Maggie Atkinson: Culture is getting down with the people and sharing their lives

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Who's saying what culture is? Phil Redmond on Liverpool '08 has said that, as well as introducing and glorying in the Greats – who are of course great because they are the greats, but also in part because we delight in them and continue to say they are – we must be wiling to get closer to the floor and start where the people there are.

They may not all be where you or I would like. I'm talking about the families who either don't know, or don't actually care, where your or my theatre or concert hall or gallery or museum or park or beautiful garden might be, and who would not know how to get in, literally or metaphorically, or engage with it, if they did. They are, for example, the mums and dads in my borough who, nearly five years into its existence and despite living a mile away from its shining curves and accessible programming, have been to The Sage Gateshead once, because their child was singing in our showcase.

The researched and recognised danger of those of us who can, metaphorically speaking, read the Latin in the books in the chained library of the arts, saying to those who can't, "here is the life blood we live by and so should you, but it is here on our terms," as we who love it are almost bound to do, is that as we say it, the circle of some people engaging and some not is sealed. If we are not careful, we create cultural palaces – real or psychological – which some people don't come near even though that's what we expect of them and think we are enabling them to do. Or if they do come once, they don't come back.

If what some people with whom the arts and culture engage want is something that's filtered through their life stories not ours; if they want and in the first instance need what is safe on their terms, possibly bounded by a reality influenced by the Beckhams, the PlayStation, the X Factor, graffiti, the Simpsons and the soaps, then that's where we start. And with some we will get a lot further, and with some we may not. A lot of the most creative things that happen in my community are sparked by the young people themselves, by youth workers, by young offenders' workers, by volunteers. Schools are creative. But they no longer work in a bubble called schooling, so neither can we.

From a keynote speech by the Director of Children's Services for Gateshead delivered at the RSA yesterday.

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