SUMMER THEATRE: A civic tongue for the arts

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is embarking on its most comprehensive inquiry to date, looking at what the arts do for our communities and creating a blueprint for the future from what it finds


For the last few years one of the buzzwords in arts thinking has been “immersion”: effectively, the dunking of the public, even communities, in cultural events that are conducted around them and in which they might also be participants. It has brought new people to the arts, mostly as consumers but also as makers, and given artists new inspiration.

The effects have been unarguably beneficial, but what benefits might there be if the roles were reversed, and arts companies and artists were immersed in the community?

The recent changes in local authority funding of cultural organisations has thrown their role in the commu- nity into sharp relief, with councils in some cases questioning the contribution made in return for subsidy, others noting changes from traditional building-based operations that need to be assessed.

Uninfluenced by that dilemma, however, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation has launched its own inquiry into the civic role of arts or- ganisations. “We want to look at organisations with walls and without walls that are reaching out beyond the usual suspects” says Andrew Barnett, the foundation’s director.

And this is a serious probe. Gulbenkian’s associates in this inquiry are the Institute for Cultural Capital (ICC), a strategic collaboration be- tween the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University, which uses academic research to inform cultural debate and What Next?, the informal forum devised to articulate the state of art making, which was founded at the Young Vic and now has 32 chapters around the country. What Next? will suggest the subject organisations and artists, the ICC will carry out the research, and the results will be subject of a presentation at the Royal Society of Arts in December. There will also be panels of experts, and a 27-strong advisory panel to guide the inquiry – but without power of veto – including an ob- server from Arts Council England.

At the hub is the project director Sam Cairns whose cultural education consultancy has been set in the museums sector. “The performing arts have a lot to learn from museums further ahead on this journey” she says. “A museum looks to its community more, and it will be interesting whether we will include, say, libraries – are they more civic than arts organisations? So we have archives involved, local authority cultural departments, book trusts, and heritage organisations such as the National Trust and English Heritage are part of the mix”.

It will be, says Barnett, the most significant inquiry of its kind since Redcliffe-Maud radically altered the shape of England’s local authorities half a century ago, and regional arts boards were brought in and the first arts officers were appointed in municipal councils. “This inquiry builds on that legacy” Barnett says. “It’s not about funding, it’s about practice, looking at what different arts organisations are doing in communities, finding out whatever examples there are, trying to enhance acknowledgement of the role”.

Another inspiration closer to home for Barnett – Calouste Gulbenkian is based in Portugal and has a family interest in Portuguese-speaking Brazil - has been Point of Culture: Brazil Turned Upside Down, a translation of an analysis of Brazil’s Cultura Viva programme in which the state’s approach to culture was changed to start its support at the grassroots and allow the arts to develop from the lowest social levels, empowering popular culture rather than bringing culture to the people.

So the inquiry, initially set in England but drawing evidence from Scotland and Wales too, will have three phases through the summer and autumn: the first will ask what exactly is meant or understood as a civic role by the arts organisations; the second will dig deeper into the examples the phase throws up; and the final phase will be a blueprint for growing the civic role for the arts across communities.

“Collectively we need to revitalise our communities by inspiring people to be better connected with each other and engaged in the places they live” Barnett says. “In the UK, we have previously undervalued the role of the arts in civic engagement and still do not know its full current impact or future potential. This is our chance to better understand the role arts organi- sations play nationally and in their communities.

“This isn’t just about models; it’s about a philosophy in which more arts organisations move beyond see- ing audiences as customers and think of those with whom they work as citizens. We all need to know how the arts can do more to serve people in a civic sense.”

The foundation has already got examples to work on. One is within the Battersea Arts Centre (see Scratching at museums for another BAC community project) in a partnership with Contact Theatre in Manchester through The Agency, in which young people aged from 15 to 25 from disadvantaged communities can develop their entrepreneurial flair. The young “agents” attend workshops for three months to develop ideas, learn how to work together and polish their presentation, with a small weekly grant. They then pitch their ideas to a panel of experts and the best ideas get more funding and support.

Another is Streetwise Opera, set up 14 years ago by the music critic Matt Peacock to create positive change in the lives of homeless people by making music workshops for them and staging opera. The result has been a new kind of stability for the participants, and a bridge back into the community, and it can even mean jobs. Last year there were over 500 workshops, 26 performances and 59 work placements. Streetwise now operates in Australia, the US, Japan and Portugal, and will perform at the Rio Olympics as it did in London in 2012.

A third example that Barnett is especially interested in is mima, the Middlesborough Institute of Modern Art, whose new director, Alistair Hudson, has brought the notion of “mass usership” with him from his previous job at Grizedale Arts, what he calls “the useful museum”.

“Grizedale puts art into the com- munity and doesn’t see the walls of an art gallery as a boundary to people en- gaging with each other and with art” Barnett says. “At mima they’ve repurposed the space, setting it around the central activities of public engage- ment and education. It’s not peripheralising the collection, it’s contextualising it for ordinary people.”

There will be plenty of other examples to be explored by Sam Cairns and her team, and their conclusion might even turn the UK’s approach to culture upside down.

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