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‘Art Party’: Bob and Roberta Smith’s defense of art in schools

21 August 2014

‘They’ve changed the lipstick on the gorilla by getting rid of Michael Gove. But all the policies have remained exactly the same. The arts are still paying the price’.

In 2011, in response to proposed reforms to the national curriculum that would sideline the arts, the artist Bob and Roberta Smith penned – or rather painted – an impassioned letter to education secretary Michael Gove in defense of creativity in schools. He followed up in November 2013 with the ‘Art Party Conference’ in Scarborough, at which numerous art-world figures publicly voiced their support for his cause. He teamed up with the filmmaker Tim Newton to make a feature film about the event. ‘Part documentary, part road movie and part political fantasy’, Art Party stars a certain ‘Michael Grove’, whose hapless handling of the UK education system sounds strangely familiar. It will be screened at arts venues across the country tonight, to coincide with the release of GCSE results.

Photo: Tony Bartholomew

Michael Gove was ousted in the Cabinet reshuffle this summer. You’d think that would be cause for the artist to celebrate; but when I spoke to Bob and Roberta Smith in the run-up to Art Party, he hardly sounded optimistic. Gove’s replacement Nicky Morgan’s relative silence on the subject of the arts is telling. ‘It’s a missed opportunity for her’, says Smith. ‘All these organisations are asking her to take the arts more seriously. She should embrace them, but as far as I know there’s no evidence that she is listening.’

The gathering momentum behind Art Party suggests she should be. Fuelled by Smith’s tireless social media campaign, it has almost taken on a life of its own. ‘It’s been really fantastic’, says Smith. ‘Organisations across the country are hosting our event, and I haven’t actually arranged any of that – they’ve done it themselves.’ At the centre of the operation is Cornerhouse Manchester, whose website hosts full details of the event, but you can watch the film today in dozens of locations from Eastbourne to Newcastle. ‘There are people working in these venues who care deeply about education in schools and how it feeds through. It’s not just about creating artists, it’s about building audiences who care and have the arts in their lives.’

While Gove was in office, the number of children choosing arts subjects at GCSE dropped significantly, as the government shifted its focus squarely onto a select few core subjects. Smith and others have roundly challenged the implicit suggestion that the arts should play second fiddle to more ‘important’ disciplines, pointing out the vital contribution of creative thinking to all professional spheres. ‘I do think it’s important to say every day to your children, “You could do this. Somebody’s going to be the next great scientist, or artist, or writer, and it could be you, if you do the work.” I think that’s the key thing – for parents to give children permission to be original thinkers.’

Smith describes his film as a call to arms, and his advice to people wishing to support the arts is to make it political. ‘Within 10 minutes you could be sending a letter to your MP, sending a letter to Nicky Morgan, and saying they should take the arts seriously…Write letters. Vote in the election. Be inspired by your children’s interest in the arts.’

None of which is to suggest that tonight’s events won’t also be parties of the jovial kind. Cornerhouse invites all attendees of the Art Party screening to join them at their own (lower-case) art party immediately afterwards, and the film itself makes its point with creative, satirical silliness. But Smith refuses to let public enthusiasm for the arts be used as an excuse for curtailing public spending on it. Can something like Art Party really effect change in the long term? ‘Well, whenever I come across Ed Vaizey he does seem a bit twitchy.’

Listings of Art Party screenings and events can be found on the Cornerhouse website.

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