Talking about culture, philanthropy and democracy – Part 2

Following yesterday’s post, here is Sajida Carr‘s presentation to ADESTE+.

Following on from Francois talk there have aeons of activities that have attempted to become relevant and have people at the heart of cultural activities that question the willingness to share real power and change. I’d like to share two contrasting experiences around the democratisation of culture and culture democracy.

The two examples that I’d like to elaborate on relates to the National Trust which is a membership organisation and a charity with more than 5 million members. They are working towards becoming more reflective of our society. Whose Story? was a specific initiative to encourage a more diverse audience to engage in the NT. This was a programme of change internally and externally. Externally it was about audience development and internally it was looking at staff recruitment, board members, governance within the Trust. The research was carried to explore links which might engage new audiences and could act as a hook to entice people. For example, the research uncovered histories around the Hare Krishna’s, Indian princess and a tailor called George Saunders from St Kitts. In the mid 2000’s this was a  fresh and innovative way of interpreting their sites, where arts and heritage came together. Risks were taken with works such as the Sacred Quran which looked at Wightwick Manor through the eyes of Muslim men and women. Caution was needed because of the use of sacred text however because we worked with a partner who had expertise and knowledge, this gave the confidence to deliver the project. Looking back at this, and on reflection, this was ‘democratisation of culture’ which assumed that there is a recognised definition of what constitutes as culture as the project came from the National Trust and its staff.

The second example is about an action research project Creative People and Places and there are 30 programmes across the UK in places where Arts Council consider the least engaged in the arts. Arts Council England is a government-funded body dedicated to promoting the performing, visual and literary arts in England. And Creative Black Country (CBC) is one of those projects based in the Black Country, working in Sandwell, Walsall, Wolverhampton and Dudley. The Black Country is an area of the West Midlands and has a population of more than one million people covering four metropolitan boroughs. The phrase Black Country comes from the soot from the heavy industries that covered the area and was one of the most industrialised parts of the UK.

‘Amrick at Fourways’ – Photograph by Jagdish Patel, courtesy, Creative Black Country

CBC was born in late 2014 and everything within CBC is about creating cultural experiences, in partnership with local residents and genuinely being part of the decision making process. One of those project is about Desi Pubs which tells the extraordinary story about migration, survival, love and food. For over 40 years, the Black Country has been quietly developing a food revolution, the ‘Desi pub’ (Desi means authentic and is a word comes from South Asia). It’s an East meets West story, where the classic English pub with its ales, darts and dominos meets Punjabi food and Bhangra. Developed over two years Desi Pubs was a slow burn project born out of an authentic story from Sandwell and desire from the Midland Pubs Association (MPA) who could make more of the desi pubs phenomenon. MPA helped to broker the relationship between the landlords and CBC spent time building the relationship and more importantly listening to the pub regulars and landlords. The engagement was phased with pilot initiatives with artist commissions being central to the Desi Pubs project. CBC facilitated the design process the landlords and pub regulars, of course, there was hesitancy about pubs and art, this was changed via the strength of the relationship. The commissioning panel, a critical part process who made the decisions around the artists’ selection. The panel included an Art Gallery and the Midlands Pub Association.

The difference between the two approaches is the Creative Black Country model is based on cultural democracy, which is nothing new, CBC is standing on the shoulder of giants who have done this work for decades. The words change but what’s important is to question is about sharing real power, authentic collaborations, who decides what happens, are we really willing to change. CBC is continuously working towards this model and we have learned many lessons along the way which include:

Within the cultural sector, we sometimes think that we might have a wonderful offer, expect local people to sign up to panels, meetings etc and of course why should people come and get involved? So to engage audience authentically we have to go where they are, on their terms, have a conversation and listen. This all takes time to build and develop trusted relationships; you’re asking people to commit time to be involved with your work.

Consider where in our programmes does community decision-making sit. For Creative Black Country it took us time to find our feet when we started as a brand new programme and get an understanding of who makes the decisions. At the start, most of the decisions went through partnership board, as time has gone and more confidence built this has got less with processes around community decision making. A lot of the decisions are now also in the hands of mixed panels e.g. commissioning panels are represented by a range of partners and local people.

Lastly, it can be messy and it’s wonderful because culture democracy means you never always quite know the outcome.

Sajida Carr