Time for new thinkers

The Golden Age for cultural policy is long gone, the most influential voices in cultural policymaking haven't changed for the last twenty-five years; neither has there been much movement in the cultural conversation. Recent research from Goldsmiths College showed that the arts are becoming pursuits of the middle classes. It’s for those that can afford to work for free in internships or those that already have connections and relationships to others in the sector to give them a leg-up. If you want to be an artist, good luck, you are in for a struggle in a space seeped in nepotism and managerialism.

As a result, the potential for arts and culture to contribute to all policy areas is overlooked. Arts and Culture have the ability to provide unique methodologies that can be relevant across all areas of policy. You only  need to look at RED, a Design Council initiative which has brought systems thinking and a design approach to areas of health, security, education with significant success. However the current 'players' in the arts and cultural sector are invested in the status quo and are lobbying/advocating so not able to innovate or suggest new ideas or ways of developing thinking but to keep things consistent, which means there are lots of creative ideas and talent that don't get to have a say and to help create the future.

It hasn’t always been like this. In 1964 Harold Wilson approached Jennie Lee to take up the role of Minister of Health which she turned down, persuading him instead to establish a new role as Arts Minister. During her time in this role Jennie Lee established a place for the arts at the centre of Whitehall. Lee’s White Paper, “A Policy for the Arts: The First Steps”,  and her role in redefining the charter for the Arts Council has been the basis upon which the UK’s cultural institutions and policy have developed over the past 40 years. Her paper was remarkable for the essential joy at its heart, marking a radical new position for culture at the time of its publication. It put people at its centre, marking a shift from the post-war Arts Council stance that government has a single responsibility to protect and promote excellence within the arts, to ensure we are also reaching new audiences and ensure access to the arts regardless of where you live or how wealthy you are.

It is now 52 years since Jennie Lee’s White Paper and 53 years since the establishment of the role of a Minister of Arts (now the Culture Minister) was created. Today we see a different Britain where the arts have thrived and our artists are world renowned. From 1965 right through the early 2000’s we have pushed at what cultural policy can do and how we can develop it within our communities. Technological developments and the ability to travel the world more freely have influenced the arts in ways we could never have predicted. We can now watch live theatrical performances in cinemas and see the British Museum’s  archive online. More attention is paid to the creative industries than ever before and, unlike in 1965, we now have a broad definition of what the creative industries actually are and their benefit both to the economy and the wellbeing of citizens.

In 2017 cultural policy has become stuck in the same conversations about space for the arts and we have been focussing on the institutions themselves for too long. It is also about their economic impact or ability to change a place and if we follow this line arts and culture is never going to generate the income or jobs of other sectors, it is always going to be a secondary priority. Only this week, Richard Florida admitted he was wrong about the Creative Classes. And so we are left with a chasm, where there is little, or no radical thinking for culture, what it does and how it reflects our communities. Just look at the conversation on Creative Education currently dominated by the Creative Industries Federation leading on an economic argument. The space for new cases for arts and culture seems non existent.

The think tank DEMOS, filled this space for a little while with some success up until 2008, but today it is hard to find any new policy thinking in the UK. Artists themselves are exploring different models of policy change and innovation through arts and culture from around the world, there is  Tania Bruguera’s Hannah Arendt' Institute of Artivism and then there is Vice platforming the voices of young people or USDAC but we need to see more of this. By looking at culture you find out about a community's relationship to a place, it’s values and aspirations – things you cannot ascertain through the polls. Research on the Brexit vote shows that the way people voted wasn’t always according to fact or logic but for many was bound up in how empowered and influential they felt in their own communities. If there is one thing British politics has learned in the last 14 months, it is that you cannot separate people from their culture. We need to look at they way artists and cultural organisations operate within communities for lessons rather than looking at the product of what they do. The strength is in the process, not the output, the building or the place that matters.

Jennie Lee saw the value of the arts in the joy and pride it drew from communities and people. But what does that mean today? And how can it be approached in a new way? As the years have worn on we have seen that there are still challenges to achieving open access; whether that be diversity, race, class or financial barriers. Organisations across the arts sector are constantly trying to find new ways to reach new audiences to fulfill this mission. Perhaps a new approach to this would be to start with the people rather than the organisations.  We could begin  this with an alternative response to Lee’s paper, a re-reading for today.

Jennie Lee wanted access to the arts to be given to all communities but perhaps we took the wrong starting point. Our focus has been around the places and organisations where people can go to see and engage in arts- how we can get them into the museum, the theatre or the studio. If we want communities to access and build relationships with the arts  perhaps we should have taken another starting point. One which starts with communities rather than the buildings and organisations. This shift in the reading of original paper has deep implications for cultural policy, one which puts focus on people and the culture within their communities.

There has already  been concerted effort by government policy to move the focus from London to the rest of the UK through devolution.This has led to an increased emphasis on looking to celebrate and draw attention to people’s sense of place and identity. However, though on the surface this may appear like we are looking to communities it suggests shifts in power from organisations in London to organisations in Manchester, Sheffield and other towns and cities. We need to take hold of this momentum and ensure we are truly thinking about communities, rather than organisations in this new structure. We need less Power Houses and more Power Communities.

It is time for a new generation of thinkers to drive forward our culture conversation and it must include those who will be youthful, diverse, forward-looking and inclusive of all classes.  We need to move away from considering cultural value in terms of funding applications or evaluations – the habit of most cultural organisations; one which limits the possibilities of how we understand what we do – we need to explore different models of policy change and innovation through arts and culture from around the world.

The Labour Party’s pre-election manifesto committed to reversing the funding cuts to the arts. This presents an opportunity, not to go back to how it was post 2008, but for us to re-think the role of arts and culture and its impact in our communities. If we begin to truly value communities we need to ask ourselves firstly what is culture in the UK? Once we have an understanding of culture from communities we can begin to understand the importance of what the arts can do. We know that culture is often most visible among young people.

We have yet to get a true grip on what culture is to communities. And by culture, I don’t mean what we think culture is or what we think it should be but rather what it is and how it  manifests itself as is day to day lives of people and place. Whether that be football, painting, knitting, WI, gardening or cooking, we need to understand what are the things people to do that bring them together to create their own networks to share, talk and learn from each other. Once we understand what this is and how it works we will be able to build a picture of how important culture is to our communities we can begin to ask ‘How can culture contribute to all aspects of government and public life?’ and can we consider culture both as infrastructure and as an opportunity (1) to add value to every part of government – Whitehall, civic society and local policy; and (2) to open up new ways of working in all our communities.

Over the last 6 months I have been battling with some these questions around cultural policy and it is the starting point for a new think tank: The Jennie Lee Institute. Jennie Lee, the self-proclaimed Minister for the Future spearheaded state funding for the arts and set in place the building blocks for arts and culture to thrive in the UK. The daughter of a miner, irreverent and not afraid of confrontation, Labour MP for Cannock, founder of the Open University, wife of Nye Bevan and one of only a handful of women to serve in Harold Wilson’s government. She alone made a home for Arts and Culture  at the centre of Whitehall, and today the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) employs 650 people. We need to take up the baton of ambition from Jennie Lee again. Lee fought for a space for the arts in Whitehall and now we need to begin a new conversation which takes the approaches and methodologies of art and culture into every department across both national and local government.


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