My Day as an Art Party Pilot

What would it be like if artists had their own political party? Emma Sumner investigates…

What would it be like if artists had their own political party? An organisation that rallied to their cause and represented their importance to society? This year’s Art Party Conference was designed to do just that; hosted in Scarborough Spa a few weeks ago, the event was conceived and hosted by Bob and Roberta Smith, also known as artist Patrick Brill.

Billed as the antidote to all other political conferences, the party brought together Britain’s leading artists and commentators to discuss the issues concerning them, acting as a bonding experience and support network.

The whole idea was a result of Brill’s 2011 artwork, Letter to Michael Gove, in which he expresses passionately his concern over Gove’s proposal to marginalise the arts within our national curriculum:

“Look around you. What do you see? Everything is made. Everything has been fashioned by human beings who have considered all aspects of what they have made. Human beings consider the function in the system of commerce of what they make but at the same time their work creates images. Image is everything; visual worth, commercial value, moral virtue, authority and integrity.”

“With the rallying cry for a new type of arts advocacy in the air, and intrigued by what advice and inspiration I could gain, I gave up my Saturday to become part of the action”

With the rallying cry for a new type of arts advocacy in the air, and intrigued by what advice and inspiration I could gain, I gave up my Saturday to become part of the action: I became an Art Party Pilot for the day.

Arriving early, I collect my Bob & Roberta Smith-designed forest green hoodie, which will distinguish me from the rest of today’s visitors. As the first coach arrives with a number of participating artists on board, there is an initial flurry of activity; I’m directing Cornelia Parker to the artist dressing room, checking Jessica Voorsanger’s (Brill’s wife) backstage pass again (she has changed out of a Henry Moore costume into a Thomas Gainsborough, and it’s getting confusing), and admiring Silva Ziranek’s pink outfit. Suddenly all goes quiet as the majority leave the Spa to join the Art Party Beach Parade.

Unable to join in as I’m needed at the Spa, I watch from backstage through a gap in the curtain as the organist plays a rendition of his signature tune, The Best is Yet to Come, and the Grand Hall fills with people returning from the parade. After a supportive welcome from The Mayor of Scarborough, Bob and Roberta Smith takes to the podium (adorned with flags and artwork) to read aloud his letter to Gove; the reason we are all here today.


Taking a break, I’m free to discover what the conference has to offer as I mingle through an array of stands. I pass artist Oriana Fox as she hosts a special edition of her talk show, The O Show, around the theme ‘indebted by art’. The eclectic mix of stands host national organisations such as AN and Axis Web, a number of individual artists promoting their work, and some more interactive activities such as the ‘Goveshy’, where you can throw wooden balls at plaster busts of the man himself.

I also catch a glimpse of the man of the hour, Michael ‘Grove’ MP, an actor hired to play the part of Gove for the day, wandering around with his parliamentary aide. The whole experience is beginning to feel a lot like some sort of live art performance.

Back on duty, I’m put in charge of a roving microphone for the panel discussions. Covering Smith’s three questions of the day — what first turned you onto art, how do you think art should be taught in schools and why do you think art is important — the discussions are passionate and on occasion, a little heated. As The Guardian’s Art Editor Adrian Searle joins in the discussion, I’m reminded how many influential people from across the arts sector are here to show their support.

“Bob and Roberta Smith’s keynote speech is met with cheers… Then Michael ‘Grove’ MP takes the stage”

Although passionate, I was left unsure of what these discussions were likely to achieve in the longer term.  It seemed that rather than the content, it was the opportunity to discuss issues with leading cultural commentators and artists working today which was the vital ingredient in the discussion. Gone are the days when local constituents could attend their party’s political conference and challenge party leaders; this party conference broke down any cultural hierarchy and allowed conversation to flow freely between all levels of artists, critics, educators and enthusiastic contributors.

As the day’s events come to a close, all conference goers gather in the Grand Hall. Bob and Roberta Smith’s keynote speech, championing the importance of art within education, is met with cheers. Then Michael ‘Grove’ MP takes the stage. Over the crowd’s jeers and shouts of “get off Gove”, he states: “painting is great as a past time, painting and decorating is great as a job.” Suddenly the event has moved from live art performance to pantomime as the audience cheers their hero and boos the bad guy.

A comment actor Sam West made during the debate on why is art is important stuck with me: “Art is like salt: you don’t always notice it’s there, but life would be very bland without it.” Mulling this over as I help to speedily clear the Grand Hall and transform it into a party venue befitting of the evening’s entertainment, I have an overwhelming sense that I’ve played a small role in an event of great significance.

After today, I’m a little hesitant to say I’d ever vote for The Art Party if they stood for election. But this conference has successfully outshone the usual hum-drum activities of a political party conference. Never let it be said that artists don’t know how to throw a damn good party.

Bob and Roberta Smith’s letter declared: “Art, images, artifacts, songs and culture are the principal means by which Human beings define themselves.” The Art Party Conference is testament to most artists’ natural ability to be grateful for what they have (and on occasion make fun of themselves), whilst dealing with the more serious issues that jeopardise their funding and belittle their profession. Surely for this reason alone we should be working on our support for artists and artist networks.

Emma Sumner

Read our exclusive interview with Bob and Roberta Smith here 

Posted on 10/12/2013 by thedoublenegative