Drop in

December 8th, 2018 | Posted by admin in cultural policy | news | ways of working - (Comments Off on Drop in)

I have been reading around a the topic of participatory arts, partially motivated by wondering what impact austerity politics has had. There has been a widespread wiping out of the professionals and institutions that mediate, or simply connect, culture and local people, whether it be professional librarians, local authority arts officers, or theatre company education and outreach teams. In some situations this lost infrastructure has seen the return of the artist as animateur. In others there has been criticism of unmediated, ‘top down’ parachuting in of artists resulting in a clumsier, less consistent, less meaningful practice as part of the cultural life of a place. It also places an increased burden on artists to be able to navigate this. Another concern is about the interface where artistic practice and social work meets. Even now social or youth work practice and arts practice are often seen as entirely separate and irreconcilable disciplines. This is plain wrong, and socially engaged art is poorer for not having interdisciplinary and cross sectoral practitioners.

There is also the question of whether artists must know the community in which they work, but this raises many questions. I have always found the idea that communities are homogenous and can have insiders and outsiders in any kind of simple way difficult. Is Brixton a community? Is the town of Hexham, Northumberland a community? Are Pakistani young men between the ages of 15 and 26 living in the West Midlands a community? The answer is ‘not intrinsically’. All of these can be a community if mobilised to be so. So artists have agency, and they make the community they are working with, they don’t just find it. There is also the massive point that art crosses boundaries and borders. That is the essence of art. If an artist can only be meaningful to someone like themselves, well, I don’t consider them an artist.

The Groundhog Day for the UK’s cultural commentators remains the high art / popular art polemic. The reason I find this tedious is so much creativity is part of a cultural heritage which is embedded in institutions out of necessity. You can’t have great ballet outside of the institutions that maintain it. You can’t have public access to C16th oil paintings without the institutions to care for and display them. You can’t have great cinema divorced from the practices and heritage that frame it. The creative process isn’t alchemy, even if it feels like it sometimes. This is living culture and without these institutions you only have an archive.

Almost all contemporary and popular art is connected to these institutions. It can be very direct like the choreography for a Beyonce music video lifted (arguably) from Rosas, or the classical music lifts in much popular music and jazz. But it is mostly more indirect and mediated by the artists making the work. They, and specialist critics, will usually be aware of the influences, and sometimes we are as well. We also sometimes grimace when this relationship is overly derivative. Re-use creativity rarely has the same value as originality and imagination. These are the qualities that make all art of every type important.

Soft landings

December 8th, 2018 | Posted by admin in cultural policy | news | ways of working - (Comments Off on Soft landings)

A few thoughts on cultural value and the land.

An interesting week for discussions in Edinburgh that link to the cultural value of land. This prompted me to ask a group of human geographers for advice on a seminal text. Cue gentle laughter and a reminder that there are scores to choose from. And of course, there are. Cultural value and land (or property, regeneration etc.) has been everywhere for a long time, particularly in relation to environmental debates. So why does it not pop up more often in policy debate and strategic discussion?

An interesting debate on the recent ‘Community Empowerment and Landscape’ report (organised by BEFS) had presentations by many of the key players. It was clear that community involvement/empowerment as a driver for policy development in Scotland has been embraced across a wide spectrum of interests. There are also a growing number of success stories emerging from policies in community empowerment and community asset transfers. The ‘social’ is taking its place alongside the ‘economic’. Furthermore, as Dr Kirsteen Shields of Edinburgh University argued, this is framed by a concern for human rights as embedded in the European Convention of Human Rights (CRAE), and the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

However, while culture also forms part of this framing it doesn’t make its way through to policy. Despite some great practice, such as the Midsteeple Quarter in Dumfries or Moniave festival village down the road, you will mostly find cultural value and the land described in terms of cultural tourism in Scotland. A vibrant cultural community is easily translated as a visitor destination. Similarly, Scotland’s spectacular heritage sites and buildings can dominate what is considered to be culturally valuable in the places where they are situated.

It is also relatively easy to articulate cultural value around its instrumental use in tackling some of the challenges of empowering communities and land. Sally Reynolds of the Carloway Estate Trust contrasted her childhood, growing up in a village in Lewis with 100 other kids to the situation now, the same community but one child. Depopulation haunts Scotland and it isn’t just the economy that will struggle with the Brexit end of free movement. Sally was optimistic for the future seeing community ownership as stimulating a rural renaissance, but we also know that culture is a fundamental element of what attracts people to live in an area.

Community empowerment doesn’t equal democracy and it can reinforce the hierarchies of communities of interest that make up a community of place. It can be tough for a minority voice to speak in a smaller community. Culture can give voice to those marginalised in communities, whether by age, status, sexuality, ethnicity or geography in a way that more decision orientated mechanisms can’t.

The discussion in Edinburgh queried the ‘stickability’ of valuable pilot projects and I, for one, lament the absence of culture in projects that are exploring a more holistic approach to place based planning. The land use strategy pilots in the Scottish Borders and Aberdeenshire being one example. The importance of the way people feel about a place or the land came up, and some took this into the spiritual or theological domain. There is an interesting body of work and practice that considers this, particularly in relation to environmental concerns. However, at a more practical level, involving cultural professionals directly in the processes of planning and regeneration connects people and re-imagines places and does not require metaphysical explanation. I still have positive memories of a project that situated a culture team in the planning department of a town and seconded a planner in the culture department. The results were impressive, even if it was in an era of overheated growth.

But it is the actual cultural value of land or place that needs to be considered here. Should we not be thinking about what the cultural entitlement is for residents of a particular place? Should it include something like the culture houses of Soviet era Poland, the maker spaces of Scandinavia, reinvented libraries, night time transport, or broadband speeds that work for everyone? Culture is not like the air we breath, it doesn’t just happen. It needs facilities, access, skilled people, and some money. Yes, lots of people in lots of places do creative work, but when it comes to developing that work people in rural areas and poorer areas are not as well served.

The point was made that there is much to learn from international examples of good practice. Work from Switzerland, Bolivia, Chile and Wales was quoted and I made a mental note to brush up on good international cultural practice in relation to place and the land. The issue of cultural strategy in countries where cities are home to most of the assets and austerity has diminished rural access has come up during my work in various countries, from Poland to

I thought the discussion at the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Towns and Town Centres a couple of days later made the point again. Here we had a real sense of purpose, in some cases campaigning zeal from institutions you would expect to be more bureaucratic in approach, from Scottish Natural Heritage to Scottish Land Commission. The work under discussion was mostly funded with ‘new; money (even though some of this was EU funding, which, of course, may become extinct). The overall impression of the various presentations was a determination to progress by making the most of opportunities that policy developments have created. There are questions about the coherence and coalescing of this developmental drive, but there is no doubt it is changing the ‘environmental environment’. In contrast the drive and energy of progressive cultural organisations is not always matched by external policy ambition. Cultural debate in Scotland can become locked in unhelpful polemics: elite arts versus popular culture; middle class versus working class; tangible heritage versus intangible heritage; the existing cultural estate versus new and emerging practice. A growing interest in data and metrics hasn’t always helped this. Rather than a SMART culture, an understanding of what we mean by the cultural value of land and place is needed. Cultural empowerment is as important as the economic and social aspects of community empowerment. We need to have an approach that is understood by, and meaningful across the full spectrum of Scotland’s progressive policy developers.

Photo taken at the Argentinian pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2018 -the work of Javier Mendiondo, Pablo Anzilutti, Francisco Garrido and Federico Cairol


August 7th, 2016 | Posted by admin in cultural policy | news | ways of working - (Comments Off on ITAC – UTAC – WETAC)

high on a hill sat a... - Version 2Drew Wylie’s session at last week’s ITAC3 conference was very enjoyable, not least because there were delegates from four different continents in the room so discussions had an element of surprise to them. The format looked at two different projects (Sensing Place & Made in Corby) through the prism of six ideas that underpinned them and that had come to the fore in conference debates.  These ranged from assumptions about what constitutes a cultural deficit, to partnerships translating into sustainability, to projects where the role of the artist is both catalyst and guarantor of quality.

The resulting debate raised both principles and issues. I was particularly struck by the call to trust participants with all elements of a project, and a related point about projects adopting too narrow a definition of artistic quality.  These two simple points capture the essence of what we are trying to achieve in Sensing Place and in Made in Corby and may be helpful touchstones as we move forward.


May 8th, 2016 | Posted by admin in cultural policy | Europe | ways of working - (Comments Off on Liminality)

IMG_7950“The space between is the space where things change” is how Prof. Gary West introduced us to his liking for liminality and his pondering of how to give voice to Jock Duncan’s Scots language archives of WW1 veterans at ‘Crossing Boundaries: Diverse Voices in Traditional Culture’  today.  Actors and musicians have the skills to explore this kind of challenge, but what about larger questions of crossing cultural boundaries of class, religion and ethnicity?  Scotland has a great schools platform for exploring these questions in the curriculum for excellence, but what about teachers and parents appetite to do so, and what about a curriculum for excellence for society as a whole? The session went on to explore culture, diverse communities and public spaces as well as the question of whether we have an appropriate open public space in which culture can operate.

Supporting and delivering community driven cultural events in public space is not for the fainthearted. There are potential tensions at every corner, between different community interest groups, with conflicting creative priorities as well as with the gatekeepers to the public space. Local Councillors have traditionally played an important role here, but the depletion of local authority capacity is a major issue.

Could the recently announced 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage be useful here in bringing together a wide range of agencies, organisations and the Scottish Government to make a step change in the diversity and accessibility of cultural heritage in Scotland? It follows hard on the heels of Scotland’s 2017 Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology and provides a focus that chimes with the country’s enthusiasm for taking its place on the European and international stage. The fact that it is a little over a year and a half away should also capture the attention of all the interested parties. Liz McConnell of BEMIS gave a hint of what may be possible with her account of how a small investment linked to the 2015 Year of Food & Drink led to 65 culturally diverse projects in 15 different conurbations, where 60% were new applicants.

Photo: Jan Miller exhibition in the Scottish Storytelling Centre

Mirrorball & mìorbhail

May 12th, 2014 | Posted by admin in cultural policy | news | ways of working - (Comments Off on Mirrorball & mìorbhail)

IMG_0258Three of this year’s Turner Prize shortlist studied at Glasgow School of Art, prompting Moira Jeffrey (http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/10/dont-call-glasgow-contemporary-art-scene-a-miracle) to knock down some ‘Weegie’ myth making around the city’s new arts supremacy, and to consider its antecedents.   These range from a ‘do it yourself’ culture (perhaps at odds with GSA’s predominance) to the outward looking and international artistic gaze of the city’s culture, to a surprising nod to dance hall culture.  What struck a chord was the hymn of praise for Glasgow’s central tenements.  The artists work in these high ceilinged vernaculars is what brings me to GI every year (http://glasgowinternational.org), and resonates way back to the 1990 European City of Culture, surely a game changer for Glasgow.   These informal ateliers energise a scene that triggers both investment and civic cultural pride (1).  Subsequent UK cities of culture have become more domesticated -Westminster mediated – and the creation of a 24 year legacy more improbable.  And how do we allow artists to colonise our city centres when the tenement is now the penthouse?

(1)  A few examples: http://www.trongate103.com; http://www.southblock.co.ukhttp://www.waspsstudios.org.uk/news-events/exciting-future-briggait-glasgow