Creating – or saving – cultural democracy

Two new reports out this week give a high-pitched testimony to the importance of the arts to our lives, beyond the theatre, concert hall and art gallery – and how stupid is the policy of expunging creativity from education.

The Gulbenkian Foundation has embarked on a three year inquiry into the civic role of the arts in our communities, and in the report on the first of three phases, Rethinking Relationships (, it shows how the arts are providing equivalent places of learning, of debate, open spaces, places of tranquillity and of belonging; effectively, they have evolved to be able to do the jobs of colleges, town halls, parks, temples and even homes, as one way or another they have become unavailable.

It seems to trace a process of opening access to creating community projects to engaging with community life. One of the case studies it cites is the Jungle, the Calais refugee camp where musical performances led to a cohesion and understanding in that most disparate of communities.
The second report, Towards Cultural Democracy (, comes after a 15-month research project by King’s College London that looks at how participation in the arts – “from playing an instrument to learning to breakdance” – can be enjoyed by all members of society of any age.
“Cultural democracy – ensuring the cultural capability of all – is not about directly providing people with access to specific means of self-expression” it says. “But it may well involve, amongst many other things, informing everyone as to how they can train to be an actor, learn to use a camera, try breakdancing, or whatever else it might be”.
It finds that “beyond the professional arts and profitable creative industries” culture is happening all over the place, everyday creativity that is often hidden; that our environments make this creativity possible, constrain or even forbid it; and that recognising the full diversity and potential of cultural creativity in our society is essential to democratising culture.
Directing its recommendations at politicians of all kinds and arts administrators the Kings report has 14 to make, ranging from making cultural democracy a coherent policy to how such an objective can work alongside current policy to how to support stakeholders hedged from political vagaries to simply talking, loudly, about cultural democracy.
So one report is at the start of a programme to look at how culture is operating in our communities and has been informally fulfilling roles once performed by more formal social edifices – including the home – on what could be called cultural democracy at work. The second urges taking cultural democracy on so that everyone can feel comfortable with their creative urges and be given the means to indulge them. It’s not about votes or cash, it’s about understanding and then being committed.
The Kings report’s authors Nick Wilson, Jonathan Gross and Anna Bull explain that cultural democracy “is when people have the substantive social freedom to make versions of culture. It is s state of the world that is possible”. The Gulbenkian report suspects we already have it, but it needs vocal and practical support if it is to survive.


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