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“Culture 2022: what should we expect?” Dr Martin Smith, ICCE

An ICCE/Goldsmiths colloquy, supported by the Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC) and the Creative Industries Federation (CIF), June 9 2021, with Prof. Pierluigi Sacco, Prof. Geoff Crossick and Dame Vikki Heywood

This two-hour online event, chaired by Caroline Norbury, CEO of the UK’s Creative Industries Federation and founding CEO of Creative England, was designed to promote discussion of the future of culture and the wider creative sector in a post-pandemic world. It comprised three opening statements from senior commentators – two academics and one practitioner – followed by a wide-ranging exchange between the presenters and members of an online audience of more than 100 attendees. The purpose of this blog is to provide a written summary of the three opening contributions.

Prof. Pierluigi Sacco, professor of cultural economics at Milan’s IULM University and Director of the OECD’s Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities in Venice, opened by observing that we still have a very poor understanding of the role that culture plays for human beings, suggesting that the most concrete way to address the question of the future of culture and creative production is to highlight the potential of “a different way of looking at the work of culture in a post pandemic society and also possibly in the post pandemic economy”.

Prof. Sacco bemoaned the fact that culture, notwithstanding its very long history, is still widely viewed as an elite activity related to leisure rather than a question of fundamental human needs, arguing by reference to epigenetics and neuroscience that herein lies most of the problem.

It is essential to understand certain key issues of social cognition, he argued, including the capacity to understand how other people think and react, and their intentions and beliefs in certain situations. As illustrations of a broader understanding of cultural meaning he gave the examples of fiction, which he suggested “in one sense provides us with a laboratory to experiment with human feelings and expectations”, and music, which during lockdown had played a key role in regulating emotions and moods.

Prof. Sacco referred to longitudinal studies showing that a lifetime’s systematic cultural participation yielded an expectation of some two and half years of extra life, suggesting that this is really to do with our capacity to cope with the facts of human existence, facts “that cannot be substituted by other factors or other resources”. “So culture is literally making us live longer”, he suggested.  Why then, he asked, is there still a widespread conviction that culture is peripheral to the real issues of human need?

There are signs of positive change, he reflected, in part related to the experience of the pandemic. There was an increasing awareness of the particular capacity of culture to connect in unexpected and unexplored ways to basic human abilities and survival issues.

However, these issues had not yet been properly framed within a cultural context. Nonetheless we can now begin to think in a different way of culture as a resource to tackle major societal challenges.  We now have a clearer understanding of what active cultural participation in the creation of meaning signifies, how this relates to a sense of self-worth and what it has to do with addressing the wider challenges of society.

Prof. Sacco gave several examples of the relevance of this human-centred approach to the development of public policy. One was the migration crisis.  Here he noted that there are many types of cultural experience that can create bridges “from the point of view of empathisation and the dismantling of barriers – those cognitive and emotional barriers that render cultural otherness threatening to us”.

He cited other examples relating to the climate crisis, social inequality and ageing, deducing that the challenge for the future is to imagine a policy agenda for culture and creative production related explicitly to social impact. “I am not saying by this that we should disregard the economic impact of culture, but I am saying that by focusing exclusively on the economic impact dimension we are missing one basic part (of the problem)”.

The two dimensions of social and economic impact were in any event inter-connected, he argued. On the politics of ageing, for example, a culturally driven programme of active ageing could be immensely impactful from an economic standpoint, not because it would generate revenues but because it would help mitigate the enormous financial cost of social neglect and absence of change. “We need a new logic to intervene” Prof. Sacco argued, “and this new logic really has to do with how culture affects our own dispositions, attitudes and behaviours.”

Prof. Sacco concluded that this was “an incredibly exciting new field”. “The really interesting and intriguing thing is that having a social impact is not just a necessity to be sustainable financially but is becoming an aesthetic necessity, a poetic necessity.” The next objective therefore is “to break new ground rather than aspire simply to bounce back (after the pandemic) to the old familiar ground”.

Prof. Geoff Crossick, formerly chief executive of the Arts & Humanities Research Board and Warden of Goldsmiths, and now Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the School of Advanced Study in the University of London, began his remarks by saying that he wanted to make two introductory observations about ‘Culture 2022’ from his vantage point as a historian. The first was that in the past, people had always thought during major crises that the world would never be the same again.

In fact, he suggested, this is very rarely the case. “The changes that stick are usually accelerations of trends that were visible long before the crisis.” In this context that meant talking about culture in relation to digital engagement, inequalities of access and the ‘precarity’ of practitioners, amongst other issues.

Secondly, referencing John Graunt’s pioneering mid-seventeenth century work on mortality records, Prof. Crossick said that pandemics are only over “when the deaths due to it are something society has decided that it can accept”.  Epidemics “do not end neatly. There is not a moment when one can announce that the pandemic is over.” This meant that it was premature to talk about ‘Culture 2022’. He therefore proposed to look beyond 2022 to the longer term implications for culture and cultural practice in three areas: the digital experience and cultural consumption; cultural production, freelancers and the innovation system; and thinking about cultural value in the broadest sense.

On the digital experience, Prof. Crossick warned against adopting too simplistic a narrative of the ‘shift to digital’ by neglecting the fact that so much culture was experienced at home before Covid.  As far as the specific issue of digital engagement was concerned, he noted that if the increase (in engagement) is with those already engaged rather than with new audiences, something less is happening than we had expected.  UK Audience Agency Cultural Participation Monitor evidence suggested there had been little change in the percentage of people engaging digitally compared with the period before the pandemic.

What had changed is that those who had engaged before were now doing so more. Similarly, on the subject of co-production – making music, film, animation, games and other digital content with others online, a distinguishing mark of a trend that Prof. Sacco had characterised in recent years as ‘Culture 3.0’ – it did not seem that the number of people doing this had increased during the pandemic.  “The overall picture for the UK isn’t one of a major shift with respect to digital engagement, which is not what we are telling ourselves”, Prof. Crossick observed.

Turning to his second point, Prof. Crossick said that the place of freelancers in the cultural innovation system is a fundamental long term issue, whilst noting that there was a need to distinguish between the self-employed who produce and sell for the market, craft makers, visual artists and others, and freelancers who habitually work on projects on a contract by contract basis. He observed that freelancers in the project model play a particularly important role because they enable businesses and cultural organisations to shift risk and costs off their own hands between projects. This is what lay behind freelancer ‘precarity’ in the wider creative sector.

Noting that it was the younger, newer entrants into the cultural labour market who appeared to have been hardest hit by the pandemic, Prof. Crossick suggested that we are losing a pipeline of talent. “I want to highlight that particular dimension of the crisis for freelancers”, he added, “and it may become a crisis for creativity and innovation in the creative and culture sectors”, characterised as they are by a “complex ecology with project based production systems, outsourcing, collaborative networks (and) portfolio working…” The dislocation of the freelancer economy was therefore “a real threat not just to freelancers but for the success of the creative and cultural industries”.

Prof. Crossick’s third point linked back both to Prof. Sacco’s opening remarks on being ambitious and with it to the wider dimensions of value highlighted in his project report on cultural value for the AHRC (Crossick and Kaszynska), published in 2016.  He lamented that so many of these broader cultural agendas, for example on regeneration, ‘place-making’ and community, and on health and well-being, had been seriously disrupted by the pandemic. “The danger”, he said, “is that the cultural sector responds by focusing (too) narrowly, not least in order make a case to funders and governments…

We must be more, not less ambitious, as we emerge from the pandemic. Discussion and strategies for culture must emphasise its social and community potential in a way that I think we are losing…”  We should focus more, he continued, “not on big cultural institutions and urban regeneration, because the business model behind that, requiring tourism and visitor footfall, might be broken for a long time.” Instead, the focus should be on “the contribution of arts assets of all kinds in improving life in poorer communities, which can be considerable, as we’ve seen from local initiatives during the pandemic and has been evidenced by research in the US.”

Prof. Crossick concluded that the big danger was that from early in the pandemic the cultural sector had focused on digital experiences and online substitution, proclaiming that this activity at home shows why arts and culture matter and proclaiming its positive impacts on health and wellbeing. This narrative was already visible before the pandemic – making the health and wellbeing of individuals the key benefit rather than the wider social benefits that have been disrupted over the last year or so. “My worry is that we will carry on talking like that in 2022 and 2023 and beyond. As (the pandemic) slowly lifts, we must enlarge our vision and see the value of culture in a much broader perspective, including one that builds on the communal and civic solidarities that we have all experienced over the last year”.

Dame Vikki Heywood is one of the most widely experienced cultural practitioners in the UK having led both the Royal Court Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. She previously chaired the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) and the 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions. She now chairs the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts and Festival UK 2022 as well as being a board member of the National Theatre.

Vikki began her remarks with a reflection on the importance of deep memory and shared experience.You know we love to go into dark spaces, or we did before the pandemic, and all sit together and have a collective experience, one that lasts a long time so we all feel like we have been through something. This makes us feel better.” It is about a sense “that we were there….that this place is ours. That it was special. That this is something that we have done together, and this is the something that unites us very powerfully…” This possibility disappeared overnight when the pandemic hit.  Its absence has caused us to think more deeply about what is really important and what we have been missing.

One side effect of this loss of connection had been that “suddenly the gap between the professional and the amateur disappeared overnight”: it now seemed irrelevant and unimportant. This in turn had fostered a moment in which a more democratic approach to creative production was in the air, harking back to the work of the Warwick Commission (2015), which had talked in terms of an ‘eco-system’ and reflected a conviction that everything creators do is part of an interdependent wider world.

Vikki continued by stating that in a more democratic world, cultural producers “must engage their audiences in the creation not just the observation of the work they were doing”, noting that this was, amongst other examples, the entire principle behind the creation of the National Theatre of Wales. She highlighted the success of “We’re here because we are here”, a UK-wide piece of public theatre involving 28 theatre companies, commissioned from Jeremy Deller as part of the 14-18 NOW programme of public art.

Featuring scores of actors dressed in full military uniform, this project had taken place on 1st July 2016 to commemorate the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest day in British military history. The impact of the project had been huge, Dame Vikki noted. In a subsequent YouGov poll 63% of the adult population of the UK (some 30 million people) said that they had connected with it, with two million seeing events first-hand and 30 million participating online. People still came up to her to talk about it, she said.

As chair of the governors of a drama school which had moved online within four weeks, creating and delivering degrees, Vikki believed it unlikely that we would go back entirely to old ways, observing that we were recasting the student learning experience, especially for those who might not have been able to participate before.

Similarly, enforced changes in cultural practice at the National Theatre were likely to be permanent. “If we make a production now what is embedded from the start is a conversation about how it will then go on to other platforms….I don’t think we now think as creatives of making one thing for one place in one sort of space.” Thinking about how work is created has “shot forward about 50 years” as a result of the pandemic, she said.

Thinking about the next calendar year and beyond, Vikki stressed that it would be important for creative people and organisations to find ways of helping the country to “reflect, to mourn and to memorialise, and generally to talk about what happened during the pandemic, because we haven’t been able to come together and do that properly yet, and we need to.” She reminded the audience that 2022 would be a big year for other reasons.

There would be the Commonwealth Games, around which a large cultural festival was being planned. There would also be the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. 2022 would also be a year of major anniversaries in the broadcasting industry, with celebrations marking the centenary of the BBC and fifty years of S4C and Channel 4.  We should also remind ourselves that Coventry’s year as the designated City of Culture had just begun in the most difficult of circumstances. So 2022 would be a year of pivotal moments.

This naturally led to Festival UK 2022, which Vikki chairs. This large-scale undertaking was definitely not going to be on a certain day, in a certain place and on a single platform, she said. Although detailed planning and development involving ten creative teams, selected after an exhaustive competitive process, was still under way, the brief was clear: to reach the entire population of the UK, that is 66 million people, and beyond to wider international audiences.

This was being achieved by establishing new forms of partnership and collaboration with teams working across the conventional disciplines of maths, science, technology, engineering and the arts.  Artists, scientists and technicians were being challenged to think about how most effectively to create mass participatory cultural projects “that celebrate the creativity within us all”.

Vikki concluded by expressing a hope and a conviction for 2022.  The hope was that there would be “a really coherent conversation about teaching the creative skills that we need in the UK for our creative economy to continue to thrive.” The conviction was that there would be a lot more participatory events across a wide range of creative sectors. Returning to her first point, she stressed that “community spirit and identity….is absolutely what happens when you get a group of people together and say this space is yours.”

Following these introductory provocations, Caroline Norbury led a discussion between the speakers and members of the online audience.

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