Featured image: A scene from Execution of Justice currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse, London.
2012 started with the sad news that The Drill Hall, a much loved London LGBT arts venue, closed its doors, transferring ownership of the physical space to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Its demise, due to funding issues, is felt to have been a case of when rather than if. Concerns have understandably been raised that if an established forum of over 30 years can face the chop, what of the rest, especially in these cash-strapped times?
Speaking once more with Niranjan Kamatkar, artistic director of the GFest: The Gaywise Festival, he certainly shares our disappointment about the closure. ‘Despite the indications over the past few months, it was still unexpectedly sad news. Particularly as we all had some good and great memories associated with the work of The Drill Hall in the recent past.’
Many, like ourselves, are undoubtedly sore by this loss, especially as it recently delivered us the brilliantly disturbing Mysterious Skin. But fears over funding aside, it gives space to question how much we should be supporting LGBT arts, and if there is still a place for it.
In recent times we’ve seen LGBT characters and stories creep ever more into our everyday consciousness, to the point where some, like Brian Sewell, have infamously voiced that it’s becoming close to insufferable saturation. Whatever your opinion, it’s certainly clear that in recent years we’re seeing more prominent LGBT themes than ever before, not only on TV but also on stage and screen. Sitcoms such as campy Will and Grace and the marvellous mockumentary Modern Family have bombastically queered up our sets with portrayals of gay people who are far from being derogative or token.
On larger screens Ang Lee’s adaptation of Brokeback Mountain is considered by some as a landmark acceptance of LGBT themes by Hollywood, and The Kid’s Are Alright laid out a charming and positive portrait of a same sex family.
Currently on stage in London is the verbatim play Execution of Justice which looks at the trial of Dan White, Harvey Milk’s killer.
2011′s Iris Prize has shown that LGBT film is no longer the exclusive muse of the LGBT community with straight writers and directors tackling queer subjects through short film. And this year’s BFI London Film Festival saw Peccadillo Pictures showcase three films at high profile, including the phenomenal Weekend, an opportunity saved usually for just the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
Not long ago, LGBT arts could only flourish on the fringe in a society struggling and/or refusing acceptance and tolerance of a culture viewed with unfounded suspicion. But with attitudes having changed and progressively improving, we’re gradually seeing LGBT art and artists become part of mainstream circles, taking queer expression out of the margins. Therefore is it time we stopped supporting insular initiatives and put our efforts into more general ones?
Kamatkar has his reservations. ‘Although a number mainstream structures support LGBT and queer arts, I am not sure we are there as yet to be reliant on these. Artists and practitioners need to get support and present their art work on a regular basis, as they create, and it feels as if they have to wait far longer for those few opportunities through mainstream outlets. The question shouldn’t be about mainstreaming LGBT and queer arts, but are we allowed enough opportunities and a proper or well deserved profile within the art scene.’
It also should be noted that it’s not just the end product that is important when it comes to LGBT arts. Taking The Drill Hall as a prime example, their support of the female community through The Drill Hall Darlings and their invaluable youth work is something that should not be sniffed at.
But whether or not you may feel that LGBT arts should be subsumed into general arts initiatives, its proving to be a resilient beast. Despite the loss of The Drill Hall, there are still many organisations which are going strong. Indeed, despite financial difficulty, in 2011 The Gaywise Festival still went on despite receiving no funding from any authoritative body. Although a little isolating, it doesn’t necessarily means disaster. ‘It feels as if the grant making community out there is not supporting enough of LGBT and queer arts organisations,’ says Kamatkar. ‘It’s most important that at times like these we need to ensure that the vulnerable artists’ works need to be shown and supported. Since we started Wise Thoughts in 1999, it has been a long and hard struggle to raise enough funds for LGBT arts initiatives and for the artists. I guess, we are still getting used to a different level of survival game now, and as long as we can manage, we are determined to continue the work.’
Indeed there are still plenty of other initiatives walking tall. The Ovalhouse are including new queer plays as part of it’s If Only… series. Fringe! film festival is gearing up for its second year, and the Iris Prize has recently has the backing of Lord Glendonbrook, one of the founders of Film 4, for future years. Duckie and Club Wotever’s residencies at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern shows no sign of a floundering scene.
Also, as London and the UK host this year’s Olympic Summer Games, we see the Olympic Pride House come to the capital. Officially launching for the 2012 games just before Christmas, Pride House looks to nurture the British LGBT community through both arts and sport, and, ‘promote inclusion and diversity on a global scale,’ through, ‘shared celebration’.
The fact that so much still exists shows that despite slowly being embraced by the mainstream, LGBT arts initiatives are still considered to have great value; be it supporting LGBT artists, the community work that comes with the work they do, or simply a platform to challenge society’s perceptions.
Though the death of The Drill Hall is upsetting, there are no signs of LGBT arts going quietly into the good night, or that anyone is calling for it to do so. Indeed, Julie Parker and Mavis Seaman, who have been piloting The Drill Hall through it’s gleaming latter days, have now set up Outhouse London which will be creating, ‘large-scale theatre and community events throughout London’, looking to carry on the legacy The Drill Hall left behind.
It’s great that the move of LGBT arts into wider circles means we can ponder whether we still need community centric activities. But it is clear that there they still hold an important part to play in changing views and supporting LGBT persons, and it looks as if it’s going to take a lot to change this.