Revolutionary Red Tape is a four-year research project funded by the British Academy and led by Dr Emma West.

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?

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?

Case studies include:

  • Performances in village halls by the Arts League of Service Travelling Theatre
  • Posters commissioned by the Empire Marketing Board and General Post Office
  • Public buildings and memorials, including the Welsh National Temple of Peace and Health
  • Lunchtime concerts given by ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) and CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts) in munitions factories during WWII
  • Murals for British Restaurants commissioned by the Ministry of Food and executed by members of the Artists International Association (AIA)
  • Hospital print schemes overseen by the British Red Cross
  • The AIA and Arts Council’s ‘Sculpture in the Home’ exhibitions
  • Murals and sculptures commissioned by Hertfordshire Local Education Authority for primary and secondary schools
  • Popular magazines and book series on the arts published by Penguin and Faber and Faber
  • Arts broadcasts (films and radio) on the BBC

Here’s a handy three-minute intro to me and my research:

A selection of these case studies (and any others I find along the way) will be published in the project book, Art for the People, and in journal articles. I’ll also be exploring some of these examples here on my project blog.

Image credit: The featured image on the homepage is Olga Lehmann and Gilbert Wood, ‘Sketch for Mural in a Canteen for the Censorship Division’, from ‘Mural Painting in War Canteens and British Restaurants’ by Oliver Hill, in The Studio, November 1943, 137-47, author’s collection.