CREATIVITY Beyond access to our common culture
Dr Jonathan Gross, teaching fellow at King’s College London and one of the co-authors of a new report on cultural democracy, argues that new collaborations are needed to encourage our creative instincts
Within the space of a few weeks this summer two substantial reports have been published examining new possibilities for cultural practice in the UK. In July the Gulbenkian Inquiry into the Civic Role of the Arts released its phase one report, Rethinking Relationships, an important piece of work drawing on a large number of case studies to survey the range of civic roles currently played by publicly funded arts organisations in the UK, and asking what “next practice” might look like.
Part of the answer to this might be provided by the other report, of which I am a co-author, Towards Cultural Democracy: Promoting Cultural Capabilities for Everyone. Going beyond a have been published focus solely on publicly funded arts organisations, it examines their interrelationships with the commercial and amateur sectors, and offers a new way of understanding cultural opportunity.
Published as a King’s Cultural Enquiry, the report comes out of research into the Get Creative campaign, launched in February 2015 to celebrate the range of everyday creativity around the UK. This was in part a response to the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, which exposed the ongoing disparities in levels of engagement with publicly funded arts organisations, with regular users of Arts Council funded culture disproportionately white, wealthy and formally educated.
Partly in response to these dis- parities – which persist despite the many years of excellent outreach work across the country – the War- wick Commissioners recommended “a popular campaign to reconnect the British public with the cultural land- scape.” Get Creative was the result. It is run by a steering group of organisations including BBC Arts, Family Arts Campaign, Fun Palaces, 64 Million Artist and Voluntary Arts. We were the evaluators of Get
Creative and produced two internal reports, informing the development of the campaign. At the same time, we were asking broader questions about cultural opportunity. Important background to our research here are the recent critiques academics have made of the de cit model. Accord- ing to these arguments, the prevailing approach to cultural policy - seeking to expand access - is premised on the idea that in some sense people should be engaging with publicly funded arts.
The Towards Cultural Democracy report takes this as a key starting point - that the deficit model, with its emphasis on cultural cold spots and non-participants, offers too narrow an understanding of cultural opportunity. We then go significantly further. Once we’ve recognised that cultural activity already takes place in many locations that have nothing to do with publicly funded arts organisations – once we’ve recognised the plethora of everyday creativity and everyday participation - what implications does this have for cultural policy and practice?
Through our research we spoke with organisations and individuals around the UK. This included community theatre companies, craft shops, galleries, chapters of What Next?, and a network of break dancers in north London. Through these conversations we documented the deep interdependencies of the publicly funded arts, the profit making creative industries, and many “un- der the radar” practices of everyday creativity. These interconnections are outlined in the central chapters of the report.
On the basis of these findings, Towards Cultural Democracy demonstrates the need to go beyond a focus on increasing access, and instead expand the ambitions of cultural leadership and cultural policy, proposing a new overarching aim: the promotion of “cultural capability” – the substantive freedom to create culture.
What we are calling “cultural democracy” is when everyone has this substantive freedom to make culture, to give form and value to their experiences. The term capability, here, comes from the work of economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who together have formulated the capabilities approach to international development. The central idea is that GDP is a poor indicator of development, and that this should be replaced by a focus on “substantive freedoms” – what people can choose to do and to be. Drawing on these ideas, we argue that the promotion of cultural capability for everyone constitutes a viable alternative ambition for cultural policy, beyond the deficit model. In practical terms, this may take many forms, and our report makes an invitation to new collaborations - including, for example, new strategic partnerships between “arts” organisations and third sector organisations outside of the arts, aimed towards the promotion of cultural capability.
This is not a zero-sum game. We are not arguing that policy levers – including monetary investments – should be used in new ways that undermine professional practice and the wealth of great art already existing in the UK. Far from it. Instead, our research indicates that by expanding our understanding of what cultural opportunity consists of, beyond ac- cess, and taking more creative approaches to supporting people’s substantive freedoms to make culture – wherever it may take place – this will not only benefit those currently outside the system of public funded arts, but will make the UK’s cultural ecology even more vital.