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Painting in the face of adversity: Gay art in the UK

The gay art scene in the UK is suffering from a serious lack of funding but as GSN finds out, there are artists and projects keeping the community alive
Gay artists are struggling to get funding but Paul Harfleet is the creator of the award winning Pansy Project which highlighted homophobic attacks.

The arts industry in the UK is being squeezed, funding for most projects has been cut in the face of harsh economic conditions.

The gay arts scene has suffered hugely, most notably with the cancellation of two cultural festivals in recent years.

These include Queer Up North, the Manchester-based festival founded in 1992 and London's Gaywise Festival (GFest).

Both festivals provided a platform for gay artists to showcase their work, with Queer Up North (QUN) becoming the largest LBGT arts festival in Europe.

It had its full funding of £97,250 ($157,700 €121,000) cut by the Arts Council in 2008, and with no other money to keep it going was cancelled indefinitely.

At the time the Arts Council said although QUN’S attendance figures had risen year on year since its launch, they were not considered large enough to justify continued funding.

London-based lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex event GFest has also been canceled this year (2012) due to lack of cash.

Niranjan Kamatkar, artistic director of Wise Thoughts, the charity behind the event, said although money for art projects is scarce, Thought Wise is sent work by gay artists all the time.

He said: ‘We get round the year requests from artists all around the world and locally to participate in GFest.’

Kamatkar is concerned about shortfall, especially for emerging gay artists, saying: 'A number of younger artists face huge barriers to get access to mainstream art funding.

‘Some do not know how to approach [sponsors] and others are not sure whether they should engage with the funding system.’

An artist who has found success is Jan Morley, who sells gay giftware through her website Liberty Bodies.

Morley, who has exhibited at GFest in the past, has been an artist for more than 30 years.

She said: ‘I did put some art into GFest two years running. I think it is very important to promote gay art.

‘The gay art scene will carry on whatever but it is a shame that they have been canceled. An opportunity wasted.’

Arts Council England has not abandoned funding for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender projects altogether.

It will give £70,000 ($114,000 €87,000) a year from 2012 to 2015 to help pay for Homotopia, a Liverpool based queer festival.

Its founder Gary Everett told Gay Star News: ‘Homotopia is something that adds true diversity to the country's cultural landscape and also through our social justice programme.

‘We have made a significant impact in schools, colleges and youth centres with initiatives such as Project Triangle, an award winning anti-hate project.’

Homotopia’s retrospective exhibition of homoerotic drawings by the artist Tom of Finland, attracted over 130,000 visitors when it toured the UK, Sweden and Finland. Proving there is an audience for gay art.

The Liverpool festival was only awarded funding after appealing Arts Council England’s original decision not to support it.

Everett is optimistic about getting enough cash in the future too, saying: ‘Attracting funding in the current climate is tough but there are opportunities for LGBT artists through grants for the arts at Arts Council.

‘Homotopia is also developing a national network of LGBT commissioners, curators and producers to enable more opportunities and platform.’

He also thinks Arts Council England is making ‘significant steps’ in improving access, greater diversity and more opportunities for LGBT arts and artists.

‘When we started out it felt like a wasteland in terms of the organizations making art led by LGBT artists. It is getting better but still a long way to go’, he said.

There are other funding bodies funneling money into gay arts projects.

Creative England, an organization set up to fund projects outside London, has agreed to support a gay cinema season put together by Shout- a Birmingham based gay arts festival.

Some artists are more cautious of ‘queer’ festivals however. Gay artist Paul Harfleet believes they can ‘lose their way’, saying: 'They need to have critical engagement with artists and audiences.’

Harfleet believes they play an important role in showing the gay population ‘as three dimensional beings.’

He says: ‘There are amazing artists who happen to be gay. It is this that should in my opinion be explored. When "gay art" is Googled you tend to get pornography.’

Harfleet, the creator of the award winning Pansy project, where he planted self-seeding pansies in places of homophobic attacks, has never been successful in an application for funding but says he has been commissioned through Arts Council England funded organizations.

He thinks it is hard for any artist to be commercially successful because ‘it appears to be about who you know and making good commercial work.’

The award winning artist also takes issue with the term ‘gay art’ saying: ‘I love good art, if it touches me then it has been successful - a person’s sexuality doesn’t really impact my reading of the art.’

His opinion is reflected in funding - the recession has hit all arts and doesn't seem to have discriminated against gay art. The only good news is that, despite the shortage of cash, the 'scene' is still vibrant with a number of projects finding ways to showcase established and emerging talent and lots of artists are still finding ways to share their work with the public.

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