Arts Emergency: An Interview with Neil Griffiths

Arts Emergency is a charity founded in 2011 by comedian Josie Long and campaigner Neil Griffiths. They are working to keep subjects in the Arts and Humanities accessible to everyone who wants to study them, regardless of barriers and perceived barriers. I spoke to Neil Griffiths about the aims and motivations of the organisation.

What is Arts Emergency? What’s your goal and how did you start out?

Josie came into my office with an idea for helping at least one student from Hackney Borough (where she lived) to go to university, study the arts, and come out without debt. She thought that was an important thing she wanted to do. We felt that rather than start up a kind of bursary for a limited number of people, we should be looking at the bigger picture and to aim to help as many people as possible in the most useful way we could. So we knocked the idea about for a couple of months, there was a really good kernel at the heart of it and we wanted it to be creative and unique. We both love Kurt Vonnegut as a writer, and I was reading his book Slapstick at the time; a short, surreal, sci-fi story set in post-apocalyptic America. Fundamentally it’s about a way of reconstituting society, a  reconfiguration of the family. He regroups people into arbitrary families according to their middle names. I like that idea, I could see it applying to the kind of outcomes we wanted, and eventually we took this concept and turned it into our  Alternative Old Boys’ Network (AOBN) which is central to Arts Emergency now.

We called it The Alternative Old Boys’ Network to issue a subtle but implicit challenge to the networks of entrenched privilege that we see all around us. At the heart of this is a mentoring programme that we’ve just launched in Hackney. This partners what you might call some of our alumni with young people in non-selective further education [Years 12-13], people who don’t have the contacts, confidence or even the insider knowledge to know what areas of interest to focus on. Josie and I are both 30ish, we’ve both got to a certain point in life; I had a pretty high up charity job, one of the top 50 fundraisers in the country having worked as an activist prior to this for ten years. I gave up that job in 2012 to properly focus on the key ideas of Arts Emergency. Josie is obviously an award-winning comedian and really pretty well-known nationally; we’d got enough contacts to think about sharing those with people who are ten years younger and facing a much worse situation than we did when we were at that pivotal time in life of going to university or not, what to study etc. We’re looking to ameliorate the toxic combination of fees, lack of awareness, lack of opportunity, lack of connections in industries, and fear of debt. If you come from a working class background, as I do, you really have to justify that kind of investment. It may well be that you can portray it as investment debt that will be written off after 30 years, but at the end of the day you have to go to your parents – you may not even have that kind of familial support – and say that you want to study Restoration Drama or some such thing. And they will say to you: OK, what job are you going to get? In fact, the world says to you: What job are you going to get? And that can be quite a deterrent for students who are full of potential but don’t necessarily have the confidence or the sense of entitlement to pursue these things. We’re looking to bridge a gap and pull the ladder down.

What do you do as a mentor?

First of all you get three hours’ training. You come and meet our training expert, Rugena Ali, at the University of the Arts who are kindly letting us use a room for free. You get an absolutely sound grounding in listening, and flagging up issues. Then you meet your student – we will only match people if we find a student that is applicable and will benefit from a relationship with you, I don’t think there’s much value in randomly pairing people up at this stage. You will be matched at the college we’re working with, you’ll come and meet them, and then you’ll organise meetings thereafter with your student. We ask for four hours a month but we’ve created boundaries, a base level for what we expect you to be able to do. We want these relationships to be fairly organic. You mentor face-to-face, go to a cafe, museum, wherever it is, and discuss the student’s interests, hopefully help them focus on different areas that you can help them with. You can connect them with people from The Alternative Old Boys’ Network – basically do all the things that you might well do for a third cousin or friend of a friend. Already it looks like it could be a new, life changing way of connecting young people with information and opportunity.

Some students have applied to be mentored, shown real talent and an articulate interest in stuff like sociology, history, politics, and then at the last minute switched to a more vocational subject out of fear that they don’t really understand what they’re getting into. They might switch to nursing, and not understand that nursing’s being cut! They may not realise that there might not be jobs available in many vocations, and you’re much better off studying something that you’re passionate about or interested in. Society’s much better off if you’re doing that as a person, if you feel that you can do that as a person. The mentoring system and the AOBN around it is all about giving connections, support, a little bit of confidence. You’re not there to advise students, to direct their lives and solve their problems. You’re there to empower them. To say: these are some of the choices you’ve got and you’re perfectly entitled to them, here is someone you should talk to, have you heard of this book and so on…

What is the Lottery Fund that is mentioned on your website?

It’s an act of solidarity that we all can chip in with rather than your traditional money raising lottery. We’re intending to get licensed, which is what I’m working on at the moment. We’re then aiming to raise the funds to develop the online functions – but eventually, and hopefully by September, it’ll be a fully online subscription lottery for graduates. You pay £2 per ticket; we’ll need to sell 10,000 tickets at which point we draw a winning ticket. If that was yours, we’d give you up to £16,000 specifically for the purpose of writing off a huge part of your student debt. A lot of the students now will have a lot more than £16,000 worth of student debt – I’ve got a lot more than that, so does Josie. It doesn’t wipe out debt completely, but due to the legislative structures we’re working with for the license that’s the most we can give out. But we’d like to think that it could help counteract the negative effects of having that student debt. If it works then it grows in a self-sustaining way. The odds will be 10,000 to 1 which is actually pretty good.

It seems to be, given the amount of competition for funded postgraduate places at the moment, for example. So many universities have had their AHRC funding cut.

Postgraduate study is something that I hope within a year we’ll be able to have a real say on. That is the natural culmination of the effects of charging for university, cultural differences between poorer or wealthier backgrounds, not having or having connections all make a difference. It’s got to the point where to study at postgraduate level you probably have to be aiming for that from almost GCSE level, it’s not something that you can stumble into. Which really is the logical effect of everything that we’re seeing happening which can be terribly stifling and counter-productive in the long term.

Do you feel that there is a lack of equality of access to universities like Oxford and Cambridge?

Is it right that we have an education system that views Oxford, Cambridge, and a few others as a pinnacle? Do we want our own Ivy League? Personally I would like to see a strong sector from top to bottom though, so whatever institution you attend, you get a really great and well respected education. Josie went to Oxford and thinks everyone should have the right to go. And everyone should have the right to go for sure, every University should be as good as Oxford or Cambridge though. That’s not a metaphysical impalpability is it! It’s an investment decision.

But it doesn’t necessarily suit everyone? 

Perhaps. What we want to do is create a bit of breathing space for kids that are fundamentally gripped by pressures that I certainly didn’t face when I went to university 10 years ago – and I had pressure then over what I studied and why. There’s debt, negativity from peers – especially if you don’t come from an academic or creative community – there’s the employability issue, lack of investment and interest in certain academic areas. It’s a toxic mix to heap on young insecure shoulders. On top of all that you have a value system in education now which really appears as if it’s completely geared towards short-term profit, geared towards the needs of industry in a post-industrial society. This doesn’t seem like a productive way – in an evolutionary sense ultimately – for us as a species to carry on.

Why support the arts in particular?

Predominantly, it’s the ‘liberal’ arts we’re talking about. If you understand that term as ‘liberated from its social context’ whereby the arts broadly hold a mirror up to society and analyses it. The arts provide ideas that are not rooted in dominant ideologies and that is priceless. For example, in this country we’ve got a strong proclivity towards the sciences. And that would be fantastic if they were funding curiosity research in the sciences as much as they plough funding into areas of interest that are applicable to industrial or economic objectives.

Do you think that the way to get more people to take the arts seriously is to emphasise their economic value?

No. We have the statistic that the cultural industries contribute about 6% of GDP. If you add the information industries onto that as well, which would include finance, it’s huge. The skills that arts graduates learn and take into the workplace are massively valuable. But if you start making the argument in that sense then you’ve already lost the war. Already, you’re following the path that they want you to follow. You may say that there’s value in me learning Ancient Norse because of this economic reason, but that’s not really the point of learning Ancient Norse is it? It’s not an argument that’s particularly worth making in our view. It should be fairly obvious for a small, fairly insignificant country like Britain to look at what it produces in the world and what it’s known for – look at the Olympics Opening Ceremony for an idea. The issue we’re facing is this: we have a government in which nearly 50% of that cabinet have Bachelor of Arts degrees of one type or another yet they appear, from the EBacc upwards, to be screwing it up for everyone else. They’re emphasising the fact that for some people culture is a luxury, something that you can afford to do. We say everyone should have the right to study the human condition, everyone SHOULD study the human condition.

Do you think it’s possible to change public attitudes towards the arts?

It should be. If you want to talk about the arts or the arts in academia they’re probably slightly different things. If you take academia as one thing – the point of having this kind of specialising institution, is that it benefits society by creating critically aware, engaged, questioning people regardless of what subject they study, but primarily, within this institution the arts emphasise those humane skills. They produce great citizens. They come out and they might specialise in something that seems obscure and not even obliquely related to everyday life but they are able to use these humane skills in social situations. And they’re hugely valuable citizens to have for a certain kind of society. You might question whether or not our particular type of society is one which wants or requires many people like that, whether it needs people like that. And if it does not, then what next?

It’s very short-sighted to say we don’t need those sort of people, surely. Advertising, for example, relies so heavily upon arts graduates?

That’s it. If you roll all these information industries into the original GDP figure it’ll just get bigger and bigger and bigger. And what are the implications for a supposed democracy if it’s citizens aren’t critical and questioning? A democracy absolutely needs people like this otherwise it’s not a democracy at all.

This is the problem they’re addressing at the Humanities in European Research at the minute; the immediate impact of the arts is almost impossible to quantify. We have a society that’s based on facts and figures and economic value; how do you support the arts from this perspective?

This brings us to the argument of using the right tools to measure effectiveness. Quantifying through statistics is one system; profitability is one system. If you’re going to do a cost/benefit analysis on something like the arts then you have to do a lot of work beforehand to make sure you get all of the costs and all of the benefits so this cost/benefit analysis you do actually paints the whole picture. If you only select certain criteria then you’re not really ever going to understand what it means. And yet, paradoxically, it’s pretty well understood that the arts are really valuable and it’s almost something that doesn’t need to be articulated because their value to society and the individual are so implicit in everyday life. The challenge I’ve had as a campaigner, with nearly ten years experience of campaigning for all sorts of different causes, is that this is very difficult to articulate as an easy to grasp argument. It’s difficult because it’s seemingly obvious and so it’s almost taken for granted and people don’t realize that you have to work hard to create and understand those subjects and products of the arts.

You would not notice the effects of the lack of investment in something like arts and humanities education until it happened; you would hopefully at that point notice that your everyday life was becoming gradually duller, and less meaningful. It would wouldn’t it! We did a talk up in Oxford with Alan Moore, he said without the arts humankind would be ‘meaningless dull grey matter’ and that is almost exactly what life would be in our opinion. And Alan left school at 14, the arts are not something that relies solely on the academy to thrive, but it needs to have that sort of bulwark, that foundation, and it seems to be very much under attack right now, especially for the majority of us. The arts wouldn’t completely disappear, but what would happen would be only people of great privilege would study certain subjects. As soon as they took away the teaching grant for departments teaching arts and humanities across the board, they became subject to market demand. That means that people from less well-off backgrounds are not going to take certain subjects and those departments will close. If you stop certain people from certain demographics from studying certain subjects, then this impoverishes society generally. People grasp why art matters but they don’t articulate it to themselves or each other. I hope we can do our bit to articulate explicitly why these things must be defended.

It must have a horribly demeaning effect upon people who are good at these subjects. Especially in secondary school if you’re considering doing something arts-related with your life and you’re told that what you do, what you’re good at, effectively doesn’t matter?

That’s one of the reasons I’ve quit my mainstream charity job to come and do this unpaid, to make a go of it, because we’ve met lots of students in this very situation. There are loads of students who have millions of things they want to do. They’re bright, optimistic, positive, really keen, smart – and have a lack of opportunity to even explore. A heavy hand is being laid on this spring of enthusiasm right now. Josie’s really keen on everyone being able to flourish at university, and that is so important, I feel that young people are full of dreams but they’re almost giving up on certain possibilities before they even get to go to university or BTech or other qualifications in drama or whatever. They’re stopping before they seriously pursue a flight of fancy because these things aren’t taken seriously, because they’re not obviously profitable or sensible. That’s a tragedy.

Where, personally, do you feel it’s most important to target to change this attitude that the arts are either something that doesn’t get you a job, or to have a job in it you don’t have to be well trained. Is it more important to target schools’ attitudes, or perhaps parents’?

There’s a lot of stuff to challenge. There’s loads. Where do you start? We’ve got an arbitrary starting point with Arts Emergency because we saw the teaching grant cut that we both benefitted from in our time at university, and we felt that that’s a very good place to start because this closed the doors to a huge demographic. My favourite demonstration slogan of 2010 – I think it was the Sheffield NUS – was ‘Making history but I can’t study it.’ That kind of sums it up. Look at London Metropolitan where they’ve turned their history course into a business and anthropology course, or philosophy into business ethics; UEA’s music department was threatened, and Classics had to fight to survive at Royal Holloway. This is a kind of rich ground for fighting back, but you could also say the Baccalaureate is a terrible blow, excluding creative subjects. I believe there’s a school in Greenwich that has made art a completely extra-curricular activity. To take that away, to actually separate it from the education system, is a very deliberate act and it happens in a context where the London Metropolitan’s Women’s Library is closing and moving to the top floor of an LSE library where it’ll be less accessible; where things like the student records from Ruskin College are possibly being shredded. Physically, 1984-style, destroying the actual historical record so these papers disappear. Nobody’s ever going to study them in detail, they’re not going to be able to and therefore they actually disappear from our historical dialogue.

Founder's Building, Royal Holloway
Founder’s Building, Royal Holloway

Do you think perhaps it’s a good time to review how the arts are taught in secondary school, and encourage thinking about the arts in context? 

Really you can probably teach anyone anything at any point, and you choose what to teach them. The whole point of the curriculum is that in a way you can choose what kind of citizens you’re helping to shape. But to get back to universities specifically being important – where they become important is that you do start to understand the interwoven narrative of all these different subjects. You can study English, as I did, and end up being a political activist because you read about history, politics, and personal stories. You can study music and end up becoming a writer. It is one thing, almost one pursuit. It’s the left hemisphere of your mind, if you want – the pattern recognition part of your brain that works in these subjects – and the crossover’s huge across disciplines. For example, we’re working on a proposal for the Wellcome Trust for an arts and sciences series of films to fit into that inter-relationship.

It’s at university where people get the space to do this kind of inter-disciplinary and extra-curricular exploration. In addition universities can do two other important things that aren’t particularly valued at this moment in time, and the first is to create a context in which culture is happening. An ideological context to understand culture in its historical background. And the other is to create ideas – they’re factories that creates ideas and ideas are hugely important to human evolution.

What’s your answer to people who think that philosophy is an irrelevance, or unrelatable to society?

You get into ideas and always end up talking about value systems. It feels as though at the moment we’re looking at a separation of two value systems. We’ve got the utilitarian, and the artistic or humane. One approach to education treats the human as the end, and the other treats it as the means. It seems to me, as a lay-person, that people being the means to an end is becoming more prevalent. They’re justifying what they’re pursuing in higher education in terms of economics. Humanity is judged on its use value. They’re big things to talk about when you start by talking about connecting young people who have interests with ways of pursuing those interests, but that’s the absolute example. We’re starting at that level because that’s where we want it to happen, at the individual subjective level. Without the ability to explore and pursue playful fancies seriously, then it’s a really awful proposition, quite dystopian.

We’ve got two things we’re trying to address. One is this value systems argument, maintaining that these pursuits that people have indulged in for thousands of years are worth continuing at the highest possible level. It would be ridiculous to see it disintegrate. Little acts multiply and before you know it then the type of discourse that we have, the cultural discourse and the cultural diversity and therefore the public discourse, is really narrow. The other is the issue of social justice, where vast swathes of a population have been incentivized to disengage from studying the human condition in one form or another, which is a really basic right, surely? Any education system should – I wouldn’t go so far to say should be rooted in that,and that alone – but it should certainly take account of that in more than a superficial way. It would be difficult to argue that the education system shouldn’t produce people that are useful to society, so what you’re really talking about is what sort of society do you want? What sort of society do we have? And that’s the divide. The society that we have seems not to want critically engaged, questioning, articulate, creative people populating it.

Realistically, what would you like to see happening at the minute politically?

We’d like to see at least some reintroduction of the teaching grant for arts and humanities, to ensure that they’re no longer purely subjects of market demand. Something like the ring fence placed on STEM subjects. The least that we’d like to happen is relevant, popular discussion and debate around that, and see what comes out in the manifestos, for what they’re worth, in the approach to 2015. On the other hand, we’d also like to see a bit more of a public debate about the value of the arts to all of us and our right to be part of the cultural world. People have a lot of barriers to engaging in these concepts and it would be nice to bridge that gap a little bit. We’re only small but Josie and I, and now some of the people we’ve got on board, are coming at it from a different angle. We’ve got brilliant academics, artists, professionals but I’m a campaigner, she’s a comedian, and we see the arts in a very different way. If anyone’s got half a chance of popularising, or re-articulating the arguments in defence of the study of the human condition then I think we do, and we’ve got a decent chance of at least bringing that debate to a wider variety of people. With politics you need to be strong on the streets before you can make any worthwhile change.

How can people get involved with Arts Emergency, other than mentoring?

There’s a link to join the Alternative Old Boys’ Network which only takes about five minutes, We also hope people will sign up to give £5 per month to keep us going: https://gocardless.com/pay/954E3TRQ.

All we’re trying to do is create a very open collective for people who uphold the same kind of values, and through this give kids a bit of space in a dismal situation. To allow them to pursue a dream, and not an abstract dream, an abstract X-Factor dream, because there’s too much of that as well. It feels like people want to take a leap out of their existence, a magical, Alice-in-Wonderland sort of jump out of where or who they are. We’re trying to realistically show that you can go for these impossible things, it’s worth trying but here is how, and here is something else you might love too. People that want to do that with us – please get in touch: neil@arts-emergency.org

Leah Broad

For more information on Arts Emergency, please visit their website or follow them on Twitter @artsemergency. The form to volunteer as a mentor can be found here.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture and on Facebook.

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