The first I heard of the RSA was that it was a centre for well-connected people, which makes it sound like a support centre, which of course it is.
I knew that Prue Leith, the loftily-networked mother of Danny Kruger, a friend, had something to do with it; but that a) it was somehow opaque, and b) I was much too trivial an individual to be taken seriously there. I saw the big crisp letters behind the glass from the Strand and wondered what the metallic fuzz of activity behind them might be.
A few years later, I had come to terms with my frustrations with the film industry; how vertiginous and punishing to talent (however trivial) it was, and how making films somehow wasn’t quite the answer for what I thought I might have in mind, if only I could work out what that was. I’d found chatting with prisoners and dementia patients for an hour a week much more challenging, engaging and real, than either my filmmaking practice or my mystic assumptions of David Lynch’s deity, and the great gulf between he and I.
To resolve this, I set up first a film club for homeless people, where they could find cultural shelter, programme seasons of films and meet the filmmakers; and then an organisation – Open Cinema – to make this model more widely available. I thought, it would be great for any homeless person to have access to this; to explore further all this compacted value; to work full-time and be paid for it. I did not yet know that this was a preliminary definition of a social enterprise; or of the foundational fieldwork (anti-chronologically) of Impact Hub, Britdoc, Jeff Skoll, Jacqueline Novogratz, Aravind, Bill Drayton, E H Schumacher, postwar social and Christian democrats, the Chartists, cooperatives, and, throughout this period, fellows of The RSA themselves.
Now I spoke for an organisation and not as an individual, I was invited to contribute to panels, forums, conferences, expert groups. At one of these, the Oxford and Cambridge Venture Lecture Series, Fellowship Team members were present, and I was invited to become one. I didn’t take up the invitation for a couple of years, as I was still broke and wondering if it was a worthy replacement for my membership of the ICA and BFI.
Since joining, I’ve spoken at two RSA Engage events, participated in a tech accelerator supported by the society, and won an RSA Scaling Catalyst award. I’ve found the House useful as an occasional work and meeting space, and beautifully located for a river commute. I’ve attended events almost monthly, met international collaborators at an education summit, and had the opportunity to ask Andrea Leadsom if she could fix the EU. Projects in development will enable fellows to be connected to low-income communities, and produce participatory data sets for the development of clarity in the role of culture to communities of any kind. This is the kind of obscure value at which the society excels.
The RSA occupies an increasingly vital space at the confluence of civic society, government, education, media and intellectual innovation. It’s precisely the kind of institution the contemporary world needs urgently (according to a typical occupant of the library’s shelves). It can truly advance the steps of people who encounter it without quite yet being able to define or understand it. I have recommended for fellowship half a dozen such people heads down in their field. They find they are far from alone, as do the communities and environments they serve.