A slow train to a cultural legacy


I am writing this post in snatches on the slow and beautiful train journey from Belfast to Derry/Londonderry City. Every few moments my eyes are drawn to the windows and views of rolling countryside, sandy beaches and slate grey sea. Fast changing skies, one moment blue and sunny, the next dark and rainy, add to the experience.

I am speaking later at a joint RSA, Voluntary Arts Ireland (VAI) event under the title 'UK city of culture - what are we learning?'. These will be my main points.

Two thirds of the way through the year and with the biggest events having passed, much conversation is turning to the question of legacy. The long term impact of an event can be divided into the 'mechanical' and the 'moral'. The former legacy refers to things like facilities, infrastructure and regeneration; the latter to values, relationships and intentions.

The 2012 Olympics seems to have scored pretty highly on the former but disappointingly on the latter. There may be many reasons why an Olympic impact on ways of thinking, connecting and behaving has proved elusive, not least that the whole idea of a social echo from major one-off events may be more based on hope than likelihood. But things for London were certainly not helped by the ambivalence of politicians before the Games. So widespread were worries about organisation, security and UK sporting performance, so loud had been the critics and pessimists, that political leaders were worried to say the Olympics might stand as a national statement of values just in case that statement turned out to be tarnished by failure.

Of course, since the success of the Games there have been innumerable attempts to claim a moral legacy. But applying a post hoc rationale or seeking to bask in reflected glory often looks like exactly what it is -  contrived opportunism. So if Derry's year - which clearly is a success - is to leave a moral legacy then the time to articulate that is surely running out. Political and civic leaders need now to develop credible but ambitious accounts of how the spirit of the cultural festival can be carried into 2014 and beyond.

An important part of this story - and for this, my second point, I am grateful for the insight of RSA Fellow Kevin Murphy from VAI - must surely be about how a vital part of the year has been about the discovery and promotion of the cultural energy which already existed in and around Derry and which can be recognised and nurtured when the year of culture bandwagon has moved on.

A powerful example are the flute bands. For so long associated in the minds of outsiders and republicans with sectarian Unionist politics, the year of culture has included a community wide celebration of the Apprentice Boys band. In an article for the event I am attending, Kevin describes his dawning realisation of the scale of flute bands and the role they play in civic cultural engagement and in providing a route into musical participation for youngsters.

Northern Ireland is still a deeply divided and largely segregated community and, as the violent flag protects in Belfast earlier this year underline, resentment and the potential for violence simmers not far below the surface of everyday life. Yet a better future surely does not involve the suppression of distinctive community culture, much less its cynical use as the soundtrack to conflict, but its celebration as part of what is vivid and vibrant about this beautiful part of the world.

Culture makes possible things which conventional politics finds intractable. Which takes me to my third point (made more fully in this post). Struggling with austerity and facing rising needs, wise place leaders understand the importance of doing things differently. Achieving more with less and building the resilience of communities (what is somewhat dryly referred to as 'demand management') involves a step change in local collaboration between agencies and leaders in every sector, in public engagement particularly through connecting to a sense of community agency, and in the capacity for innovation.

If collaboration, engagement and innovation are our goals then surely arts and cultural organisations have huge potential in disrupting the  way things are and prefiguring and prototyping how they could be? This offers a third way between the intrinsic and instrumental case for arts subsidy. Arts can achieve social impacts but rather than merely aiming for the conventional metrics of public service delivery, these impacts can be distinctive to the artistic imagination while still being concrete and measurable. Such an aspiration involves challenges both to the working methods and aspirations of arts organisations and to the capacity for risk taking and imagination among place leaders.

The greatest legacy of the Derry year of culture would be for arts and culture to become integral to the future ambition, capacity and inventiveness of the whole city.


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