"Michael Gove probably thinks art is important": The Art Party Conference 2013

By Ben Miller | 27 November 2013

Inaugural Art Party Conference re-evaluates curriculum as artists and education leaders join forces under the energetic guidance of Bob and Roberta Smith

A photo of a political placard on a sandy beach surrounded by people
© Tony Bartholomew
The inaugural Art Party Conference – artist Bob and Roberta Smith’s mass gathering in Scarborough, turning the town’s Victorian Spa into “a seaside Hogwarts” – has been lauded as a triumph, with more than 1,200 participants enjoying a placard-brandishing stroll along the beach and a series of “provocations”.

A photo of a woman holding a portrait of a man in a suit while walking along a beach
A seaside stroll took on a political spin© Tony Bartholomew
Laid on by local group Crescent Arts, the one-day get-together on Saturday (November 23 2013) featured a rousing speech by Leslie Butterworth, of the National Society for Educators in Art and Design. She called government proposals for the curriculum “toxic” for the arts, pointing to a marked drop in the number of children choosing art and design at GCSE level, down by 14% since 2000.

Despite the urgency of the key theme, humour and silliness figured highly: few political conferences can have seen as arresting a sight as Jessica Voorsanger – who will be heading out on a Museums at Night adventure as one of the artists in the hotly-contested Connect10 competition – taking on microphone duties while variously dressed as Thomas Gainsborough, Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, or Bob himself reading his forcefully cheery artwork, Letter to Michael Gove.

Leading artists were at the heart of proceedings. Former Turner Prize nominee Cornelia Parker and Jeremy Deller, who won the gong in 2004, joined Pavel Buchler, the 2010 Northern Art Prize victor, on a panel to discuss their first artistic inspiration, chaired by Art Fund Director and former Tate Britain Director Stephen Deuchar.

Butterworth, art critic Mark Hudson, sculptor Richard Wentworth and representatives of Axisweb and the education sector discussed how art should be taught in schools, while installation artist Haroon Mirza and poet Maureen Duffy were among those debating exactly why art is important.

“I want our kids celebrated by their teachers when they choose art at key stage 4,” said Bob and Roberta Smith – aka Patrick Brill – in the address which closed his “joyous experiment” in “a new kind of advocacy for the arts.”

“We don't want children discouraged. If creative kids are offered an exam structure seen to be below other GSCE subjects, they are being structurally reprimanded and punished for being inventive and creative.”

“[Secretary of State for Education] Michael Gove probably thinks art is important. Here it's a case of 'preach what you practise' and not 'practise what you preach'.

A photo of a man in a colourful suit making a speech on stage surrounded by banners
The sober-suited Bob and Roberta Smith© Tony Bartholomew
“Every private school in the country has terrific art rooms. Eton, Harrow, Ampleforth, Westminster. So far from not valuing art themselves, people with access to private education understand that art makes people powerful: Boris Johnson is a decent portrait painter; Winston Churchill liked to paint.

“But art rooms, with kilns, print rooms and plaster sinks, are expensive and that is the real reason why the government does not want to encourage state-funded schools to offer a decent arts education to children.

“Gove thinks education is protected by building gates around experience and knowledge. But the way to preserve great education is to pull down the gates. Get more people to pass exams, not fewer.

“We want a rich, vocal society where all people feel their voice is important, where people feel emancipated through knowledge.

“The challenge in education is to introduce new students to the world, show them things they did not know before and spark the engine of curiosity. The boring and easier task is to hothouse the privileged."

Brill went on to discuss the Browne Report, which he said made university fees "unaffordable" and "closed down opportunity" when combined with recent political reforms.

“We want a society where people feel they have the ability and right to contribute to British culture.

“Charging kids the earth for education stops working class kids from climbing the ladder and it's their journey up the ladder that has always kept British culture so amazing.

“Art makes people powerful because art is about our freedom of expression.”

Stuart Cameron, the conference organiser and director of Crescent Arts, said the day had been hugely successful.

“It went brilliantly well – beyond our wildest dreams, really,” he admitted.

“Judging by the positive buzz on Twitter, everyone had a great time.”

A film based on the day’s events, The Art Party!, will be released by filmmaker Tim Newton next summer.


More on this story:

Artists plan party conference at Scarborough Spa

Michael Gove coconut stall confirmed for Art Party's first conference in Scarborough

Visit Scarborough in November and paint Michael Gove: Art Party Conference launches

A photo of a man in a suit standing on a stage in front of various political banners
Debates revolved around key questions of inspiration, education and relevance© Tony Bartholomew
A photo of a person dressed as a crow sitting at a table outside a seaside arts centre
Delegates provided some of the art© Tony Bartholomew
A photo of a man covered in paint balancing on the floor surrounded by painted walls
Exhibitionism was on the agenda© Tony Bartholomew
A photo of a man in blue trousers and a bowler hat walking across a sandy beach
Brill began the campaign with an open letter to the Secretary of State for Education© Tony Bartholomew
A photo of a man in a colourful suit standing in a darkened room surrounded by fliers
The Party is calling for change© Tony Bartholomew
A photo of a political banner stuck in the sand on a beach surrounded by people
The Spa has roots in the 18th century© Tony Bartholomew
A photo of a group of people walking along a sandy beach holding political banners
Around 1,200 people are thought to have visited the Yorkshire seaside for the conference© Tony Bartholomew
A photo of a man in a suit walking as part of a placard and banner-holding demonstration
Music and play featured prominently© Tony Bartholomew
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The meaty part of the day in the 'Conversations' lacked creativity and the opportunity to expand the debate. I found it lacked purpose, how did seeing Bob and his band address the point of the confrence? Getting a room of artists together should have seen us develop and present the soloutiuon to government. It was preaching to the converted and the villification of one man. I'm not sure the numbers present represents success, how didi they measure the success of it versus the agenda?
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