Fuck Your Creative City Up Its Tight Arse
There’s a line in the sand which I’ve been tottering along for a few months now and a teeny little nudge has pushed me over. It’s been a long time coming but I think it’s time for me to withdraw from the futile carnival that is Birmingham – The Concept. Not Birmingham the city, which remains a wonderful place to do stuff. I love living and working here for many reasons which have stayed with me over the years. That has nothing to do with my ire.
I think it’s best illustrated by detailing the nudge in question.
Last year Birmingham Council decided to bid for the UK City of Culture crown. Since I was running the Created in Birmingham shop at the time I found myself dragged in, though I was never that comfortable with lines being taken. The notion that the Birmingham was “better” than other cities at doing “culture” struck me as not only wrong but completely irrelevant. Why do British cities have to compete on everything? And if anything Birmingham thrived despite the Council. It was the dereliction of Digbeth that spawned the good stuff there, not some bizarre Big City Plan. And so on. But I appreciated there’s a need to play that political game and by jumping through some hoops the city could get some cash to do some stuff in 2013 then what the hell, who I am to grump about the details.
Then the council publicity people got in touch with me. In 2007 I’d taken some photos of an event called Blast! which took place over the Artsfest weekend. A bunch of us had photo passes in exchange for Artsfest being able to use the photos for to publicise Artsfest in the future. This person from the council asked if they could use this photo. I asked how much they might pay me for. They were very insistent that they didn’t have to pay me because of this Artsfest deal. I said the City of Culture wasn’t Artsfest. Eventually I managed to get £50 out of them. At this stage I was under the impression it would be used on a leaflet and one of those tall banners you see at corporate events and, while paltry, £50 wasn’t too insulting. Unfortunately I neglected to specify this on the invoice.
Within a couple of months my photo was everywhere. And I mean everywhere, from toilets in Moseley to the London Underground. This was a major advertising campaign promoting Birmingham’s cultural industries for which one of the photographers, the “creative” if you like, had been grudgingly paid £50. I’m not complaining. It was my mistake for not specifying use. But, well, I think my point is made.
Birmingham didn’t get the City of Culture gong. Derry / Londonderry did, probably because they deserved it. From what I can tell, and having heard from Peter Jenkinson who orchestrated their bid, it was the right decision.
Fast forward a year or so. We’re in an “age of austerity” under a Conservative lead coalition government. Birmingham’s council is a Conservative lead coalition so they’re happily pushing that agenda. Cut everything, embrace the market, you know the drill. A couple of weeks back I got an invite to a thing.
The text says:
Andy Street, Chair of the Greater Birmingham & Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) Board invites you to the launch of Creative City by Ed Vaizey MP Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries. Creative City is an important new initiative bringing together the public and private sector to harness culture and creativity to drive economic recovery.
The event will include the launch of Catalyst, the new £100 million culture sector wide private giving investment programme, sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Arts Council England and Heritage Lottery Fund.
As my friend Helga says, the money doesn’t vanish. It just gets shuffled somewhere else. Those who have the time and energy to keep track of it win.
I don’t have the time and energy. In a few years time this will just be replaced with some other half-arsed “initiative” and I’d rather stick my head in a cow than listen to Ed Vaizey witter on. If I need to know about it I’ll ask Helga, or Chris, or Dave. File under somebody else’s problem and move on.
But these things can’t leave me alone. I got an email from someone at the council publicity department asking if they could use one of my photos from Blast to promote the Creative City thing. Here’s the email exchange:
Council Worker 1:
Hi Pete, how are you. I’ve been asked to contact you by our Arts Team about clearence for a photo which I’m told is yours. A picture taken at Blast as part of artsfest 2008. We are launching a ‘Creative City’ partnership next week launched to support the economic recovery through the development of cultural and creative industries in Birmingham. We would love to use it on some short run publicity. Please let me know, thanks
(See attached file: blast.jpg)
Much as I would like to take credit for that photo it’s not one of mine. Mine are in this set here:
The photo you used for the City of Culture bid was this one:
If you’re interested in any of them please let me know.
Council Worker 2 to Council Worker 1 with me cc-ed in:
I love blast 04 but we could only use if free of charge.
Me to Council Worker 2:
Funny you should say that. The last time you used one of my Blast photos I had to really fight to get a fee. Eventually we agreed on a paltry £50 which I thought was going to be on one of those retractable banners at the launch event. In the end my photo was used across the London underground and all over Birmingham on the poster campaign. While it was my fault for not specifying the use, and I accept that fault, it wasn’t exactly pleasing.
It also strikes me as extremely odd that I was under compensated for my photo being used to say how wonderful Birmingham was for creative types and am now being asked to work for free for another campaign to build up the creative industries.
Suffice to say you cannot use any of my work for such purposes without sufficient financial compensation at industry rates, which I shall take advisement on.
Council Worker 2 to Me:
Thanks for your response Peter. I don’t believe it was any intentional slight and cannout account for the previous experience. But their use demonstrates their quality and impact as did the event – was at the event and it was incredible and went back the following night. However, sometimes in an organisation this size things to get passed and we are much better at copyright issues than perhaps in the past.
The organisation – like many others – is very cash strapped as you may have seen in recent press reports so unfortunately do not have budget for use.
Thank you for your prompt response it is much appreciated.
I left it there but did tweet a warning in case any other photographers were approached.
Just to summarise then.
* The Creative City is related to a £100m programme to drive economic recovery.
* It’s being launched at an invite-only event with a government minister supported by the council, two universities, the lottery, the Arts Council the DCMS and something with a green logo.
* This initiative is to support the creative industries, those who make a living from their creative skills. In my role as a photographer this includes me.
* While there is a budget for publicity materials to be produced there is no money to pay for the images used on those materials.
Like I say, it’s a small thing. And I’m not one of those insane people who expects photography to hold the same value as it had in the pre-digital era. Anyone can take photos now and, if I’m brutally honest, there wasn’t much skill involved in taking those photos of Blast. I merely pointed a fairly good camera in the right place and hit the shutter button a few hundred times. This isn’t a rant about the fragile livelihoods of people who’ve chosen to make a living from photography. Times change and nobody owes you a living. Adjust your business model, add value, do something different. I don’t have a problem with Birmingham City Council not valuing photography. There’s evidence enough of that on their public information posters.
What I have a problem with is bodies, be they from the council or the regional development agencies or whatever the fuck is going to replace them, who claim to be enthusiastic about “culture” but are either incompetent, ignorant or simply using it as a soft target for a publicity stunt.
I don’t blame council workers for this. I understand that they’re pretty fucked at the moment dealing with ridiculously slashed budgets to do impossible jobs for an employer that ultimately thinks they’re lazy slackers. Council workers, especially at a management level, are stuck between a rock and a hard place, trying to take absurd instructions and apply them to the real world. My beef is not with them.
My beef isn’t even with the elected councillors. While I generally find them to be idiots and fools, obsessed with their own reputation to the exclusion of all else, only getting excited when The Great Game of party politics kicks in, they can’t ultimately be blamed. After all, we elect them and we get the politicians we deserve, especially in local government. That Mike Whitby is the leader of Birmingham Council, effectively our mayor, is an indictment on Birmingham’s population rather than Mike himself.
And my beef isn’t even with the population of Birmingham who elect these goons since they’re not given any real choice or reason to expect anything better. The whole system is pretty fucked so blaming one part of it isn’t going to help.
No, the people I blame are those within what’s currently defined as a the Creative Industries who bend over and accept this ritual fucking again and again.
They say you shouldn’t burn bridges, and indeed I don’t expect to be invited to participate in any grand Birmingham project after posting this, but I don’t think this bridge is worth bothering with anymore. Even if you can squeeze some personal value out of it by playing their games, and trust me, that’s the only reason these people are grinning for the camera, the investment is invariably so great that it’s probably not worth bothering with.
Some figures in this town are starting to speak up. James Yarker posted the following to the Stan’s Cafe blog:
On 1st October Stan’s Cafe ceased to be in receipt of Revenue Funding from Birmingham City Council. We’re not alone, the last time I did the sums it appeared 50% of the City’s revenue funded portfolio was being cut by 100% to save 2.6% of the Arts Revenue budget. I can’t conceive how the city missed out on its last two bids to be crowned a Capital/City of Culture.
In Birmingham terms that’s a reckless and insane thing to write on your company website. Maybe James has lost all he’s going to lose from the council and it doesn’t matter anymore. Maybe he’s prodding the beast to see if it will bite back. I don’t know.
On Tuesday lunchtime the great and the good of Birmingham’s culture industries will be in a room with Ed Vaizey and the head of one of these Local Enterprise Partnerships that is not a quango, honest. There might even be a councillor in attendance. As the platitudes and empty slogans are spewed upon them I invite them to lance the boil that’s been festering for all these years; to turn as one and, as the last sentence of bollocks echoes across the room, call out:
Because you don’t need this warped and sickly incarnation of Birmingham. They need you. The greatest trick they played was to convince you than they were important, that they had power. As the money has trickled away their system has been revealed to mean nothing at all really. All it creates are scared, timid arts managers begging for scraps, and you’re not scared and timid. I know you. Some of you I consider good friends. You are better than this.
Fuck this ersatz copy of Birmingham. Fuck this Creative City initiative. Fuck them all.