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“Cultural centres need to be led by the passions, interests and concerns of the communities they serve”

BLOG – exploring how cultural centres can also be community centres – describing the foundation of the Co-Creating Change network

The Lowry in Salford – home to Young Carers collaboration

First post on 31 Dec 2017:

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 nowThe 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.


Second post on 25 Apr 2018:

Since writing the above it’s been great to connect with lots of different practitioners and organisations who are co-creating work in different ways.

The original blog set out a case for co-creating work and for the existence of a network to bring together people, nationally and internationally, who are working in this territory.

Happily, since that blog, the idea of a practice-focussed network has been supported by Arts Council England and the Gulbenkian Foundation – big thanks to them. The resulting network will be called Co-Creating Change and we are talking with others to support specific activities of the network.

This second blog is intended to provide an update on Co-Creating Change and more detail. It includes further thoughts in response to all the contact I have had with people since the earlier blog. It is also intended as a companion piece to go with our callout for the network. Beware, it’s very long, and gets quite geeky – the whole second half is about a single idea which has cropped up in conversation which I am keen to get your thoughts on. But first up, stuff about the network structure…

Network aims

We are not seeking to duplicate what is already out there with Co-Creating Change. The idea, at the moment, is to work together to achieve five practical things:

  1. Support the development of up to 10 (new or existing) co-created projects and/or co-created methodologies – with a commissioning pot of £120,000
  2. Support a number of these projects or methodologies to “tour” nationally and/or internationally with multiple partners (this will be subject to securing funding)
  3. Support the network to share skills and knowledge in co-created practice and develop a culture of professional development in this territory
  4. Host an annual marketplace of co-created practice with the idea of growing opportunities to “tour” methodologies, nationally and internationally
  5. Work together to advocate for a better understanding and appreciation of co-created practice both in the arts sector and beyond

These things will continue to evolve as the network grows and is influenced by the individuals and organisations who join it and determine its direction.

Our ultimate ambition is to enable co-created practice to be better understood, funded and championed.

We especially want funders to be better at supporting it, journalists to write about it more, and communities to know how to make it happen or to demand it. So there will be a strong advocacy element to the work of the network.

Network structure and decisions

We want the structure of the network to be transparent – so it’s clear how and when decisions are made – and by whom.

For example, we do not think we should make the choice of what does and does not get commissioned – so this will sit with an independent panel – meaning our role can be about supporting network members.

The current network structure is described below. Again, we expect this will evolve over time as more people get more involved and change it. It has already changed quite a bit. We currently think there will be four key decision making and support groups – as follows

I hope this overview is a helpful insight in to the current thinking for the network structure. It probably raises as many questions as it answers – but hopefully it enables you to respond with thoughts, ideas or questions which will help to develop the structure and relationships.

We use scratch for developing new ideas – and so the above structure represents the latest scratch of how the network will be structured. We are putting it out there for feedback – so we can continue to refine it in response to feedback and good ideas.

A note on the commissioning process

OK, so this is the geeky bit now – we think that one inevitable and important question for the network is how we define “co-creation”.

I was surprised to get over 150 responses to the original blog which I think illustrates a passion and interest in co-creation. However, I was also surprised that a few of the responses described a co-created project or process which sounded like a conventional participatory project – in which people were invited to join in with the work of an artist or organisation – in which co-creation simply meant inviting people to contribute to the creation of a show.

But who had power or control in this process? Who said it would be a show in the first place? Who invited who to do what? Who made key decisions in the process? Who controlled resources? Who ended up owning the work that came out the other side?

Of course the answer to these questions is often hard to reach without a deep understanding of someone’s work. They are often buried in day-to-day process and relationships. Even so, some of the exchanges I’ve had have made me question how we define co-creation for this specific network. Because if the focus of the network is too broad – in other words, if it tries to be all things to all people – then might it fail to achieve the five ambitions set out above? – because it becomes too diluted to be useful?

We have been thinking about what this means both for the membership of the network – and more especially, the criteria for commissions.

Network criteria

We think that network membership should be open to any individual or organisation who is passionate about co-created practice. Our criteria for selection for the network will not be about length of track record or perceptions of sector status – instead we will use a practical set of criteria which will seek to ensure:

  • a variety of different approaches to co-creation
  • a range of different creative disciplines represented
  • a diversity of practitioners and organisations
  • a geographic spread of members
  • a genuine passion for this territory

We also think that the network will grow over time – so rather than sign up 60 members from the off we think it might be better to sign up a smaller number – who can get to know each other – and enable the network to grow gradually.

The idea is not to create a closed group – and network events will be open to guests and potential future members – so it grows over time and follows the interests, passions and concerns of network members.

Commissions criteria

OK so this is the geeky bit of the blog which serves as a record of our latest thinking on the funding for co-creation projects.

We are currently thinking that we should ask applicants to do a self-assessment on what they mean by “co-creation”. (This will be one of the first things that network members look at, tear apart and put back together again!) This is where we’re at now – at scratch stage:

We will ask applicants for funding to assess who has agency in their proposed project? – who has control? – who has power? – and we will ask the independent panel to make their own assessment of this as one of the key criteria for choosing commissions.

This idea has sprung out of various conversations with people to date – and it would good to hear your reactions – whether that is excitement, frustration, caution or something else entirely.

This is the lengthiest section of this blog – but I think the resulting process is quite simple – so stick with it if you can – we really want to hear what you think. This is not an urgent request because we have plenty of time to work through this – but we are putting this out there now because it might help you work out whether this network might – or might not – be interesting to you.

Who has agency in any project?

The person or people leading a project have often conceived some of the project’s parameters and may have decided how aspects of the project are structured. They may have secured money and space to make the project happen – and they are likely to define the nature of any invitation which welcomes more people to the project.

In other words, this individual, group or community, who have been involved in setting aspects of the project up, are likely to experience high levels of agency – they are likely to feel that they can take action and successfully affect change in the project. They have a high level of control and power. (This is what the Kings University report on Cultural Democracy calls “social freedom”.)

Of course, many projects in the subsidised arts sector are not set up by individuals, groups or communities – they are often initiated, set up and run by artists, producers and / or cultural organisations.

So perhaps a useful question we can ask ourselves, when it comes to projects which begin in this way, is how much agency does the individual, group or community have in the project? And how much does the artist, producer or cultural organisation have?

Of course not every project model neatly fits in to having people you can define as the “individual, group or community” and the “artist, producer or cultural organisation”.  Some of the most exciting work happens when these boundaries are blurred, when people’s identities cannot be simply defined, and when there are multiple partners.

However, many projects still fit these profiles, at their inception. For example, even when there are multiple partners, often those partners tend to fit, at the beginning of a project, one of the two profiles I am suggesting – i.e. either “individual, group or community” or “artist, producer or cultural organisation”. So I am going to go with this split, for now, as a working assumption.

An agency scale

We have been wondering whether it is possible to have some kind of scale or spectrum to understand how much agency either party has in any specific project? So at one end of the scale you might have projects where the control and power sits, largely, with the individual, group or community – and at the other end of the scale there will be projects where the control and power sits with the artist, producer and / or cultural organisation. And some where it is somewhere in between.

I did say this was going to get geeky!

The idea of having a scale like this would not be to say that one position on the scale is better than any another. Because work and partnerships exist for different reasons and can be successful in very different ways. So an agency scale would not exist in order to make a value judgement on practice.

But it might ensure that when we are debating and developing practice, we can be clearer about whether that practice exists in the same territory or not.

I often think that discussions about participatory work (or work with communities or socially engaged practice or whatever you want to call it) are dogged with this particular challenge. Because we often bring together a vast umbrella of participatory practice and expect to be able to draw parallels and share learning. But sometimes we’re comparing apples with pears. Because the work is set up so differently and with such different motivations. Sometimes we end up arguing about those motivations rather than having the intended conversation about how we work together to grow this area of practice and support each other to further develop it.

So perhaps something like an “agency scale” could ensure we are clear about the nature of the work we are discussing?

For Co-Creating Change we are especially interested in work where agency is shared. And just to re-emphasise, this is not to say that work where the agency sits either with the artist/producer/organisation or with the individual/group/community is any less valuable. We are simply trying to be clear about a particular kind of co-created practice which we are interested to support and promote.

We are especially interested in work in which agency, control and power is shared because we think this approach encourages a particular form of collaboration which can change the practice, outlook and future of both parties – which we think is interesting.

So if there was a tool to enable us to, roughly, assess a spectrum of agency, control and power, in any project, we think it might help identify what is a good fit for a Co-Creating Change commission and what is not – in a more transparent and open way – using an assessment tool which can be conducted by the person who is actually proposing the commission.

So we have been developing and testing a model for this which is described below – it’s a scratch of an “agency scale”.

Of course the proposed tool will not straightforwardly apply to every project – because there are so many different elements and layers to every project. I guess our question is whether this assessment tool could apply to enough projects to be helpful? Or not?

The draft tool asks you ten questions and shouldn’t take any more than five to ten minutes to complete. [Please remember, this is just an idea for how we might inform the selection of commissions – no need to fill this out now – we’re just interested to get your take on whether this is an interesting or a terrible idea.]

The sections are divided in to two sections.

  1. Set-up. The first section asks five questions which relate to your project framework – about the way your project is initially set up. In some cases it might be best to apply these questions to your project methodology. Or in other circumstances (where, for example, the organisation is the project) it might be about applying these questions to how your organisation is set up. Either way, these questions are basically about the project set-up – whatever that means for you.
  2. Activity. The second section asks five questions which relate to the actual work itself – this is less about the set-up and more about when something is actually being made. In most cases it will be best to apply these questions to the project activity – this can, of course, include the process you’re using to make stuff, as well as the actual product or thing is made – whatever that means for you.

Not every project will fall neatly in to “set-up” and “activity” so the table gives some room for notes. Each question asks you to assess whether the artist, producer and cultural organisation (A/P/CO) has more authority to make decisions or whether the individual, group or community (I/G/C) has more authority to make decisions – by using a broad percentage split.

Here’s a blank of the table with completion instructions beneath. And below this are a couple of examples which I have filled for projects which happen at Battersea Arts Centre.

Completion instructions:

  1. Answer each question by giving a % score for “Artist/Producer/Cultural Organisation” and for “Individual/Group/Community”
  2. Most answers will add up to 100% unless there is a third party involved. Perhaps just use – 0%, 25%, 50%, 75%, 100% to keep things simple.
  3. Don’t spend too long on each question – just answer it instinctively with what you think is a true reflection of the relationship.

And then, if the overall weighting works out as more than 60% one way or another then perhaps we could say the project is led by that party and if it’s somewhere in between then it is shared?

I have done two examples for two projects which happen at Battersea Arts Centre to give it a go.

Homegrown show – a participation project where we invite young people to come and make a show with an artist

The Agency – a project which invites young people to set up their own project or business

What do you think? Is there some value in having something like this Agency Scale – self-assessed – as part of the commissioning process?

Just to restate, there is no value judgement here. For example, whilst the power and control of the Homegrown terms sits largely with BAC, I think these projects have massive value and can change lives. The idea of the Agency Scale is simply so we can be more honest about what we are actually doing and how we are going about it and have better conversations.

So when we ask people to pitch for funding in the Co-Creating Change network – should we ask them to check where their project sits on this Agency Scale? Or a better version of this? Let us know your thoughts.

I have also had a go at assessing the way we’re (currently) setting up the Co-Creating Network – and I have just marked where we don’t know the answers to the questions yet!

If you are interested in getting involved in the network, there is a simple expression of interest form on our website. Thanks for reading.

Categories: Developing creative ORGANISATIONS My FAVOURITES PROCESS: Scratch, Co-Creation and Creativity

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