be more useful


There is definitely something in the air at the moment about thinking differently about the place of the arts in our society. maybe there always is, but a recent blog from Matthew Taylor, chief exec of the RSA,talks about:

‘How can rhetorical commitments to new forms of leadership, innovative practice and generous collaboration turn into something real? This is where arts organisations can come in. Their ethos, their method, their creativity can act as the catalyst for new ways of being and thinking. The question changes: instead of ‘how can we persuade the authorities (and local people) to protect the arts in tough times?’ it becomes ‘how can we be prime movers in enabling our place not only to survive but to prosper in these difficult times?’.

And he is right. there is an opportunity in these ‘difficult’ times to think anew about the purpose of an arts organisation within a community. More specifically the arts centre with their physical resources as well as their creative energy. At their best these should feel like, to borrow Raymond Williams phrase, Resources of Hope. Places that respond to and contribute to the shape, health and feel of its community. As Taylor points out many will claim to be doing this already. And, no doubt, there are examples of good practice of very real contributions being made. However how many can claim that their central purpose is the health of the culture of their communities or that they are part of the fabric of the lives of all of the people of their towns? (as an aside I think we should talk about different rather than difficult times)

I think, in many instances, boards (and there is a whole other conversation to be had about the governance of mission led organisations) and centre managers have an imagined view of what an arts centre should be, based loosely on a 1970s service model around enlightenment. Offering a mixed programme of performances, workshops, a youth theatre, gallery and cafe. Perhaps in more affluent times this was possible. but what is now too often happening is that as organisations come under increasing financial pressure they are compromising and diversifying in an attempt to keep this model alive. Maybe we should look down the other end of the telescope. Maybe we need to think anew about what role we can and should play in the community. Maybe we should look to become more useful.

If we describe ourselves as cultural organisations rather than arts centres and concern ourselves for the quality of life of the communities we are a part of, if we prove ourselves to more relevant, more connected, then we may find we begin to win the popular support we will need to thrive. And anyway a strategy around merely surviving looks very unsatisfying, and probably doomed to fail. I have always thought that the battle has been lost by that point.

There have been many attempts to bring the leaders of communities together to work better together. Common Purpose, Total Place, Local Strategic Partnerships, and now LEPs. But mostly these have morphed into administrative structures with committees and inaction plans. Which is hugely frustrating because the ambition is completely right. New solutions will require new relationships.  Our own experience of the LEP has been that, despite us offering to do all the work to set up a Creative employers group that it has taken six months and three cancelled meetings to even start the conversation. I know that in other communities – Bristol being an obvious example, they are working. But frankly, we haven’t got the time or the energy. So we work with who we can, where we can.

And there have been some surprises.  We are working with the British Army who have the challenge of resettling the ex Ghurkha Nepalese community into Hampshire. We have taken on the running of the museum, because the Local Authority could see it sat comfortably within our purpose. And when the Police station in our town recently closed down they asked if they could have a regular presence with us. my first thought was ‘oh no’ and then i looked on the side of the Police car and their slogan is ‘working for a safer surrey’. we talked about that ambition and that we shared some aspirations. and slightly to my surprise they got it. so we are working out how that overlapping ambition can be met.

What might a cultural centre look like? we could be hosting hustings for the elections, organising christenings and wakes because we think life events are important- much like the French Mairie’s – rather than income generators, we could be centres for the blood transfusion service (what greater act of generosity) we could play host to the ambitions of others, create spaces for artists to make their own, we could be thinking about our buildings as a resources rather than our purpose. We could be starting by asking what we want our towns to be like.


(to be continued. I had to go and sort something out)


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