What Next? reflection

Posted by: Mary Osborn on May 15, 2013

Since embarking on the Artsadmin traineeship at the beginning of this year, I have had the chance to hear and be part of so many vital conversations that I didn’t have access to – or rather didn’t realise I had access to – a year ago. The truth is I feel quite privileged. With the country and the sector in the state that it is, so many other graduates are struggling to find work within organisations, or are working independently instead, and don’t come into the same immediate contact with all this information as a result. And what really struck me as I sat in my seat at my first official arts conference last Monday is how incredibly important it is that they do.

What Next? describes itself as a movement bringing together arts and cultural organisations from across the UK, to articulate and strengthen the role of culture in our society. It is not just another campaign for more funding, but sees itself as a catalyst for fresh thinking and new ideas about the value of the arts in times of austerity. A real worry that was expressed by a few different voices throughout the conference was that the current changes in education could affect the way the next generation values the arts in an even more severe way. It is this, as much as the economic affects, that What Next? feels an urgency to challenge.

The conference on 29 April marked What Next?’s first major event, with 650 people gathering at the Palace Theatre in London. Before this, conversations had started with leaders of key organisations for an hour every Wednesday morning at 8:30am. The conference sought to pass these conversations on to as many other interested parties as possible, an encouragement for others to spark up their own What Next? groups across the country. The day began in just this way, with small focus groups meeting to share thoughts and propose actions. As a volunteer at the conference, I was responsible for taking notes during the session and was struck by the positivity and determination in the room – a focus on what could be possible rather than getting stuck on the bleakness of what might not.

In the afternoon, everybody gathered in the Palace Theatre to hear a series of speeches and discussions, followed by a final hour of questions. At this point there were a succession of provocations as to who wasn’t in the room and whose voices weren’t being heard. Although it might sound like I am harping on with the same tune, I don’t think I am. In fact, I think it is incredibly important to focus on who was there at the conference and instead ask the question, how can we help this information to trickle down, and how can a raised hand from the head of an organisation ripple out into a triumphantly cheesy Mexican wave.

On a more personal note, the conference also afforded me a valuable moment of reflection. Previous to my working with Artsadmin, in my studies and my own artistic practice, I was guilty of a tendency to impose a clear distinction between the art and arts policy. However, what I have been discovering over the last few months is that if the two things are kept separate - if we simply leave the art up to the artists and the policy up to the politicians – that is when we start getting into trouble. The shift in being able to see the two things as one and the same has in turn opened my eyes to the ways in which artists and arts organisations might be able to take the responsibility for both back into their own hands.

Thus, the next move that we are proposing at Artsadmin is to find a way to involve our artists in this conversation – perhaps through setting up our own What Next? group here at Toynbee. What’s more, we would really welcome any suggestions about how to go about this and who might be interested in making this happen.

For a more thorough report of the conference, I recommend a-n’s recent article, as well as the What Next? website where you can find video footage of the days proceedings. But for now, here are some key thoughts and action points that were raised during the day:

Engaging MPs and Politicians:

  • Make friends not demands, form relationships rather than campaigns, e.g. invite MPS to school events to see the effects being made or invite MPs to become patrons. Praise the authorities by communicating case studies of the difference they are currently making through the arts rather than petitioning after. (The What Next website provides a full list of all MPs, their contacts and constituencies).

Engaging Audiences:

  • Communicate with audiences about arts policy and its impact – arts policy is not just for those who make it.
  • Make sure our ambitions are the same as our audiences.
  • Get the focus away from celebrities or the engaged few and towards the wider public across the country. If you're in a room where everyone agrees with you, you're probably in the wrong room. Maria Miller will expect Nick Hytner to campaign for the arts, but parents or teachers, community figures or local business leaders can make the case far more effectively than we can.
  • Encourage the public to realise that engaging with arts and culture is not just for people who "go to see things". Art should be viewed like football; everyone plays but not everyone is a Premiership player (and potentially make use of a more open term like "Culture" rather than "Arts").

Forming a shared language for advocacy:

  • The desire for a shared language and advocacy message (See Arts Council England’s ‘Arts advocacy tool kit’). For example, it would be great to have 3 core messages that everybody shares and to be able to speak for ourselves on our own terms rather than them speaking for us– be our own politicians. This should be spoken in clear, simple and straightforward terms and carry the same message throughout.

Finally, if you have any thoughts or feedback on how we can share this information, or any ideas about how to take the movement forward you can get in touch via advisoryservice@artsadmin.co.uk. For all news and information on future events like What Next? keep an eye out on our E-Digest.

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