Beatrice Pembroke sees a new role for old institutions in a changing world that needs fresh thinking in new spaces – spaces that they themselves are not agile enough to occupy. 

theatre building at night
Cast in Doncaster: building identity in a ‘contested and unlikely space’ by involving local people.
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Light Tape UK via Creative Commons (cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

No Boundaries, an ambitious symposium on the role of culture in 21st century, suggested some serious changes in the UK's arts and cultural leadership. It presented a varied and constantly shifting terrain of new, real and imagined spaces for today's organisations to engage with, inspire and learn from. This apparently requires fluency in several languages – including local government and public services, placemaking and commercial business ventures – above all to tell your story powerfully and demonstrate value in our current funding climate.

Inevitably there were buzz words but they were full of ambition in collaboration, diversity, connectivity, resilience – of building new communities rather than audience numbers. Of harnessing the potential of technology for different kinds of conversations and new business models. All the dizzying choice, opportunity and 'Fear of Missing Out' that modern life brings us.

... the map hasn’t been quite redrawn radically enough yet. There is more pioneering work to be done.

Largely there seemed a huge appetite to do so, to face the future full on. The multi-site, accessible experience seamlessly connected discussions in Bristol, York and online through live streams, with an upbeat spirit of openness throughout. And it was the little things - Book Kernel’s little book instantly summarizing the events, Fred Deakin’s superstar DJ set, Hide&Seek’s tiny games – that really demonstrated how much more fun and how much more daring arts leaders and beginners alike can be in rethinking what the sector involves.

The self-defining manifestos were punctured by inspirational stories and provocations to reflect on and take home. The speakers presented an exciting new movement of hopeful, generous leadership which understands the way arts and culture can lead, rather than individuals leading the arts. People like Kully Thiarai who runs the new Cast Theatre in Doncaster, which required 20 years of persistence, helping to democratise and build identity in a contested and unlikely space, by bringing local people into the process. Or David Lockwood, who runs Bike Shed Theatre through the revenue made on its bar. Entrepreneurialism, hybrid positioning, making relationships, supporting learning – these are the things that the ‘sector’ thrives on.

However, the freshest provocations suggested the map hasn’t been quite redrawn radically enough yet. There is more pioneering work to be done.

The arts and cultural 'worlds' are constantly and necessarily in flux. They have to look beyond sectoral silos and domestic frontiers. Our current institutions and funding systems are still largely built around an understanding of traditional art forms and the value of venues and live experiences. These are all important but actually there’s so much more stuff happening in between. And for those making their identities or even their living out of making things, the tools of digital technology mean the scope is ever broader. Sophie Cotterell was a 17-year-old of breathtaking confidence and charm, who spends all her time posting youtube videos to a huge number of followers and contributors and engaging in discussions on gender, sexuality and One Direction – part of a new generation disrupting modern media and positively defining and developing her self and community in the process.

In one of the more radical and thoughtful provocations of the day, Alex Fleetwood of Hide n Seek proposed a new agency for gaming and new policies for public investment. As the digital space opens up, he argued we need to design for constant change through a range of new smaller funding agencies that would seek out niche areas of practice and make innovative work. These funding agencies would be in competition for funds themselves, wooing arts organisations like investors do the best start-ups. Jude Kelly suggested arts organisations reclaim formal arts education from schools. Benjamin Barber’s session on the role of culture in placemaking and identity was a key reminder on the role of the arts in building democracy, its political power and the danger in institutions being nationally limited.

Our new world requires new institutions (not necessarily buildings) and systems that look beyond old boundaries. So what's the role of the old ones of which I am part? Rather than burying our heads in the sand, we can use some of our resources and weight to experiment and give platforms to those developing fresh thinking in new spaces that we're not necessarily agile enough to be in ourselves. We can recognise the patterns and share the tools between us.

The speakers from outside of the UK were powerful because they provoked a different debate and reminded us to look at the bigger picture. Today’s cultural leaders must think locally and globally – we have an incredibly privileged position in the UK and much to share and learn. Our world is all too fragile and interdependent for us not to work together for reasons of inspiration and efficiency.

At the same time as No Boundaries, there is something happening in India that reflects many of its themes. Unbox Fellowships are a programme run by the British Council and Unbox Festival in India, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Science and Innovation Network and National Institute of Design in India, that brings together a range of creatives with different experience from India and the UK that cross traditional sector boundaries to discuss the future of the city. It’s not just designers, or architects or perceived urban 'experts’ but also participative theatre makers, creative technologists, data visualisers, gamers and academic researchers working together in a new environment to create prototypes and explore solutions, without necessarily having a finished answer in mind.

Taking live inspiration from Bristol, York and Ahmedebad, we can re-imagine our cultural organisations, by seeding collaborative experiments in new spaces and supporting new vision and leadership. As actor Kwame Kwei-Armah said, we need to see the world through multiple eyes, embrace being the outsider and relish the new perspective that gives you.

Beatrice Pembroke is Director, Creative Economy at the British Council.

No Boundaries: A Symposium on the Role of Arts and Culture supported by Arts Council England and the British Council took place in Bristol and York on 25 and 26 February 2014: http://nb2014.org

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Photo of Beatrice Pembroke