How can cultural centres also be community centres?


Lyn Gardner recently wrote about the idea that “theatre with, not for, is the way forward”. While this idea is sadly not mainstream in the arts, it is definitely upstream, and quickening.

Her article got me thinking about how cultural centres can be in better shape to welcome, embrace and lead this change, rather than fight it, or be fearful of it.

The Young Carers programme in Salford is inspirational. Do you know it? Imagine being 16 years old and spending several hours of your day, every day, looking after a parent or sibling.

Add that to your school day and what’s left? When do you find time to be you? And all this at a moment in your life when you’re supposed to be finding out who you actually are…

Young Carers seeks to address this challenge. It is a partnership between The Lowry and Salford Young Carers Service and supports young people who have a caring responsibility.

It is a programme which uses creativity to enable young carers to think about their identity, their ideas and their future, beyond their role as carers. It’s an amazing programme which transforms lives.

If Young Carers was a hit show or exhibition, the arts sector would be falling over itself to tour it to every theatre, arts centre and gallery in the land.

But the thing about the Young Carers programme is that it can only be experienced in Salford and Manchester, where the inspirational partnership between The Lowry and Salford Young Carers Service is based.

The same can be said for many other shining examples of exceptional artistic practice around the UK which only exist in one venue, location or partnership.

Why? If we can share great creative shows and exhibitions why can’t we spread and grow great creative projects?

I think the answer to this question is key to speeding up the process of cultural centres also becoming community centres.

A number of things need to change…

The activity of cultural centres in the UK tends to be led and defined by artistic directors and curators.

Currently, most of these people come from a relatively narrow demographic of the UK population. They are often white and middle-class, like me.

The participation model for cultural centres is generally based on an invitation to the public “to come and do what we do”.

We are a theatre, come and act. We are a gallery, come and draw. And so on. The invitation is well-intentioned. But it’s seriously limited.

Not least because the invitation to join in often feels secondary and less important than the production of “the real art”.

There’s an implicit and sometimes explicit hierarchy between “participation” and “art”. In most cultural centres this is represented by departmentalisation: separating out activities in a management culture.

But the limitation is also restrictive because it only welcomes people to engage in programmes which conform to the existing work of the organisation, as led by its director.

Given the background and taste of those individuals, it is perhaps unsurprising that this model has tended, in general, to perpetuate rather than expand the demographic of people who engage in culture.

So artistic directors and curators invite people to come and get involved with work, ideas and interests that they are passionate about, and the kinds of people who choose to accept the invitation are most often, unsurprisingly, people who have similar interests and backgrounds to those artistic directors and curators.

It’s self-perpetuating.

A consequence is that the sector is currently super-serving the most socio-economically advantaged people in our society, as described in the Warwick Commission on The Future of Cultural Value in 2015.

Another is that the executive teams and Boards of cultural centres, in general, continue to represent a narrow field of human experience and adventure.

Try googling the funders who support these cultural centres and you can see that the pattern goes on.

It is a major problem.

And no amount of inviting people to participate in the same old stuff will fix it.

We need to change the model.

We need to grow our collective purpose beyond a narrow model of participation (to come and join in) towards a model of co-creation (to come and create).

This kind of artistic practice is growing momentum around the UK. I think this was the case for change at the heart of Lyn’s piece.

We need to co-create with communities, with artists and with other organisations. Cultural centres need to be led by the passions, interests and concerns of the communities which we serve.

By co-creating, our definitions of art will adapt and multiply. By co-creating we will begin a process of changing cultural centres forever.

Ultimately, this process of change should lead to a generation of artistic directors and curators leaving their organisations, and handing over to a new generation, many of whom will not look or sound like their predecessors.

This will mean that cultural centres better reflect the society in which we live. They will engage more meaningfully with a wider range of people and play their part in bringing together more mixed communities, in shared, creative experiences.

I genuinely believe we are on the cusp of making this happening. But the opportunity could so easily slip away unless we seize the moment and enable change.

I think one of the major blocks which holds the sector back from more rapid change, is a simple lack of understanding and knowledge, inside cultural centres, about how to co-create.

The art and participation model remains the dominant orthodoxy. Co-creating with community partners is still isolated and poorly understood. It’s even feared by some cultural centres.

This is bad for artists because it reduces the opportunity for their work to be experienced by a wider audience and bad for the public because great ideas often do not reach beyond a single community.

There are notable examples of exceptional practice like Young Carers in Salford and Manchester. These examples have clearly taken a lot of careful time, work and partnership to grow.

Given this and given the dominance of the arts and participation orthodoxy in most cultural centres, it could take too long for co-creation to become more mainstream.

To tackle this head-on, I think a more joined-up approach to sharing co-creation models could accelerate change.

By establishing models and talent pipelines for commissioning, showcasing and distributing co-created work, we could enable more cultural centres to become community centres.

We struggle to understand how we can distribute work which is so deeply rooted in communities because we make the assumption that in order to share this work, we must focus on the product.

But we need to move beyond this industrial mind-set of product distribution and begin to focus on sharing the creative methodologies which are used to create this work. We need to share the process not the product.

We need to enable artists and arts leaders to co-commission, share and tour the creative processes and methodologies which lead to exceptional co-created work.

We have been trying this with another co-created methodology originally called Agência de Redes para a Juventude and created by theatre director Marcus Faustini in Rio de Janiero. It uses a creative process to support young people to develop and launch their own social enterprise.

Contact Manchester and Battersea Arts Centre have adapted this in the UK and now The Agency will be further developed and adapted by National Theatre of Wales in Cardiff and FabLab in Belfast. I think it’s a good example of a great creative process growing in one country and beginning to spread in another.

But as well as international examples, there are also UK models to learn from. I am very keen to talk with The Lowry to see if we could learn from their Young Carers project for a version in south-west London. I also think Scratch at Battersea Arts Centre has also proved to be a useful creative process adopted and adapted by other organisations.

If cultural centres are to change more rapidly, if we are to move beyond a conventional arts and participation model towards a genuine model of co-creation, then we need to get better at learning from each other and sharing and adapting approaches to co-creation.

I am interested to talk with organisations and artists who would like to shape a national network of co-created practice. I think if we work together to identify all kinds of inspirational co-created practice around the country and get better at growing, sharing, adapting and spreading it, then change will come all the more quickly.

So if you are using a creative approach to co-create ideas – where your process is the creative thing, rather than a focus on art production – then I would love to hear more. If you’re interested, please get in touch on – and thanks for reading.

Update: click here related to this idea or click here for follow-up from this blog.


  1. Well David,

    I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments – but the problem goes deeper. What’s wrong with our English artistic culture is that the institutions (such as BAC) have become self-perpetuating and ossified. They suck up all available public funding, and increasingly seek to justify their existence in terms the funders can understand – that is, as social services hubs rather than artistic powerhouses.

    There’s a clue to your thinking in the very first paragraph of this stimulating post, where you imply that you would like the “participation” model to be “mainstream”. The problem is, that art can almost never be both “mainstream” and vital. It has a way of breaking through, or kicking up against, institutional five-year plans, balance sheets and vision statements. It survives in spite of – not because of – the kind of institutional stranglehold which we’ve allowed to take over our performing arts scene.

    You are attractively open about the vulnerability of your own position as a middle-class white male. I feel you should also be open to the possibility that it is the whole Administrator Culture (the only “career path” open to theatre people nowadays) which is responsible for today’s appalling disjuncture between creators and consumers. Unless we get rid of this vampiric administrative tier in the performing arts, and return to project funding models in place of these lethal revenue grants which put buildings not people first, our performing arts will continue to dwindle and die.


    • Hi Christopher, I agree that any administrative culture which becomes a leech is a bad thing. I also think that some of the best artistic practice I’ve experienced – many of the strongest projects I’ve seen – and the most meaningful long-term relationships with communities I’ve witnessed – have come about through a balance of great artistic vision, administrative support and the availability of welcoming buildings. It’s a balance. D

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