Juliet Brain sees What Next as a chance to put aside creative egos and work for the common good.

I finally stepped away from my position as an observer on social media and actively joined the ‘What Next?’ event at the Palace Theatre – and thank you Nica Burns of Nimax Theatres for providing the venue. We were there as arts professionals, volunteers, administrators, charities, managements, organisations, directors, chairs, students; an impressive mix of interested parties, considering the breadth and depth of reach the arts commands. Geographically and culturally there may have been room for improvement, but the invitation to take part was entirely open or I would never have been there.

It was the day after the Olivier Awards had been broadcast live on commercial TV for the first time in ten years, and took place at a time when the creative industries represent 10% of the nation’s GDP, with 2.5 million jobs and growing. We’ve also just heard that 43 million people engaged with the Cultural Olympiad; and a recent poll by a Liverpool newspaper on the impact of the arts on people in the city revealed positive and surprising results. Baroness Joan Bakewell DBE and Baroness Jenny McIntosh were guest speakers at the morning session I joined. They gave me hope, speaking insightfully about language and message. We need to get better at challenging divisive language that demeans the arts, ready to respond quicker and more coherently in support of our sector, and to have the facts and figures to hand.

But What Next? isn’t about telling us what to do. “‘What Next’ works well when people embrace the spirit of collaboration and arrive not looking for answers but ready to be part of a movement’”. No one has taken charge - we’re just getting together with our common purpose. We are setting aside the barriers, differences, complexities of our own individual challenges and languages to say ‘we value the arts’. We get it. We understand why it’s as important as the air we breathe - its social importance, its economic value, its healing power. We know how deeply it’s ingrained in our nation’s psyche and we are its champions, so we will find a way to remind those who have forgotten, to show those who don’t know, to carry it through these hard times, bring it out into the light – together.

The conference was not the time for answers or objectives (yet), just an opportunity to say that ‘together’ we could achieve this. Of course, artists and creatives are independent creatures who don’t like to be told how and what to think, which is why ‘What Next?’ is so remarkable. To secure a future for culture and the arts we have to put those creative egos aside and work for the common good. ‘Purpose’ is a prized commodity in today’s world and common purpose never more so. It is strength in a world where what we value is being undermined by an austerity regime that serves to suck the colour and joy from our lives and seeks to divide and conquer.

So I’ll stand up and be counted, as many of us did at the end of the day, because I value what the arts and culture have given me in both my youth and my adulthood, how they have formed and shaped me. Like the two girls from Mulberry School, Tower Hamlets, who spoke so eloquently about the pride their school has in the arts and its value to them as individuals, I want my own daughters to know that pride, that freedom of expression, and to share the depths of experience that the arts provide. I don’t want them to look back in anger at what was stolen from them by short-sighted politicians – their cultural and artistic heritage.

Juliet Brain is a Cultural Activist

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