IMG 5863 c Chelsey Cliff
Development, COVID-19

Future-proofing Visual Arts: VASW’s Updated Sector Support Strategy

At a time in which the arts sec­tor is forced to dra­mat­i­cal­ly adapt, we reflect on our future vision and how we can meet the needs of our community.


As we navigate our way through these precarious circumstances, a weight of concern looms over the visual arts community. The COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified the systemic problems that many have already faced under increased austerity. In a sector that finds itself up against continuous funding cuts, increasingly precarious working conditions and a lack of capacity to tackle shared challenges collectively, recovering from the current pandemic and its long-term socio-economic effects will require solidarity and extensive collective action towards change. With many regional and national opportunities on hold, galleries and event spaces closed for the foreseeable future, and vast amounts of lost or delayed work and income, we are forced to try and adapt. Within our small team, we continue to share funding opportunities and online programmes that seek to support arts workers now, whilst also taking time to assess the state of the visual arts sector and what we can do to meet its needs. With this in mind, we wanted to share a glimpse into our future plans for VASW’s sector support, and the opportunities that are possible with the ‘new normal’.

Building the Foundations of our Future Strategy

In the past 18 months, VASW has gone through substantial changes to its organisational structure and leadership, whilst also witnessing dramatic shifts in our sector landscape with organisations coming and going, and ACE outlining its new 10-year-strategy. With new Steering Group members and Paula Orrell as our Network Manager, we have developed new goals and ambitions to advocate for long-term infrastructural change within visual arts. For us, the true potential of VASW lies in addressing issues that affect our sector both regionally and nationally to bring about development for everyone.

To outline an impactful and sustainable strategy around this vision of sector support, we have gauged the current state of visual arts within our vast region, where our community lives under varied socio-economic conditions across rural and urban areas. We commissioned research projects from UK Arts & Heritage consultancy Palmer Squared on our stakeholders to identify key regional challenges, and from Dr. Ronda Gowland-Pryde on the current status of regional youth arts programming. Our day-long Future Proof conference, delivered in collaboration with Arnolfini in September 2019, invited individuals and organisations from across the South West and nationally to gather and share their ideas of what the future landscape of our sector could look like with the right support in place. In parallel with coordinating these outputs, we hosted cluster meetings across the region, gathering detail on the challenges faced locally within specific counties. This wide-scale analysis has helped us identify gaps within the existing support structure for independent art workers, organisations and sector newcomers, and how to most effectively address these gaps.

IMG 5806 c Chelsey Cliff

We have outlined a two-year strategy – as part of our broader five-year plan – to build foundations for a sustainable and resilient sector within which independent arts workers and organisations can thrive. Continued investment is required in:

1) strengthening connections within our dispersed region with limited infrastructure to support artistic and independent practice

2) undoing barriers set up by systemic discrimination to working within visual arts

3) access to sustained talent development

4) effective new strategies for regional arts funding.

Channeling our energies into advocacy and network building, we will bring regional organisations together to work towards shared agendas. We will initiate and support region-wide talent development and young people’s programmes, a pledge scheme to open access to the visual arts sector and a dedicated programme to foster a culture of giving, generating direct support to artists and infrastructure. Our ambition is to connect different agents working across all levels of the visual arts ecology and to reduce barriers between individuals, organisations and funding.

In March we launched the brand new VASW website. Our online platform is the only one of its kind geared towards the South West visual arts community. Although the majority of arts programmes and opportunities are currently on hold, the site has already demonstrated its potential as a promotional platform and a resource through which to disseminate sector support regionally and beyond. When the full repertoire of arts programmes and opportunities resumes, the site will achieve its full potential as a platform that is primarily by and for the sector, and showcases regional projects to multiple publics to build a vibrant portrait of our region’s art scene. We hope that while we are unable to gather at exhibitions, events, studios and workplaces, our online platform can continue to offer support and a sense of community.

Sector support

The work of Future-Proofing has already begun

The months and years ahead of us look very different now to how they looked last year, when we announced our agenda to future-proof visual arts in the South West. The international health crisis with its far-reaching and unpredictable ramifications, however, has only made the question of future-proofing ever more pressing – the urgency is immediate. As Simon Sheikh notes in Curating After the Global: Roadmaps to the Present, we have already witnessed an international shift from liberal globalist agendas to intensifying isolationist conservatism across the West, and the ongoing lockdown conditions have further solidified nation state borders whilst also making us increasingly aware of the boundaries of our neighbourhoods. This shrunken horizon highlights the importance of working collectively within our locality, which is critical to our lives and livelihoods, and the necessity of practicing care where we are.

We are trying to imagine the impact that a recession could – and most definitely will – have on our sector. In 2008, ACE had to cut funding to organisations by 5% and, with some estimates of our current crisis predicting the economy to contract by 7.5.% within a year, we can expect a recession and long-term economic strain due to COVID-19.

Although the delivery of our wider strategy is temporarily paused due to the suspension of the ACE National Lottery Project Grants, we have adjusted our sector support activities for now, in line with the resources available to us. To date, this fast response programme has included two series of webinars advising individuals and small-scale organisations on applying for emergency funding from ACE. We will extend our reactive programming as circumstances change, with our primary focus on inviting arts professionals to host further webinar sessions and commissioning editorial content. All the while we will keep sharing the latest resources, opportunities and online events with the VASW community. To extend our own capacity to make a difference and to strengthen our localities here in the South West, we will also join forces with our national Contemporary Visual Arts Network (CVAN).

As we write this, the surrounding atmosphere may be filled with doom and gloom, but crucial systemic change is often generated in moments of crisis. We are doing our best to contribute to this change with a strategy that puts the entire visual arts community on an equal footing.

Paula Orrell, Nella Aarne, Dan Waller

IMG 5863 c Chelsey Cliff