Art at the heart of things


I am looking forward to the RSA AGM this evening and to hosting a speech by Vikki Heywood our chair of Trustees. In it Vikki makes interesting points about the value of arts, culture and heritage but she also develops a challenge for the sector, one which chimes with some of my past posts.

In essence Vikki calls on the arts community not just to reach out and engage beyond traditional cultural consumers but to get involved in providing a distinctive contribution to leadership and problem solving in wider society.

The BBC survey published this morning may suggest that the cuts have not had as deep an impact on people’s experience of public services but it notable that the areas where there is the greatest discontent are ones which lie with councils namely social care and local road maintenance. (By the way the fact that cuts have been well managed so far is no guide to what will happen in the future; losing unnecessary flab is a good thing, going below your appropriate body weight is another, while having to start lopping off parts of your body is different entirely).

The best local authorities know they need a step change in collaboration, public engagement and innovation; these are all capacities that the best arts and heritage organisations have in spades. Instead of arts and heritage funding being part of the problem of austerity, cultural organisations can be part of honing new solutions. Vikki goes further, for example, asking why so few artists it on the boards of corporations. And she recognises that bringing the artistic imagination into the heart of economic  and social leadership will require the non-arts establishment to be willing to listen differently and the arts community to develop the grounding in the key challenges that places and organisations face.

For fear of stealing her thunder I won’t say more about the speech - which is being live-cast on the RSA website but here – to whet your appetite – are a few extracts

As artists, if we are to be valued, we need to shed considerably more daylight on the role we play. And I would suggest that we are as much to blame as anyone for the fact that we are not “seen”. We are not on the boards of business, retail, or banks, we are not governors of schools, sitting on planning committees, local enterprise partnerships, regional plans, “we” don’t stand as councilors, “we” don’t stand as MP’s, “we” don’t become the secretary of State for the Arts, “we” don’t become Prime Minister. “We” are not formally engaged in consultations  over planning policy, educational policy, health, transport, law and order.

'This is not about policy change this is about behavioural change – BY ARTISTS working  with national and local authorities, with business and educationalists to recognise  and increase how cultural contribution can enrich society and enhance our cultural identity.

'How can rhetorical commitments to new forms of leadership, innovative practice and generous collaboration turn into something real? This is where arts organisations and artists can come in. Their ethos, their method, their creativity can act as the catalyst for new ways of being and thinking.

'The question thus changes: instead of ‘how can we persuade the government and the public to protect the arts in tough times?’ it becomes ‘how can arts and heritage organisations be prime movers in enabling places not only to survive but to prosper in these difficult times?’ For arts organisations and artists to make this offer and make it credibly they will need to examine their own ways of working. They will in essence need to see themselves as commissioned by the places, in which they are based, a concept which, if taken seriously, is complex and challenging.

 'Art for its own sake sought to place art beyond value, beyond the messiness of the market and everyday life. But in our age of course no activity is beyond the reach of value and we must ask again what is the real and irreducible value of the arts in our lives, our culture and make sure we play our part in the wellbeing of society as a whole.

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