The RSA and Arts Council England collaborated to produce the ‘State of the Arts’ conference last week – a long and packed day of presentation and discussion. We heard from both Jeremy Hunt and Ben Bradshaw, two very similar men to the naked eye. Bradshaw’s speech seemed to me to have a certain valedictory feel to it, Hunt was clearly trying to not to appear too cocky, but came across as passionate and open. Neither really broke any news, although Hunt’s proposition that emerging policy makers should aspire to have jobs at DCMS rather than, say, ACE, did make a small shudder run through the 500 plus crowd.
The sessions I attended varied in their impact. The session on business models had some interesting speakers – I wanted to go and work for Coney immediately, or at least volunteer for the Society of Codenames – but reinforced the need for more people in the sector who can frame a model, or a theory about how the sector actually functions. It only takes us so far to say ‘be great at what you do’. We need replicable models if we are to convince politicians and policy makers. (And voters too, actually.)
Highlights of the day were (therefore, I might almost add) the highly contrasting Helen Marriage and Bill Ivey. Helen Marriage spoke about the work of Artichoke in transforming cities – but only on a temporary basis. She made a sound argument for ‘the power of the temporary’ and the ‘cultural value of the merely spectactular’, based not just on what she’d seen work in London, Liverpool and Durham, but on how she thought that actually happened. She put together an argument for large-scale investment in the temporary in a way I’d never quite heard before, stronger for having what I can only a methodology behind it. And she ended by reciting a poem, which I always think is a good trick, though don’t all start doing it please, it’s one of my own favourite techniques.
Bill Ivey could learn a thing or two about powerpoint from some of the other speakers, but apart from that was really impressive in applying his ‘Expressive Lives’ thinking (see here for my thoughts on that) to the idea of a cultural bill of rights. Challenging and intellectually rigorous, the tone wasn’t quite maintained throughout the debate. The questions from the floor suffered from a kind of solipsism, a framing of things only within the arts. Freedoms of expression and of movement are not being restricted for artists because those people are artists primarily, but because of broader political issues. They can’t be addressed simply as artistic issues, but need to be put in a bigger context. But then the earlier discussion around whether artists could change society suggested a deal of nervousness about getting explicitly and deliberately political… For this reason, allied to my inate triviality, I therefore had the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy running through my head for the latter part of the day. (‘You gotta fight – for your right – to PAAA-RTY’ and ‘Party for your right to fight’ respectively.)
I believe there are already plans a foot to make this an annual event – we shall see in what roles Messrs Hunt and Bradshaw might be there. That's a really healthy thing, as this kind of serious discussion needs to happen on a regular basis, and be informed by more serious research and provocation.