A radical new mode of arts & cultural management

Partnerships Director, Holly Donagh, shares her thoughts on how new research exploring cultural eco-systems could be a template for change

17 May 2019

As with many areas of public life, arts and culture is going through its own period of change. No longer comfortable with institutions in ivory towers, ingrained London bias, the persistent lack of a diverse workforce – or diverse audiences – and major reductions in local authority funding, the old models of arts support and funding seem out of touch and not fit for purpose.

But what comes next? Nick and Jonathan's study of Creative People and Places (CPP) through the prism of ecology offers some new ideas. Through their investigation of 21 CPP places and in-depth interviews with CPP Hounslow and Creative Scene in West Yorkshire it is possible to see a radical new mode of arts/cultural management which has some profound implications.

The notion of the eco-system is certainly in-vogue as a way of approaching the task of generating public good. At A New Direction we have been exploring how place-based partnerships can look at the ‘ecology’ in their area and consider how it does or does not foster creativity for all children and young people. Last week the Innovation Unit launched a report looking at model of ‘learning systems’ from across the world that operate as eco-systems. What we are all searching for is a way to enable change that feels embedded, real, for the long-term and fundamentally democratic. Change that is positive and able to be felt by all members of the community. What we know instinctively is that the old siloed ways of working are not fit for current challenges but also that working within more collaborative frames is hard and can feel slow and frustrating. As Nick and Jonathan show, the approach of ecology has much to offer to this debate and the report contains a series of useful tools and ideas that anyone looking to build cultural engagement from the ground-up will find helpful. But they also show that the doing of ecology is not easy.

A crucial concept in the report is ‘holding – open’ the ability to lead change without being fixed in terms of who is involved, what is mapped, who holds power and where control lies. This is not about an absence of management but a radically different approach to what good management, with the needs of community at its centre, look likes.

Old hierarchies become irrelevant when the quality of relationships and knowledge are understood as equally valuable as a building or ‘National Portfolio Organisation status’. Infrastructure has a completely different meaning when the car park, the theatre, the baby group might all play an important and irreducible role in the ecology.

One of the findings of the report is that within CPP there is much focus and concern around legacy and sustainability but perhaps less confidence about the nature of delivering a strategy into the future or really knowing what we want to sustain and why. Arguably this is a significant area of deficit for many organisations and partnerships across the arts and culture who tend to be more focused on the doing of their work, the project, the building, the funding bid than the complex task of place-making or leading a wider vision people can follow. These are crucial questions for any partnership and particularly those seeking to create the conditions for culture to thrive without their ongoing direct management. All of this also suggests that there are a whole new set of skills for leaders in the cultural sector, skills of ‘holding-open’, skills of strategy, skills of working in non-hierarchical ways and asks the question – how are we cultivating and rewarding this model of leadership for the future?

The new Arts Council ten-year strategy may offer an opportunity to build on the wider lessons of CPP to consider how we could build a thriving arts and cultural ecology across the country – what would that take and who would lead this? Our hope is that there will be new opportunities for investing in this mode of leadership and space given to the crucial role that organisations with hyphenated job titles – theatre and place-maker, garden and learning space, broker and teacher, backbone of community and café (for example) - play to help everyone flourish and grow. This is an emergent field which quickly needs to grow a conceptual frame, skills, shared ground and alliances in order to be part of tackling the bigger societal issues that are crucial to the ultimate success of our endeavour.

Ecological thinking requires us to be part of everything else that is going-on – climate change, poverty, the digital realm, without being overwhelmed by the complexity of the scale of challenges. Nick and Jonathan's report (alongside their work on cultural democracy and cultural freedom) offer ways of doing this that need to be understood and embraced across the system as soon as possible.

Read Creating the Enviroment: the Cultural Eco-systems of Creative People and Places here.