Artist of the Week - Steven Hadley

Monday 18 March 2019

Firstly, I should say that I’m not one of the artists working on the project but am, in fact, the academic researcher, working at the University of Sheffield. My job is to research the work of the artists, the response of the audiences and to document the process of the project in its many forms and guises.

One of the academic aims of this project is to learn and understand how artists might take what is called ‘intangible heritage’ (the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage) and make it relevant to today’s audiences.

In the case of this specific project, we are taking elements of British folklore and exploring what those tales might mean to us now, in the present day. To do that, Fay and Carolyne have assembled Modern Fairies - a collaboration between leading songwriters, musicians, artists, poets, filmmakers and researchers.

Whilst not an artist myself, I have worked in the arts throughout my career. Prior to doing my PhD, I worked for over twenty years in the subsidised cultural sector, and have worked with orchestras, opera companies, arts centres, festivals and arts organisations of all shapes and sizes across the UK and Europe.

I’ve had the honour and sometimes dubious pleasure of working with the likes of Peter Kay, Ravi Shankar, London Sinfonietta, NI Opera, Buena Vista Social Club, Johnny Vegas and even Status Quo.

Most of my professional work in arts management has been in some way involved with developing and engaging audiences for the arts and that has run concurrently with my own personal development as someone who was born to a single-parent in a council flat in south Manchester and who has slowly tracked and mapped his way through (a very little part) of our diverse cultural world.

Signed Ravi and Anoushka Shankar May 2003 European Tour poster

Working on this project feels in many ways like coming full-circle for me, as I began my professional career in a small arts centre called The Citadel in St. Helens. The Citadel used to regularly promote folk music gigs, so I was introduced at a tender age to Martin, Norma and Eliza Carthy, Kate Rubsy, Ashley Hutchings, Dave Swarbrick, Shooglenifty and many more. It’s fascinating to now partly be back in that world after many years have passed.

Outside of The Citadel in St. Helens on a sunny day

My own relationship with the arts, as I suspect is the case for everyone, is complicated and deeply subjective. I’m fascinated with the idea that an emotional attachment to a song, lyric or image can be deeply personal and wildly idiosyncratic, and yet the cultural artefact in question can be adored by millions.

I recently went to see U2 in Belfast, where I live now (an old loyalty, dating back to their work with Brian Eno on The Unforgettable Fire, an album I bought – and still have – on vinyl in 1984) and found myself smiling when they played ‘One’, a song for which I have the aforementioned deeply personal and wildly idiosyncratic associations, but which was also sung aloud word-for-word by a stadium full of people who also loved it for their own reasons.

I even found myself wondering whether there was anyone there who loved the song because so many other people did, in much the same way that I have friends who forbid themselves to like things that are ‘too popular’.

U2 The Unforgettable Fire album cover

Because of all this, and so much more besides, my idea of audiences, being in an audience, being the audience, developing the audience, engaging the audience is, well, complicated. I’m as interested in people’s motivations for wanting to, say, get more people into opera as I am in the machinery of how one might go about getting them sat in an opera house at 7.30pm on any given evening.

Whilst Raymond Williams famously said, ‘Culture is ordinary’, I would argue that the system of public subsidy we have for the arts in the UK is fascinatingly complex. Not complex in terms of the endless managerial tedium of audit and accountability, but complex in terms of the philosophy, ideology, beliefs, power, value and traditions bound up in that simple phrase ‘the arts’.

A large audience in a theatre watching an orchestra

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