Monday, 3 February 2020

Where are the opportunities? Regarding ACE's new ten-year strategy

Image teken from the Arts Council England website.
A few days ago, I read in The Guardian a piece about young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Kanneh-Mason is 20 years old, he became known when he performed in Harry and Meghan’s wedding and a few days ago he became the first cello player to make it to the top 10 in the UK music chart. He has undoubtedly (and fortunately) had the right opportunities, just like every young person should have. He took them and he has made marvels with them.

Kanneh-Mason is aware of the importance of having an opportunity, of having access. “I’ve benefited from having so much music education. And the thought that lots of people won’t have something even close to that same level is a real shame. Diversity needs to start way, way before people are auditioning. If actual education is not invested in and supported, then nothing will change.”
I remembered his words when I was reading Arts Council England’s (ACE) new 10-year strategy, Let’s Create, stating thatThe great artists, performers, writers and curators of 2040 and 2050 need to be nurtured now.” How good it feels to see a state funding organisation acknowledging just that.
In order to prepare this new document, ACE debated with more than 5.000 people, not just with “the sector”, but also with members of the public, including children and young people. They, thus, managed to identify some “issues” which, I dare say, would sound familiar to professionals and people in every country. So, guess what…

“[In England] Many people are uncomfortable with the label ‘the arts’ and associate it only with either the visual arts or ‘high art’, such as ballet or opera. At the same time, most people in this country have active cultural lives and value opportunities to be creative.

There is widespread socio-economic and geographic variances in levels of engagement with publicly funded culture.

The opportunities for children and young people to experience creativity and culture inside and outside school are not equal across the country.

There remains a persistent and widespread lack of diversity across the creative industries and in publicly funded cultural organisations, although awareness of the issue is greater than it used to be.

The business models of publicly funded cultural organisations are often fragile (…) Many creative practitioners and leaders of cultural organisations report a retreat from innovation, risk-taking and sustained talent development.” (p.9)

Considering that these are “the issues”, ACE makes the following statement in terms of its strategy:

“It will value the creative potential in each of us, provide communities in every corner of the country with more opportunities to enjoy culture, and celebrate greatness of every kind. It marks a significant change, but an evolutionary one: honouring and building upon the successes of the last decade while confronting the challenges and embracing the exciting possibilities of the next. These challenges – inequality of wealth and of opportunity, social isolation and mental ill-health, and above all of these, the accelerating climate emergency – are many.”

This seems like an attempt to put all the right words in one paragraph and the temptation to say “How does this translate into practice?” is almost irresistible. At the same time, these are known, real issues, which have been having an enormous impact on different societies (and election results). In our countries we are no way near to formally acknowledging this impact and having such a widespread discussion; much less allowing it to shape a public cultural policy. This is about culture.

ACE moves on to identify three (rather vague) desired outcomes (pp. 33-41): creative people, cultural communities, creative and cultural country. It then matches them to four investment principles (pp. 45-53): ambition and quality; dynamism; environmental responsibility; inclusivity and relevance. “We believe that organisations that are committed to applying them will be better able to deliver the Outcomes, and to provide greater benefit to the public”, says ACE (p.45).

What is it that I like about this strategy?

First of all, the fact that it is here to update a previous one (Great Art and Culture for Everyone), showing a sector that moves methodically, building on previous experience and knowledge, evaluating and defining the steps that will take the policy further. As well as, seemingly, being in touch with the society around it and designing policies because of it and not despite it.

I find it also very positive that the strategy acknowledges that culture and the arts is much more than the consumption of artists’s work and there is a need to dissolve “barriers between artists and the audiences with whom they interact” (p. 2), as well as provide the conditions so that “the professional and voluntary sectors can work with each other to help shape stronger cultural provision in villages, towns and cities” (p.26). This is very much what King’s College Towards Cultural Democracy report was warning about in 2017.

The document is also well structured, starting by identifying the issues that need to be addressed, then defining the desired outcomes, but also the filtres ACE will use in order to evaluate the proposals, the so-called investment principles. I believe them to be adequate, considering the issues England needs to address and the mentality or mindset required in order to address them efficiently.

Finally, the part on accountability is something always appreciated by those of us working in environments where there is a tradition of congratulating ourselves because we did something and not because of how we did it and whether the objectives were met or not. “To deliver this strategy, Arts Council England must change”, one reads in page 56, the beginning of the chapter entitled “Our role and commitment”.

Looking for the reactions of the English cultural sector, I came across ACE in a hole? An alternative cultural strategy for England, written last month by John Holden, John Kieffer, John Newbigin and Shelagh Wright (with whom I have the privilege of working in the RESHAPE project). It is based on ACE’s consultation document Shaping the Next Ten Years, which set out a first draft of priorities for the strategy document. Since it was written before the final strategy document was published, I don’t know whether it was taken into account by ACE. At this point, the two seem to be quite close in what they are advocating, especially in what concerns some of the issues that need to be addressed, with the four authors considering them in the context of the very relevant principles of Justice, Trust, Accountability and Risk.

Telmo Martins (Photo: Maria Vlachou)

I started this text quoting a young British cellist. I´ll finish it by quoting a young Portuguese double-bassist. Some years ago, I had interviewed for this blog Telmo Martins, a young member of the Orquestra Geração (the equivalent of the El Sistema). Back in 2016, he had just entered university, in order to continue his music studies. Today, he plays regularly with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

“The Orquestra Geração has given me the music, but also friends around the world, opportunities to learn more and to help others. Overall, I’ve become a better person, I learned how to listen and talk, to respect and to be disciplined. (…) The students of the Conservatoire are not very happy about all the support the Orchestra Geração is having and all the opportunities its members are getting. I’ve talked to them, I understand them. They have taken the normal way and they are paying for their classes. But what I tell them is that, if it hadn’t been in this way, I would have never had access to this opportunity.”

Young people keep reminding us that “opportunity” is the word. Are we listening?

More readings
Robert Hewison, “A strategy for self-preservation”, in Arts Professional, 3.10.2019 (subscribers only)

More on this blog

Sour lemons, sweet lemonades

First thoughts on the National Plan of the Arts

Government reflections on access to culture


About opportunities for young black people: Keynote speech of Sade Brown at IETM Hull (from 21:31:00)

About people's cultural lives: 
Keynote speech by Stella Duffy at the conference "This is Partis 2020", Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (from 1:41:15)



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