More than just the Crown Jewels

Author: Lucy Thurley


Some perspectives on who leads and organises culture

Local organisational structures

Arts Council England’s Creative People & Places (CPP)programme is predicated on the principle of empowering communities to take the lead in shaping local arts provision. In Hounslow, groups of local people (by which I mean communities of people in a particular place who exist outside of power or authority holding positions) meet to determine what is needed in their communities. This looks like small gatherings of volunteer community members, facilitated by a paid arts worker, developing creative activity ideas and co-managing the process. 

Over a period of 5 years, this has evolved into attendance at consortium (the governing body) meetings, meaning local people are taking steps towards a genuine sharing of the governance of the programme, embedding it in the life of the community in a move towards real sustainability. 

Local people therefore are leading the development of arts and cultural provision in Hounslow.

How do local people fit into the broader cultural ecology?

Authority has an inverse relationship to influence. Meaning that the roles of power players in the community – or those with social influence – are not the same as those with authority – funders, local authorities, the holders of actual power. Arguably, cultural venues are also authority figures, or perceived to be. Relationships and balances of power are delicate, and those holding authority should be working hard to de-mystify their systems in order to enable two-way conversation.

Venues are by their very nature expensive and labour intensive. Does this indicate that a shift away from traditional, often exclusionary, venues is necessary? 

Certainly, a situation where well-dressed people paying £75 plus for a ticket to the opera may step over the body of someone sleeping on the streets, is indicative of our ravaged priorities. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for opera – or west end, or any other kind of high price entertainment. The problem is not with opera and the people who pay the price of attendance: the problem is the failure of a system.

It is futile to talk about the provision of art and culture without considering its wider context. Nothing exists in a vacuum, after all.

What is needed is a complete overhaul of our system of democracy. An occasional vote at the ballot box is not a truly representative democracy and actively disempowers people. We have a network of local authorities that have local relationships, and connections with their communities. Let’s start there. Properly funded local authorities that are accountable to their communities, are empowered to set budgets and make decisions that benefit local people, that are informed by and collaborate with local groups.

To support this invigoration of local authorities we need Universal Basic Services that are managed by central government: health, education, clean public transport, digital services, access to safe, secure and affordable housing with a financial support system for those not working. And culture. 

How can culture be managed as part of Universal Basic Services?

The crown jewels – an extended network

Everyone should have access to an institution of national significance. These would need to be in towns or cities – but somewhere accessible to people in a defined geographic area within a reasonable time frame. These types of large institutions should be governed by boards that include local people. The complete removal of the prerequisite of expertise will support people to have a go. Communities should have influence and share decision making with a paid staff. Local people need to be invited in, and underrepresented groups supported to be creators and consumers.  Mentoring, incubators, co-creation, young people programming, community take overs. 

Local Authorities 

Local Authorities (LAs) are responsible for the support, including funding, of smaller venues, artists, and community ideas. As above with the larger institutions, LAs work with local people and groups to identify needs, gaps, opportunities and challenges. LAs work with and for the needs of the residents, with regeneration and improvement work benefiting local people, not pushing out those without a financial stake. Community groups should be given the management of shared spaces, if they want it, for long term use for entertainment, culture, leisure and play. Housing estates should have tenants and community spaces returned and restored. Spontaneous activity should form part of this community based cultural output. 

ACE, strategic direction and quality control

What’s the role of arm’s length bodies in all of this? They remain as important advocacy and advisory groups that lead on research and strategy. They are transparent, accountable and scrutinised. 

‘We need free money’ (Hounslow community activist)

The hand of organising, or state authoritarianism if you like, is evident in this proposal. Which suggests that the underpinning theory is one of the ‘knowledgeable’ holding (continuing to hold) power over the rest. This is not in fact the intention. Leveraging state power for the benefit of local people, however, will support the creation of the conditions where permission isn’t necessary, and spontaneous, reactive and proactive community organising can occur. 

We need to work towards a point where the ‘work of creation’ is a possibility for more than the elite, where there isn’t a cultural cringe about ‘popular culture’ or ‘community art’ and elite, professional practice.  Where access to knowledge and information is not quarantined  for a few and owned by the powerful. Where the state provides access to good quality education, housing and culture, developing a population that is politically engaged locally and nationally, and is able to think critically and imaginatively about the world. 

Arguably, we have been experiencing an economic and social catastrophe that started with the Thatcher government and is getting progressively worse. With a climate breakdown imminent, we cannot afford to be complacent. Change is needed, and I realise of course that there is no utopia, and nothing comes without a fight. The status quo is unequal, benefitting a few over the many, creating both billionaires and people who are homeless and stateless. The establishment and their media friends have very good reasons for keeping it this way. Improving political engagement and our form of representative democracy would be a way of starting to shift our paralysed way of making decisions. 

 The full length version of this piece is: