary culture, most notably the work of Stuart Hall. Indeed, Hall’s presentation, Black British Art: Reconstituting the Canon[3], held in dialogue with the Director of the Association of Black Photographers (Autograph), Mark Sealy, has been noted as a direct reference in a number of discussions within the Tate Encounters research group.

This [E]dition contains two positioning papers from the research programme, which are intended to give further definition to the field of study. It is hoped that they will help locate debates around gallery education in terms of broader developments at Tate. Victoria Walsh’s paper, Tate Britain: Curating Britishness and Cultural Diversity, offers a context for current debates on the role of cultural diversity, particularly against the backdrop of shifting cultural policy priorities within the post-multiculturalism era. The paper situates such debates within the institutional context of Tate and its development. It discusses the continual re-articulation of educational practice and policy in the light of broader institutional change. Andrew Dewdney’s paper, Gallery Education and Research: Late Modern Practices and Recent Political Histories, offers an account of the discursive formation of gallery education in Britain, which demonstrates the relationship between gallery educational practices, social and economic change and cultural politics. The paper argues that the active and participatory nature of much recent gallery education is rooted in the cultural politics of progressive change. Furthermore, it suggests that practice-based research methodologies need to take account of this.

This [E]dition includes its first guest contributor, Felicity Allen, Head of Interpretation and Education at Tate Britain, who has contributed a paper, Situating Gallery Education. The paper adopts an approach that draws on personal biography to discuss the development and growing status of gallery education over the past three decades. It advances the view that contemporary gallery education methods owe much to the social and cultural practices of communication developed within the Women’s Liberation Movement. We welcome her contribution, as much as we look forward to receiving submissions from other researchers and professionals in respect of the arguments and analysis put forward here.

In addition to written texts, this [E]dition sustains its critical approach through the media arts practices of its participants and co-researchers. Louise Donaghy‘s photo-essay identifies surveillance as a visible aspect of her experience of Tate Britain and, by extension, of contemporary British culture. Dan Fenton‘s short film looks at Victorian and post-war buildings of his immediate environment located between Tate Britain and Tate Modern. His work contemplates the effects of residential environments on the development of personal and cultural aspirations. Robbie Sweeny‘s photo-series also constructs images of the urban environment to create contrasts that aim to locate Tate Britain as an expression of British identity that remains distant from experiences in his own life-world. Dana Mendonca‘s article explores the negotiation of her Slovak-British identity. Patrick Tubridy’s artwork continues his investigations into the relationship between family and the transmission of cultural values through the generations.

Disentangling the current lines of argument, in as vexed a debate as the role of education and culture in national life, might prove to be difficult. Attempts to tackle such difficulties do not, however, stand as methodological weaknesses. In fact media interest in the present government’s attempt to engage culture as part of its strategies of social cohesion demonstrates the timeliness of the funding of the Tate Encounters research project by the Migration, Diaspora and Identities programme of the Arts and Humanities Research Board. Without further research of a rich and sustained order, current debates on ‘culture-and-society’ run the risk of political hubris. Consequently, a danger emerges of getting cultural as well as educational policies and programmes seriously wrong. The range of contributions in this [E]dition point towards productive ways of approaching what might seem to be an impossible task.

1 Lipsett,A. and Ford,L., ‘Teachers critical of 'unrealistic' culture target’.
(education.guardian.co.uk/artinschools/story/0,,2256049,00.html. Accessed 1030hrs GMT, 16.2.08)

2 ‘Promoting excellence, cutting bureaucracy: Sir Brain McMaster is to lead a review of how the Government supports excellence in the arts, Culture Secretary James Purnell.’ Press Release: Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 10 January 2008.
(www.culture.gov.uk/Reference_library/Press_notices/archive_2007. Accessed 27.2.07 1620hr)

3 Black British Art: Re-constituting the Canon’, Stuart Hall in conversation with Mark Sealy, Tate Britain, April 2006.
(www.tate.org.uk/onlineevents/webcasts/stuart_hall. Accessed 27.2.08 1630hrs)