John Matthews wants to cut back on the invention of wheels
If there is one truth in the cultural world, it is that it never stops changing. The Arts Council centralises while museums, libraries and archives are regionalised and Regional Hubs begin to take shape. Local authorities are charged to produce cultural strategies – not necessarily at the same time as Regional Cultural Consortia produce theirs. Regional Development Agencies adopt culture onto their agendas (or not), while local arts organisations try to figure out if they qualify for grant-aid from the economic development department of their local council. Meanwhile, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport fends off other central Government departments’ predatory moves to divest it of some (or all) of its responsibilities. Confused? You should be.
As consultants, it’s part of our job to try to keep pace with this changing world. The trouble – and the pity – is that with each new change, the cultural sector invents some new wheels without bothering to see if there’s a spare set elsewhere. Audience development? The Arts Council scored some convincing successes through its New Audiences Programme but that doesn’t stop the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) having its own guide to the function. Education? Just how many access and education initiatives can one country take? Strategic planning? How many funding bodies does it take to change a light bulb? And don’t get me started on the varying requirements and criteria of Lottery distributors.
Divide and rule
Management, marketing and development functions in arts and heritage organisations are not so different are not so different as to prevent an exchange of ideas. And while it may be the case that some heritage organisations’ thinking and practice in these areas is less well developed than that of their colleagues in the arts, this does not diminish the expertise and experience they can bring to the table. The arts, for example, could learn a great deal from organisations that charge very little, or nothing, for admission. Museums could benefit from what the arts have discovered about encouraging repeat attendance.
As is often the case, the picture is best viewed from the position of the audience. The audience does not perceive there to be fundamental differences in approach between theatres, galleries, museums or concert halls. Essentially, they represent certain choices for the use of leisure time or for informal learning. All the research shows there to be massive crossover in audiences across these domains. So why are there so many “accountable bodies” supervising the networks, replicating procedures and inventing initiatives? I have no problem with people earning salaries in order to develop their sectors, but would they at least talk to each other!
I make these points following the extensive work our company has facilitated in the North West, and is currently engaged upon in the South East, to develop regional Audience Development Plans. Now, audience development as a term itself opens many cans of worms: is this a more user-friendly expression for marketing or is it more concerned with education? More of the same, or missionary work in deprived communities? While the answer lies in all of the above, it surely makes sense for a regional plan to set out to persuade the public to become more engaged in cultural activities across the whole sector: arts and heritage. But for a government elected for championing “joined up thinking”, the hurdles integral to separate funding structures loosen, rather than strengthen, common ties between the sectors.
Presumably this is where the Regional Cultural Consortia were supposed to have a role. However, I would challenge the majority of readers to name the Chair and Chief Executive of their nearest consortium. Our mailbox has not exactly overflowed with annual reports proclaiming their achievements. It’s a funny animal with a role in show business that declines to take a bow.
Joining up thinking
The people who do seem to have got their act together cross-sectorally, however, are those working in local government. Perhaps this is not surprising: neither the arts nor museums are statutory services, so local authority officers must squeeze every last penny of value from their beleaguered budgets – and don their lateral-thinking hats to prise additional resources from colleagues’ expenditure.
One other group of activists has also recognised the considerable synergies between the arts and heritage: the regional marketing agencies. While many may have done so simply to extend their membership base and yield vital extra income, there are excellent examples of joint working and models of best practice in a particular sector which could easily be replicated elsewhere.
Start at the top
So, how to pull the sectors together and maximise the use of time, people and money? It would help if the Department for Culture, Media and Sport were to fire the starting-gun and initiate high-level discussions between Arts Council England, Resource and others to review the scope for joint working. They might follow this up with a call to the Cultural Consortia to become engaged in advocating cross-sectoral initiatives. Local authorities could become less obsessed with territorial issues, recognising that today’s audiences are highly mobile. And organisations such as the Arts Marketing Association, these days incredibly representative both of the arts and of heritage, could log and promote examples of best practice. Common management issues might be discussed in ArtsProfessional. The Theatrical Management Association might hold a joint conference with the Museums Association. And in four years time, when Liverpool is the focus for all things cultural, perhaps that city could host a giant coming-together of practitioners in the arts and heritage to celebrate a joined-up sector.
Otherwise, I fear, divide and rule will continue to frustrate laudable efforts to show the country the true totality of its culture.
John Matthews is a Director of Matthews Millman, a management consultancy for culture and heritage. e: firstname.lastname@example.org