For our communities to have hope, they need a voice beyond politics

Through new art forms, those voices ignored by London in the run up to the general election are now making themselves heard

Gavin Barlow
Thursday 26 December 2019 10:33 GMT
General election 2019: How the night unfolded

In the aftermath of the general election, one story has been told again and again: towns across the UK – and particularly in the midlands and north – had been neglected and overlooked by a London-focused culture that simply did not listen to what was happening beyond its line of sight.

It’s a story with resonance far beyond politics: centralisation – of capital, talent and other resources – is seen as draining the life from previously thriving communities.

The world of art and culture is particularly prone to accusations of elitism. Often art is seen as being created by and for the initiated only. One startling statistic suggests that just 8 per cent of the UK population regularly engages in any artistic activity. This is clearly dangerous. Art at its core is about telling our stories and truths; when people’s own stories aren’t told, they very quickly lose any stake in the national picture. Their sense of their own value falls, they become disconnected, isolated and atomised. And eventually they give up.

But is this the whole picture? It’s not entirely true to say that people are entirely disengaged from culture – but we need to look again at what “culture” is and what we perceive it to be. A young woman may spend hours writing lyrics or making mix tapes in her bedroom; an older people’s group may hold weekly singalongs; a local book club may host heated debates about the latest Booker winner. But do we have any meaningful way of recording this as a cultural activity? Or do we focus on gallery visits and theatre trips – easy to measure, yes, but numbers that will inevitably be skewed by proximity to major metropolitan centres.

This is why now more than ever community arts centres are essential. A good arts centre will not be simply a stop-off point for touring shows, or a hangout for a self-selecting group, but a place where people feel they can bring their ideas and be heard.

Over the past 25 years, partly due to financial support from the National Lottery, arts centres have become very significant places for many communities. Staff at centres will tell you the fierce sense of ownership people in their communities feel over what happens in what they (quite rightly) perceive as their spaces for free expression.

And people do use these spaces, voraciously: the most recently collected figures for the nine founding members of Future Arts Centres showed that on average 240,000 people had used each centre over the course of a year, in places as different as Kendal in Cumbria (population 28,000) and Deptford in south-east London.

We know from shows and exhibitions at the centres we run that people interact with art at their local centres very differently than they will at a big ticket exhibition. They interrogate, question and engage with art on a much more personal level, rather than simply reading the interpretation cards that accompany pictures and moving on to the gift shop, or politely clapping at the appointed moment in a performance when everyone else politely claps.

Next year, 40 local arts centres across the country will be embarking on an ambitious project we are calling “Here and Now”. These centres have been tasked with telling new stories about their neighbourhoods and communities. They are working with people who rarely get the chance to tell their stories: disabled people, marginalised groups, working class and BME people.

The projects will take many forms, from an immersive experience of a 1980s west midlands Asian wedding in Coventry, to explorations of the experiences of the deaf community, to an attempt to discover the loneliest street in Cambridge, and a celebration of our “complicated” relationship with the Eurovision Song Contest, to participatory physical theatre inviting men in South Shields to explore masculinity, and in Colchester, something which describes itself as “Springwatch meets Samuel Beckett” (admit it: you want to know what that’s about).

This project is about reaching out to people who in the past may have felt art and culture is “not for them” with new kinds of artworks that are unequivocally of their time and place, but can also carry universal resonance.

The narrative built from 40 separate projects will be complex – perhaps more so than the one we might gain from a general election or poll. But it will be truthful.

Art needs democracy just as much as democracy needs art: without diverse voices, accusations of elitism become self-fulfilling. Without new and diverse voices, and new audiences the art world will very quickly atrophy, with the same people going to the same works at the same venues. Apart from anything else, this is bad business – Britain’s culture sector is worth over £10bn to the economy annually; heading into Brexit, we cannot afford for it to slow down.

But ultimately this is a question of the health of our society. In the Arts Council England’s draft strategy for the next 10 years, the organisation speaks of the fear that “access to high quality creative and cultural opportunities outside of the home is currently heavily determined by background and postcode”. We all know that the hazards of the postcode lottery apply to much more than the world of culture. But artistic expression has always been at the vanguard of society. If we can create a more democratic, representative art, then we can light the path for a democratic representative society.

Gavin Barlow is the artistic director of The Albany. Annabel Turpin is the artistic director of the ARC Stockton. Here and Now launches nationwide in 2020

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