In 2016, I began compiling an interview project about the arts scene in Southend-on- Sea. Having returned to my hometown after living in London, this offered me a fresh perspective. At the time, the national arts organisation, Metal, had been established in the town for around a decade.
By then I still had an artistic practice, which addressed the concept of the “arts space” itself, and the conditions on the observers, works and language within. So while I recognised that Metal, invited to the area by Southend Borough Council, were playing an important role in putting the town on the proverbial “art map”, I couldn’t help but consider this through a critical perspective. After all, witnessing the effects of cultural commodification in the East and South London first-hand, it was hard not to identify the same effects within this incentive.
Of course, it’s true that Southend was neglected. It still is. Decades of draining social and creative resources has seen outlets such as youth clubs and life-giving welfare sources disappear. Could there be a better way to rejuvenate the town, and its dying high street, than an operation which not only holds events, talks and festivals, but also attracts international artists for residencies and commissions?
It depends on who the output is actually for. Therefore this is difficult to execute successfully, without applying a “blanket of culture”, one which does not speak to the individuals of the town, but to empty, capital objectives. Besides, didn’t any existing culture already exist?
Five years had passed since I first left the town as an angsty 19 year old, frustrated with its lack of liveliness and setting off for Central St. Martins, with the short sighted hope of becoming Francis Bacon. So I hadn’t familiarised myself with the existing arts scene. It was through channels such as Facebook and local news that I came across a number of voices who did not support Metal, or at least openly spoke about it in ways that matched my train of thought.
There were arguments that they had a monopoly on funding opportunities. There were arguments that commissions were not granted to local artists. One issue which was taken up by even those outside of the creative community was Metal’s management of the Village Green festival, which lead to tighter restrictions on previous alcohol allowances and higher entry prices (a necessity on the part of the police and high running costs respectively, but as these changes had come in since Metal’s management, many didn’t choose to differentiate).
One of the most adamant voices against them was John Bulley, a guerrilla street artist. Known well on the local scene, he used his platform to take a pop at Metal whenever possible, particularly in the press. His continued argument was that his art, being on the street and therefore open for all to see, was far more accessible than the events and opportunities offered by Metal.
And then, in summer 2016, British Home Stores closed. Among other things - the structural demeaning of the worker and their rights, blatant theft of income and pensions, the greed of a self-satisfied and apparently invincible billionaire, a mass loss of jobs and an overall diminished quality of life for thousands - this was a symptom of the British high street struggle, a subject which rang especially true for Southend.
Unfortunately, this year Southend BID decided to go the wrong way. John Bulley proposed a public piece, entitled “Essex Birds.” Displayed in the high street, this features paintings of celebrities originating from Essex, including Gemma Collins (from reality programme The Only Way Is Essex), Helen Mirren (the traitor), and most bizarrely and offensively, Grayson Perry (who does not himself identify as a woman, let alone a “bird”).
Sure, a commission proposed by, and including, local artists. Finally!
But: out of the four artists included, three were male. Even more problematically, the single female artist featured also happened to be Bulley’s daughter. Suddenly Bulley’s complaints of a “hermetically sealed” arts environment seemed selective.
Hopefully I don’t need to go much further into why this was another short-sighted piece on Southend BID’s part (who of course commissioned the BHS window painting which Metal took responsibility of) - the use of the term “Essex Birds” by male artists, was problematic enough. Intended as a celebration of the term, in male hands this falls into the wrong domain. Moreover, for many this was compounded by experiences of Bulley’s treatment of women.
In his regular column for the Echo newspaper, BID’s chairman Dennis Baldry wrote, “Our Essex women are a sight to behold,'' insinuating troublesomely that women are something to be seen and portrayed.
Lu Williams, a local artist and LGBTQ+ activist, openly summarised its problematic stance with, “It’s a lazy, over popularised, tone deaf, waste of money that could have actually been a chance to platform and celebrate the talent of local women.”
BID’s response to the criticism only exacerbated the issue. Wading into the debate on social media, Southend BID described themselves as a “small not-for-profit”, taking on a stance which was so defensive as to be aggressive (before deleting their replies).