NOTE: I’m delighted to be once again cohosting a “virtual residency” with my friend and colleague Francois Matarasso on my blog and his. (You can access the previous residencies here: on ethics and on the future of community arts.) Starting 29 September, we’re publishing excerpts from our dialogue on public service employment past, present, and future. Then on Tuesday, 6 October, we’ll host a free Zoom conversation about how to make a new WPA real. It will start at 10 am MDT/5 pm BST (9 am PDT, 11 am CDT, noon EDT—that should be enough to figure out the time if you’re in a different timezone). You need to register in advance for one of the up to 100 slots. When you do, Zoom will send a confirmation email with details. Here’s the link to register.
Download our full dialogue formatted for the UK or for the US (if the links aren’t working, try a different browser or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you the PDF you want via email). Or if you prefer, you can read an excerpt each day at our blogs.
Here’s the sixth installment.
Part 6. The UK in the 1980s: MSC and The Community Programme
Arlene: Let’s talk about the 1980s public service employment program in Britain.
François: My perspective of the Manpower Services Commission is partial, because it was happening when I was young—it’s a lived experience rather than what I’ve read. One of the ironies of the 1979 election is that the Tories were elected on a slogan ‘Labour isn’t working’ (coined by an advertising agency called Saatchi & Saatchi) because unemployment was at 1.5 million—but by 1982, it had risen to 3 million. At the time the larger part of the British economy was state-owned. The irony is Thatcher then started shutting it down and privatizing it, unemployment rocketed, producing a level of unemployment and social change that was a big shock to society. And so in the early 80s, the Conservative government had to do something for all those unemployed people, especially the young. The unions were still strong: they ran Unemployed Workers Centers across the country. I was really struck that in in 2008-2010, there was none of that organized help because the unions had been so weakened, but also because so many people have been persuaded that unemployment is an individual problem, not a matter of policy.
But in the early 80s, government still felt that it had to do something, so it tasked the Manpower Services Commission (MSC to create jobs or at least training opportunities. The MSC set up the Youth Training Scheme and the Community Programme, which supported non-commercial jobs. Environmental work, charity work and the arts came into that. It created a lot of work for community artists.
In 1988, when I took over at East Midlands Shape we had 45 young people working on the Community Programme, 20 at Derby Hospital Artists Programme and 25 at a disability arts workshop in Leicester. The MSC helped make community art much more mainstream than it had been in the 1970s because suddenly there were an awful lot of young people coming out of college and art school and where did they go? Well, a lot of then went to the Community Programme. The month after I joined Shape, the Community Programme was closed and we were back down to a core team of five. You can see the difference: the next decade was tough in several ways for community art, and that’s when we really had to build alliances outside the art world. A lot of people got their first training and their first chance of work through the MSC. I’m sure it had lots of problems, but it also enabled a lot of good work because it was community-oriented. It contributed to the mainstreaming of community art and to connecting it with other forms of social activity. If, you put 20 artists into Derby’s hospitals, the organization that’s running that program is going to develop a different idea about what it can do in hospitals. Those things go together. It probably contributed to community art becoming more socially oriented in the 1980s.
Arlene: What part of the MSC program was culture-related? Was it the main thing?
François: It would be tiny, riding on a universal scheme in response to a universal problem of mass unemployment. Government needs to do something. It did other things as well. It tried to get people to go self-employed. I was self-employed from 1981— most community artists were because we didn’t have an employer. There were less than half a million people on self-employment at the time, and government was pushing tradespeople—plumbers, electricians etc.—to go self-employed when they lost their jobs in nationalized industries. There were grants available to artists to set up as a self-employed artist, including through the Prince of Wales’s charity, but that would have been small. The underlying point is that it’s a general program that deals with mass unemployment. It wasn’t intended to help the arts but artists saw that and used it.
Arlene: That was true in the U.S. through all the programs. The WPA and CETA were opportunities meeting resourcefulness. But here, the art and culture part of these programs became something like the largest part, not because someone at the top said so but because there was so much opportunity, and so many artists needed the support and were doing community work.
François: And also because lots of artists are quite enterprising. If there’s a possibility to do something, they’ll find a way, they’ll find a project to do, a community to work with. Community artists are resourceful, as you say.
Arlene: I remember this one person, Susan Pearlstein who ran Elders Share The Arts in New York, told me “I had to learn to speak in many tongues to support my work.” She was describing justifying it to these people this way and those people that way. The money comes in and you do the work.
François: That’s what I learned when I was running Shape. There’s no point in talking to a social services department about art except once you’ve already got them interested in what it can do for people.
Arlene: Another thing to say is that I don’t think that the feeling in any of these public service employment projects was punitive. In this country if you go to the unemployment office—which is an entitlement, you lost your job and you get this unemployment insurance weekly payment—they make you feel like shit, like you’re begging. All of our social welfare programs are means-tested and punitive. None of them project “Welcome to this place where we can help you.” The thing about these jobs programs is that they really weren’t like that, because there was this recognition that there was a convergence of needs, high unemployment and the government needed to put people to work to sustain the society. You had to fill out forms but didn’t feel humiliated by it, which is interesting.
François: Yes, a big part of the attack on the welfare state we’ve suffered in the last decades has been to make it judgmental and punitive. That’s where the moral and political case for a universal basic income is very strong, because it protects people’s dignity because they’re not having to ask for something. Of course it also does away with the need for a judgmental and well-paid means assessment bureaucracy…