Jubilee Arts was a pioneering community arts project founded in 1974, in West Bromwich, an industrial town west of Birmingham. It thrived for more than 20 years, making imaginative and serious art with local communities. Then, during the ‘aspirational’ New Labour years, Jubilee Arts was crushed by the effort to establish a permanent place for its values in the town’s urban landscape. The arts centre that embodied that vision, The Public, was never a simple idea, and all sorts of mistakes were made during its long gestation. It opened in 2008 and was becoming a valued part of West Bromwich’s cultural life when public spending cuts ended its story in 2013. The adventure’s financial and human cost was high, not least in the end of Jubilee Arts. More happily, many of the people who were part of Jubilee’s story have since gone on to create wonderful community arts work in other places and ways.
The building is now a sixth form college, with a small part retained as a gallery. By a sad irony, it is currently showing a temporary exhibition from the Jubilee Arts Archive, a project created by Brendan Jackson and other Jubilee stalwarts. The photographs depict a vanished world of council estates and youth work, pickets, protests and poverty. Some of the art is also of its time—murals, play projects and carnivals, made with recycled materials and little money. But other aspects of the work seem very contemporary. Jubilee’s documentary photography put established ideas into new hands, creating an important body of work that can now been seen online. Its digital work in the early 1990s—like Sex Get Serious (1993)—took the original pioneering spirit into the emerging world of computers.
It would be easy to feel nostalgic about this work, especially, if like me, you lived through those years and were involved in similar projects. Memory can be kind—and deceptive. But the activities documented in the Jubilee Arts Archive are inseparable from their time. They emerged from and reflect the last days of collectivist Britain, swept away in the neoliberal hegemony we now inhabit. As I walked round the exhibition, I could see the new designer stores and coffee shops that now surround the erstwhile Public. I was also conscious of the busy street market and discount stores on the other side of the building.
The Jubilee Arts Archive is a wonderful portrait of a first generation community arts organisation. It might be the most comprehensive resource of its kind yet produced. But if the ideas about cultural democracy that it helped define remain valid, as I believe they do, they need new forms of expression and new approaches to practice that belong to the world as it is now. The past can be an inspiration: but the present is where we can act. In the exhibition hangs a banner that says:
Work as if you live in the early days of a better society.
I came away feeling that optimism too is a valuable resource.