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Arts audience, Budapest 2012. Photo: Derzsi Elekes Andor, Wikipedia.

Whose Cost Is It Anyway?


Opinion Piece by Patrick Fox on recessionary times and the 21st century conference

A conference is a meeting of people who "confer" about a topic. There are many types of conference, from large-scale conventions to more focused seminars. Philosophies around conference formats have developed in recent years, ‘unconferencing’, barcamps and world café formats have become increasingly popular, a nod perhaps to an acknowledgement of a diversity of experience, with less reliance on the expert / spectator dynamic.

Conferences aim to create frameworks to explore complex topics. At best a conference can shape or challenge your thinking and be a chance to connect with bright minds and interesting perspectives, at worst you’ve struggled to digest an average lunch whilst catching up with a couple of familiar faces whom you might not have otherwise seen.

Working within the field of collaborative arts, most successful conferences I attend rely on a range of expertise and understandings and a balance of networking, reflection and presentation. This is particularly the case within the field of Arts and Health, described by the Arts Council Ireland as a generic term that 'embraces a range of arts practices occurring primarily in healthcare settings, which bring together the skills and priorities of both arts and health professionals'. The subjectivity of art meeting the complexities of healthcare provision has given rise to many schools of thought, ways of working, modes of best practice, challenges and opportunities. For an interested party, an arts and health conference can be a fantastic opportunity to interface with a number of viewpoints in one concentrated setting. At a very basic level, an arts and health conference can offer an artist the chance to gain a deeper understanding of health contexts whilst offering healthcare professionals a chance to interact with a range of practices and artforms.

However in recent years there has been a worrying escalation in the cost of attending Arts + Health conferences. On the arts side of the equation, that is artists, arts facilitators, be they drawn from visual arts or theatre, people who are probably, according to Arts Council and other studies, on an average income of 10,000 euro per annum. Set in this context it is clear that the cost of attending, and indeed the cost of contributing at many conferences, is fast becoming prohibitive. I call this trend ‘worrying’ as it is undoubtedly ‘refining’ the voices and issues raised at many Arts + Health conferences – effectively excluding a diversity of experience, which cannot be good the development of this area of work. The art within arts and health is at risk of not being represented.

Partnership is acknowledged as a key success driver within the field of arts and health – I suppose the clue is in the preposition, yet increasingly there appears to be a presumption that anyone wishing to attend an A+H conference is automatically a researcher or academic funded through third level budgets or a health service staff member working within the framework of organisational budgets. 

Recently I presented two papers at an Arts + Health conference, for this privilege I had to submit an abstract for approval and then upon selection pay the full conference fee to ‘attend’. I eventually negotiated paying for one day as opposed to the full three-day conference rate as it was not financially feasible for me as a director of a publicly funded organisation in time of recession to justify paying this amount. I presented two papers in one day and was unable to engage with the wider themes of the conference or indeed any of the delegates because I was busy presenting. This was a learning experience for me, as someone who was there to listen as much as share, and the experience was curiously redundant and one sided and so I wondered how many artists withdrew accepted abstracts or failed to even submit because it was not affordable to them. How many voices have not been heard not on the basis of merit or relevance but because of financial restrictions?

The Arts, Community, Education and Health sectors have all suffered at the hands of austerity, and research and development budgets are constantly under threat. We must acknowledge these changing circumstances and also the varied stakeholders and voices who combine to make Arts + Health such an exciting area of work. We have much to be proud in Ireland, work that deserves to be showcased on the most visible of stages; we must make our platforms flexible and inclusive and not discount the artist.

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