Fields not factories! Why cultural institutions need fallow years

Written in 2019 for the cultural think tank The Jennie Lee Institute

In agriculture, the practice of fallowing is a tradition stretching back hundreds of years in which, as part of a rotation system, a field is ploughed and tilled but left unseeded, so as not to exhaust its capacity to yield a good harvest.

Over the last few years many cultural institutions have been pushed to their limits. Years of under-funding and an emphasis on measurable quantifiable outputs, has increased the pressure to demonstrate the value of culture. This has been even more marked in a climate of austerity and ever diminishing resources. After their ‘cut us don’t kill us’ plea following the financial crash, many cultural institutions have felt the need to continue a policy of over-programming in order to demonstrate their value for money. The Serpentine for example, has organized around 360 events per year, including their ‘marathon’ series, a yearly event lasting 12 hours which has been going since 2006. Indeed, the Serpentine is held up as an example of best practice and many other organizations, particularly smaller ones, have struggled to compete for funding.

“There are targets for growth and improvement every year and funding is contingent on reaching certain audience figures…..When the cuts happened, the Arts Council and other donors did not adjust the expectations on outputs and in some cases they even increased.”[i]

The percentage of private money needed to keep levels of funding up has had to increase and therefore the amount of work involved in securing it has also increased. There has been no let-up. This imperative to over-programme, to produce more for less, to over-stretch already thin resources, has had knock on effects for all sorts of aspects of culture, no less the effect of increasing underpayment and exploitation of staff. There seems to be more acceptance and expectation that people will give more for less with a steady creep of extra expected overtime and voluntary labour.[ii] The Heritage Lottery Fund, for example, has shifted its emphasis to vastly increasing the number of volunteers doing heritage work.

It is generally accepted that culture is a common good, although exactly who produces it, who it is for and how it should be funded remains contested. This endless desire to programme and be producers of culture is in danger of eclipsing another important role museums, galleries, libraries and other cultural organizations can play; that is to provide common places – commons – that people living in a town or city can share. Placing a greater value on the role cultural institutions play as ‘commons’ in towns and cities, could provide a new way of deciding what needs to happen in them, when and by how much. This is particularly pertinent given the role that culture and cultural institutions have played in processes of urban gentrification. Commons approaches are based on non-commodifable accounts of value and embody an ecological interrelationship between people and their surroundings. And while commons are generally associated with bottom-up grassroots initiatives, it might offer cultural institutions ways to think about governance and sustainability. The proposition of a fallow period might also offer an opportunity to rethink programming strategies along more sustainable lines.

Historically, the term commons was used to describe pieces of land that were set aside for common use. This practice came to an end through processes of enclosure the 17th and 19th Centuries. More recently however, the term has been used as a way of challenging continuous growth and private accumulation as a default economic position, and instead to work towards ‘a more democratic and environmentally conscious planetary culture’.[iii] Moreover, the term doesn’t just relate to land, but to all the things necessary for supporting existence including material and immaterial culture. The cultural commons, includes all those things which ‘makes human civilization possible through the sharing of knowledge, language, inventions, stories and art.’[iv] These are things which are as intrinsic and important for human flourishing as water and land.  The economist Massimo de Angelis describes the commons as precisely the conditions necessary to promote social justice, sustainability and happy lives.[v] 

Commons should not be confused with just shared resources.  They also encompass the community of people who share that resource and the modes of sharing which take place around it. In The Magna Carta Manifesto, historian Peter Linebaugh coined the term ‘commoning,’ turning the noun into a verb.[vi] Rather than merely being a fixed resource, it therefore also includes the practice of commoning, the collective care of that resource by the community that uses it. The structures around how that resource is produced, reproduced and organised therefore come into focus as worthy of attention.[vii]

The most well-known criticism of the commons, that of The Tragedy of the Commons by Garret Hardin is that individuals will inevitably exhaust shared resources for their own gain and ruin them for the rest of the community. What this doesn’t take into account is the possibility for practices of governing and decision-making to also be shared. Elinor Ostrom who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2009 for her study of the commons asserted in her critique of Hardin that commons always implies some form of communal governance.

Commoning is therefore a relational practice, as much about its social relations as the common resource and shared access to it. It is a non-commodified means of fulfilling people’s needs, as well as the groups of commoners who share the resources and set rules for themselves on how the sharing is done.[viii] Care is a key aspect of this practice and offers a perspective that can describe both an ethical and political version of the good life.[ix] Within a commons perspective, care can therefore be extended from the custodianship of a particular resource, to the community and surrounding area. Commons perspectives have been used to challenge privatisation, neoliberal conceptions of value, constant growth and the profit motive. From grassroots initiatives such as community run libraries and gardens to municipalist political movements, commons based approaches also aim to build bottom–up community capacity and economic and political counter-power.

How might a cultural organization organized around the commons operate? Firstly, it is important to point out that a commons is different from both the private and the public but not as part of a third sector that lies beyond the state and the market. This would mark it off as something operating separately in parallel, when in reality, commons are entangled with both capital and state, existing both inside and outside of these structures.[x] For example, a privatized library is a library is organized by a private individual or corporation and a public library is a library organized by a public entity, a ‘common’ library is one that is organized by the people who use it. [xi] I specifically use the example of a library here because, many, as cultural institutions themselves, have faced the prospect of closure due to government cuts and some, such as those in New Cross and Barnet, have precisely had to turn to the local community to keep them running.

In addition to grassroots initiatives, larger public institutions such as museums and galleries might also have a role to play in creating commons. One of the possible negatives of commons based organizing is that if commons are too tied to groups of similar people there is a danger that closed communities are created, excluding others in the process. This is where a notion of the public can prompt thinking about the commons to become more complex. The public realm could therefore, as De Angelis suggests, provide opportunities for discussion and negotiation of what is good for all rather than merely strengthening communities in the struggle to define their own commons. Indeed, the need for such spaces of negotiation, is becoming ever more pressing given the current climate of division and mistrust.

So where does that leave the fallow field I started with? Historically, the practice of fallowing also existed for land set aside as commons, as well as that lying within private farming practices. The parish as a whole, under whose jurisdiction the land came under, would make the decision to put the field land to grass, plough it and turn it over or to grow fodder crops such as clover while it was lying fallow.[xii] Commoners would agree not to graze on newly sown fodder or on the bare fallow during this time and this would eventually increase the value of the common grazing.

A fallow period is “unproductive” in that there is an absence of visible productive activity, but it is also reproductive in that it is time set aside that will in the long run increase the productivity of the resource or at least restore its productive capacity to previous levels. If taken in the context of commoning as a community and a practice, a fallow period could also be used to attend to those invisible processes which reproduce the community and the practice of commoning itself.

So how might this extend to cultural policy? Cultural institutions could decide to initiate a fallow period, a year or more in which little or no official programming would take place. An ‘unproductive’ period might produce no visible measurable production or outputs but could signal instead an opportunity for review and replenishment. A restorative period in which the community which gathers in and around it might be attended to.  It could be a period of social maintenance in which to concentrate on care for the institution and the people who work there, recognising that working conditions in any cultural institution are as important as continually extending access. Often cultural institutions focus entirely on audience but a fallow period might also allow a focus on curators, staff, artists, interns and outsourced cleaners. There might be regular meetings or workshops not driven by production but in order to build social capital; relationships and trust within the organization; that can be drawn upon later. Audits of an organization’s actual capacities, capabilities and limits could be undertaken, and these might reveal potential, skills and knowledge which might not have been recognised before. Institutions might rethink their governance structures and decision making processes to include more voices, involving all levels of staff, including those that are outsourced, in deciding what their shared values are. Supportive systems for sharing information and services could be put into place or improved, both within an institution and the wider community around it. This could include skills and knowledge exchanges between smaller and larger organizations as part of a cultural ecosystem. Time could also be taken to put into building constituents and engaging with local issues in an area around an institution rather than merely expanding audiences.

During this fallow period institutions could open their doors to support grassroots initiatives that are finding it harder to find spaces to meet within the city. Raven Row, a private gallery in Whitechapel, recently did exactly this, inviting community groups, collectives and activists to make use of their space. Institutions could also provide a public arena for the negotiations and discussions about the common good which de Angelo suggests. Spaces could be used to facilitate meetings of different commons and communities and promote encounters that might lead to more sustained forms of commoning on a larger scale. The important point here being that any activities that take place are slower than the constant production of events and exhibitions, are generative and open-ended and feed the organization and surrounding community, like the nitrogen producing clover on a fallow field. The benefits from what is sown are reaped at a later date and not completely knowable in the present.

Fallow periods could also allow for cultural institutions to review their own future programming strategies. Taking the time to plan how the institution might slow programming down and make it more sustainable. It is perhaps now time to make a call for ‘slow programming’. Slow programming, like the slow food and slow fashion movements might encapsulate principles of fairness and sustainability for producers, consumers, workers and users of culture. And while the phrase might be easily co-opted in a bid to be seen to be radical and cutting-edge, it might also promote better, more sustainable practices of programming after a period of recuperation. It is important that a fallow period not just be about emerging rejuvenated though, just to go back to the frenetic overstretching of resources, or to use it to merely build resilience in order to survive in difficult times and withstand more cuts. As Evans and Reid argue, resilience has been used to justify the promotion of ‘adaptability so that life may go on…. despite the fact that elements of our living systems may be irreparably destroyed’.[xiii] Instead, capacity needs to be built in order to challenge the way things are done. In an environment in which we have been warned that the worst cuts are still to come, it seems even more important to work against the imperative to overproduce and instead attend to social repair and maintenance – to focus on how things are organized, governed and cared for. Indeed, there are currently calls for a cultural democracy that go beyond questions of access, addressing instead ‘how to build a cultural life for the UK that is valuable for everyone, and made by all’.[xiv]  Could cultural institutions become sites for unlearning and the redistribution of power relations?[xv] Arts and culture can provide the perfect prompt for discussion and exchange. Cultural institutions could use the focus of a fallow year not only to recharge and recuperate but also to ask larger questions of what a shared cultural commons might mean. One that has embedded in it a commitment to social justice, sustainability and the creation of good lives for all.

Many thanks to Precarious Workers Brigade for hosting the event Culture and Work at Point Zero, at Limehouse Town Hall in April 2018, without which this essay would not have been possible.


[i] Janna Graham, Lecturer, Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths, University of London

[ii] Precarious Workers Brigade and Silvia Federici, Training for Exploitation?: Politicising Employability & Reclaiming Education (London Leipzig Los Angeles: Journal of Aesthetics & Protest Press, 2017), p. 13.

[iii] ‘1.1 What Is a Commons Transition?’, Commons Transition Primer <https://primer.commonstransition.org/1-short-articles/1-1-what-is-a-commons-transition&gt; [accessed 9 October 2018].

[iv] ‘Celebrating the Commons’, 71.

[v] ‘On the Commons: A Public Interview with Massimo De Angelis and Stavros Stavrides – Journal #17 June-August 2010 – e-Flux’ <https://www.e-flux.com/journal/17/67351/on-the-commons-a-public-interview-with-massimo-de-angelis-and-stavros-stavrides/&gt; [accessed 9 October 2018].

[vi] Peter Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All (Berkeley, Calif.; London: University of California Press, 2009).

[vii] Samuel Moore discusses this in relation to publishing in: ‘The “Care-Full” Commons: Open Access and the Care of Commoning’, Scholarly Skywritings, 2018 <https://scholarlyskywritings.wordpress.com/2018/06/27/the-care-full-commons-open-access-and-the-care-of-commoning/&gt; [accessed 9 October 2018].

[viii] Massimo De Angelis, Omnia Sunt Communia: On the Commons and the Transformation to Postcapitalism (London: Zed books, 2017), p. p221.

[ix] Joan C Tronto, Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care (New York [u.a.: Routledge, 2015), p. 3,7.

[x] De Angelis, p. 206.

[xi] New Cross Commoners: ‘ABOUT’, NEW CROSS COMMONERS, 2013 <https://newxcommoners.wordpress.com/about/&gt; [accessed 3 February 2018].

[xii] Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820, New Ed edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 99.

[xiii] Brad Evans and Julian Reid, Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously, 1 edition (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014), p. 30.

[xiv] ‘King’s College London – Towards Cultural Democracy: Promoting Cultural Capabilities for Everyone’ <https://www.kcl.ac.uk/Cultural/-/Projects/Towards-cultural-democracy.aspx&gt; [accessed 9 October 2018].

[xv] The first annual assembly for commoning art institutions took place in November 2018 at CASCO ‘Casco Art Institute’ <http://casco.art/en/program/more&gt; [accessed 11 October 2018].