What we think

‘Civic museums’: a report on a report

July 2017

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation this month released a lengthy white paper on audiences’ relationships to cultural organisations entitled, ‘Rethinking Relationships: enquiry into the civic role of arts organisations’. Glamorous name aside, the report holds brilliant insights on various models arts organisations can aspire to in society in the 21st century.

It’s an enlightening read for anyone in our sector, but as it runs to a meaty 117 pages (with teeny-tiny type), we’ve read it so you don’t have to. Here’s our run-down:

VICTORIAN TERMINOLOGY, CONTEMPORARY VISION

At its core, the report asks, ‘how can arts organisations better fulfil their civic role?’ But what is a ‘civic role’, other than a rather old-fashioned sounding term, redolent of Ruskinian societal betterment? The report takes great pains to point out the relevance of the term today as arts organisations are more and more finding the opportunity ‘and even an obligation’ to interact more actively and directly with people in their locality – especially with the cuts, roll-backs and slow death of various essential community resources. Spare a thought for the lost churches, pubs and libraries of yore.

Ruskin, Morris and their ilk – the report suggests – propagated some of the ideas we ought to hark back to when we look for new models of civically minded organisations; new models already being formed in a select group of forward-thinking organisations (detailed in the report’s case studies). For these places, the Victorian antecedent is not so much about moral control – but the notion of being for everyone in society, actively improving their lives.

METAPHORIC MODELS FOR THE FUTURE

Perhaps the most obviously useful thinking in the report is the identification of five ‘metaphors’ for describing what arts organisations can or should be. They are as follows:

Colleges – places of learning
Town Halls – places of debate
Parks – shared space, open for all
Temple – places of enlightenment and solace
Home – places of belonging

Thinking about arts organisations as more than just buildings and collections – but places of social function – could be crucial to changing attitudes in any group from funding bodies to potential visitors. This corresponds to how we at JWA have seen cases for support become much more focussed on adding value to communities, places, councils and businesses.

THE MEAT ON THE BONES

The report’s findings are too extensive to jot down succinctly, so here is a selection of some of the more interesting tidbits:

The report remarks on the steady rise of user-generated content, co-production and everyday creativity in the sector, as an alternative to ‘top-down’ didactic culture.

Localism is championed as something that all the best organisations are engaging with in new and exciting forms. This is usually combined with international outlook.

Partnerships are looked at, too – not just for artistic collaboration or finding venues – but as effective ways of seeking funding. We can corroborate the extent of this trend; tightening budgets are bringing about innovative development.

There are shared issues as well. One of which is leadership. Diversifications of models in the cultural sector are creating a new generation of strong leadership. But this is equally highlighting how organisations, small and large, are totally dependent on the vision of those at the top.

This leads into a further issue around people and skills. Many of the organisations looked at were found to have problems with staffing, due to narrow, ‘traditional’ skillsets. Cultural organisations of the future will look for employees ‘equally comfortable programming performance spaces and running creativity workshops with children’.

The report also identifies ‘shared barriers and levers for change’ common to all arts organisations, including diversity, commercialism, and growth, people and skills. They certainly look familiar to us.

INSPIRATIONAL BEST PRACTICE

Finally, the report gives details on its twenty ‘best practice’ case studies – organisations that are doing things differently and practicing ‘civic’ localism in accordance with the findings above – mainly, but not exclusively, from the UK. Here are some of the best:

mima. The Middlesbrough gallery is praised for addressing issues around the purpose of art in a down-at-heel area by being a local-centric ‘Useful Museum’. And by being so hyperlocal, mima is inadvertently becoming a sector leader worldwide, with regular visits from arts bosses from around the globe.

Streetwise Opera works with homeless people in towns across the UK, first in an established shelter, then progressing them into a major local arts venue. The venue then becomes a ‘portal into society’ for the homeless – and more of an active agent for societal change. An interesting model indeed.

Ideas Factory. This Bulgarian grassroots arts network aims to create, ‘not only art for the sake of art but art for the sake of impact’. Examples of their activities include their ‘Granny Residence’, a volunteer programme for artists to go and practise with elderly Bulgarians in cut-off communities – and challenging government-level corruption with creative activism.

Good Chance. Founded in refugee camps in Calais, Good Chance allows artists and practitioners the chance of interacting with refugees, providing them with an anchor and a sense of ‘place for the placeless’. The focus is on finding hope for refugee communities and working towards true, effective integration.

Bluecoat. The Liverpool arts centre acts as a sort of counterpoint to mima. Instead of making art ‘everyday’, Bluecoat instead emphasises culture that’s challenging, setting art up as fundamentally important. Their activities include innovative education and integration programmes; a partnership with University of Liverpool (including a Bluecoat sociologist-in-residence); and pushing forward the dynamic between internal arts activity and external civic possibility in the public realm.

Duckie. Started as a gay night in Vauxhall, Duckie has now expanded into an assortment of strands of ‘progressive working class entertainment’, including a cabaret/afternoon tea for the elderly, an ‘arts school for homeless alcoholics and addicts’, and good old-fashioned ‘queer clubbing’. Their work finds irreverent and playful ways to bond audiences, communities and arts.

Grizedale. Based on a farm in the Lake District, Grizedale ‘curates and commissions contemporary art both within its local rural and international contexts, but with an emphasis on process, rather than product’. But the project is more essentially about community integration – engaging with the local village, Conniston, in constant, collaborative, everyday projects and artworks.

SO WHERE NEXT?

Rethinking Relationships… is a phase 1-style report: a piece of research carried out under consultation with lots of the movers, shakers and key influencers in the cultural sector. The plan now is to go ‘open source’ and request feedback from those working in the sector. These results and suggestions will be amalgamated into the report’s key findings and presented as recommendations at a policy level, with advice and support on how to enact them. Going on a lot of the report’s content, it’s highly likely that this advice will contain the age-old cultural sector saying, “give us more money”.

We wish the report well. Cuts in central funding have been – and will continue to be – devastating for many in our sector. But we ourselves have seen, across our own client base, that adversity is forcing ingenuity. And if this report is anything to go by, there is a huge amount to be hopeful about in today’s cultural landscape.

But widespread adoption of some of ideas identified the Gulbenkian report is going to need a real change in attitude – from the still-common belief that culture is a luxury of prosperous times, rather than a fundamental need of years both fat and fallow.

FS

Read the full report here.