A long read about what we might need to do next…
I think we are collectively missing a massive opportunity.
We’re on the pitch and there is a gaping open goal if only we could kick the ball in to the back of the net. But instead we’re arguing about the offside rule.
If you are not a fan of football metaphors, then think of us like Kodak in 1975, who having invented the first digital camera, failed to exploit it, even tried to suppress it…because we become concerned it will undermine our core business and our identity…and because it doesn’t suit our immediate priorities.
We’re all a bit complicit. Funders, artists, producers, venues, journalists…anyone who is involved in what might be described as professionalised culture.
Whilst we dutifully make noises about the value of arts and culture, others are running on to the pitch, without us even noticing, and kicking the ball in to the back of the net.
This blog is not about bashing culture in the UK…I am amazed by what artists, cultural organisations and funders of art, achieve, every day.
But being a fan of something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t highlight a massive missed opportunity.
I am talking about our collective purpose.
About our responsibility to nurture the creativity of everyone.
As we look forwards in a post-Brexit, pre-Trump, post-truth world, I think we need to shift our approach, and quickly.
For 10 years at Battersea Arts Centre, our mission was “to invent the future of theatre”. I said this every day, for those 10 years, to at least 5 or 10 people outside our organisation, as a way of explaining what we do.
And it took me all of 10 years to realise that I was putting half, of everyone I spoke to, off the idea of ever connecting with Battersea Arts Centre.
Because a lot of people’s view of theatre is that it’s old fashioned, elitist and self-interested. And despite my conviction that arts and culture are exactly the opposite, the language, and approach I chose, failed to connect with everyone.
About 18 months ago, when I started saying to people that our purpose is to inspire people to take creative risks, and that we’re interested how your creativity will shape your future, I noticed that our organisation started to talk with people, and work with people, who it had failed to connect with, ever before.
We continued to work with artists to take creative risks to shape the future of theatre but now we also work with:
- people in the public and third sectors to drive social change initiatives;
- developers to shape placemaking strategies;
- heritage experts locally and around the country to rethink what a museum is;
- our local authority and businesses to develop more entrepreneurial culture;
- parents to enable them to shape a more creative environment for their family;
- teachers working across the school curriculum; and so on…
I am drawing on what I know best but there are dozens of examples across the country.
Often led by artists and grassroots cultural organisations.
Perhaps because they are not shielded by the walls of their building or by regular subsidy.
I think this means they take a people-centred approach.
Cultural organisations must also adopt people-centred approaches.
But what does this actually mean?
Initiatives like Creative People & Places take the approach of talking with and engaging with people, to shape any cultural activity. And the research says people get involved in this programme because of the talking and the engagement, regardless of the activity.
In Battersea we use Scratch as a way of encouraging people to test any idea and listen to feedback. In any situation, Scratch is a two way creative chat between people, to help them decide what could happen next.
The Derby Silk Mill uses co-production as a way of developing projects in partnership with the public, shaping the future of the museum with local people.
People-centred approaches are growing in number across the country. And how are they different to the conventional cultural model?
Firstly, they reject a 19th century model of production. We make stuff. You consume it. Or maybe participate in it. But either way, we’re in charge and we decide what gets made.
Secondly, they reject a patrician, and patronising, view of the arts or heritage, put on a pedestal, as something that’s good for you, spoon it down, it will make you better.
Thirdly, they do not seek to define the parameters of culture, drawn by expert Artistic Directors or Curators, less hierarchical and more open.
Perhaps these things sound pretty obvious? Surely things we could all agree to?
But there is a problem. Across the cultural sector, we’re still using 19th century production models, we still put the arts, artists and heritage on an unreachable pedestal, and we continue to perpetuate old fashioned hierarchies.
In the way that we do almost everything.
The simple, seemingly obvious idea, that our role should be to enable everyone in our communities to be creative, continues to be seen as marginal.
As something the culture establishment does not understand or want.
We recently had a visit from an experienced arts funder to Battersea. They came to see a show.
I had 5 minutes with them before the show, so I pitched in to tell them about The Agency a project devised by an artist in Brazil and run by Contact in Manchester – and us – that finds young people living on local housing estates and asks them what their idea is to support their community.
The Agency then invites them to develop their idea, using a creative process, like the kind of process an artist might use to make a show. They develop their idea as a business and we give them some seed funds, just like we would an artist.
As the Warwick Commission points out, cultural organisations super-serve the most socio-economically advantaged people in our society. The upshot of this is that we are extremely well-networked, so we connect these young people with an incredible range of people, who offer support to their business ideas.
The arts funder kindly listened, patiently. In the remainder of my five minutes with them, I told them all about the other work we do, of this nature, that is about developing people’s agency, their active purpose, supporting the creative ideas of everyone in our community. Not just artists.
And when I’d exhausted myself, they turned to me and said “That all sounds great. How do you manage doing all that alongside what you do?”
“No, this is what we do” I said. “It’s the same process as making shows. It’s just helping different people, with different interests, to tap in to their creativity.”
In case it is not clear yet, this is what I am trying to say…
Our country is crying out for a narrative that brings people together. Our country is crying out for a way of working together that unites us not divides us. People are tired of the same old same old and are looking for a fresh approach that taps in to their own creative ideas and that makes change, rather than waits for change to arrive.
People who work in culture have easy access, and a level of expertise, to one of the most powerful ways of bringing people together and making positive change.
Our shared human creativity.
We actually hold the keys to creating a better future…working with everyone in our communities to unlock their creativity.
We just need to learn, quickly, to transfer our approach to creating art to different sectors. Developing new strands of work, new income streams and growing our capacity to undertake this work.
This is not instead of making art, it is growing our purpose beyond a narrow definition of culture and cultural participation, to an all-encompassing definition of culture that is about everyone’s creativity.
It’s a massive open goal that is just waiting for us to step up.
We possess the digital camera of the 21st century.
But we’re not seizing the opportunity, together.
And people’s creativity is currently being co-opted by big companies.
Facebook and Apple, and other global corporations, are tapping in to people’s creativity and becoming a home for their creative expression.
Whilst the cultural sector ties itself in knots over what is and isn’t “great art”.
If we miss this opportunity we will become increasingly irrelevant, anachronistic and part of the very elites that are being kicked in the face all around the world.
Alternatively, we could lead a creative revolution, enabled by artists and cultural organisations but not defined by them.
Creativity is an everyday superpower that we all have, on tap, we just need to access it, it’s free, it’s yours and mine.
And it’s the cultural sector’s greatest unexploited asset.
So here is just one, simple example, of how it could actually work…and how we need to think differently.
Take schools. Let’s not only bang on about arts subjects in schools, sounding like every other sector, self-interested, fighting our own corner, seeking our own territory.
And ultimately, not being trusted by people who do not get what we see.
Let’s work with head teachers, artists and producers, and all people who care passionately about our schools, to look at how creativity can transform the delivery of the whole curriculum, in science, technology, engineering and maths, to empower teachers, parents and students.
I promise you, if you develop a school that values creativity, in every activity, in every teacher, in every parent, then arts subjects will also be highly valued, naturally.
I met someone recently who runs an annual programme that connects with up to 100,000 teenagers every year and plans to grow the programme to reach three or four times that many. They have been thinking about how they could introduce “the arts” so that a proportion of the teenagers could benefit.
With the model of “the arts” in this country, they were, quite naturally struggling to find a meaningful way to do this and had defaulted to thinking about an “arts” delivery route and a “sports” delivery route.
I actually think that’s our fault.
What if every single one of those teenagers felt that the whole programme valued their creativity?…across every activity and not just “the arts” bit?
What if they understood that their creativity had a massive role to play in their future life? Imagine what could happen then.
We need to remember that culture is something which belongs to all of us, and creativity is as an attribute that we all have, not as something that needs to be delivered from on high, or isolated from other ways of doing things, or other ways of learning, or even thinking.
I am not saying this path is without challenge for our cultural organisations:
- some changes will be required – of leadership, of business model, of mindset
- we also need to think about how to take the most socio-economically advantaged with us on this journey
But the clock is ticking and if we do not embrace this challenge, whole-heartedly, then the game’s up.
The vote for Brexit has put our country in crisis. And I’m not talking about leaving the EU.
The vote has pitted communities against each other, you can even feel the divide inside families, between generations, between races, it goes beyond politics, deep in to the psychology of our relationships.
As we look ahead to things like Arts Council’s new funding round, and the rounds beyond, there is a spectacular opportunity to re-draw the map, and seed thousands of initiatives across the country which position our sector to lead a creative revolution and a creative coming together of people from all walks of life.
In ten years’ time we could be banging on about human creativity, in every part of our country’s life, and how it has enabled communities to develop their ideas and shape their future. Our culture would be strengthened beyond recognition.
Let’s break down all the redundant boundaries in British culture – between art forms, between professional and amateur, between art for art’s sake and socially engaged art, between people who love art and people who feel allergic to it.
Let’s focus on activities and organisations that enable our country to be comfortable with its own creativity – and excited to apply it to all kinds of purpose.
Here are three questions I think it’s worth us thinking about…
ONE. How can we change cultural organisations, and shift our collective purpose, to develop the creative potential of everyone in our communities?
TWO. Let us reconsider, with open eyes and hearts, how much public investment in culture, we make, in the post-industrial cities and seaside towns, compared with the resources available for metropolitan areas? Can we make a bolder public commitment to reset the ratio of funds we distribute? Not just because it’s right but because areas where there is less cultural infrastructure will make fabulous places to pursue the ideas I have described. Because, ironically, they have less dysfunctional cultural infrastructure in place. And in my experience, this can enable progress to happen more quickly. At the same time, can we be much more demanding of our cultural organisations in metropolitan areas to develop more meaningful, two-way partnerships around the country?
THREE. What I am suggesting is already happening in organisations around the country, the Derby Silk Mill, Contact in Manchester, Folkestone’s Quarterhouse, Create Gloucestershire, Common Wealth in Bradford, Counterpoint Arts in London, and initiatives like Creative People & Places. These are ones that I know. What other examples are there of organisations or artists working in collaboration with the public, empowering everyone to be creative? Could we bring these artists and organisations together, to understand the fundamental change that is happening in our culture but that needs to happen more quickly?
These are questions for all of us. I think if we fail to adapt now then we will experience a cultural sector bypass. People’s creativity will be co-opted by corporations and we will be, increasingly, labelled elites.
Or if we choose to adapt, than the values of the cultural sector could spread to every corner of our communities.
With a focus on human potential, collaboration, empathy, compassion, ingenuity, joy, love.