more than the crown jewels*

*In the UK, for those reading from elsewhere, people have started calling the large, hierarchical, national arts organisations the crown jewels (not in a nice way).

(I apologise for the length of this, it was written for something else but sharing it here anyway.)

Governance & the development of local groups 

Arts Council England’s Creative People & Places (CPP) programme is predicated on the principle of empowering communities to take the lead in shaping local arts provision. In Hounslow, groups of local people (by which I mean communities of people in a particular place who exist outside of power or authority holding positions) meet to determine what is needed in their communities. This looks like small gatherings of volunteer community members, facilitated by a paid arts worker, developing creative activity ideas and co-managing the process. It is a genuinely shared system, where decision-making is solidly with the group of local people.

Over a period of 5 years, this has evolved into attendance at consortium (the governing body) meetings, meaning local people are taking steps towards a genuine sharing of the governance of the programme, embedding it in the life of the community in a move towards real sustainability.

There is an ebb and flow to this work. People have busy lives and the appeal of meeting in a room, to talk about culture and creativity where you live, is not necessarily self-evident. Even trust based relationships don’t always equal attendance and commitment. But sitting behind the engagement work, is the intention to build the cultural infrastructure of the borough, linking groups, supporting artists and creative companies, and sharing expertise.

One thing that has always been evident is that I (we) don’t need to teach anyone how to think or how to appreciate culture and creativity. Even in spite of the crushing depletion of imagination by formal education, work and family duties, it is crucial not to assume that there is a group of people who get culture and a group who don’t. This is a fallacy. 

Why would or should anyone be involved?

Aside from the broad benefits of watching, performing, taking part in cultural and creativity activity, why would anyone want to give up their free time to do the hard work of making this happen? 

If we understand that ‘local communities’ are organisms that contain disparate individuals, community groups, power players, change makers and people or institutions of authority, then power structure in any given community can be seen as ‘a pattern of relationships which enables individuals possessing social power to act together to affect the decision-making of the social system on a given issue area…social participation is oriented towards gaining a reward or avoiding a punishment’ (Power structure and social participation in community action, Abdel-Hamid Mohamed Hasab-Elnaby). People need a reward for the time and energy they put in. This is rarely money in community settings, something that should be considered if we are serious about an equitable approach. Equally, evidence of success (tangible, visible outcomes) and fun, enjoyable processes in the short term are likely to engender enthusiasm and commitment.  The challenge with building longer term participation based decision making is that the quick, visible wins are not always possible. Community organisers and facilitators must understand this and structure a framework that includes opportunities for participants to engage in fun, imaginative workshop style activity, social activity as well as building towards a long term strategic goal.

For this work to be embedded in the life of the community, we need to draw in people with social influence, people who are able to connect and network socially and to maintain a fair balance of different sectors of the community including consideration to gender, ethnicity, class, age, disability, faith, sexual orientation etc. We need to understand their individual concerns and to have a flexible approach that can take these differences into account. This said, the work that is derived through gathering people together must then be determined collectively by those present, not by those nominally ‘in charge’. This is where the individual may become the collective. Mobilisation around local issues can then take place in a shared forum. 

If we accept that ‘participants exit from both instrumental and expressive structures because of asymmetrical exchange’ (Abdel-Hamid Mohamed Hasab-Elnaby), we also must consider that participation is a conveyor belt that people step onto and then step off of. It is not linear and there isn’t one trajectory that leads to success or completion. Theory is only worth as much as our understanding of people’s personal and group pressures and needs. To maintain participation, organisers must be adaptable and flexible in their approaches. A methodology that enables people to step off the conveyor belt when they need to will sustain their participation in the longer term.

Where will this community led work be programmed?

Visibility, location and relevance feel like keywords for community led practice. In CPP programmes, work often takes place in public spaces, where people are, live, shop and play. Visibility also supports the involvement of new people into the decision making group – noise, colour and action feel important to this. One of the most successful hyper local activities I’ve been involved in was a night time parade with lanterns, singing and an almost life size elephant puppet on an estate in Hounslow West. The action itself drew people out of their houses, it had the quality of spontaneity.

Personal space

This can be a difficult issue where communities come into contact with paid staff and illustrates the inherent contradiction of ‘professional’ community work. ‘Paid workers’ need to be protected as they carry out work on behalf of an organisation. Yes, this is valid. But what does this say about the relationship between community members and an organisation? That interaction on a personal level is taboo or to be feared? And what about the consideration of homes as spaces of production and what values – what different value – could this bring? And what about equality? What does it mean when one set of people are paid to maintain systems and have their ‘personal’ protected and the other set are unpaid and, by default, feared? These are anachronisms that need to be investigated and articulated. With public places becoming privatised as part of new developments, the home and personal space becomes increasingly important.

Who are the gatekeepers to venues and money?

Authority has an inverse relationship to influence. Meaning that the roles of power players in the community – or those with social influence – are not the same as those with authority – funders, local authorities, the holders of actual power. Arguably, cultural venues are also authority figures, or perceived to be. Relationships and balances of power are delicate, and those holding authority should be working hard to de-mystify their systems in order to enable two-way conversation.

Do we have truly embedded cultural venues? Some, not many, I would say. Community centres often have entrenched difficulties with literal gatekeepers and can present financial barriers. Properly staffed cultural venues are often hemmed in by the need to raise income and must compete with other organisations. Neither of these models quite seem to fit what is needed.

Closer to a solution, the Transport and General Workers Union 6/612 Branch in 1970s/80s Liverpool, with a  membership devastated by unemployment and in a city suffering from generational disadvantage, was involved in setting up centres for unemployed people.  Having physical centres where people could sit, talk, celebrate, commiserate and learn is vital to the development of confident communities.

‘We were very interested in getting young people involved, so we set up music facilities and a concert venue…We also had a recording studio..which we used as a place for young unemployed people to help get their bands into the music business’ (We shall not be moved, Brian Marren).

The centre had bar revenue, heaps of charitable donations – notably from people in the music business – and a supportive Merseyside County Council (abolished by the Thatcher government in 1986). That the centres were able to exist for as long as they did is due to the characteristics socially and politically of Liverpool at the time. But it tells a story of being responsive to the needs of the community – opportunities to learn, socialise and create music – and of being managed by local people. It surprised me in no way that Marcus Rashford attended a youth centre that offered friendship, learning and food. How do we expect children to grow, physically or emotionally, when they are hungry?

Venues are by their very nature expensive and labour intensive. Does this indicate that a shift away from traditional, often exclusionary, venues is necessary?

Certainly, a situation where well-dressed people paying £75 plus for a ticket to the opera may step over the body of someone sleeping on the streets, is indicative of our ravaged priorities. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for opera – or west end, or any other kind of high price entertainment. The problem is not with opera and the people who pay the price of attendance: the problem is the failure of a system.

It is futile to talk about the provision of art and culture without considering its wider context. Nothing exists in a vacuum, after all.

What is needed is a complete overhaul of our system of democracy. An occasional vote at the ballot box is not a truly representative democracy and actively disempowers people. We have a network of local authorities that have local relationships, and connections with their communities. Let’s start there. Properly funded local authorities that are accountable to their communities, are empowered to set budgets and make decisions that benefit local people, that are informed by and collaborate with local groups.

To support this invigoration of local authorities we need Universal Basic Services that are managed by central government: health, education, clean public transport, digital services, access to safe, secure and affordable housing with a financial support system for those not working. And culture.

How can culture be managed as part of Universal Basic Services?

The crown jewels – an extended network

Everyone should have access to an institution of national significance. These would need to be in towns or cities – but somewhere accessible to people in a defined geographic area within a reasonable time frame. These types of large institutions should be governed by boards that include local people.The complete removal of the prerequisite of expertise will support people to have a go. Communities should have influence and share decision making with a paid staff. Local people need to be invited in, and underrepresented groups supported to be creators and consumers.  Mentoring, incubators, co-creation, young people programming, community take overs.

Arguably this is unfair to people living in rural areas.  Maybe this can be reflected in additional funding for those places and in supporting people to run the events and activities that are right for their communities.

Local Authorities

Local Authorities (LAs) are responsible for the support, including funding, of smaller venues, artists, and community ideas. As above with the larger institutions, LAs work with local people and groups to identify needs, gaps, opportunities and challenges. LAs work with and for the needs of the residents, with regeneration and improvement work benefiting local people, not pushing out those without a financial stake. Community groups should be given the management of shared spaces, if they want it, for long term use for entertainment, culture, leisure and play. Housing estates should have tenants and community spaces returned and restored. Spontaneous activity should form part of this community based cultural output.

ACE, strategic direction and quality control

What’s the role of arm’s length bodies in all of this? They remain as important advocacy and advisory groups that lead on research and strategy. They are transparent, accountable and scrutinised.

‘We need free money’ (Hounslow community activist)

The hand of organising, or state authoritarianism if you like, is evident in this proposal. Which suggests that the underpinning theory is one of the ‘knowledgeable’ holding (continuing to hold) power over the rest. This is not in fact the intention. Leveraging state power for the benefit of local people, however, will support the creation of the conditions where permission isn’t necessary, and spontaneous, reactive and proactive community organising can occur.

Culture is not something that we offer, or give, to people, it is something that exists. Popular culture, as a community based tradition, seems to have lost its momentum with the acts of enclosure and the right to common land. However, television, cinema, fashion and music, for example, continue to thrive in what we might call the popular realm. People are accessing culture everyday in homes, streets, pubs and workplaces.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t need for a more public form of cultural creation and consumption. We need to work towards a point where the ‘work of creation’ is a possibility for more than the elite, where there isn’t a cultural cringe about ‘popular culture’ or ‘community art’ and elite, professional practice.  Where access to knowledge and information is not quarantined  for a few and owned by the powerful. Where the state provides access to good quality education, housing and culture, developing a population that is politically engaged locally and nationally, and is able to think critically and imaginatively about the world.

Arguably, we have been experiencing an economic and social catastrophe that started with the Thatcher government and is getting progressively worse. With a climate breakdown imminent, we cannot afford to be complacent. Change is needed, and I realise of course that there is no utopia, and nothing comes without a fight. The status quo is unequal, benefitting a few over the many, creating both billionaires and people who are homeless and stateless. The establishment and their media friends have very good reasons for keeping it this way. Improving political engagement and our form of representative democracy would be a way of starting to shift our paralysed way of making decisions.

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