Revolutionary Red Tape: about

Red tape. Enemy of progress, freedom and innovation. Nigh-on universally reviled, barely a day goes by without another headline berating its stifling effects on modern life. But what if, far from being something that hampers creativity, bureaucracy actually spawned revolutionary ideas?

Olga Lehmann and Gilbert Wood, ‘Sketch for Mural in a Canteen for the Censorship Division’.Olga Lehmann and Gilbert Wood, ‘Sketch for Mural in a Canteen for the Censorship Division’.

My postdoctoral project, Revolutionary Red Tape, reveals how public servants and official committees helped to commission, disseminate and popularise modern art, design, literature and performance in 20th century Britain. From vanguard exhibitions in local restaurants to experimental ballet in village halls, these committees masterminded dozens of schemes to bring modernism’s radical aesthetics to a general audience.

Using minutes, memos and private correspondence, I delve into public and private archives to uncover the fascinating histories behind these efforts to bring art to the people. In doing so, I aim to change the way that both academics and the general public think about how art is made and who it is for.

These schemes weren’t always successful - indeed, some projects ended in bitter disputes - but these civil servants’ commitment to extending access to the arts was utterly visionary. In the wake of the 2010 ‘bonfire of the quangos’, austerity and economic uncertainty, we need to celebrate these unlikely pioneers more than ever. What lessons can we learn from the ways in which ‘quangos’, NGOs and state departments have worked to promote the arts at a local or national level? How can we use historical case studies to transform future cultural policy?

Project aims

Revolutionary red tape - Emma West
  • To uncover forgotten state-funded or independent schemes which aimed to democratise art in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century.
  • To bring attention to the administrators, civil servants and educators who worked behind-the-scenes to introduce new audiences to modern art, design, literature and performance.
  • To challenge established ideas about where modern (or modernist) art, design, literature and performance was viewed, and by whom.

The project is a work of history, spanning roughly forty years from the First World War to the early 1950s. But it also asks questions that are still relevant to us today, including:

  • Is access to the arts a civil right?
  • What value do the arts bring to our everyday lives?
  • What role do arts organisations play in mediating between artists and the public?
  • How can we engage new audiences with modern/contemporary art, design, literature and performance, especially that which is perceived to be ‘difficult’?
  • Do we engage differently with the arts when we view them outside museums, art galleries or performance spaces?

Above all, the project and its resulting book will be both a history and a passionate defence of institutional (especially state) support for the arts. I hope that it will spark new debate in two key areas: how we fund the arts in Britain, and how we can ensure that everyone has access to the arts.

Image credits

All images on this website are taken from ‘Mural Painting in War Canteens and British Restaurants’ by Oliver Hill, in The Studio, November 1943, 137-47, author’s collection.

  • Homepage header image and ‘About’ page image: Olga Lehmann and Gilbert Wood, ‘Sketch for Mural in a Canteen for the Censorship Division’.
  • ‘Case Studies’ page image: Students at Hull College of Arts and Crafts, ‘Decorations in a British Restaurant at Hull’
  • ‘Blog’ page image: T. Mellor, ‘Mural in the Byron Restaurant, Liverpool’
  • ‘Contact’ page image: Olga Lehmann and Gilbert Wood, ‘Murals in a Canteen at Montpelier House, Tufnell Park, London’