All voices to be heard

Author: Seva Phillips

A few weeks ago, I was invited to be one of six ‘Keynote Listeners’ at the Culture Reset Assembly’s
last session. What is a Keynote Listener, as opposed to a Keynote Speaker? In common, keynote
implies a position of power and influence by virtue of platform – and indeed in addition to the
platform itself, Keynotes are often seen to be deserving of that platform because of the position of
power and influence (and experience) that they may already have. But whereas the Speakers are
given an opportunity to amplify their own voice, even if it might be on behalf of others, the purpose
of the Listener is, well, to listen. That is, to be open to and receptive to the voice of others, reflecting
without immediate judgement and, as I attempt to in what follows, engage with and amplify those
voices. As I see it, to propose Keynote Listeners rather than Keynote Speakers, is to diffuse power
rather than concentrate it, create dialogue rather than lecture and give all voices the opportunity to
be heard.

Before going further – a couple of lines about myself; important for contextualizing my role as a
Keynote Listener and my reflections on what I heard. I am a white, CIS male with no obvious mental
or physical disabilities. As Head of Arts & Culture Finance at Nesta, I have responsibility in the
management of £30m+ debt-investment into arts and culture enterprises. I am acutely aware of my
own privilege and the privilege that comes with being a funder. In other words, if I am to be the
positive change in the world that I seek to be, I need to be humble when I listen to others.

I heard six passionate speakers give their reflections on what Culture Reset had meant to them and
their provocations for how arts and culture can change. For me, there were three broad and inter-
related themes – under each I have listed a few standout ideas, which are just a taste of what was

Making the arts for everyone, by everyone
– When #BlackLivesMatter stops trending, what will you do? (Alison Buchanan, Pegasus Opera
– How do we empower differently abled communities to establish presence in creative and
cultural life? (Jonny Cotsen)
– How do we continue to support working class voices in the arts? (Simon Casson, Duckie)

The arts as a vehicle for social change
– If the act of insistence is an essential and positive act, what will we insist upon? What are
our non-negotiable lines in the sand? (Lucy Davies, Royal Court Theatre)
– If art is at the vanguard of social, cultural change, are we too often coy about its political and
activist dimension? (Alexa Ledecky, Photographer)
– As they are, do the arts exhibit and serve an essentially individualistic culture? Is there a
tendency to favour the individualist narrative within the arts and, if so, how do we move
towards a more communitarian modality? (Mary Cloak, Bluecoat)

Money & decision-making AKA Power
– Getting funders to innovate: by sharing data and creating new ways for people to apply
– Who’s making the decisions in the arts and how do we implement and cultivate alternative
models of leadership – those that are distributed and inclusive? (Mary Cloak, Bluecoat)

What strikes me in all of this is the prevalence of user voice: by which we mean all voices as equals
in the creative process, in the means by which resources are allocated and, of course, in the ways
ideas are exchanged – key listening, as opposed to key speaking.

If most of the work we do is less for ourselves and more for others (perhaps the very definition of a service economy), then it surely follows that we must consider the voices of those others.

Demonstrating the impact of the arts is a related subject. Hearing the voices of others is critical to
ensuring that no-one is left behind – but it is also important to understanding the effects that our
actions have on the world. And if the arts can be a vehicle for social change, then we must know
what change looks like, whether the means at our disposal are appropriate and whether progress is
being made.

Within Arts & Culture Finance at Nesta, every investment we make has to be justified in terms of the
positive change it makes for individuals or communities. For example, we supported the UK’s first
record label working in prisons, In House Records, to expand its work because of the success it was
having in developing the skills of the incarcerated people it was working with. We apply a rigorous
assessment of impact risks & returns that looks at how the proposed activities will lead to positive
outcomes for people (including the extent to which the theory is rooted in evidence), the capabilities
to implement the change and to successfully evaluate progress. As part of this, we’ll ask whether
service users are able to engage and shape the process in an appropriate way. At the same time,
we’re listening to the voices of our own users (organizations looking for, and in receipt of, our
finance) about how we can do things better.

There’s still a long way to go – both for society, the sector and for my own part in it. My colleagues
and I are asking questions about whether our methods, language and behaviours contribute to
serving the sector as we intend them to and whether we are as open and inclusive as we like to think
ourselves to be. Whilst we’re transparent with regard to our investment process, we’ve recently
begun sharing our investment data with other arts funders with the vision of a more balanced and
fair deployment of resources.

Progress is a slow, winding and often confusing journey. But it happens. It’s important to keep in
mind the destination, even if it keeps changing, and of course, to keep listening to one another
about whether we’re on the right track.

Seva Phillips, Head of Arts & Culture Finance at NESTA