The age of the people’s arts

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Two new reports, one from the Gulbenkian Foundation, the other from King’s College, have highlighted the urgent need for a new philosophy for public art engagement.

The first,Rethinking Relationships, uses a series of case studies to suggest what it might be without actually saying so; the second, Towards Cultural Democracy: Promoting Cultural Capabilities for Everyone is more pragmatic, suggesting that the public, commercial and private elements of our communities should work much more closely together if we are to exploit the potential for creativity that is becoming evident in our towns and cities. The standard response “But you didn’t” to the comment of the tyro arts onlooker that “I could have done that” may not be true anymore.
Before we get carried away, we need to unpack what it is we are talking about. First, Joe Public is not suddenly going to be able to paint like Hockney or dance like Acosta because he or she has been to a workshop in the local library. What he will be doing is appreciating good art, performance and visual, which has not been offered to him before, age-old assumptions having been applied (that ordinary people don’t do contemporary). Second, what these two reports are asking for is already happening.
The town of Worthing is going through a renaissance after decades of dipping cultural activity in which its four venues were more likely to be dark in the summer months than not. A new head of culture has turned it around, with adroit programming and partnerships across the country. But not content with finding children’s shows, stand-ups, family plays to keep the panto audiences coming all year round, she has seen a gap. Worthing is in the middle of its second Summer of Circus season, not just filling the end of the pier show gap but more. As well as in the Pavilion theatre there are performances in open spaces, and workshops for those who want to have a go.
These initiatives are not primarily aimed at bringing visitors into the town, but using indigenous residents where the demography is changing (further confounding assumptions), and many councils, for all their skint state, are getting behind it in whatever way they can.
Hull has been a revelation this year, and at the start of September dreamthinkspeak, the theatre company that makes drama in buildings that can contribute character to the narrative, with the audience no longer divided from the action by a proscenium or even an apron, they are right in it. They are putting on a play in an empty office block in Hull’s Old Town has been tailored not just to the city but to the building, so that a bonus is that the audience gets to know more about where it lives as well as enjoying a performance.
So is this research so far behind the curve as to be useless? Far from it. What it does is bear witness to what is happening and then rationalise it, make it into a form that can be a model that can be modified for a multiplicity of uses, and this information is being used not just by communities in this country but all over the world where our accomplishments are already widely admired.




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