Since starting the Clore Fellowship I feel like my understanding of the cultural sector has been totally blown open. I’ve been reading lots. From how mission driven organisations can matter more to people (Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance), to how non-hierarchical structures empower employees (Brian Robertson’s Holocracy), to totally new ways of thinking about economic growth (Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics). I’m also seconded to the brilliant and multi-disciplinary Manchester International Festival. The one thing that has tied all of my new found interests together is the intersection between arts, social change, and people – specifically civic engagement.
Luckily for me there’s a lot out there on the topic already. The cultural and academic sectors are switched on to it, from the AHRC-funded Connected Communities (I’d recommend Ian Hargreaves’ The Creative Citizen Unbound in particular), the Gulbenkian’s Enquiry Into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations, Axisweb’s Validation Beyond the Gallery, and Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places network. I’ve had lots of coffees with Artistic Directors, CEOs, and Heads of Engagement.
I’ve found that although organisations may have wildly different models of community engagement, the most successful ones have the same three characteristics:
- Leaders are unafraid of sharing power
- Civic engagement is part of the organisation’s mission
- The organisation is intentionally open.
The giving away of power makes much of the arts sector feel uncomfortable. After all, many of the large subsidised arts organisations are traditionally built on the expertise of curators, artistic directors and artistic visionaries. Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum articulates this when she says “One of the primary fears museum professionals (and all professionals) have about entering new relationships with audiences is the fear of losing control. For hundreds of years, we've owned the content and the message.” Will sharing power with audiences result in a lack of quality or a dilution of artistic expertise?
I’m convinced that by starting from a place of dialogue, rather than education, sharing power with audiences doesn’t mean a lack of expertise, it means an organisation with more integrity. This is not consultation, it is collaboration and ownership. Those organisations that have civic engagement as part of their mission can be more radical in their sharing of power. My most recent visit was to Middlesborough Institute for Modern Art, mima for short. The Director, Alistair Hudson's vision is of the museum as a ‘Useful Museum’, a civic institution. The word ‘participant’ isn’t used in mima, it implies that people are participating in the organisation’s agenda, instead, as mima’s Senior Curator, Elinor Morgan explains, “the constituent model means that communities shape what we do as an institution”.
Similarly, Kully Thiarai currently Artistic Director at National Theatre Wales, and creator of the ‘Cultural Living Room’ at CAST in Doncaster talked about the importance of programming Kes, a play that resonated with the local community in Doncaster ‘sometimes you’ve got to step up to the plate… cultural buildings should be a magnet for the community’
Looking outside the arts sector, user-centred or co-produced approaches are commonplace. Both the health and housing sectors are miles ahead. The existence of Glass House a national charity that supports community-led design in the design of buildings, open spaces, homes and neighborhoods shows this. Andrew Missingham, Director at B+A, an organisation that “helps organisations grow, innovate and change” credits the success of his business on the cultural sector’s lack of user-centered design. “Often cultural organisations fail to look outside of their bubble”. In order to truly understand his customers he uses cutting edge technology such as snapchat glasses and swaps places with the employees of his clients to really understand the organisation. Wow.
One thing has become incredibly clear to me, the intention of sharing power has to come from the head of the organisation, and not only from the learning, or engagement team. That’s another power sharing dynamic in itself - if engagement teams are not invited to the same conversations as the curators, or producers, civic engagement can only ever be a tokenistic addition to the artistic programme. The whole culture of the organisation has to embrace the mission, and that can be painful if it means a shift in the traditional power of those who decide the artistic output.
The final characteristic of civically engaged organisations is that they are intentionally open. Mark Ball, outgoing Artistic Director at LIFT talks about the whole team at LIFT having some meetings not in the office, but out and about in the community in Tottenham. This has created local connections with business owners and the community. Kully Thiarai, from National Theatre Wales terms the act of making organisations open ‘porous’ and Melanie Joseph from the Foundry Theatre terms it ‘inviting’. Devinda de Silva Head of Collaboration recalled in the first months of the organisation: “people were invited to the office for a cup of tea and met John McGrath, the former Artistic Director.” People were really surprised that a National Theatre was so open.
Since the introduction of its new Director, mima has made the community a priority. This became evident as I squeezed onto a table with Alistair Hudson for the weekly free lunch as part of Community Day. Alistair only revealed that he was ‘the boss’ when a member of the community asked him how he came to know about mima. The Whitworth in Manchester of ‘we were never more open than when we were closed’ fame forged invaluable community links when each member of the engagement team were given one day a week to develop relationships with community groups of their choice. The list can go on – but you get the idea, these are organisations who are intentionally opening physical and metaphorical doors.
We’re at a really exciting time for civically engaged arts organisations. Digital advances enable us to look at completely new ways of collaborating with audiences. Enter crowdsourcing, live streaming, live tweeting, and other types of social media. The possibilities are endless. However, no amount of digital innovation will change the fact that for those organisations to whom civic engagement is important, a style of leadership that shares power and an organisation that implements structural changes to create a more ‘porous’ building is essential. If civic engagement is truly to be part of an organisation’s mission, we have to examine the culture of the organisation first.