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“Too many cultural organisations operate on a self-replicating model”

CHAPTER – this was for a book called What Would Joan Littlewood Say? Published by Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation with interviews conducted, edited and compiled by Lyn Gardner with Dr. Maria Balshaw. Kwame Kwei-Armah and others. You can read full book here

Civic responsibility is about what you do and is based in the values of an organisation. Whenever I refer to the motto which is etched into BAC’s ceiling, “Not for me, not for you but for us,” anyone– whether they are 10 years old, a professional artist, a councillor or a teacher– immediately knows what I am talking about. 

When you apply that to arts and culture, you end up with a different view about the talent you are developing, the people you are supporting and the way you are using your resource; even questioning whether it is ‘your resource’ in the first place. Your decisions become less about the classic great art mission that we have seen from Arts Council England in the past and they become more about the civic. I think funders are starting to understand the value of this, and it’s a change we need because we would never have been able to do 90% of the things we’ve done at BAC without far-sighted funders who have gone beyond their rules and reporting mechanisms to help us make stuff happen.

Take something like the Collaborative Touring Network. We knew it would enable and support but when you looked at it on the level of investment required and the number of people engaged initially, it was hard to make a viable business case for that amount of investment. But the reality is that so many towns and cities around the country have had so little support and investment that it requires a lot of pump priming initially to get to a place where confidence grows and ideas blossom. Strike a Light in Gloucester and Doorstep Arts in Torbay have both gone on to become NPOs and that wouldn’t have happened without funders putting their faith in all of us.

Taking on a civic role is about making connections. When we shifted from having separate theatre producers and participation producers, we started to have different conversations. For example, we used to only have conversations with the arts and culture department of Wandsworth Council; now we collaboratewith departments from economic development through to children’s services. The shift is from us going to the Council’s arts team and saying, “can we have some money?” to seeing ourselves as a civic realm organisation in the Borough of Wandsworth who are providing support to the people and institutions in the borough to achieve their potential.

At its heart, it’s about enabling people to tap into their creativity and it’s about working with everyone in the civic realm –  from your local youth services, to your local day-care centre, to the local housing office, to explore how we can creatively be inspired to make and do things together so that we are all happier and live longer.

One of the challenges for arts organisations which are trying to develop their civic role is that they are often structured like early 20th century car manufacturers! They silt up because of the hierarchies and the separate siloed departments.  They are the opposite of so many independent practitioners who can dance merrily from making a piece of work that is for them, to facilitating a community led project or combining the two. We need to create more fluid organisational models which encourage change rather than fear it.

Too many cultural organisations operate on a self-replicating model of the generally white, generally male, middle-class artistic director promoting their aesthetic choices. That’s the standard the sector trains and educates to and it is a narrow one.  Why are we surprised when the Warwick Commission says that we are only serving the most economically advantaged people? Why wouldn’t we be? Those are the people running the theatres.

The journey here at Battersea was getting the organisation to be committed to its civic role, because, like most arts organisations, it wasn’t. There was definitely a resistance internally and there still can be. Weirdly, one of the most useful things internally and externally in getting people to look at us again was the fire, which was a massive disruption but helped reset views and perspectives on what we exist to do.

In the aftermath of the fire, people’s positive responses helped a lot of people understand that this was as a direct result of our changed relationship with our community. The challenge of course is that change is never-ending.  Most arts organisations are so input and output based that they feel they are only as good as their last hit show or last audience stats.  But actually, you are only as good as the last decision you made in relation to something that connects you with your local community.

My successor, Tarek Iskander, has got the challenge of exploring what our live programme is about and what it is for. We’re supporting lots of exciting artists, but I increasingly feel that the most exciting ideas, and the ideas that relate to our core purpose, which is to inspire people to take creative risks to shape the future, are coming from our local community.  So how, as a cultural organisation, do we shift the funding, the infrastructure, the building and the resources to reflect that? BAC’s ambition is that its board and governance will reflect its community.

Your day to day process really matters, because people sniff out very quickly if things in your organisation are not as they should be in relation to “not for me, not for you, but for us.”  We are still miles from the rhetoric but we keep going.  Creativity is a process.

June 2019

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

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