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Barbican’s Director of Arts Louise Jeffreys on The Art of Change

The Barbican’s 2018 season The Art of Change weaves multiple stories and experiences together across all of the Barbican’s art forms to explore changing attitudes, power dynamics, relationships and the treatment of individuals and groups considered to be outside of the mainstream. With new events announced today, the Barbican’s Director of Arts Louise Jeffreys, shares her highlights from the packed programme as well as hopes for the year ahead.

Every year, millions of us make New Year’s resolutions; promising ourselves that we will exercise more, eat healthily, cut back on alcohol or take up a new hobby. Such resolutions mean that for many, January has come to represent a time of change. 

This is certainly true for the Barbican, where this month, we are kicking off our 2018 season The Art of Change, which explores how the arts respond to, reflect and potentially effect change in the social and political landscape. We are excited to present a programme that spans theatre, music, film, visual art, dance, spoken word, talks and more, and that is packed full of world-class artistic responses to vital global issues including feminism, climate change and human rights.

It’s hard for me to pick my highlights but I must confess to being particularly excited about fabulous and fearless Taylor Mac reframing the social history of America in A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: The First Act, a no-holds-barred extravaganza of music, art, activism that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and is presented as part of LIFT 2018. I am also really looking forward to Jazz at LincolnCenter re-creating the famous Benny Goodman concert in 1938, the first interracial concert at New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall, and a watershed moment in American music history; the UK premiere of The Town Hall Affair by New York’s iconic theatre group The Wooster Group, which documents a raucous 1971 debate on Women’s Liberation featuring Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, Diana Trilling and Norman Mailer; and a new commission in our free gallery The Curve by Moroccan artist Yto Barrada, whose work investigates subversive tactics and strategies of resistance.

More events will continue to be revealed as the year goes on and we were thrilled to be able to announce this week that pioneering photographers Dorothea Lange and Vanessa Winship will have their first major UK solo exhibitions at the Barbican as part of The Art of Change, and that our film season Nevertheless She Persisted: Suffrage, Cinema and Beyond will open with Chisholm '72 - Unbought and Unbossed, which documents Shirley Chisholm, who ran to be the first black female president of the United States in 1972, and then close with a rare screening of Delphine Seyrig’s 1976 prescient documentary Be Pretty and Shut Up (Sois Belle et tais toi) in which leading screen actresses discuss equality, representation and voice, which of course remains hugely topical today.

So, why did we decide to programme The Art of Change? Well, it’s certainly no secret that we are living in a time of significant national and international uncertainty – one only needs to look at the news to be confronted with jaw-dropping headline after jaw-dropping headline. As a result, we, as an international arts centre, felt compelled to explore the role that the arts play in politics and society, specifically asking ourselves what is the dialogue that exists between them? And is it possible for the arts to actually change the world? We also wanted to look at how we operate and to examine our own responsibilities as a civic space, and consider how we can provide a platform for ideas to be debated and discussed.

This is why we will be showing work that tackles sensitive topics such as choreographer Rhiannon Faith’s Smack That (a conversation), which shines a light on domestic abuse inan empowering performance highlighting human resilience; as well as projects designed to engage the next generation such as Subject to Change, which will see a Barbican Young Poet issue a poem each month that speaks to our changing world, and will be available for everyone to enjoy on the Barbican’s YouTube channel.

We are interested in presenting as many different perspectives as we can. Particularly as it can often feel as if there is less tolerance today of different ideas and perspectives than there used to be. It feels vital that we all at least try to understand points of view that are different to our own, and one of my hopes for 2018 is that we see fewer examples of people trying to shut conversations down and instead witness more efforts to actively increase debate. In our own small way this is something we are hoping to do ourselves this year through the introduction of Real Quick. This is a new series of informal talks, discussions and experiments that will take place in the Barbican’s public spaces intermittently throughout the year, all programmed directly in response to live political and social situations, which is something we’ve never done before.

The simple truth is that when you listen to a piece of music that really speaks to you or are transfixed by something you see on stage, you can find yourself transported to a different place altogether. In this sense, the arts are unique in their power to lift us, to take us out of ourselves, and to open us up to different ways of seeing the world. If The Art of Change causes someone to think a little differently about what others might be going through or to better understand the perspective of another, then we will have succeeded.

https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/series/the-art-of-change

A number of projects in The Art of Change will form part of Art 50, a landmark project to commission 50 artworks that will explore what it means to be British in a post-Brexit Britain. Art 50 is a partnership between Sky Arts, the Barbican, Sage Gateshead, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and Storyvault Films.