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Power has always resided in the hands of the few and in this moment of crisis it is time to fundamentally change the rules of the game to achieve cultural democracy, says Kully Thiarai.

We Can Do Better Protest Sign Cardboard

As I write this, I’m watching my tomato plants outside being battered by ferocious winds and I wonder how many of them will survive. It is perhaps a useful metaphor for the times we find ourselves in. Recent global events have seen the chill winds of inequality and social injustice rip through society and our cultural landscape.

Many of the sector’s freelancers and independents are facing the full force of the storm, wondering what will be left by the time it subsides. Others are lucky enough to have some safety and shelter for the moment, but who knows what tomorrow will bring. There is so much uncertainty about what the future will look like in all aspects of our lives and our ability to be resourceful, imaginative and compassionate is being severely tested.

Our social and cultural ecosystem is fragile. Its rich diversity needs to be nurtured and protected especially during such tempestuous times. Those of us who have worked in the margins, on the fringes, or between the gaps of the perceived ‘mainstream’ and what is identified as ‘community art’, know how uneven the playing field is – and always has been.  The coronavirus crisis has highlighted that in sharp relief, while also making the ‘mainstream’ vulnerable in ways they have never experienced before. 

We have always known that power resides in the hands of the few and the distribution of financial resources is unequal. The arts have for the most part served to reinforce a very particular type of cultural hierarchy, experience and narrative. A narrative that is largely western, white, male, and dominated by the values and views of the upper and middle classes. A narrative and approach which protects the status quo and reinforces the world view as seen through the lens of the elite (sometimes very overtly and sometimes in nuanced ways that not everyone notices).  

Crisis points invoke radical change

Covid-19 has of course thrown some of that into disarray: a global pandemic that has impacted profoundly on all aspects of our lives. It has highlighted the systemic, structural inequalities in the UK and revealed starkly the devastating effects of austerity and poverty on our communities. Through Covid and Black Lives Matter we can also see vividly the disparity in access, resource and opportunity within our cultural sector for those who do not fit the majority narrative as defined by the powerful. Perhaps therefore it is not surprising that the battle lines are drawn between those striving to reassert and re-establish what has gone before, with those who seek to grasp this moment of crisis and disruption to radically reimagine our collective futures. 

For many it continues to be a time of intense challenge and difficulty. The stormy weather might eventually break but it looks like it’s going to be with us for some time yet. And when you are in the thick of the storm it is hard to imagine a future as you struggle to survive from one day to the next. There are some great conversations and Zoom gatherings happening, and some extraordinary shifts in ways of working and responding to wider civic and social responsibilities, but we have a lot of work to do to get our own cultural sector house in order. 

We need to collectively find a way to sit with some uncomfortable truths, to accept responsibility for our failings and recognise our acceptance of structures that perpetuate inequity. We need to relinquish power where we have it and create space for new possibilities, if we truly seek to encourage cultural democracy.   

There are many, like me, who are battle weary and have the scars to prove it. We have witnessed much over many years, fought hard and been the change we’ve wanted to see and shown what could be possible. But we’ve also seen the gains taken away from us when times get tough, or, when we’ve breached some invisible boundary. It suddenly becomes apparent that only a certain amount of change and radicalism is possible.

The crossroads of possibility

The pandemic is testing us all in many ways. How honest are we going to be? How open are we really to creating a way of working and being that is different to what has gone before? How serious are we really about making a cultural sector that is more equitable, rich in the narratives it embraces, and one that genuinely seeks to celebrate our complex, different lived experiences and harnesses the power of our diverse voices? 

If we are serious then that requires significant behaviour change and reallocation of resources and finances. Are we really ready for that?

How we tell our stories is as important as what stories we tell and who tells them. Our lives are messy and complicated, our stories never neat and tidy, packaged into specific cultural boxes of ‘Black’, ‘Asian’, ‘Disabled’, or any kind of ‘Other’. What would happen if we embraced that messiness, created space for the making and sharing of work that celebrates difference because each of us sees and experiences the world differently. 

Radical innovation, surprise and interpretation comes because we see the world through a different lens to the norm. So much of what is deemed to be important and of quality in the arts is shaped by the personal taste and opinion of a small, niche crowd, and services a small, niche market. If we are serious about cultural democracy then we need to fundamentally change the rules of the game and embrace the uncertainty, encourage the random and surprising, and celebrate the difference we can make.

Kully Thiarai is Creative Director and Chief Executive Leeds 2023

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Every word here is so true. The 'battles' have been going on for too long. Unless radical change happens in the next 2 years, only arts for the rich in cities will exist. We need to try a new recipe that will feed many, not just preserve the old in aspic jelly