In the past ten days, I have visited two exceptional community art projects: ACERT in Tondela (Portugal) and Cork Community Art Link in Ireland. ACERT has been making art with people since the 1970s, and Art Link since the 1990s. They have much in common—visionary leadership, an original aesthetic, strong principles and committed local support. Each has an important place in the history of community art in Europe. I would like to be writing about their fantastic street art, or their work with marginalised people, and I’ll come back to that another time, but right now, I want to talk about money.
ACERT is the bigger, better funded organisation, with a base in a brilliantly converted former school. It receives funding from the Ministry of Culture and the local council, and employs a team of 14, including several who have been there from the start. Art Link also has a good building, a converted cinema, and a team of seven, also led by its founder; it too receives funding from the state and the local council. But the reality is much less comfortable. In both organisations, funding accounts for about a third of turnover. The rest must be found each year, with ingenuity and bravado from a myriad of sources. They are not like theatres or orchestras, making up their budgets with ticket sales. Much of ACERT’s and all of Art Link’s work is free because of the conditions in which it’s created and the empty pockets of those they serve. So ACERT earns money by spending months away from home, making outdoor performances in communities across Portugal. At home, it meets costs by running a café and restaurant, and programming on an eclectic mix of exhibitions and performances. Art Link survives because of job creation programmes. There is only one permanent member of staff: everyone else is on a fixed term contract, usually a year, that pays unemployment benefit plus €20 a week. Even the permanent staff, now in their 50s, earn incomes that don’t amount to much more than the minimum wage for the hours they put in. These organisations run principally on human not financial resources. Where there should be public funding there is personal commitment.
During these visits, I also got to talk with young artists, hearing about their work, ideas and hopes for the future. Some of them left school or college as the financial crisis hit their countries. I’ve listened to talented, committed people who have never had a real job – people in their late 20s or early 30s who feel as if their lives have not started. In a city with streets of shuttered buildings, I met people spending more than half their meagre income on rent, knowing that their landlords can put them out on the merest excuse. Many are not artists, in the sense of having been to art college. They have gravitated to Art Link or ACERT because they have energy, creativity and above all a need to do something, and both organisations are doing invaluable work in giving this abandoned generation a framework in which to do something positive.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Elsewhere, in Portugal, Ireland and throughout Europe, there are cultural institutions where people are paid correctly, where they have pensions and subsidised restaurants, where their biggest professional problem is how to include ‘hard to reach’ communities. In A Restless Art, I wrote about ‘grass-roots organisations with limited resources and bureaucratic obligations […] caught on a treadmill of delivery, the insecure workers in the art world’s gig economy.’
ACERT and Cork Community Art Link produce work of exceptional artistic and social value. When will that be recognised by policy-makers of the rich nations of Europe in which they work?