Interview: Bobby Benjamin | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Type ‘working class’ and ‘arts’ into Google and what you’ll get back is report after report from the likes of Alan Milburn’s government backed Social Mobility Commission to creative organisations like Youth Music, The Arts Council and so on, and reams of newspaper and magazine articles that date back years, all of which come to the conclusion that if you are working class and want to work and be successful in the creative industries (art, music, literature, theatre, etc), then to put it bluntly you are f**ked. 

As of 2020, only 16% of the workforce in creative industries identify as being from working class backgrounds, making art some kind of elitist, abstract concept that bears little resemblance to the experiences of around half of the UK population. Thankfully, this great and rather ridiculous injustice is finally beginning to be discussed properly and proactively addressed, with various organisations and individuals offering support and platforms for those whose hardship isn’t just a faux veneer to gain artistic credibility.

On Friday 9th April, contemporary art space Pineapple Black launches THIS IS NOT A SHOW. THIS IS A STATEMENT OF INTENT. via their online gallery, which sees them collaborate with one of these dynamic champions of meritocracy, aka The Working Class Creatives Database, a platform that highlights the work of and supports creatives who are working class. Featuring a number of members of the database, this free exhibition will bring together many different creative disciplines that will contribute to a broader narrative of working class experience in the arts.

We caught up with co-founder of Pineapple Black, Bobby Benjamin, to talk to him about class and the arts and the exhibition itself…

Do you believe that the arts and the creative industries is a petri dish that allows those from a more privileged background to thrive? Why do you think this is?
I think you have to look at the way the arts, as an industry, is managed. For too long, creatives from low-income backgrounds have been priced out of roles within the arts. Unpaid internships, for example, breed inequality. If we aren’t developing working class curators and directors then how can explore working class narratives in a way that doesn’t feel contrived? The arts’ interest in the working class seems to be more about voyeurism than opening a meaningful dialogue.   

As a result, is it fair that art has become a less reflective and in some aspects an irrelevant or abstract medium?
The arts industry can be very reactionary and this goes back to the aforementioned issues. The arts tend to reflect upon what’s just happened rather than address what’s happening now – and that’s because it doesn’t see it from its position of privilege. It’s no good waiting for the Guardian to cover something before you give a shit about it. At grass roots level though – and you can see this happening in Middlesbrough now – the working class is embracing art and using it as a tool to agitate and provoke change, regardless of whether the industry is taking notice. There’s something quite ‘punk’ about it. And from that viewpoint I’d say it’s never been a more relevant medium.

With all the push for equality in the arts, why do you think class equality has failed to be addressed? Do you think it is getting better?
Maybe it comes down to a collective ignorance towards the barriers faced by creatives from working class/underclass backgrounds. I think we are ambling in the right direction – I’m seeing more opportunities tailored toward working class artists now and that’s come about because we’ve made our presence felt and our voices heard. There’s a long way to go but there are plenty of ways to continue to make a statement; boycotting open calls with submission fees being one.

How did you become involved in the arts and what were the challenges you had to overcome?
I was doing my Fine Art degree and started putting on exhibitions independently. I was just looking for ways to get my work out there and I seemed to meet so many other interesting artists who were looking for a platform too – and I guess I’ve been trying to build  those platforms ever since. The biggest challenge tends to be financial. In the last eight years I’ve founded three galleries and an arts organisation and done it on a shoestring budget. I’ve seldom been able to access funding and very rarely pay myself for the work I do on these projects. I never got into art to make money but it’d be great to eventually see the importance of projects like Picasso Baby and Pineapple Black to the community and to the ecology of the area recognised by funders.   

What advice would you give working class artists? Is there anywhere they can go for support?
Your story is relevant so go and tell it because nobody else is going to. Don’t wait for opportunities – you’re an artist – make your own. There are projects out there, like the Working Class Creatives Database that does amazing things. WCCD, founded by Seren Metcalfe, is a brilliant resource for working class artists where they can find critical support, exhibition/funding opportunities and build a shared knowledge base and skill set.

Tell us more about the online exhibition and The Working Class Creatives Database. What do you hope this collaboration will achieve?
‘This Is Not A Show. This Is A Statement Of Intent.’ launches on Friday 9th April in Pineapple Black’s virtual gallery, PBVArts, and marks the first collective exposition by members of the database. The database itself features over 200 artists from across the nation, and beyond. Since joining the database myself I’ve become fascinated by the breadth of skills and work created by its members and I hope this show will both highlight these creatives as individuals but also create a shared platform for us to talk collectively about class and the issues surrounding it.  

Are there any future plans to do more work around the subject of class?
Class is one of the key themes in my own arts practice. I will be exploring class appropriation and the cultural currency of poverty in a new body of work to be presented in my solo at ARC Stockton this July, and I’ll be reflecting upon the idiosyncrasies of council estate life, drawn from my lived experiences, in a solo at Crown St. Gallery, Darlington, later in the year.   

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