Blog Post

Placing audiences at the centre


Justine Themen from the Coventry City of Culture team reflects on themes from People Place Power and the inextricable link between genuinely engaging communities and artistic excellence  

All our Tomorrows

Several people from the Coventry City of Culture team came to our People Place Power conference in Wolverhampton in June. Justine Theman, Associate Director of Belgrade Theatre and Community Engagement Lead for the successsful 2021 bid was one of them and here she reflects on the conference themes that resonated most.

The intriguingly named People Place Power conference was a great space for Coventry’s City of Culture team to reflect on the relationship between communities and creative programme as we consolidate foundations laid during the bid period and started to gear up for the arrival of our new Creative Director, Chenine Bhathena. During the bid period, there was a live tension between the desire to create great art that would attract national profile and the imperative to engage local communities sustainably and it was only in the late days of bid writing that we began to find consensus around this heated issue. In the less heated days after winning the title, the team has had time to develop its thinking about how to deliver to this dual goal of artistic excellence and social impact, to question whether there is actually a ‘dual’ goal’ and whether the two aren’t inextricably linked.  The central conference theme of placing audiences at the centre provided a number of useful provocations to develop thinking in this area:

Embedding engagement into everyday practice

Claire Doherty (Arnolfini), presented a useful provocation to cultural buildings, asking ‘how do we get past the model of engagement associates and participation practitioners being the social conscience of an organisation?’ Her answer was to no longer have an engagement team and to make engagement everyone’s responsibility; also to require of her full team that they spend 70% of their time out in the city they were servicing and only 30% in their offices. Claire’s thinking had been provoked by the specific context of the Arnolfini losing its Arts council funding and so is a response to her particular situation. But it provides a useful reference point for making community engagement everyone’s responsibility in our City of Culture - balancing up-skilling the team to make this a success with harnessing the significant expertise of Coventry’s engagement and participation practitioners. Furthermore, how do we use our specific context of the City of Culture to evolve the cultural organisations in our city so that their approach to engagement is changed beyond 2021?

Building more inclusive models of leadership

Asma Shah’s statement that when working in a cultural organisation, she ‘felt excluded, despite technically being on the inside’ adds urgency to this need to look again at how our cultural institutions are functioning.  How many women (particularly of colour), and by extrapolation other marginalised groups, have felt the same and left - setting up wonderful institutions outside of the mainstream structures (including Shah’s extraordinary You Make It), but also leaving the mainstream structures to continue to largely reflect the values of the white cisgender able-bodied patriarchy. Creative People and Places programmes model alternative leadership structures - and as Mark Robinson (Thinking Practice) points out, ‘there is statistical evidence for inclusive leadership building to inclusive audiences - control can lead to relevance and a desire to co-create, which can lead to connections, skills and capacity, which can build confidence - spinning the wheel and spinning the wheel as fast as possible is the name of the game’. So, in structuring our delivery model, how do we build a more inclusive leadership model in the City of Culture Trust, but also in how we collaborate with our cultural organisations, artists and communities, so recognising that we all play our part in a cultural ecosystem, without one player being more important than another?

Creating the conditions for a better ‘balance of stories’

So might these be the ideal conditions that Jeannette Bain-Burnett (Greater London Authority) spoke of that might ‘enable more people to tell their stories’?  She proposed the use of the word ‘balance’ in place of the word ‘diversity’, following Chinua Achebe’s call for a ‘balance of stories’. In a context where ‘diverse’ is increasingly used to mean ‘BAME’, instead of what it actually means, ‘variety’, using ‘balance’ is perhaps a useful way of ensuring that underrepresented work is embraced as part of a more wholistic dialogue, rather than being once more cut free from the mainstream. So as some ‘build-up events’ are programmed by a predominantly white team and we begin to see how easy it is to present an imbalance of stories when under the pressure of delivery, what more collaborative leadership structures and greater diversity of staff team do we need to get in place to ensure the holy grail of balance?

Defining excellence

Somewhere underneath all of this, was the also the vague whiff of the tension between ‘intrinsic’ and ‘instrumental’. There was talk of ‘the need to demonstrate social benefit, but also artistic and aesthetic benefit’, but it is hard to unpick the distinction as it is surely the power of the artistic, the aesthetic, that brings about change. Of course, you can have process-driven work where the social impact is extraordinary and the artistic product not fully formed (high social impact, low aesthetic), but I would argue that this is a by-product of a long-term undermining of entitlement and a lack of resource - people know instinctively if they are looking at / involved in making something that is good - and the impact is proportionate. As Moira Sinclair (Paul Hamlyn Foundation) said ‘Art changes people and people change the world’, whilst Stella Duffy (Fun Palaces) refuses ‘to justify excellence in the context of a white male frame that has been developed 50-60 years ago - if we don’t acknowledge this, we’ll never be diverse - it’s not all wrong, but it's not all right’. 

We talk perhaps more about social change when we discuss the need to broaden the reach of the arts, to ensure that people from all backgrounds have the opportunity to both create work and to engage with it as audiences. But we shouldn’t allow this talk of / need for social change, nor the impact art can have socially, to infer that the art created is of any less significance, value or excellence. 

The conference kicked off with the inspiring Jessica Thom, an artist with Tourette’s Syndrome, who advocates tirelessly for (her) difference being a source of creativity. Doubtless diversifying the artists on our stages, in our galleries, will challenge our perceptions of people considered to be ‘different’, but this doesn’t per se diminish the aesthetic value of the work. As Jess says, ‘Tics are my power, not my limitation’. As we consider how to achieve the step-changes outlined in our bid (culture driving the economy, building bridges across difference, reducing inequalities, promoting health and wellbeing), how can we build on the excellent practice of Creative People and Places programmes to bring together the best artists with cutting-edge models for collaborating with communities?

Digital engagement for Empathy, Purpose and Truth

Jane Finnis from Culture 24 made an impassioned call for cultural organisations to use digital engagement to promote citizenship and complexity. This felt intriguing as digital content seems so often to oversimplify or flatten distinctiveness. Finnis talked of how there was space in the digital arena for the arts to provide complex narrative beyond the simplified narratives of, say, radicalisation; or to help find ‘truth’ in a world of ‘fake news’. The opportunity to engage Coventry citizens in telling stories and stimulating debate through digital media feels exciting - as well as being a potential route into interaction through ‘live’ art.

Relinquishing Power

But to share air space, to share power, with the diversity of communities that make up UK society, inevitably means that some people have to talk less, to relinquish some power. And even at the conference itself there was an underrepresentation of people from BAME communities or people with disabilities; and ongoing power imbalances in some of the forum discussions. Some proposals to address this included asking those with the power (often white, middle-class men) to acknowledge their power as a step to starting to share it; or refusing to go onto boards that weren’t diverse in their representation. It is one of the big lessons we are encouraged to learn in childhood - how to share - but what we seem to be adept at is looking like we’re sharing when we’re not . . .

Looking back on the conference, there is huge excitement in the team that we have such a richness of work to build on to create a UK City of Culture that genuinely engages with its communities whilst also creating work that is both excellent and provocative. But alongside this there is an awareness that there is still so much work to be done - not least ensuring that the learning emerging from the Arts-Council-funded Creative People and Places programme is fed through into the wider sector, particularly into our large-scale cultural organisations. Coventry has a huge opportunity in 2021, but it also has a huge challenge . . . 

Justine Themen, Associate Director Belgrade Theatre
Executive Group / Community Engagement Lead Coventry 2021 Bid

Photo by Nicola Young