Speech: Dr Nick Wilson at launch of Towards cultural democracy report

Last week, King’s College London launched its fourth Cultural Enquiry. Towards cultural democracy: promoting cultural capabilities for everyone investigates the UK’s cultural ecology, highlights the importance of ‘everyday’ creativity and calls for a more inclusive approach to building the networks and partnerships that enable creativity in the UK.

At the launch, Dr Nick Wilson, Reader in Creativity, Arts & Cultural Management, Department of Culture, Media & Creative Industries at King’s and one of the report’s authors, gave a speech to invited guests from across the cultural, academic and policy sectors that formally launched the report: 

Any talk of ‘cultural democracy’ carries with it the danger, however unwitting, of reinforcing rather than eradicating or overcoming division: unfortunately, of course, we’ve heard so much in the last few days and weeks about the haves vs. the have nots; the rich vs. the poor, and so on; it is easy to see how this report might threaten to add a long list of additional dualisms of its own – high culture vs. popular culture; professional vs. amateur; culture vs. commerce; London and the South East vs. the North; the arts vs. everyday creativity; and so on. The cry goes up that we should be re-directing attention and resources towards the ‘other’ – the marginalized, the disenfranchised, and the excluded – and what is termed a ‘deficit’ model quickly ensues. So what of this Cultural Enquiry and its call for the arts and creative industries to take everyday creativity seriously – is this just another well-intentioned but ultimately flawed agenda which, if implemented, would merely see hugely stretched resources being re-directed from one group to another – a zero sum game?

It will come as no surprise that my answer to this is a resolute ‘no’. I firmly believe that the ideas and recommendations we are presenting today offer a different, necessary and pragmatic way forward that is in everybody’s interests. But, in the same breath, I want to stress that this is just a starting point; its big ideas need to be discussed and debated; we don’t have all the answers.

So, what are these big ideas; what do we mean by cultural capability – and why do we think this is this so important? I want to answer these questions very briefly in reference to 5 ‘C’s, the first two of which are Culture and Creativity:

Over and above Get Creative’s specific aim, which the BBC’s Director General Tony Hall, at the campaign launch described as ‘inspir[ing] everybody, and I mean everybody, to make art; to do something creative’ it has placed even more firmly on the map the importance of thinking more deeply about the relationship between culture and creativity.  Through our research we have glimpsed just some of the plethora of creativity that is happening across the country, but which is not recognized or supported at a cultural policy level. Bringing attention to this ‘everyday creativity’ is of itself not new, of course. The Warwick Commission; 64 Million Artists’ report for the Arts Council England; John Holden’s work on the significance of ‘home’ and ‘amateur’ culture, as part of a cultural ecology; the AHRC Cultural Value project; and the Understanding Everyday Participation research project – to name but a few – have all made important contributions. But what we think IS new, is our findings about the interdependencies and interconnections that exist between everyday creativity, the arts and creative industries, and what this tells us about the nature of cultural opportunities  – which crucially extend well beyond the over-arching cultural policy goal of increasing access to already existing publicly funded arts.

The report argues that we need to pay much greater attention to the Connections (my 3rd ‘C’) between everyday creativity, arts and creative industries. These are vital – not just to inspire people to try something new, or encourage more everyday creativity, but rather as representing the (often invisible) conditions and pathways into the arts and creative industries, and moreover, crucially, as the ways in which people get to lead fulfilled lives. This brings me to where I think the report is most innovative – in respect of its re-thinking how we do ‘cultural policy’ not so much, as I have said, in terms of access to currently existing publicly funded arts, or even the equitable distribution of resources across the country (important though these are), but in respect of promoting the potential, the opportunity the freedom, or in the language of Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen, the ‘capability’ to do or be what we really value. Cultural Capability (my fourth ‘C’) is the real freedom or opportunity to co-create versions of culture. Commenting on a draft of this report, Alex Ferris (formerly of the Old Vic Community Company, now at West Yorkshire Playhouse) said: “Culture can provide the agency, confidence and platform that communities need to survive – giving them a route to be heard, a sense of belonging, a compassion and empathy for each other no matter where they fall in society.” Cultural capability matters because not everybody has this socially embedded freedom: and if you are still struggling to see just what I mean by these words – think of ‘co-creating versions of culture’ in terms of the very real and lived freedoms (or not) to speak, to express, to be heard, to make, to build, to create. When everyone has this freedom we will have cultural democracy.

The obvious question arises: How might we promote these cultural freedoms, this cultural capability for everyone … in practice? In the report we outline 14 recommendations – the most central of which is to make the promotion of cultural capabilities for everyone an interlinked policy objective – by which we simply mean that we encourage everyone across all scales of policy decision-making – from national policy makers (across Government), theatre chief executives, funders, foundations, to knitting club organisers – to embrace this focus on cultural opportunities, as discussed in the report. Other recommendations include exploring the best institutional arrangements through which this can be done; reviewing how this policy complements rather than negatively impacts existing policy directions and priorities (as I said at the start – we really don’t want to unwittingly reinforce division; access to ‘great art’ and cutting edge creative industries remain central within this vision of cultural democracy); as well as a range of other more focused recommendations, including supporting creative citizens; encouraging arts organisations to develop their own cultural capability strategies; local (city-wide) initiatives; exploring the role of digital platforms and social media in enabling new partnerships and collaborations; and developing new connections with non-arts groups.

All of which brings me to my 5th and final ‘C’ – Change. Starting this evening, but very much in the spirit and practice of Get Creative – we hope that through joining together in an inclusive conversation about how to promote cultural capability for everyone, we really will be able to bring about change for the good. The arts and the creative industries are best-placed to lead this conversation – but it is one that should embrace many voices, and bring us into contact with people and views we haven’t heard from (or perhaps haven’t been heard) before.

And on this note – you will find a piece of paper on the desk by the window, which invites you to reflect on and share,– what you have heard this evening. We should like to hear from all of you – so do please take a few minutes to jot down any helpful thoughts and contributions and post in the box by the doors before you leave.

To conclude, let me just say: for us – the research continues. We are currently planning a follow-on research project that asks ‘what interventions (if any) are needed to bring about cultural democracy?’ We will also be taking this agenda to South Africa in September to make the case for cultural capabilities on an international level (to the Human Development and Capabilities Association). We very much look forward to talking with you further in due course.

Words: Dr Nick Wilson

For more information about and to download Towards cultural democracy: promoting cultural capabilities for everyone, see the King’s website.

Further information about King’s programme of Cultural Enquiries, is available on the King’s website.

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