Who do we serve as cultural organisations?

24 May 2013

Our CEO, Steve Moffitt, reflects on Scott Noppe Brandon's contribution to the London Picture conference.

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Image by Simon Way for A New Direction

I had been interested in Scott Noppe Brandon's work at the Lincoln Centre Institute in New York since I first met him at the World Creativity Summit in Oklahoma City in 2010.

When we were discussing who we most wanted to speak at our London Picture conference in March his name was top of my list.

Annually the Lincoln Centre Institute reaches over 5000 teachers and 300,000 students through training, partnership and other forms of engagement – they also run Charter schools in New York area, using their method devised from 30 years experience to implement a creative curriculum. This is far more than as arts centre with an education team. Scott left LCI in 2010, and is now a writer and consultant helping seed creative practice across many areas of public life.

Our purpose in bringing Scott to London was to present an international perspective on cultural education, share his experience of working in a complex and changing political landscape and reflect on how best to have an impact in a metropolis.

Since the end of March I have had time to reflect on Scott's key note and process and absorb his observations and insights. Here are my thoughts:

Pragmatic Optimism

The overarching theme or arc of his presentation how we as an arts and cultural sector need to move forward with pragmatic optimism.

Our world in the 21st century is experiencing rapid and continual change – there are many things we cannot forecast or predict regarding the economy, the growth of cities, technological innovation, and future employment, alongside how best we educate our children, and manage our natural resources more effectively.

Pragmatic optimism as a concept and has stayed with me – and resonates as a useful approach potentially for all of us - as to what lies ahead. Being pragmatically optimistic means to want the best and visualise the best – but to be realistic about what might be achieved and how to get there.

Who do we serve as cultural organisations?

Scott explored the question of what is a cultural organisation's remit and purpose in the 21st century particularly working with schools. He questioned the value of a cultural organisation promoting the organisation for its own sake (and using education programmes as a tool to do this). He described the independence of the Lincoln Centre Institute – an organisation not interested in promoting itself or the art forms delivered by the arts centre – but more focussed on the questions and values behind the work and the change it was working for across people and society.

Scott talked about who we serve as cultural organisations. For me this was an interesting way of describing and thinking about how we might describe our relationship with our stakeholders. What services do we provide? How are those services useful – what needs do they address?

What if?

Scott then talked through this approach to creativity, imagination and innovation. Imagination is a way that things could be otherwise – asking the "what if" question. Creativity is imagination enacted. Innovation is when creativity and imagination are enacted and change happens or something is developed and changed. I recommend you have a look at Scott and Eric Liu's book "Imagination first" – it's worth a read!

Scott described his Imagination conversations - a national programme of discussions exploring commonality and difference using imagination as a catalyst and how he recognised that most of the people he interacted with – were people like himself. To change this he initiated a series of conversations across a number of cities across the United States involving a range of different stakeholders.

How many of us in the cultural sector do talk to colleagues in other professions or sectors, in a more than incidental way? Who of us in the cultural sector is actively engaged in conversations with health professionals, planners, social services, the military, science and research, environmentalists, academics and educationalists and faith leaders?

This made me really start to think about how we plan our work at A New Direction – how do we make judgements and choices around our priorities- who is challenging us, who apart from the cultural sector and the arts funding system is challenging me and the work of A New Direction – and asking us difficult questions.

Scott described the value of combining new knowledge – developing the concept of real civic dialogues – and he made me realise if you want to be relevant and understand how communities work – we need to hear from people different perspectives.

We can't progress and become truly relevant as a cultural sector if we only talk to ourselves. To achieve this we need to harness diversity, action, thought, gender, race, ethnicity – and through the insights, discussion translates in to action – actionable items – which creates the possibility to monetise these ideas into programmes.

We can't see ourselves short

As a sector we have to look at the question of monetisation – how time, content, resources and knowledge are monetised – we can't continue to do work purely because we believe it is good for the public.

The London Picture focused on the challenges we at A New Direction have identified for young people in London – in a time of austerity and financial challenge we need to rethink the value of our work and explore who pays for what and why?

To attract investment we need to demonstrate that our work is addressing need and to enable this to happen we must understand the context in which we work in a more coherent and effective manner. We need to think about what we do in new ways – and what is the best way for our work to achieve impact.

Scott talked through his Capacities for Imaginative Learning, I was first introduced to these concepts by Mark Reid at the BFI. This inventory of 10 ways of understanding participation in creative activity are a helpful vehicle for thinking about and describing the value of young people engaging in Cultural Education.

Regardless of an education system that is focused on knowledge and or skills – these capacities are a helpful way of the cultural sector rethinking what we offer and the services we provide and how the compliment young people's learning.

So it was a pleasure to create a platform for Scott to share his thinking. He is a unique individual – with and extraordinary sincerity and integrity. As part of his career he has set up 16 schools – 8 with the Lincoln Institute and 8 under his own steam - impressive and inspiring – and something many of us in the cultural sector have yet to achieve.

Join in the debate

Please join us in the continued debate and discussion on the Future Agenda we started to explore at the London Picture. Join our LinkedIn group here

To watch the key moments from The London Picture click here