Take courage - RSA

Take courage

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  • Picture of Lucy Kerbel
    Lucy Kerbel
    Founder and Director of Tonic
  • Arts and culture
  • Health and wellbeing

The arts sector is in crisis. Can a renewed commitment to creativity deliver a bolder future?

Being creative will take courage in the arts in 2024. I don’t mean showcasing creativity — staging productions, exhibiting collections or designing new products — these are our stock in trade. I mean being creative in how we do these things.

I think it’s fair to say that the arts have not been at their most creative recently. Given the permacrisis that’s been going on around us, that’s not surprising. Sitting in a Zoom breakout room with a group of arts workers in the early days of the first lockdown, one artist said: “It’s hard to create from a position of panic.” It’s a comment that’s stayed with me.

We remain in a significantly altered landscape, one of accelerated social change and political instability. One across which, in the UK at least, the cumulative impact of years of cuts to public spending are writ large. In the arts sector — especially for people running organisations — the panic has not gone away. Or if it has, it’s been replaced by a bleak survivalism; trudging through wave after wave of rolling crises, anxiety and loss. This may have tested our mettle as far as endurance goes, but it is not conducive to creativity.

Despite this, those of us in the arts do need to find the strength (and support one another to find the strength) to be creative again. The alternative is that we are whittled away to nothing; an increasingly depleted sector doing less and less, on leaner and leaner resources, with fewer and fewer people. The context in which we are operating will not dramatically alter any time soon. Trying to operate the way we were before 2020 (or even, to take the longer view, how we were before 2008) but in smaller, meaner ways, feels like a depressing prospect.

A positive future for the arts?

A more hopeful alternative would be to identify a positive future for the arts in the UK. There’s a new world that’s dawning around us and we have the opportunity, if we choose to grasp it, to decide what role we want to play and how to make that happen. This may entail a certain amount of letting go.

The pandemic forced a rupture in how the arts operate in the UK and catalysed significant changes across society. These continue to play out in unpredictable and often challenging ways, impacting our audiences, our workforces and our wider communities.

Many of us in the arts are carrying significant amounts of sadness, loss and anger regarding events of recent years. I’m not sure we’ve grieved properly, really taken time to collectively surface what we feel, to acknowledge that our situation has changed, to stare into the difficult but unavoidable reality that we can’t go back.

As anyone who has gone through a bereavement knows, to look at this hard, cold reality requires courage. But it is the only way to move on and to find a life (albeit a different one) on the other side. The alternative is stasis or decline.

If we can summon the courage to face this process, then we can start looking to the future and reconfiguring who we are as a sector and the role we want to play in society. There should be no sector better equipped to think in the innovative and novel ways required to do this.

As anyone who has gone through a bereavement knows, to look at this hard, cold reality requires courage.

We may need to reassess our priorities, escape the tyranny of our Outlook calendars to make space so we can do big picture thinking, (re)connect with colleagues and peers, remind ourselves of why the hell we are in this sector in the first place, search for joy, spark ideas. Most importantly of all, listen to people in our communities about what they want and need from the arts.

What would give them hope? How do they want to feel about life? What is the future they dream of for themselves and for those they love? Considering how we can play a role in making this a reality would prompt us to think about new models and force us to be creative. This can only be a good thing.

I’m not so naive as to suggest that this will be easy. But if we can only find the courage to look up and outwards beyond our immediate challenges, we will find the inspiration to picture a better future. We can be proactive about visualising and stepping into the position we want to have in that. Or we can miss that chance because we’re still stuck where we were, trying to make work the models that no longer fit.

Lucy Kerbel, FRSA is Founder and Director of Tonic. For over a decade, Tonic has been at the forefront of driving change within arts and culture, making the sector more equitable, diverse and inclusive.

Photo: tomazl / iStock

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  • I’d loved to read a text like this many times before.

 Maybe isn’t naiveness but what many artists consider their ‘final-end’ (which could be every person final end). Since my youth I was very disbelief to politicians and religion. Art was the greatest knowledge and superior state of heart and mind: I wasn’t the only one. Growing up made me aware that I could not attribute that responsibility to any person: except political and/or religious leaders and corporations that rule the world. I still think in artists like a unique node to social-improvement. Selfishness, egocentrism, conceit…to be a celebrity?
 A world configuration in which we are living (a situation that is getting worse everyday) are seen as simple luxuries that are difficult to maintain. Being creative from discomfort, anguish, economic insecurity: of course.
Many of those artists gave us unique art. To read the news of the world became a real nightmare. A world without art would be impossible or at least is trying to become visible. A world without meaning handling the possibility of a Third World War. A world that makes prevail ‘businesses models’ against art, people: I mean happiness. I know artists feed of common people and become more creative.

 I think artists will have all the support.
 They will give us great art and better societies. Maybe the people who rule the world could listen and take consciousness. I think they will need art: like everyone of us.

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