I went to a fascinating conference last week. Organised by the North East Social Capital Forum, 'Healthy, wealthy and wise' gave me lots to think about, both personally and professionally. Social capital is the relationships that bind us together and lead us to trust others around us - including those not in our direct networks. The arts can play a key role in building social capital - from two people singing or playing instruments together to huge gatherings like Glastonbury via the multitude of groups, societies and communal arts activities people take part in.
A number of speakers set out the potential benefits of social capital - which has been linked to creating the conditions for safe, creative economies to develop. (It can also be used for ill: bullying, racism and homophobia, for instance, rely on a form of social capital that excludes ‘the other’.) The keynote speaker was Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor who is a leading figure in this field. It's worth looking at his ideas, which have lots of relevance to those making arguments for the arts, or thinking how to develop engagement in the arts.
It can help to think what puts people off, as well as what attracts them to the arts as personal or social activity. (And of course the new digital social networks mean you can be private and social at once far more comfortably.) You can see some of the presentations (some of which suffered from that prevalent condition relianceonpowerpointitis) on the Community Foundation website.
My personal challenges? Well, if it's true that every 10 minutes of commuting by car reduces your likelihood of taking part in community activity by 10%, how do I find more time to get involved locally? And how many of my neighbours could I name? Not as many as I could when I worked shorter hours, from home, and picked the kids up from school. Conclusion: work gets in the way of social capital. Or substitutes one network for another with different effects.
I think arts organisations could think productively about how they encourage the building of social capital. Perhaps adapt some of the ideas on this website. (Rather folksy, maybe, and more suited to America than some other countries, perhaps, but adaptable.) Why don’t arts venues host blood donor sessions, for instance, for staff and local people? (Click here if that sounds like a good idea and you’re in the UK.) Could there be more discussions after shows, or open houses where people can simply meet staff? What kind of greeting do visitors get?
And of course, the conference gave me plenty to think about how the Arts Council could produce more interaction and trust. But I’ll come back to that.