Picture credit: Comber Grove Primary School, photographed by Roger Brown
There seems to be a renewed interest in place-based arts development, with schemes like the new Arts Council and Heritage Lottery Fund Great Places programme and the expansion of the successful Creative People and Places.
I remember a similar enthusiasm more than 10 years ago when councils and local authorities embraced the concept of a local cultural strategy. But that, of course, was in an era with more public sector investment and when there was more capacity for local brokerage. Now place-based strategies have to function to a large extent with or without the local authority, and certainly through bringing to bear a wider set of resources than those of the council. This is challenging but perhaps offers a more sustainable and innovative proposition, where communities take responsibility for their own cultural needs and utilise a new set of skills, resources and actors in the process. At least that is the theory.
Supporting the cultural and creative needs of places is a different challenge to supporting the needs of individuals and communities, or the needs of professionals, or the needs of institutions, charities and agencies. A place encompasses all of these different players, it exists as a thing in itself, but also as the background to people’s lives. It’s also important to look beyond physical alternations and large-scale capital development to pay closer attention to the animation of places through human relationships and cultural activity. In an era where national policy can seem remote and monolithic, there is something very empowering about focussing on the kind of change you can make in a place.
Interestingly in other sectors there is some serious work going on looking at what it really means to create change within a place. The Lankelly Chase Foundation is funding work to consider how the different agencies in a place can collaborate to drive positive change. It would be useful for the cultural sector to consider this thinking and take an evidence based approach to building programmes as well as aligning with the wider civic society.
At a New Direction we have been very interested in the concept of the ecology of place. The ecology metaphor is more about the interrelationship of things than the things themselves, and in that way, it is more fitting to the notion of place than other forms of investment and development. We are exploring how an ecological systems approach can be harnessed to ensure all children and young people can access and enjoy cultural and creative opportunities that support healthy and rich lives.
We are also interested in the potential of place-based approaches that embrace the idea of building for the future through investment in the creativity of our young people. We are currently working with partners in our priority areas to bring this about through Local Cultural Education Partnerships, and are keen to work with Music Hubs and other ‘place’ focussed cultural players to see how we can help develop their capacity. We will also be looking to the Mayor’s cultural infrastructure plan, enterprise zones and London Borough of Culture as potential opportunities to develop these ideas.
Our belief is that a city that works for children works for everyone, and building these networks ground-up – not worrying about permission from central government – enables us to bring about the kind of society we believe in. Through the creation of networks of innovative schools, cultural and civic organisations, and in places where children and families can play, work and learn, a fabric of pathways become part of a society where everyone can benefit from creative endeavour.
Shortly we will be releasing some research into place-based creative development that goes to the heart of the matter. We would love to hear from you if you are developing a creative place-based programme which could use some particular thinking about the needs of children, young people and families.
This is a world away from the notion of static strategy authored in a committee room - it's all about the notion of coming together to do real things which support our common purpose.