A day in the life of a great Society


Another post about the RSA but stick with it there’s a great story at the end….

Yesterday was one of those days when all the strengths of the RSA are vividly on show and I feel inspired to be leading such an amazing organisation.

Most of the day was spent at the second RSA/Arts Council England State of the Arts conference. Four hundred delegates spent the day in plenary and panel session discussing various aspects of arts policy, focussing in particular (as I did in my post on Wednesday) on the challenges of surviving on much lower levels of public subsidy. As John Knell argued in the day’s last session the mood of the conference veered between anger, fear and self-pity, on the one hand, and determination on the other. But by the end of the day, I sensed elements of a new vision for the arts sector. These include:

* a recognition that the major national arts institutions need either to accept smaller subsidy (as they are well placed to lever in philanthropy and sponsorship) and/or accept a much greater responsibility to support smaller, more community and organisations

* commitment to much greater collaboration between arts organisations,  particularly at the local level, perhaps though local cultural partnerships coterminous with Local Economic Partnerships

* an even greater focus on new forms of income generation, especially web-based (with one example being the excellent WeDidThis ‘crowdfunding’ platform)

* the development of a stronger, more robust case for the contribution arts can make to a healthy society of engaged citizens

I hope the RSA can continue to work on these issues and it was very heartening to hear an inspiring presentation at the conference from Gillian Beasley the Chief Executive of Peterborough who focussed on the highly innovative arts strands of our Citizen Power project in the city.

I left the conference a few minutes early, returning to John Adam Street to introduce John Gray and Will Self in conversation. Don’t tell the ‘elf ‘n safety’ but I think we must have crammed in about 220 people to the Great Room to listen to a scintillating event (even if Will found it hard to allow the audience in on the questioning!).

Last but not least, on to ‘21st century thinking – communicating climate change’. The Benjamin  Franklyn Room was packed with Fellows and guests discussing how arts, media and social media could help to engage the public in the possibility of a zero carbon future. Having heard John Gray argue a few minutes earlier that while science and technology do advance irreversibly, progress in ethics and politics is illusory and fragile, I wondered whether he might have cause for greater optimism about the human species if we were able fundamentally to change the way we use energy and treat the planet.

Great ideas, innovative projects and events, Fellows working together to develop new networks and projects; this is the RSA in all its glory. Last week, to a mixed response, I posted about how these different elements could combine into something powerful and unique. Maybe this does require us to continue reforming the ways we operate, but perhaps it is something that will happen naturally as long as we carry on being as good as we can be at everything we do.

For all its good points, I can’t pretend mine isn’t an exhausting job or that sometimes, in the face of a small hard core determined to have my guts for garters, I don’t wonder if it’s all worthwhile. So days like yesterday are a much needed shot in the arm.

Now, after such self-indulgence I promised a great story. It comes from Gavin Stride, Director of Farnham Maltings - a South East based arts organisation - and Caravan – a biennial showcase for new English performance to an international audience. Yesterday Gavin went on to delight the audience  for his panel session with the phrase ‘Big Society, or as mum used to call it ‘society’’ but he had already won us over with his opening comment which went like this.

‘Last year I took the family on holiday to Brittany. We visited the austere Catholic cathedral in Vannes. We were looking at a wonderful stained glass window when my wife turned to me and said in hushed tones ‘look at the amazing blue behind the saints’ as I looked she went on ‘ that’s just the colour I want for our new bathroom’. There you are! Living proof of the way great art can improve the quality of our lives’

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