Laura Drane says What Next? can’t be a single issue campaign, as we'll never agree on what that issue is.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – we never had it so good. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the economy was booming and the arts and culture were all Cool Britannia. Those of us who worked in the sector were so busy riding a wave and making great things happen that we were at best responsive to, and at worst passive about, conversations and engagement at a national level. Even prior to that boom there was a sense the sector has generally been reactive to, not proactive about, strategic conversations about value, worth, investment, and so on.
I found the general quiet around the value and place of the arts and culture in the run-up to and following the 2010 election concerning. Even worse maybe was the realisation that there were two or three (or more?) campaigns that I could align with, rather than one voice for the sector, one message, one movement. As an independent/freelancer based in the ‘regions and nations’ (Manchester and Cardiff), and given my background in public engagement, I’d been having these conversations with clients and partners on and off for years. Seemingly What Next? had begun to fill that void.
So I booked to attend the What Next? event. It was apparently swamped with interest and rescheduled. I booked again. I invested both time and money – a day off paid/earning work and two train tickets. I was energised and prepared to be rallied. Though I left not feeling at all sure how to communicate what happened to the half a dozen clients and partners I might yet be reporting back to about it. Speaking very personally, the day was pitched rather too low and I wanted to leave with more of a sense of momentum. It concerned me that the day was very arts-heavy and very England-centric – both are completely understandable but need to be addressed in the coming months. For instance, where were the museums; and where were the Welsh and Wales-based organisations and individuals? Experience tells me that silo-ed and hierarchical activity has little impact in terms of the big wins for public engagement that this movement seeks to make. It must be much more horizontal than vertical, and with credible two-way dialogue to allow for the possibility of the risk of change for all those who engage.
Un-Convention (for whom I’m a board member) would not likely be found at the event but they are an example of an organisation that has huge local, regional and national reach using music as tool for social change. My ongoing work with Voluntary Arts meant I was not in the least surprised by Robin Simpson’s smart and memorable turn on the stage, with his big stats of 49,140 voluntary arts organisations and 9.4m people taking part in the arts. But I got the feeling that a large portion of the audience was almost wholly naive about the voluntary and amateur sector, when in fact they will be key players if What Next? campaigning is to succeed. My former employers at Illyria – one of the UK’s largest outdoor touring companies – will be a touchstone for many audience members throughout the summer, but possibly they wouldn’t think the event was ‘for them’ since the company operates without any subsidy.
If you're in a room where everyone agrees with you, you're probably in the wrong room. I was reminded at various points during the event that the potential power for What Next? is in hearing a range of voices and conversation points, not all sitting nodding earnestly together. It can’t be a single issue campaign as we'll never agree on what that issue is (fair pay via unions, creativity in curriculum, etc). So it must be a conversation with tools, resources, the chance to connect and communicate.
David Jubb, hosting the afternoon session, rightly said there are short-term actions as part of a long-term conversation. David Micklem on Twitter asked us to think about what, who and where. What are we saying? Keep the language simple, messages clear and let's keep repeating. Who will be listened to? Do we need a Jamie Oliver or a Brian Cox? And where are these messages being given and to whom – the public, media and government? It strikes me that the movement needs to be all of everything to the whole sector, media, politicians and the general public, and yet not be watered down. That’s one tall order. Then again, the glass-half-full part of me thinks we have to start somewhere, and 650 people on one day in one venue was probably as good a place as any.