Jonothan Neelands

www.nesta.org.uk/feature/experimental-culture-provocations/jonothan-neelands/
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The arts thrive in interesting times. In response to a new age of uncertainty and conflict, digital revolution, globalised inequalities and the impact of migration and environmental collapse we turn to the arts for new ideas and voices, fresh ways of seeing and understanding the world. New ideas fuel the arts in seeking out new audiences, forms of expression and critical responses to the times we live in. But where are the new ideas about how best to fund, organise, prioritise, sustain and grow the work of artists and cultural organisations?

There are big challenges and opportunities to capture and address. In an uncertain world conventional ideas about what is and what isn’t art are disrupted and the boundaries between popular and commercial, virtual and digital, restricted audiences and publicly invested arts blur. Tired distinctions between the public arts and culture and the other high-profit sectors of the creative industries obscure the necessity for public investment in R&D, and the free flow of talent, technologies and investment across a vibrant ecosystem. Local communities look to the arts for a wide range of purposes- for entertainment, for social cohesion and identity making, for health and education, as a driver for economic growth and tourism. Are these wider purposes a distraction from or a return to the ‘core’ mission to deliver high quality arts for all? Are they the vital conduits towards new audiences, new aesthetics, new impact, new talent – providing a central role for artists and cultural organisations in their communities?

And the central challenges to the arts remain and are becoming more acute. A lack of diversity from the board room through to audiences strangles innovative models of leadership and unheard voices, new forms of expression and communication, new talent that thinks, behaves and organises differently. The shrinkage of educational opportunities in and out of school for our most disadvantaged young people, exacerbates the problem of diversity and denies all young people their entitlement to the full range of the arts including complex work that benefits from an educated appreciation and craft. Crucially, significant reductions in grant-in-aid to local government combined with an increasing demand on ACE to stretch its finite resources across an increasingly broad range of arts, cultures, heritages, purposes and technologies.

What are we to do? At a place-based, rather than a national, level how do we organise ourselves to make the best joined-up use of our local resources of artists, communities, talent and economic resources? How do we use new partnerships with the private and third sectors to both enrich the local economy and enrich the lives of the most vulnerable and marginalised? How do we use the key anchor institutions – local government, HE and FE, LEPs, NHS, business forums – to maximise the flow of information and opportunity, invigorate fundraising and proposals for funding, develop inclusive programming, reduce costs and free up spaces for making and sharing in the arts?

How do we combine social enterprise and innovation with charitable status? How do we build on a vibrant community arts and grassroots cultural life to scaffold access to employment and enjoyment in the arts? How can volunteering at all levels from strategy to delivery support limited resources? How can we make place-based diversity a strength rather than a challenge? How do we align the interests of local government and business and the universities with the manifold possibilities of place-based arts activities? How does our cultural offer become inclusive cultural activism at a local level? As the world changes how do we begin at the local level to adapt, grow and associate so that the arts continue to inform and improve our lives?