Fellows Festival 2024: changemaking for the future - RSA blog - RSA

Fellows Festival 2024: changemaking for the future

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    Mike Thatcher
    Editorial Manager, the RSA
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The 2024 Fellows Festival was the biggest and boldest so far, with a diverse range of high-profile speakers offering remarkable stories of courageous acts to make the world a better place.

RSA House was packed to the rafters on Saturday 2 March as more than 400 Fellows gathered for the third annual Fellows Festival – with hundreds more joining online – to discuss the theme of courage and to meet friends old and new.

The third ediiton of our Fellows Festival was the biggest yet, with the London event following a series of regional gatherings across the UK and with global events too. Fellows heard from high-profile speakers, took part in a range of workshops and enjoyed live music and dance.

Introducing proceedings, RSA CEO Andy Haldane said that the day would be about collaboration, optimism and "changemaking for the future", and that the RSA and its Fellows were helping to build a “new Enlightenment”.

“The world, on some dimensions, has never seemed more divisive, darker or despairing. It is just for that reason that the RSA was created 270 years ago, and that is why it is even more important that we press ahead today – that from darkness we bring a new Enlightenment, that from divisiveness we bring even stronger collaboration, and, from despair, we bring an even greater degree of optimism.”

Artistic superpower

Speakers throughout the day offered examples of courageous acts that could make the world a better place. Arguably, none did this better than keynote presenter Kwame Kwei-Armah, who gave an impassioned speech calling on the government to have the courage to invest sustainably in the arts.

Kwei-Armah said that he had “just resigned from the best job I’ve ever had in my life” – artistic director of the Young Vic – after realising that, in trying to create a sustainable business model in the current economic climate, he was being “complicit in undermining” the culture sector.

“The funding situation has created an atmosphere of fear, and fear erodes confidence, fear contracts the imagination, fear attacks ambition, and what diminished ambition denies most importantly, or most perniciously, is opportunity.”

Kwei-Armah, an actor, writer and director, became the first Afro-Caribbean Artistic Director to lead a major British theatre in 2018 when he took on the role at the Young Vic. In his Fellows Festival speech, he quoted from McKinsey's Assessing the direct impact of the UK arts sector report that showed that, for every pound invested in the arts, almost £1.50 goes back into the local economy.

“We must invest sustainably in our nation's creative power. This is not art for art’s sake, but part of a plan to replenish our national coffers, to sustain our global position as a creative, artistic superpower. We must have the courage to do this, and we, the practitioners of the arts, must have the courage to demand this, not just of our governments, but of we the citizens that elect them.”

He called for the public to put pressure on politicians to come up with a “Big Idea” to fund the arts sustainably. “Let's let our local politicians know that the arts matter, that it's not something that should be snuck into the manifesto, but something that they could even possibly lead with.

“Everybody wants to be cool; nothing's cooler than the arts.”

We must invest sustainably in our nation's creative power. This is not art for art’s sake, but part of a plan to replenish our national coffers, to sustain our global position as a creative, artistic superpower.

Artistic Director, Young Vic Theatre Kwame Kwei-Armah

Post-Covid courage

Courage in the arts was also the theme of an earlier session at the festival, where hard truths over funding and diversity were tackled. RSA Fellow Lucy Kerbel, founder and director of Tonic, highlighted some of the issues facing the creative industries since the end of the Covid pandemic. These included the repayment of loans, relationships with freelancers, funding cuts, the cost-of-living crisis and different ticket-buying behaviour from the public.

“I feel like now is a time when courage is really required. We're now at a point where we do need to find ways collectively to be deeply creative thinkers about the future for the arts,” she said.

Kate Varah, executive director of the National Theatre, said that courage was a natural part of the DNA of those working in the arts – something that is required in this post-Covid world. “I almost think that running one of our organisations during Covid wasn't actually as hard as it is now. Of course, it was an extraordinarily challenging time, [but] there was one big central thing that we all had to grapple with. Now, there are headwinds all over the place.

“Trying to figure out how to rebuild your audience, rebuild your workforce, rebuild your relationship with the freelance community, at the same time as thinking really hard about some of those internal challenges that we've got from a financial perspective, takes focus and definitely a lot of courage.”

I almost think that running one of our organisations during Covid wasn't actually as hard as it is now.

Executive Director, National Theatre Kate Varah FRSA

Clear-eyed courage

Amanda Walker, award-winning arts and cultural sector consultant, discussed both the progress and lack of progress on inclusivity in the cultural sector. She suggested that diverse-led organisations new to the Arts Council portfolio face a £25,000 ‘diversity gap’ in terms of the average grant awarded.

“Sometimes being pragmatic is courageous, and when it comes to the UK's cultural sector, especially the arts and cultural sector that's not for profit, being courageous right now to me means being really clear-eyed about the likelihood that the sector is going to shrink.

“What's essential is ensuring that in that shrinkage, we don't lose the difference and we don't lose diversity as we go. That we don't become a homogenous blob. Being clear-eyed about our courage means acknowledging uncomfortable truths.”

Walker called for the establishment of a collective Cultural Task Force that would articulate and identify incentives for larger arts institutions to ensure that diversity is maintained, even as the cultural sector shrinks.

We are doing everything wrong by thinking that a bunch of clever people need to come up with the answers in London.

Founder, Our Future Emily Bolton

Talking truth to power

In a session looking at courage and community, Tim Smit, executive chair and co-founder of the Eden Project, and Emily Bolton, founder of Our Future, discussed leadership in the UK.

Smit took aim at the weakness showed by “middle-aged men” in leadership positions. “The first thing you've got to be honest about is the lack of courage in middle-aged men. The desire of middle-aged men who've just got their feet on the rung towards becoming an establishment figure is a cancer because they stop talking truth to power and yield to all of the tropes that those who are more powerful than them have got,” he said.

As an example, Smit cited the performance of the former Department for Energy and Climate Change and its unwillingness to take energy independence seriously. He was highly critical of senior politicians from the major parties: ”I have met most of the front bench of the current political parties. I have yet to meet one I would give a job to.”

Bolton discussed the work that Our Future, which helps citizens and communities to build a more sustainable world, has been undertaking in Grimsby. Our Future has worked in close partnership with the local community and with Grimsby Town Football Club to make the transition to a green economy, in a way that is firing up the town.

“I love the people I work with in Grimsby – brilliant, innovative, not waiting for anyone to come and fix their problems, just getting on and doing it. When I spend time with them, my heart sings with hope for what can happen in this country. We are doing everything wrong by thinking that a bunch of clever people need to come up with the answers in London.

“What would happen if we backed all the brilliance across this country? There are brilliant people there in droves, and what they lack is money, support networks, a sense of solidarity, belief in them. If we can build all of that, the future of our country looks amazing.

Even Rishi Sunak has said recently that people should stop trying to rewrite history. That's literally what historians do.

Award-winning journalist and author Sathnam Sanghera

Rewriting history?

In a session on courage and empire, author and journalist Sathnam Sanghera was asked about culture wars and the abuse he received following the publication of his books Empireland and Empireworld. The first book examined how imperialism has shaped modern Britain, while the second looked at how imperialism has changed the globe.

“Historians are basically putting forward knowledge – you shouldn't be trolled and feel threatened because of that, and I feel that people aren’t cross enough about it. Often the people encouraging the trolling nowadays are the politicians or the newspapers who are also complaining about cancel culture.”

Sanghera suggested that he was meticulous in providing sources for his work to demonstrate that the analysis is based on accurate information. However, he still faces accusation that he is “making stuff up”.

“Even Rishi Sunak has said recently that people should stop trying to rewrite history. That's literally what historians do – our understanding of the Romans is changing because we discover things in archaeology, our understanding of the Stone Age is changing, and our understanding of the Empire is changing really quickly, largely because the British repressed a lot of the information at the time.”

If we can highlight and shine a light on those positive news stories, hopefully that will empower people.

Conservationist Kabir Kaul FRSA

Swift solution

Culture wars also surfaced in a session on courage and climate involving environmental psychologist Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh and conservationist and wildlife writer Kabir Kaul. According to Whitmarsh, one way to respond to anti-climate change attacks on social media and the press is to investigate deliberative democracy, such as citizens assemblies and citizens panels. A good example, she said, was Climate Assembly UK, which brought together 100 people from all walks of life and all shades of opinion to discuss how the UK should meet its net-zero target.

“They came up with some very ambitious policy proposals that actually go beyond what the government is doing. This is from a group of people that are extremely diverse, but when you get them in the room together, you can look at the evidence, weigh up the pros and cons and look at these wider benefits.

“We see some of this happening at local level, where communities are coming together around say air pollution or road safety concerns, and actually there might be fantastic climate benefits to some of the stuff they're doing. But they don't have to be bought into climate concern, they're doing it because of some other set of more proximal worries.”

Kaul, who is an 18-year-old RSA Fellow, said that it was important to highlight positive stories, particularly on a local level. He gave the example of Brighton & Hove City Council, which has mandated the incorporation of ‘swift boxes’ in all developments in its area. These are bird boxes that are designed to look like bricks, but feature a small hole where swifts, which have been in decline in the UK for many years, can enter and build their nests.

“If we can highlight and shine a light on those positive news stories, hopefully that will empower people. Yes, we've got a long way to go, but there are very good things that are still happening.”

Did you attend the Fellows Festival? Maybe you weren't in London but perhaps you joined one of our regional events or participated online? If you're a Fellow you can share your highlights in the comments of our Circle post.

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  • Absolutely agree with Kate Varah on the paramount importance of culture in dealing with the challenges we face.

  • Fantastic day in RSA London Festival - enjoyed all talks and Manifestos workshops with Fabian and Stephen Oram, designing our collective vision of how do want to live in 2050, writing Newspaper headlines, drawing Postcards or just telling stories about the future of schools, health. We also had great session on Connections, Meta study on examining if Who you know matters more than What you know - impact of your network on your income - Thank you all for piecing together such a brilliant event!

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