It is right to celebrate those local authorities committed to funding culture, but long-term sustainability may depend on developing entirely new approaches, argues Gary Topp.

Andrew Dixon’s call to celebrate the successes of cultural development in those places where local government is a key collaborator (often where there is the prize of a ‘title’ at stake) must be right. Indeed, it replicates a call that we have collectively made many times over the past 25 years. It has become an accepted norm of cultural policy that where the sector, local government and public sector agencies such as Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund can find common cause and financial synergies, then great things can be made to happen.

But we can sometimes pursue this approach to the detriment of other ideas, and in so doing remove from our collective tool chest some alternative options. Perhaps more seriously, by ignoring alternative approaches we might also inadvertently align ourselves too much with an increasingly marginalised sub-section of the politics and circumstances of our time.

We can draw together a few things that have happened in the last few days to explore this. The day before Andrew Dixon’s article, a report on urban leadership was published by the Centre for Cities and Arup, exploring the attitudes and concerns of city leaders across the UK. These exhibit an astonishing amount of agreement across the country and across party politics. We should not be surprised that housing, social care and transport dominate their concerns. We might be more surprised that when asked what they thought could be “cut or frozen” with the least local impact, almost a quarter (24%) said “culture and leisure”. On this evidence, the last 25 years of cultural advocacy, evidence and programme delivery must have either been ineffective, struggling to maintain ground that has been gained, or have been completely undercut by the dominant discourse of austerity.

On the same day as the article, the Creative Industries Federation published its latest report (Growing the UK’s Creative Industries) and once again presented an analysis that a key requirement for the future success of the sector was through relationships with local government, Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs) and combined authorities. And we should reiterate that, where this can be achieved, it is probably a good thing.

New directions

But it might be time to look beyond the obvious conclusions, and see if this leads us in a different direction. We might start by more clearly recognising that we live in the most centralised country in Europe (so the LEPs and combined authorities arguably do not have the agency of change we seek to give them). We might further acknowledge that the much-celebrated growth of the creative industries has occurred during austerity, without a creatively-focused education system, and that the apparent common sense of embedding it further into structures with limited power may only be a partial solution at best. Yet we keep on recommending it as a primary course of action.

In Poland in December, at the latest global summit on climate change (and if ever we needed evidence of the limitations of the current political discourse it is on this issue) David Attenborough was invited to sit at a new seat around the negotiating table - the ‘people’s seat’. A strong indication that current systems and political structures are not serving us as well as they might. Global protests by people against the Iraq war in 2003 led the New York Times to identify public opinion as the other global ‘superpower’. And recently Thomas Piketty, who has so eloquently unpicked the dominant economic growth (capitalism) ideology of our time, put forward a rebalancing proposal for the European budget. In other words, there are increasingly other voices and other platforms for positive and alternative development mechanisms emerging. What, and where, is the cultural sector’s version of these?

If the sector keeps looking solely to current mechanisms of government for solutions - and these systems have arguably become weaker and not stronger over the last decade - then we run the risk of chasing an increasingly diminishing prize, and inadvertently taking the sector backwards not forwards. This is not an easy discussion for the sector to open up, but if we believe in our power to transform places, then it surely needs more airtime than it is currently receiving. And we may need to let go of the dominant habits of the past.

Gary Topp is CEO of Culture Central and Honorary Professor of  Culture and Cities at the University of Birmingham.
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