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“time to change the story”

This is a follow-up to two previous blogs: time to change and time to change the numbers

Sat 23rd May 2020

Thanks for the well-wishes for my shoulder; it’s all better now. I wish I could say the same for my hypochondria; which is very much staying alert. Is anyone else nurturing a list of their most likely means of expiry? Could we set up a mutual diagnosis session on zoom? Several people googling symptoms must be better than one, right?

I wasn’t planning on writing more of these blogs. Neurosis and childcare take up too much time. But I keep reading stuff about the cultural sector which makes my jaw hit the floor. This is followed by telling myself to keep my nose out because I’m not having to face the day-to-day reality of making incredibly difficult decisions to avoid insolvency. But then I wonder if there is someone else who’s thinking what I’m thinking and who is also worried to say it out loud. So I’m blaming this blog on them…

Recently, calls for a rescue plan for the cultural sector have gone public; if not quite viral. The government has engaged by setting up some working groups. Here are some of the things I’ve picked up on:

Leaders of the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company have called for the sector to be united and to advocate together. There have been 165 case studies submitted to parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee; many which explain it will soon be curtains for their organisation without additional support. Meanwhile, the government has appointed a commissioner Neil Mendoza (who looks like an older James Bond) to lead a newly appointed “Cultural Renewal Task Force”. This is one of five task forces across government to respond to the Covid-19 crisis. The cultural task force has been set up “to aid sector recovery” and had its first meeting on Friday 22 May. I’ve not seen the minutes, have you?! Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden writes about the task force in today’s Observer and calls for “innovative” solutions to get venues up and running: i”innovative” is usually government speak for low or no cost solutions.

The task force has eight working groups including one on Entertainment and Events which meets for the first time next Thursday 28 May. The working group intends to “develop advice and guidance on the reopening of cultural venues across the nation”. Participants include the Royal Albert Hall, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Really Useful Group, One Dance UK, Cadogan Hall, Association of British Orchestras, Nimax, Leeds Playhouse and The Royal Opera House. As far as I am aware there is no working group or representation for community based practice and for independent artists, practitioners and freelancers.

These recovery groups have been established against a backdrop of opinion pieces and interviews, in national press and media, with cultural leaders mainly from large building-based organisations or those who represent large-scale producing houses or production companies. They make a powerful economic and cultural case to save the sector. But there is a question which lurks, unanswered, behind every working group and every call for a rescue plan. Who gets to be rescued?

I am not seeking to be divisive by highlighting this question; it’s obviously important that the sector comes together to secure government intervention. But that shouldn’t stop us from having open and live debates about how our sector can be better and how we change it. Let’s not become like the current government whose leadership seeks positive affirmations, rather than challenging ourselves in the heat of the moment. To make change now.

In terms of who gets to shape the future of the sector, Lyn Gardner recently wrote in The Stage: “the involvement of more people from diverse backgrounds, with varied skill sets and wide-ranging experiences will lead to different and more ingenious solutions”. I agree. And it’s brilliant to see organisations that believe this to be true hosting open forums about the future. There is an inspiring and resilient vibe about so much of the work being led by independent artists, producers and practitioners, who are joining up conversations, supporting and connecting freelancers and having good ideas.

But the formation of a centralised task force by government “to aid sector recovery” begs a question. How does it hear a wider perspective?

Stella Duffy has been asking good questions about the membership of the appointed group. Deborah Bull from King’s College put it well when she said “we really need it [the task force] to reflect and speak for the diversity of the sector, the freelancers, SMEs, the rural as well as the urban, regional as well as London, disabled artists, everyday artists, not to mention the crossover with health, education, place-making”. And what about members of local communities who lead or create culture? Because of the way our sector is structured, funded and organised, in strict hierarchical fashion, there are very few voices and ideas circulating from representatives of local communities. How does their perspective even get to be a perspective in our sector?

But is it reasonable to ask a national task force to engage with local community culture? The reason I think it matters so much is because the recommendations of the task force are likely to do more to define the future of funding for culture in England than any carefully conceived strategy by Arts Council. Because when a rescue package is agreed, and I think there will be one, however large or small, it will define the future of the sector, not just because of the money it directs but because of the priorities it sets for recovery.

Let’s remember that Let’s Create (the Arts Council’s new 10 year strategy) was developed after talking with more than 5,000 people, including many from local communities across the country. I thought Let’s Create set out a much more positive direction for funded culture; and I think that’s not surprising because it had so many perspectives informing and shaping it. Arts Council worked hard, and successfully, to break down some of the hierarchies in the sector. What will a recovery strategy look like that is informed and shaped by a hundred or so cultural leaders, many of whom run large organisations? And many who, let’s be honest, have misgivings about the Arts Council’s Let’s Create strategy. This is why I think it is especially important for more voices from more communities to be heard in this moment.

There are an increasing number of powerful commentaries in press and media about the existential threat that the sector faces. Some of these are mind-boggling in terms of what cultural leaders are having to deal with right now; the weight that some are carrying is extraordinary. But even though that is the case it is always important to remember that when figures with power and influence speak, with good intention, it can have a silencing effect on many others. To counteract this, we need communities and artists from across England to be heard. I hope Arts Council, DCMS, cultural organisations and arts editors work hard in the coming weeks to open up the conversation about the future of the sector; and ensure that the task force does not just hear a narrative that is shaped and rehearsed by the most powerful in our sector. The Arts Council is leading the pack on this with Darren Henley’s positive blog published on Friday making a clear invitation: “And we’re keen to hear from you on what the change could and should look like.” Sounds good to me.

Ensuring the task force and its working groups hear more and different voices is not just the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do; in terms of securing short and long term government support for culture. If they hear a wider range of ideas from members of communities, and from artists, they are likely to appreciate a more personal, and a more values-based case for supporting culture. And I hope it would help them identify the need for a cultural sector that, first and foremost, serves communities.

Currently, we have leading cultural figures sounding, understandably, more and more frantic. But one of the risks of this approach is that, to many people, it just becomes a noise, rather than an argument. And if you start to scratch the surface of the case that is being made, then more questions quickly follow. Because (as I have said before) it is not clear when the big building-based institutions will be able to open and operate again in a financially sustainable way. The very best case scenario must be some point in 2021. If there is a successful vaccine produced this year. If it is effectively mass produced and distributed. If people quickly revert to walking in to big rooms full of people. Those are all big ifs.

The case being made by the sector’s leaders currently sounds like: please give us a bailout so that we can retain more of our teams, create new work, so that we are ready to reopen next year. If you can find an epidemiologist who can back that plan with any level of certainty, I think it would sound more credible. The sector is in danger of making an ask that the government may not support; and I suspect, given all the other extraordinary pressures right now, neither will huge swathes of the public.

The sector’s approach to dealing with the Covid crisis is in danger of reflecting our wider approach to climate change; and we know how that’s going. In other words, we are hoping to muddle through without radical and fundamental change. We began with a wait and see approach. When the early signs were not good, with some organisations going in to administration, and others reporting imminent closure, we called for government backing to carry on doing what we already do. Next we have government working groups whose membership is dominated by big cultural venues and institutions. This feels like the equivalent of oil companies dominating a task force to sort out our response to climate change. I say all this as someone who loves venues. I think I am just being real about their value and purpose during Covid-19. We need to think more radically. How are we going to adapt our own behaviour? How do we change? Not at some unspecified point in the future; but right now.

If anyone is still reading this then I expect I am being shouted at. I am being simplistic. I am not being respectful when people’s livelihoods are at risk. I am sitting on my backside writing this and not having to tackle any of the real day-to-day challenges in this crisis. And all those criticisms of me, and more, are fair. But it is also true that in this moment we must reimagine what funded culture can do for people in a world of Covid-19; which many smaller organisations are already doing. People are more likely to want to support the cultural sector if we have an exciting plan and vision for the future; rather than just presenting an existential crisis; a lot of other people are having those right now.

What about our largest and most powerful cultural organisations coming together with artists and community groups from across the country with a plan to support young people over the next few years? While young people may be less physically affected by the disease, as a group, it is they who will suffer most from Covid-19. It is breaking dreams, it is stopping learning and it is piling on huge debt for their future. How can our funded cultural organisations transform their shape, function and operations to stand with young people; not to prop up the dreams of the institutions; but to follow and support the imaginations and aspirations of a generation that needs creative help now? There will be other better ideas and people who are practicing right now who can suggest them. What can culture achieve in this new world? Let’s re-purpose our cultural venues as creation centres for communities. Let’s fund artists and communities directly. And let’s make these changes now.

In recent weeks, it’s been almost funny how many times people writing about the reasons to invest in publicly funded culture, have referenced the work of Slung Low and Holbeck Working Man’s Club in Leeds. At what point do we just get on with it and fund a lot more of that work? So that every town can have its own version of a Slung Low and Holbeck. This is the time to make that change and to write a new story for publicly funded culture.


I loved this extract from Lyn Gardner’s recent article which I will paste here in case you’ve not got past the paywall: “It is the most local, networked and openly transparent organisations, from tiny unfunded companies to well-resourced institutions, that are best placed to be useful in this crisis and best placed to survive it – those who understand that people are their greatest asset, and the reason they exist.”

Categories: #CulturePlanB Culture FUNDING Culture, POLITICS and the everyday My FAVOURITES

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6 replies

  1. I received an email from Matt Dunster today who has had an idea to create some podcasts to interview members of communities and artists to hear their plan B for the cultural sector. What a good idea; I’ve said yes I’m up for helping; and how can we make it open access?


  2. Fantastic David. Bold and clear. In case it feeds into this emerging narrative, I turned my garage into a theatre and have made a multimedia drama with a remote company of GCSE & A Level students called The Strong One, inspired by the original Strong Gong Man of the Top Rank movies – Carl Dane – who lived and died in our village. We’re premiering it in 3 episodes across June.
    With my classical music hat on I’m also convening a group of Creators & Connectors from that world – world class music pioneers, with their hearts & souls in the community, to bring their visions to bear.
    Thanks for your insights.


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