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Arts Emergency Celebrates 10 Years

CEO and Co-Founder Neil Griffiths reflects on a decade fighting for a fairer future.

We set up Arts Emergency to redistribute privilege to people without privilege. We did it because despite some progress since the 1970s, somebody from privilege was still twice as likely to go to university, and four times more likely to work in culture or creativity than somebody from a working class background. We did it because in 2013, with the imposition of austerity and the re-introduction of tuition fees, the small gains working class and underrepresented people had made were being brutally rolled back.

Neither of us were ‘arts charity’ people or ‘policy’ people, but there were things that needed doing that no one else seemed to see needed doing; things that were about people’s lives, and not about money or ‘productive’ outcomes. It felt like the government was determined to stifle all hope and imagination, to nurture apathy and fear and resignation, and silence all of us “woolly progressive” artsy people who think differently or who ask good questions. We could not stand for that. Every day since we began organising has been filled with a sense of urgency as the world around us has grown ever more hostile to critical thought and inhospitable to creative life.

We began with a handful of small donations from like-minded people, and through to today we are funded primarily by individual gifts from the general public. I want to thank everyone who does donate, and to celebrate what a unique and wonderful thing for a project like this to be truly people powered. I don’t know of many others. No one funder influences where we focus, allowing us to be flexible, responsive to the emerging needs of individuals in our community, and frank in our structural critique. We are able to build up locally, person-by-person, in a sustainable way, rather than forcing relationships to hit quotas or targets imposed from afar.

I am absolutely not exaggerating when I say none of this would have been possible without the trust and support of so many of you - both financially and in a volunteer capacity. The calibre and commitment of the volunteers with whom we work is frequently highlighted by our young people, as is the authentic inclusivity that, I like to think, is a hallmark of a completely genuine endeavour.

Over the past ten years we’ve matched and supported over 1250 mentor pairs. So many young people have been connected to creativity and culture through our facilitation. They have increased in confidence and found direction. They’ve built skills and knowledge, and gained understanding of careers, practice, theory and the wider world. They have increased their grades and university offers in arts and humanities subjects; accessed work experience and other extraordinary experiences through us; and above all they have found a place to build safe and authentic connections with a wider creative support network that can last a lifetime.

Something I’m very proud of is the fact that the retention rate on our programmes is a massive 88.2%! Young people don’t feel they’re being offered charity here, because they aren’t - they are just being offered the same support, opportunities and encouragement to pursue the arts in their education and career that more privileged people can often take for granted. It’s not a luxury to do these things but it can feel like it if you aren’t from an arts background or financially secure. Arts Emergency is like the patron saint of kids that want to do something different with their lives.

For me, this is a key difference between the predominant social mobility work in our space and the mutual aid informed approach we take. Arts Emergency is not about size or scale, the focus has to be on relationships, and on meeting the immediate needs of each individual person. The fact that we are able to scale this approach is a very happy outcome of working in the way we have, with the people we have.

Comedian Nish Kumar, Arts Emergency founder Neil Griffiths and the Youth Collective which consists of 8 people aged between 18 and 28, standing on a stage. Photo taken at the 10th Birthday celebration at the MOTH Club, London. June 2023. Photo by Vanessa Ng
Members of the Youth Collective on stage with Neil and comedian Nish Kumar at Arts Emergency's 10th Birthday celebrations in Hackney. Photo by Vanessa Ng.

Since we started out, the general debate and direction of projects in this space has followed us to become more and more about accessing careers in culture. I think it’s important to say that as we’ve engaged with this work for the past ten years, our understanding of our cause has deepened. Arts Emergency is not only about numbers of young people in creative work; for me, the struggle we’re engaged in is far more fundamental.

I lost my younger brother Iain in 2011, soon after we began organising Arts Emergency. This first-hand experience of the fragility of life has infused so much of what we’ve gone on to build, and so much of my love for him found a focus in the work I’ve done here. It’s a tragedy that with all our potential abundance and comfort, we live in such an unjust and unhappy world. Life is short and, unfathomably, there are very powerful forces and interests that seek to stymie our full experience of life. We could and should be building a paradise. And so, with Arts Emergency, we have worked hard to build something that is a force for growth and connection and life - we wanted a Ramblers Association of the mind, an Eden Project for different ways of being and thinking. Ten years in, I feel like this organisation and community is well on the way to being just that.

We want a world that cultivates and celebrates all our limitless possibilities. To build such a world it is vital that everyone has access to the tools and habits of creativity and critical thought. We must work for a future where nobody is forcibly relegated to being a mere consumer of the culture in which they live, but has the opportunity to actively engage in its creation.

Consuming art and ideas has the power to awe us, move us, teach us. That is wonderful and important in and of itself - but practice generates understanding, and makes us powerful agents of creation, discovery and change. This is why it is so important for all of us to be given access not just to the products of culture, but to the education, practices, ideas, theories, processes, materials, skills, space and time needed to produce it. Knowing how to deploy your creative and critical faculties is a superpower. Place that power in the hands of everyone.

We’ve had a pretty good stab at doing this since 2013. I estimate around fifteen thousand hours of mentoring time has been dedicated to young people’s best, most aspirational selves, and many many more to the construction of a sustainable and independent organisation that can hold that space and provide further opportunities and connections for young people over time.

Looking forward, there is so much more we can and will do. Bright, curious young people need to be cared for, cherished, and encouraged. But mere encouragement is not enough - we must make sure they can access the tools to take on the future and make it better. In a nutshell, that’s what we’re all doing here. Trying to make the future better. All the team members and trustees (past and present and future), all 9000+ Network members, and you. It’s brilliant!