The Value of Culture for What Next? meeting

September 2014

What is the value of culture?

When I was asked to answer this question, my mind went blank for about four hours and I felt the fear!

Maybe because it’s a bit like asking “what are you doing with your life?!” But maybe also because it’s a difficult question to get your head around.

Culture is a word a bit like the word history. It represents something ancient. And yet it is evolving all the time.

The value of culture, like history, is that it gives us roots. And like history, culture can shape us, it can change us.

If you are Salford City Council and you want to change the fortunes of a generation of young carers, some of whom are as young as seven years old and who provide several days care, per week, for a sick parent, you want to provide them with support, with inspiration and with comfort, so you talk to your local arts organisation because they have deep resources of creativity to change lives for the better.

If you are a government, and your country has been chosen to follow the Chinese Olympics. And as you think about creating a spectacle that will be watched by over a billion people around the world, and you know you can’t compete with the spectacle that has gone before, you talk to people who can help access the creativity and participation of thousands of others, who can create something that plays with ideas of national identity, that brings people together because it is different.

If you are a political campaign and you are credited with changing a generation of political apathy, with voter turnout of nearly 85%, and even though you are unable to change enough minds to achieve your goal, everyone agrees that your campaign has been creative, featuring thousands of artists, making a creative case, and changing politics so much so that after the campaign, everyone asks, what next for devolution?

If you are a Headteacher and you are appointed to a London primary school which is in special measures, in which the confidence of the staff is low and the self-esteem and attainment of pupils is low, you talk to your local arts organisation, because they can help you access the creativity of staff and pupils and parents, to think another way, to take risks, to improve attainment and to create a different narrative for the school.

In these examples, it is our individual and collective creativity that changes lives.

When we talk about history, the question often follows, whose history? Who is creating the history? Who is remembering what happened? The same is true of culture. Whose culture is it?

If you listen to Sajid Javid and Harriet Harman, they’ll tell you that there is a problem with who benefits from funded culture in the UK. That funded culture is failing to reach everyone.

I agree. But the argument is born out of a view that culture is good for you. Spoon it down and you will be better for it.

Rather than assess and fight for the value of culture, a complicated idea to get your head around, should we not simply celebrate the role that creativity plays in all our lives?

No one owns your creativity, it’s yours.

And you can express it in any way you want.

You can make art. But you can also express your creativity through your family life, through your business, through the services your council delivers, through the way campaigns are fought, through the way you learn and remember, through the way you choose to eat your breakfast.

Personal creativity is something that is available, on tap, to every single one of us, regardless of our views about culture or art.

Our creativity can help us when we are in a corner, it helps us when we need to think differently, it helps us imagine and invent a better future, for ourselves and for each other.

Creativity is a superpower.

So in considering the value of culture, I pause to think twice about whether our primary focus should be finely crafted messages to local or national politicians, or even to audiences, visitors and participants, to prove or demonstrate the value of culture.

I wonder whether the most powerful and authentic driver for a change in public attitudes to culture is to change ourselves.

What would our culture look like in Britain if arts organisations all thought of themselves as change-makers, across all parts of their community?

Making change by championing everyone’s creativity.

There is not one sector – corporate, political or social – that claims to champion human creativity as its primary focus. Not just creativity expressed through art but creativity in every corner of our lives.

So as well as making the case for culture, let’s give serious consideration to change in our own cultural organisations. How can we be the champions for every kind of creativity in our communities?

There is nothing more compelling or persuasive than witnessing transformation. And through a collective act of change, we would probably turn the heads of more people than any campaign.

More about What Next?: http://www.whatnextculture.co.uk/

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