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Has Arts Council England got cultural democracy wrong? Steven Hadley and Eleonora Belfiore argue for a more thorough questioning of existing hierarchies.

Street art in Bristol
Street art in Stokes Croft, Bristol

Writing recently about the work of the Creative People and Places (CPP) scheme, Sir Nicholas Serota, Chair of Arts Council England, stated: “We are engaged on what might prove to be one of the most significant cultural journeys of our time.” For the former capo dei capi of Tate, and friend of Elisabeth Murdoch, the work of CPP continues the direction of policy travel established after the Second World War with the founding of the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1946. As such, he considers CPP part of a move towards greater democratisation and ever larger audiences for the arts. 

Cultural democracy

The language used in CPP projects and reports charts a shift from marketing the arts in ‘cold spots’ to everyday creativity and, potentially, cultural democracy. As Alison Jeffers argues in her book Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art (that she co-wrote with Gerry Moriarty), ideas of cultural democracy have “continued to play a vital, if often unrecognised, role in thinking about the relationship between art and people”.

The extent to which CPP (in total or part) could be considered a manifestation of cultural democracy is debatable

Yet in reality, the extent to which CPP (in total or part) could be considered a manifestation of cultural democracy is debatable. The ideas of culture and democracy which Serota promotes are not quite as straightforward as he seems to think, and the tensions around them are as old as the Arts Council itself.

The term ‘cultural democracy’ has recently acquired new capital via a range of publications, events and research activity. As if to prove this point, this November the Social Theory, Politics and the Arts conference will address the theme of ‘Culture, Democracy, and the Arts: Rights Here, Right Now’. The conference recognises the need to address the relevance of cultural democracy to cultural policy today and to learn from historical understandings of proponents of cultural democracy.

Similar ideas are also evident in the work of the Movement for Cultural Democracy, a coalition of organisations, groups and individuals seeking cultural democracy in the UK. An overtly political campaign with roots in the now defunct pressure group Arts for Labour, it formed after The World Transformed festival in Brighton in September last year and has since launched the draft Manifesto for Cultural Democracy.

This calls for the establishment of a new national arts fund (funded by an art market transaction tax) and a new public publishing house, alongside a recognition and re-prioritising of values designed to address the power imbalance in the cultural sector.

Art for the community

Given the renewed interest in the ideas and practices of cultural democracy and their potential to address longstanding issues of cultural policy, it seems clear that, as Owen Kelly, a key figure from the community arts movement, has recently argued, arguments about cultural democracy still resonate. But for Arts Council England, they are not unproblematic.

A key focus of Kelly’s work was a critique of cultural authority, particularly as regards the right to say what was, and was not, ‘art’. More specific was his attack on the idea of the ‘great tradition of European art’ as a practice which “takes the taste of one (bourgeois) group of people and presents them as the natural taste of civilised people everywhere”.

Kelly argued not for an extension of the concept of the arts to encompass more activities from more people in more places, but rather its replacement. This radical, political project called for “many localised scales of values, arising from within communities and applied by those communities to activities they individually or collectively undertake”.

This is quite different from the statement made by Nick Serota when he inquires: “What if, for instance, CPP drives a major change in social attitudes to culture? And begins to change the way that our other National Portfolio Organisations [NPOs] develop and channel their activities in programmes that are more fully owned and directed by their communities.”

The above statement assumes that NPOs are a constituent part of what cultural democracy means. That the existence of a portfolio of arts organisations based (to a greater or lesser extent) on the ‘great tradition’ is a necessary requirement. Serota’s conceptual planning here seeks to use CPP as a tool for the democratisation of culture, not cultural democracy.

Looked at from the perspective of cultural democracy, we might re-phrase the quote as follows: “What if, for instance, CPP drives a major change in social attitudes to culture? And begins to change the way that our arts subsidy is distributed so that National Portfolio Organisations are no longer relevant to programmes that are more fully owned and directed by their communities.”

Alongside other important debates around cultural democratisation, such as live-to-screen, the challenge for UK cultural policy remains avoidance of what Sir Roy Shaw, former head of the Arts Council of Britain, referred to as “throwing out the precious arts baby with the social bath water”.

A two-tier system

If, as Nick Serota would have it, CPP is part of the onward march of the democratisation of culture, then it runs the risk of creating a two-tier system in the arts sector. ‘High art’ for the culturally engaged, and creative participation for the ‘hard to reach’ and reluctant attenders. Real opera for those living in large cities, and cinema screens for those elsewhere. To paraphrase Sir Roy, the idea that CPP might act as a counterbalance to the ongoing project of the democratisation of (high) culture could be said to offer little substantive difference to a form of cultural apartheid.

The need to fully embrace the reality of this debate, and its potential repercussions for the subsidised arts sector, requires us to go much further than co-opting community engagement into a perpetuation of the status quo. There can be no true exploration of cultural democracy without the acknowledgement that hierarchies of cultural value have always been, and always will be, bound up with questions of power and authority.

Steven Hadley is an academic, writer and consultant in the arts and cultural sector and an Associate Consultant with The Audience Agency. Eleonora Belfiore is Professor of Communication and Media Studies at the University of Loughborough.
Tw @mancinbelfast

This article is based on Cultural democracy and cultural policy, published in Cultural Trends.

The Social Theory, Politics and the Arts conference is to be held from Thursday 1 to Saturday 3 November at the University of Manchester.

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Could the need to even ask the question not be taken as an embarrassment? By now in most EU countries cultural democracy has come a long way. Here, culture is held accountable, is sponsored, funded and its benefits delivered in a relatively transparent way. Even if primarily expressed in terms of financial efficiency, the latest removal of the Director of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, demonstrates that there is a clearer (if occasionally late) understanding of what and what-not professional curatorship should encompass. ‘General public’ is no longer a tabu term and ‘fear of dumbing down’ is no longer a neurosis necessary for succeeding in the public arts sector. And no, while culture has remained a statutory obligation, political control through government departments for Culture has not undermined the freedom of practitioners or usurped the free and democratic operation of public funders: the healthy and engaged middle ground would not wear it. Likewise, the UK has known a democratic arts funding system for over 70 years. The founding of the Arts Council itself was the result of the realization that democratic culture, a cultural democracy, would safeguard a nation against the repeat of WWII horrors, while building on the War-time community cohesion achieved by its predecessor and model, the BBC. The Arts Council of England’s prerogative of operating at ‘arm’s length’ distance from government was born out of the fear of political extremism and of dictatorial control. Ever since, however, this independence has morfed into a licence for ACE never to have to critically consider its own actions and effects. Cemented as a priority by successive ACE Chairs, this key tenet of ‘arm’s length’ has come to stand for a refusal to reform and to countenance accountability towards those who fund the funders: the tax paying public, the piper without a tune to call. The mere concept of a cultural democracy in the Arts Council of England has turned out a fallacy; playing to the gallery democracy is trotted out with every new ACE statement of policy. Call it access, diversity, inclusion, these terms merely serve to protect the paying of lip service to inclusion, one of the main characteristics of the operation of the sector. Not doing what it says on the tin is how ACE treats its lesser cultural professionals, while maintaining the status quo of centralised funding control and exclusive networks. Rather than democratising the arts, ‘arm’s length’ has bloomed into a licence for the control of culture by exclusive political networks. The arrangement has served its purpose well in shielding the top in and ACE, the arts and academia from criticism. Instead, these interconnected subsectors of culture have during the last three decades seen the growth of a top echelon reaping their ever increasing spoils with impunity. When democracy in the UK is under siege from so many external forces, it seems a timely moment for re-cultivation and getting the old horse out of the stable: being seen to project an interest in cultural democracy. In our Marketing dominated era such aims are foremost repositioning the Arts Council with its socially inclusive hat on. Let’s face it ‘arm’s length’ throughout the decades has led to a perspective on the arts at distance from the world and its government. So don’t hold your breath, the delivery of arts funding will continue to benefit only the lackeys and the cultural in-crowds. Personally, I have good evidence that those in charge of the arts sector not only practise ‘arm’s length’ in relation to the government of the day but equally in their dealings with artist and curators outside ACE anointed networks. It has been made glaringly obvious to me that ACE does not trust curators who try to remedy social exclusion from culture: cultural democracy may be presented as a cozy ideal at this stage but England’s funding for culture remains top-down controlled, as Elizabeth Murdoch’s appointment to ACE’s board demonstrates. I would argue that it is the ‘arm’s length’ principle which has shielded the top in culture, academia, and in the Arts Council from any proper accountability. Not walking the talk reigns with impunity behind the trusty ‘arm’s length’ shield. This is with good reason: a healthy middle ground in the arts might grow into a threat of the status quo, putting the funders under greater political pressure to justify their choices. All Serota and the Arts Council have to do still is merely trotting out, ‘Culture and Places’, regurgitate same old same old. As a professional Curator and Arts manager in the Higher Education sector who implemented the very tenets of cultural democracy for over 20 years in the SE region, I have been ostracized and bullied by the Arts Council without ever receiving a coherent reason. I don’t count the occasion during the 1990s on which my first HE boss managed to get £20k over a lunch with an Arts Council Officer. After many years of service, I was unceremoniously dumped by my HE employer and I doubt whether the consultant who followed me was ever interviewed for the job. But then, that’s how business in HE is conducted in the current cultural democracy. Instead of swallowing ACE’s current mantra of democratic ideals in culture, it would be more beneficial to question why the cultural sector as a whole fails to identify the triangulation with which ACE, time and time again, gets away.

Reports of the demise of Arts for Labour are understandable but a little premature. Alan Tomkins, who was instrumental in setting A4L up in the 1980s from his base at the GLC and who subsequently held it together, sadly died in 2017, but the network is alive and is being relaunched. The A4L website at www.artsforlabour.uk is now online and will develop arts and policy content for the Labour movement and content and supporter/membership arrangements on arts and cultural policy for the Labour movement over the next 12 months.