CHAPTER – I was interviewed by Caridad Svich for her book “Toward a Future Theatre – Conversations during a Pandemic”. You can buy the book here – it contains interviews and contributions with 52 theatre-makers in the UK and US conducted in the first months of Covid-19 lockdown – it has got loads more interesting people than me in it. Because it wasn’t a paid thing, I asked if it was OK to put my bit up on my blog and they kindly said yes.
Interview – October 2020
How has lockdown been for you?
My wife is a civil servant and works in London. Since the beginning of the pandemic she has been working from home and that has been an upside for both of us. For me, as a parent of a two and a four-year-old, it means I get to have the occasional conversation with a grown-up! In addition to dad duties, I have written a few blogs about arts funding, researched and presented a podcast series called #CulturePlanB and recently I’ve been doing a bit of work for Theatres Trust as part of their free advice service during the pandemic.
Since leaving Battersea Arts Centre in April 2019 I have also been pursuing interests which started at BAC but which I did not find a way to fully explore. This summer I became a co-director of an organisation called the Sortition Foundation. It publicly advocates for real democracy and seeks to institutionalise Citizens’ Assemblies inside democratic institutions. For example, instead of a House of Lords imagine a permanent Citizens’ Assembly as part of the UK parliament.
What will the field look like in the near future?
At the outset of the pandemic there were lots of conversations about how to change the sector into something more radically inclusive and relevant to more people’s lives. Great networks emerged; from Freelancers Make Theatre Work to an alliance called We Shall Not Be Removed which created Seven Inclusive Principles for organisations to The Privilege Café set up by Mymuna Soleman.
For a moment a less, hierarchical cultural sector was visible. Instead of everyone working to deliver the priorities of funders and artistic directors, the sector’s narrative was being led by freelancers or furloughed employees: individuals who were available and hungry to talk with each other, to explore ideas for change and to have ideas about the future. Allies found a space to unite and the opportunity to take centre stage. Because there was literally nothing else on stage.
In addition to all the talking, there were all the artists, makers and producers who continued to work in their local communities during the pandemic. The lack of day-to-day shows, exhibitions, and festivals, by all the big players, ensured that the work of these community-based practitioners was given space and recognition. It felt like the sector experienced a collective wave of optimism and courage about a possible future.
But as time went on, the negative impacts of lockdown on the sector were increasingly exposed. Over the summer an air of anxiety and fear seemed to infect the spirit of optimism. Cultural press coverage turned to stories of closure, redundancies, and an existential threat to the sector. At the other end of the spectrum, some London venues seemed to embark on a competitive race to reopen. The focus appeared to shift from making change happen to getting back to normality. The good news of the government’s arts rescue package followed; but it became clear that the “Cultural Recovery Fund” would only add to a cumulative deadening effect on the sector’s willingness to change.
The Cultural Recovery Fund was conservative with a small “c”; all about sustaining existing cultural infrastructure. It was also Conservative with a big “C”; shaped by a government keen to support the sector’s “crown jewels”. The fund was conceived using a classic top-down approach: a panel was appointed, largely made up of a group of leaders from established institutions and given the title of the “Cultural Renewal Task Force”. Like many top-down decisions, the structure of the rescue package turned out to be an act of self-harm for the cultural sector. Important organisations were rescued. But the fund failed to recognise that the best creative ideas have always emerged from independent artists and members of communities (for example, local communities, identity-based communities or interest-based communities) and certainly not from the business plans of funded institutions. By opting to only fund cultural organisations, and by giving them the opportunity to do nothing (except live to see another day) the Cultural Recovery Fund missed the opportunity to activate a renaissance. Instead it bought the sector a £1.57 billion deep freeze.
Despite the valiant efforts of some visionary, brilliant and dedicated organisations, who are using their funds to work with artists and community groups, the Cultural Recovery Fund has further severed the connections between cultural organisations, individual artists and community groups; which were already hanging by a thread. The distribution of this top-down fund has been unsurprisingly uneven. For example, over 32% of funding distributed by Arts Council England was awarded to organisations in London. That is the equivalent of around £16 per head of population in London versus around £4.50 in the East Midlands. The idea that there are fewer cultural “crown jewels” in the East Midlands is offensive.
How many great creative ideas will never be developed or shared because the Cultural Recovery Fund failed to support artists and community groups? How many ways of making the sector more inclusive will not be developed because the sector’s focus has switched to getting back to normal? How many artists and community groups will be forced to disengage from the cultural sector because of a lack of support during the pandemic?
It is easy to point a finger at government and express frustration. It is less easy to look at ourselves and the way that the pandemic has highlighted a longstanding imbalance between cultural organisations and funders on the one hand and freelancers and community groups on the other. The story of the last nine months has illustrated that the people with power in the cultural sector do not have a strong enough desire to reform it. Many have carried out redundancy programs to survive. But their Boards, their Executives and their Senior Management teams remain; to preserve their modus operandi for future generations.
During the early days of the pandemic many of the voices calling for change were coming from the periphery of the sector, while those at the centre sat tight.
How is Brexit affecting and going to affect all of this?
In 2016 I wrote [in a blog piece] that the discontent which led to the Leave vote didn’t simply highlight a failure of our political system, but it also highlighted how other parts of the UK establishment, such as the funded cultural sector, have failed to listen to and work with communities.
In this model, the majority of regular funding has gone to support ever-larger organisations which seem to spend more time trying to outdo each other’s art, competing for the attention of national broadcasters and journalists, instead of serving the needs and passions of communities. To understand just how far the arts establishment has removed itself from the lives of everyday people, you need only listen to a mainstream arts journalist describe a community arts project. This is because our values, as an entire sector, have become more concerned with what does and does not make “great art”; instead of cultivating a genuine interest in people and communities; and how we can creatively support them.
As many have argued, some of the discontent which led to Brexit derived from the 1980s when industries were dismantled, and jobs and livelihoods were destroyed. There was no investment or creative idea about what happened next for thousands of communities; villages, towns and cities were left behind. This catastrophe of governance, not just in the 1980s but in the decades that followed, caused generations of children to grow up hungry. It also tore a cultural way of life to shreds because when large employers shut up shop much of the resource, support and capacity for social and cultural activities evaporated. It is little wonder that people were seeking change and latched on to the Brexit campaign.
I was not part of a working-class community in the 1980s. I risk misrepresenting this story; and neither was I part of the cultural sector at the time. Yet, I have been part of the publicly funded culture sector since the 1990s and since then we have done more to align ourselves with government and government policy than to connect with communities to serve their needs; especially the working class communities which experienced such radical change in the 1980s.
Another version of this story of exclusion now plays out in many urban centres in which major arts organisations fail to represent working class Black, South-Asian, East-Asian, African, Latin, and other ethnic minorities. It is the same old story for a sector which has failed to serve and to be inclusive. The outcome, as illustrated by the Warwick Commission’s research in 2015, is that the cultural sector is most used and accessed by the most socio-economically advantaged and educated people in society.
While the pandemic is not the same as the 1980s, it is presenting similar challenges: decimating some sectors and leaving many communities poorer and in a perilous state. Do we make the same mistakes as in recent decades and spend our time delivering government agendas and creating cultural programmes for the most advantaged in society? Or do we direct our capacity, energy, and resource on serving and supporting communities, in a more equitable way, across the country?
Currently, in England, a fifth of annual arts funding goes to just five organisations, while half goes to just over fifty organisations. Based on that kind of distribution model, it is hardly surprising that we are failing to connect with thousands of communities around the country. During lockdown, I described an alternative model in which we could use the same amount of funding to support 3,000 artists and community groups along with 500 community serving venues across England. The idea was to create a model which works on a more human scale, where independent artist and community relationships are at the heart of every funding agreement.
Instead of a top-down plan by government or the leaders or major arts organisations, what if we asked a representative group of citizens what they think public funding for culture could achieve? We know a vaccine is on its way for Covid-19 and is likely to have a positive impact during 2021. What if we take this time of disruption to hold a Citizens’ Assembly for culture? We could invite a representative group of 100 people by gender, age, socio-economic background, disability, ethnicity and geography to assemble; to be paid for their time; to hear about the history of cultural funding; to hear about different ideas for the future of arts funding; and to ask those informed citizens to deliberate and to create recommendations for the future of cultural funding in England. That would be a creative and constructive way for the sector to emerge from this pandemic; with a citizen-led plan for culture.