'Dead wood'? Perry criticised for arts sector comments

Roxanna Watson reports on Grayson Perry's controversial argument that Covid could have a positive impact on the culture sector

Roxanna Watson
10th November 2020
Turner prize-winning artist, Grayson Perry, has been heavily criticised for suggesting last week that Covid-19 will clear the arts of ‘dead wood’.

In their reports on the backlash, both The Guardian and The Independent acknowledged that many arts organisations have been ‘forced’ to cut front of house jobs, but this is perhaps a misrepresentation when in many cases senior staff continue to receive high salaries.

Over August and September this year, Tate Enterprise staff organised a strike after it was announced that 313 redundancies would be made, in which low-paid workers would be hit hardest. Staff argued that the £7 million bailout money allocated to Tate was more than enough to cover workers’ salaries and demanded that no redundancies be made while some senior staff continued to be paid over £100k. More than 300 artists signed an open letter in support of the strike, but Perry was not a signatory.

Closer to home, Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema recently underwent a redundancy process that many claimed was unnecessary and a means of silencing staff who had spoken out against the organisation's mistreatment of workers and mishandling of sexual assault allegations. Last month CEO Holli Keeble resigned, and the advert for her replacement listed a salary of £70k-90k.

Perry’s analogy of ‘turning a computer off and on again, and seeing which files reappear’ suggests that these outcomes are a natural consequence of unavoidable circumstances.

However, while no one could have predicted the outbreak of Covid-19, the UK government’s incompetence in its handling of the pandemic comes as less of a shock to some. This, combined with years of austerity and underfunding in the cultural sector, calls into question how natural or unavoidable these losses really are.

Perry does raise an important point about arts organisations only catering to themselves, but we should be cautious of condemning programmes as superfluous simply because the wider public ‘don’t really give a damn’ about them. Galleries play a huge role in supporting marginalised groups in society, so measuring quality in terms of what is most appealing to the widest audience could be detrimental to these communities.

Furthermore, in a society that is increasingly hostile towards the creative sector, the question of why audiences aren’t engaged is not so straightforward. Back in June, a survey published by Singapore’s The Sunday Times went viral after it ranked ‘artist’ as the number one non-essential job, but why are we so in the habit of questioning who is contributing the most (or least)? At the beginning of the pandemic the country was forced to reassess what was considered ‘low-skilled’ work, after we became reliant on supermarket staff and delivery drivers.

Perry has since claimed that his comments were taken out of context but is yet to clarify exactly what he was referring to that ‘needed to go’.

Featured image: @Alan_Measles via Twitter

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