Sarah Stannage asks whether we can be confident that individuals and communities will step forward to support the development of local creative economies.

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The idea of ‘localism’ attempts two things: first, to legitimise the role of the ‘third sector’ and the space between public and private sectors in managing public services; and second, to deliver local economic growth through local enterprise partnerships. The shift from ‘big state’ to ‘big society’ can be seen in a plethora of government guidance: Communities in Control, Real people, Real power (2011) and Open Services (2012), to name just a few, alongside policy ideas such as the building of new neighbourhood governance structures and increased emphasis on citizen empowerment.

Some would argue that we are a society built on ‘little parliaments’ where, for centuries, local communities have provided amenities and created prosperity for the common good. If that is the case, are we confident that communities and individuals can step forward in our own time to manage cultural assets and stimulate our creative economic markets? Developing leadership activity with a more diverse volunteer base is vital if people are to begin to take control of local amenities within the arts sector and sustain a cultural economy for their local area.

Developing leadership activity with a more diverse volunteer base is vital

I have been looking at the socio-economic contexts of the networks of people involved with a group of independent museums and art galleries, a sector where grassroots-level activity often depends on committed, innovative and entrepreneurial individuals and volunteers. This is rather than relying on structured and consistent public-sector funding. In particular, I have been finding out what independent museums can tell us more broadly about the capacity and connectivity of communities within the arts sector, and their ability to support the development of local creative economies.

The reality of the big society is that local leaders emerge and develop within communities. Individuals are chosen, selected, nominated, self-appointed, arm-twisted, or otherwise, to run a local group. They are expected to navigate the realities of ‘community asset transfer’, something that can be challenging even for the most experienced specialists. Karen O’Neil, a mentor who has supported a number of community-run projects in the UK, shared her experiences with me: “It’s quite a task finding a leader, pulling together bids, forming mutual management models, fundraising and so forth. Particularly when income generation prospects can be quite daunting for those taking on built cultural assets located in areas of market failure. There can, however, be a great boost to civic engagement when people save a theatre from closure or open a new museum.”

The question is: Does that boost to civic engagement, and the associated factors of innovation, entrepreneurialism, networking, coordination and trust, help build richer ties that stimulate local creative economies?

Using a mix of participatory methods including social network analysis, I discovered a network of museums and art galleries largely driven by the considerable energy of committed individuals and volunteers who shared a passion for culture. Not only did they connect with a more broadly defined cultural sector within the study area, I also found an astonishing level of connectivity between museum volunteers and the creative economy. The majority of participants tended to be retired individuals with interests and hobbies in multiple areas, ranging from local theatres to the Salvation Army. Rather than causing a localised competition for resources, these activities seemed to create stronger connections in the local economy around craft and arts markets as well as allied areas such as tourism and academia.

But I also found an unexpected disconnect between museums and art galleries in the formation of local enterprise partnerships (LEPs). According to the recent Local Government Association report ‘Driving growth through local government investment’, LEPs will be crucial in positioning the arts in the new economic landscape. As such, there is a role for social intermediaries and national networks, such as the Locality, Renaissance and Voluntary Arts Network to play, first in bridging the local policy gap and producing scalable policy ideas, and second in ensuring that communities harness essential knowhow to promote social, economic and environmental outcomes within and among the various communities they serve.

One example of social entrepreneurs who understand the power and importance of nurturing community leadership in the cultural sector is Clore Fellow Lisa Westcott-Wilkins and her husband Brendon. In 2012 they launched DigVentures Ltd, a social enterprise committed to providing seed capital and building worldwide audiences for archaeology projects. Lisa commented: “Strictly speaking, we are not an arts-based business but we class ourselves as part of the cultural and creative economy. We have developed a digital platform linked to offline experiences and innovative funding mechanisms, by using the participatory power of crowdfunding and crowdsourcing. Community is therefore in our DNA… we like to say it’s built-in rather than bolted-on.”

They call their model "social contract archaeology", characterised by the generation of income through social enterprise alongside the core involvement of volunteers in co-managing and co-producing programmes. This has created a vibrant enterprise and demonstrates the fundamental role communities have in shaping a growing business within the creative sector.

Having looked at multiple themes, including sustainable community leadership, social management models and scalable policy ideas, I am now keen to examine participation as I join a team of academics from the Universities of Manchester, Leicester, Warwick and Exeter to work on a five-year project, ‘Understanding everyday participation − articulating cultural values’,  funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council’s connected communities programme. This study will challenge conventional models of how the creative economy works and hopes to create a new understanding of ‘everyday participation’. I expect that, as in my own study, it will reveal hidden assets and resources that could be mobilised to promote more equitable resourcing of cultural opportunities, generate wellbeing and contribute to the development of creative local economies. Perhaps an arts sector based on mutualism and localism is not such a radical concept after all.


Sarah Stannage is a Clore Fellow and researcher.

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