Wednesday 22 June 2016

Government reflections on access to culture

"MAP - The chartography game", a performace by the association A PELE (image taken from the website of the National Theatre D. Maria II)

The Culture White Paper (published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sports in March 2016) sets out how the British government will support the cultural sector in the coming years. It’s the first document of its kind in 50 years and the second ever published in the UK.

The document opens by quoting British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who states: “If you believe in publicly-funded arts and culture as I passionately do, then you must also believe in equality of access, attracting all, and welcoming all.”

I don’t know how big the Prime Minister’s passion actually is. Considering the severe cuts implemented in the British cultural sector in the last years and the uproar they have caused among the professionals of the field, it might be just the right thing to say in a White Paper for Culture, although the practice so far has proven otherwise (see suggested readings below). Still, this statement and the concrete reference to “access” seem to set the tone for the whole document. It’s important to mention here that this approach is not exactly new for the UK. One reads that it began immediately after the Second World War, when John Maynard Keynes, the first chairman of the Arts Council, shared his hopes that one day “the theatre, the concert hall and the gallery will be a living element in everyone’s upbringing” (p.5). When the first White Paper for the Arts was published in 1965, it also set out the government’s obligation to sustain and strengthen all that is best in the arts and stated that “the best must be made more widely available” (p.5).

Thus, fifty years later, this new White Paper presents the British Government’s plans for the cultural sector, making repeat references to access, diversity, arts education, well-being and investment. It actually refers to the cultural sector in the plural – “sectors” – to underline its diversity. And it identifies four main priorities:

1. Everyone should enjoy the opportunities culture offers, no matter where they start in life.

2. The riches of our culture should benefit communities across the country.

3. The power of culture can increase our international standing.

4. Cultural investment, resilience and reform.

The first two points are of particular relevance to me, as the British Government considers that its role is “to enable great culture and creativity to flourish – and to ensure that everyone can have access to it” (p. 13).

In what concerns the first point, it opens with a statement by Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, that “Access to cultural education is a matter of social justice” (p. 19). In this chapter, the British Government recognizes that culture should be an essential part of every child’s education, both in and out of school; that there should be better access to skills development and clearer pathways for talent, where it emerges; and that publicly-funded culture should reflect the diversity of the country. Concrete measures in order to fulfil these goals involve the creation of new cultural opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, close collaboration with schools, identification of the barriers that prevent people from under-represented groups becoming professionals in the arts, opportunities for these people to develop skills with the collaboration of cultural organisations, etc. (p. 23, 25, 27).

Regarding the second point, and the obligation of benefitting communities across the country, the British Government acknowledges that the “cultural sectors make a crucial contribution to the regeneration, health and wellbeing of the regions, cities, towns and villages. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Greg Clark, states that “We are in the middle of a devolution revolution. We want our national and local cultural institutions to work together to support places to harness the power of culture to drive economic growth, education and wellbeing” (p. 29). Priorities in this sense involve promoting the role culture has in building stronger and healthier communities; fostering local and national partnerships and requiring national institutions to back local vision; supporting local communities to make the most of the historic buildings they cherish; acknowledging that the digital dimension is becoming “a place” in itself, expanding the ways in which people make and experience culture. Concrete measures in order to fulfil these goals involve supporting the role and purpose of the UK City of Culture; supporting and counselling local communities to develop their vision and finding partners; developing and improving digital access to public collections and historic environment records (p. 33, 35, 37, 39).

It’s true that the White Paper might be nothing more than a compilation of politically correct statements. Nevertheless, it sets a clear base for those wishing to work on it, plan their work with clear objectives and make the British Government accountable. By involving politicians from other areas – such as Education, Communities and Local Government, Tourism and Heritage, the Chancellor of the Exchequer – it makes clear the obvious, that is the need to involve and guarantee the collaboration of other sectors in order for Culture to flourish and fulfil its purpose. This is a collective and coordinated effort.

With the word “access” pleasantly echoing in my mind from reading the White Paper, I decided to have a better look at the Portuguese Government’s programme for Culture. I could comment on a number of things: the fact that the part on Culture is found in the chapter “Priority to innovation” (together with the energetic transition or the innovation and internationalisation of companies…?); or the fact that a big part of the measures announced involve the (ever so inevitable) restructuring of the sector; or the fact that measures and decisions that belong to a government are mixed with concrete actions that must be decided and undertaken by cultural organizations themselves (we are still very unfamiliar with the “arm’s length” concept). I will concentrate, though, on issues related with access.

There is a first reference right in the beginning, in the title itself: “Investing in culture, democratising access” (p.197). The second reference comes in the introduction: “wide recourse to the new technologies of information which allow for wider access to our heritage and artistic creation” (p. 198). The concept of access is then slightly more developed in the second of the six big priorities or objectives of the Government, the one described as “Educating for a more participated culture” (pp.200-201).

Once we start reading, it becomes clear that the concept of “access” is rather limited and very much associated to media and digital contents (digitalising and making publicly available the collections of a number of cultural institutions; creating a digital network of information regarding the cultural sector; promoting and supporting the creation of portals and digital contents which provide citizens with access to heritage and contemporary creation). There are two more measures/references in this part: one to the creation of the Card + Culture (perpetuating the myth that “money” is a primary barrier to culture – haven’t we learnt anything from the Brazilian initiative “Vale Cultura”? – see posts below); and another suggesting “Incentivating the accessibility of people with special needs to cultural activities and the consumption of media” [sic].

No other clear reference to access is made in the document, no clear connection is demonstrated between the measures and actions proposed and the direct benefits in terms of access for the people, the citizens (not just the sector or culture professionals, as an end to themselves). There is also no obvious connection to other chapters of the document, such as “Priority to people” or “More cohesion, less inequalities”.

Can we really discuss culture and access if our Government limits it to digital access to contents and the creation of a culture stipend? Will our consecutive governments ever be willing to face what is for me the real issue, which is the lack of relevance and intellectual access to what is being done and communicated by many cultural organizations? Are our governments ever going to plan in the long term, thinking about the whole country and its diversity, instead of repeatedly wasting resources in restructuring the field? Will they ever envision and invest efforts in a more democratic culture, instead of constantly planning ways of "democratising" access to what they and big part of the sector (the institutionalised sector) define as “valid culture”, as “culture worth having access to”? Let’s discuss access to culture by all means. It starts by questioning: What culture? Whose culture? For whom?

Still on this blog

Suggested readings

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