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“time to change the structure”

This is not a virus – it’s a bunch of table and chairs

Sat 24th Oct 2020

I have been in bed with a lurgy; playing Covid-19 symptom bingo. According to the persistent and dedicated work of this hypochondriac, my symptoms match between eight to ten conditions; but none of them Covid-19. Retreating to bed, escaping day-to-day childcare, seems to be the only time I manage to write a blog these days. In April, with a freak shoulder injury, I wrote about the potential impact of the pandemic on the cultural sector. Unfortunately, those gloomy predictions continue to unfold. However, national funders are yet to adopt my proposal to radically restructure arts funding to create a cultural utopia!

Six months on, and after another brief spell of skiving off childcare, I’ve been thinking about another idea for funders to ignore. I thought I’d write it up for the benefit of the alternate universe in which I have decided to start living. This is a universe in which artists and community groups lead the cultural sector. In which funding follows their needs, ideas and dreams; instead of propping up sector-defining cultural biases created and upheld by longstanding mega-institutions.

I want to live in a cultural universe where the leading figures are the kinds of people I got to interview in Culture Plan B; a podcast series dreamt up by Matthew Dunster. These are people who serve the communities they work with: Anisa Morridadi, Common Wealth Theatre, Company Three, Conrad Murray, Saad Eddine Said and The Old Courts. They create a world which is less about patronising people by offering “access to the arts”, less about art as a model of consumption, less about giving opportunities to admire creative prodigies of privilege, and more about inspiring everybody’s creativity, growing ideas, confidence and artists in every community, more about hope, optimism and change. They are my cultural utopia.

But the problem with utopias is that everyone’s is different. While I strongly believe that artists and community groups should be prioritised for arts funding and that cultural institutions should only be funded to serve artists and communities, others will not agree. There are lots of different visions for culture; lots of different ideas, solutions and suggestions for policy makers and arts funders. Which begs a few familiar questions…what should public funding for culture seek to achieve?….how do we devise an agreed plan?…and who gets to set the strategy? The government? A national funding agency? The sector?

The idea I have been thinking about addresses these questions.

First up, let’s imagine that the government of the day should set the strategy…

Over the last fortnight, around 2,000 cultural organisations in England announced government grants to keep themselves solvent during the pandemic. Congratulations to the successful applicants which represent a wide-range of organisations in the sector. Given the government’s “let’s have a go at sorting out today’s pandemic crisis but fuck knows what happens tomorrow” strategy, it is not clear what happens to these organisations when the pandemic stretches beyond March 2021.

The recent announcements were characterised by a conspicuous level of coordination between the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Arts Council England (ACE) and those awarded grants. Everyone’s joy was packaged, timed and badged with #HereForCulture which is the government’s own congratulatory culture campaign; no doubt devised by ministers craving any kind of good news or likes.

The Cultural Recovery Fund has offered a window in to a world in which funders, like ACE, are reduced to distributing cash according to government guidelines. The outcome is that everyone appears to be dazzlingly happy; like some kind of strained family photo. While anyone not invited (read almost every freelance artist in the country) is left to rage on social media or bugger off and find something else to do.

Indeed on the same day of the first funding announcements there was another bit of government ‘good news’ circulating on social media suggesting what freelance artists could do instead. We were introduced to Fatima, strapping on her pointes, oblivious that a new career in cyber security was just a click away. All she had to do [everyone together please] was “rethink, reskill, reboot”

Despite the ad being part of a government retraining campaign, across multiple sectors, there was justified incredulity about the insensitivity to artists during the pandemic: creating a storm of well-aimed assaults; from a summary of the artists it took to create the advert to the economic value of the creative industries dwarfing that of cyber security. The government quickly removed the advert.

While the advert was chased off the internet, the inconvenient truth for everyone in the cultural sector is that the Conservative-shaped Cultural Recovery Fund and the retraining advert are part of the same government narrative. You could say it was entirely apt that these two social media trends peaked on the same day: announcing the preservation of cultural organisations alongside a suggestion that performers, artists and freelance creatives (who’ve been deliberately ignored by the government during the pandemic) rethink their lives and find another career. For governments it is all the better that the cultural sector is made up of organisations who have funding agreements with government or with government appointed bodies; rather than being made up of independent artists who are, after all, much less easy to manage. Try getting a bunch of artists to use a hashtag like #HereForCulture – look what happened with the Fatima advert – total anarchy!

The government’s chief minister for culture, Oliver Dowden, recently wrote to a group of organisations with which DCMS has direct funding agreements: some of the country’s largest museums and cultural development agencies including ACE and the British Film Institute. Here’s an example of why governments like organisations that are accountable to them. Dowden’s letter sought to make clear the responsibilities of these organisations when it comes to what he described as “contested heritage”; specifically referring to the removal of statues. The letter is quite an astonishing read and I’ll share a couple of excerpts here in case you’ve not seen it…

As set out in your Management Agreements, I would expect Arm’s Length Bodies’ approach to issues of contested heritage to be consistent with the Government’s position.  Further, as publicly funded bodies, you should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics.  The significant support that you receive from the taxpayer is an acknowledgement of the important cultural role you play for the entire country.  It is imperative that you continue to act impartially, in line with your publicly funded status, and not in a way that brings this into question. This is especially important as we enter a challenging Comprehensive Spending Review, in which all government spending will rightly be scrutinised.

In other words, think and act like us or don’t get funded!

Later in the letter Dowden even went on to mention:

This is in addition to the existing request that you continue to notify the department in advance of any actions or public statements in relation to contested heritage or histories.

What does this instruction mean for the relationship between institutions and independent practitioners? For example, what would it mean for the simple mechanism of offering commissions to artists or community groups for work they want to create? The reality is that when funded institutions becomes arms of the state, funded freedom of expression withers. If we are not allowed to contest all of our heritage, in what kind of country do we live?

Hmm. So the case for government to set cultural funding strategy isn’t looking great. Maybe if I was writing this blog when a Labour government was in office it would be different? On the strength of the “cultural white paper” that Tracey Brabin MP published, we might benefit from the vision of a more inclusive cultural sector. But it is also striking how Labour’s vision for culture is perceived as a tool for electoral relevance and success, and how the paper hums, throughout, with political and cultural instrumentalism. This highlights the problem of culture as a political football, kicked from one team to another after each election; creating a volatile, tribal environment which is just as likely to encourage culture wars as it is to support the creativity of artists and communities.

Ok, the answer to who gets to set funding strategy is NOT the government of the day.

(Note to my lovely readers: some will understandably think this section of the blog was way too long; because the idea of governments directing the funding strategy for culture, day to day, is obviously stupid. The reason I wrote this section is because of the habit of some of England’s largest cultural institutions to try to step around ACE and cosy up to government: this lengthy and ranty section is dedicated to the directors and trustees of some well-funded institutions who persist with this dumb habit. Please think twice before you sleepwalk us all in to a state sponsored strategy for culture.)

Perhaps, after all, arm’s length funding bodies are the right answer. They can set strategies for funding culture which reach beyond the term of a single government. Perhaps they are indeed the best mechanism for devising and delivering a funding strategy.

But then didn’t I spend my last three blogs in April/May banging on about the failure of arm’s length funding bodies to grasp the nettle of changing the sector for the better? So this is going to be a very short section to make up for the previous ranty one: arm’s-length funding bodies haven’t really worked either. I refer you to my previous three blogs for the reasons why.

What’s left? What if the sector started to manage its own destiny and funding strategy?

During the pandemic it’s been heartening to see the greater value given to cultural practitioners based in local communities. Community culture found a new status during lockdown. One notable example was the way Slung Low became the nation’s favourite theatre maker; referenced in almost every national feature about the value of culture. Even commercial producers like Sonia Friedman were reaching to celebrate the impact of Slung Low’s work in Holbeck and Beeston. It was as if the twinkling lights of a theatre award season, forever twinkling inwards, were, just for a moment, turning to twinkle at South Leeds. And while I am not sure how many of the people lavishing praise on Slung Low had actually visited (including me) it was a welcome moment to celebrate community culture. I’m back in cultural utopia in which Alan Lane is explaining that the story artists tell is the story the community needs to be told; such as no child going hungry in Holbeck and Beeston.

Despite the misery and negative impacts of the pandemic, it felt that an unstoppable momentum for positive change was happening in the cultural sector; with a number of groups springing up to tackle areas of injustice or malpractice. We Shall Not Be Removed quickly grew as a UK-wide alliance to set out seven principles for a more inclusive recovery. Individuals such as Mymuna Soleman set up the online Privilege Café to create a safe space to discuss advantage and entitlement. The Gulbenkian Foundation’s Reset programme promised to reimagine the sector. The #AllofUs campaign supported Black, Asian, ethnically diverse and migrant arts workers facing redundancy. Freelancers Make Theatre Work encouraged more transparent conversations to represent freelancers. Sharon Kanolik and Kate Golledge created JoinedUp in Hastings to use cultural venues as creative homes for children in formal education. Great independent companies like Strike A Light got even greater with Let Artists Be Artists. Brilliant venues like ARC Stockton and Albany Deptford got even brillianter with Artists of Change. It felt like the people of the cultural sector were sorting shit out.

But while much of this great work continues, it is also true that the funding picture has regressed. To date, the Cultural Recovery Fund via ACE has managed to hand out over 33% of funding to organisations in London. This percentage is likely to significantly increase as ACE is yet to reveal another round of grants of over £1 million. Even with the current figures Londoners receive the equivalent of £15.24 per head of population compared to £3.56 per head of population in the East Midlands (using Statista demographic info). Funders used to argue that London organisations served a national role to justify skewed funding allocations. But I will be interested to see how they make the case for London receiving 428% more per head than the East Midlands when the funding has to be used by the end of March 2021 during a pandemic!

As well as the inequities of funding to organisations, it’s hard to not look at the redundancy programmes of large institutions and conclude that rather than adapt and evolve, many are opting to preserve and conserve; with the likelihood that they end up being less inclusive rather than more. And just to state the obvious and get really bloody gloomy, we also know that independent artists and freelancers have been left to make hard choices; despite valiant efforts by some to offer support and smaller funding pots via Arts Councils.

In this wider context, there seems to be fewer mentions on the airwaves of Slung Low; or the hundreds of other artists and groups who put communities first in the way they create culture. Once again, we are more likely to be fed a diet of show openings and the survival stories of arts organisations; returning to the core national narrative about what UK culture has to ‘sell’ alongside what UK culture ‘needs’. Instead of how culture can be a cauldron for serving the needs, hopes and dreams of communities. We’ve got the story wrong.

On reflection, the idea that the sector could agree a joined-up funding strategy is, of course, laughable. Each part of the sector would naturally advocate for its own interests. Just like I have been doing in these blogs.

So if the government of the day, and arm’s length bodies, and the sector, are all flawed approaches, what do we do? What if there was a simpler idea? What if we asked a representative sample of the population to help inform and shape a strategy for arts funding?

We could select a representative group of 100 people by gender, age, socio-economic background, disability, ethnicity and geography. This group could meet for a number of weekends over a four to six month period. Each individual could be paid for the time they contribute to the assembly; with childcare and other essential costs also paid for so there are no financial barriers to participation. The group and its discussions could be made fully accessible to everyone to participate. The group could be supported so that every voice is heard; and no individual or group dominates discussion or the way the group operates.

The group could be offered different perspectives about the history of cultural funding. This could include examples of how funding for culture has been used in different ways; and different ideas for how funding could be prioritised in the future. There could be different visions for culture; and different ideas of how public funding could shape that future. This could include offering a wide variety of perspectives including ideas from those who do not receive any public funding for their creative and cultural activities. The assembly would work like an intensive research project to understand and explore the history, and current picture, of funding for arts and culture.

This assembly of representative citizens could then be asked to deliberate on a number of key questions:

  • is public funding for creativity and culture important or not?
  • should future governments seek to provide more or less funding for creativity and culture?
  • if future governments should provide funds for creativity and culture what should be the key priorities for those funds?

The process of deliberation would itself be creative in terms of the way people are encouraged to mix with each other and explore the views and ideas of people who they might not naturally hang out with. The process would be careful and unhurried, with an opportunity for people to think slowly and critically. The ideas that emerge would be from a representative group of citizens with an informed perspective. If you want to find out more about Citizen’s Assemblies this is a good starting place.

This winter is likely to be tough. Brutal even. The hope of a vaccine means that we put very few imaginative resources towards living with the pandemic in the long-term; it’s not something we seem prepared to talk about. So our hopes lay with a vaccine. But without a clear timeline for a vaccine, it’s hard for anyone to plan or imagine their way out of this mess. We’re stuck onboard ship amidst a storm with a hapless captain and calamitous crew; who are so determined to disagree with their political opponents that they delay inevitable decisions regarding disease prevention, simply because they can’t be seen to be led their opponents; our conflict-based democratic system of governance and decision-making is truly broken.

So what if the cultural sector tried to find a different way forwards this winter? What if we used this time to undertake a Citizen’s Assembly for culture? To think about the questions above and to deliberate on a funding strategy for culture emerging from the pandemic.

This long winter could be a time when we undertake a series of Citizen’s Assemblies to help us imagine our future: from health, to education, to climate change, to economic recovery. We could use this time to work together and to deploy our most precious super-power; our imaginations.

Tribal politics in the age of social-media, results in wanting to prove the other side wrong; often at the expense of working together to find common ground and short shit out. A series of Citizen Assemblies this winter could help inform and imagine our collective future.

Ok, ok, so this government is unlikely to sign up to the idea of an assembly for culture; let alone a series of assemblies across multiple policy areas. But what if sought a cross-party approach? So in terms of culture it could be the cross-party Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee which commissions the assembly? Or what if Arts Council England, or other major funders, commissioned an assembly, with DCMS buy-in? And yes, I do believe we need an arm’s length funding body; but one, like cultural institutions, that serves people and communities rather than setting strategy from on-high. With so much input from the public on Let’s Create (Arts Council England’s most recent strategy) we have a vision for a more democratic sector. But now we need to go further, in terms of the democratic decision making process that we use to devise our funding strategy. A Citizen’s Assembly on culture could be the first step in making that change.

Since writing this blog Stephen Pritchard @etiennelefleur responded on Twitter suggesting a callout to see if anyone else is interested in the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly for culture. And it seems there is! Our callout is available as a googledoc online – if you would like to sign up to show support for the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly for culture just add your name – thanks for reading –

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

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