What Next for North East arts & culture? Democracy NOT technocracy

WP_20151211_14_12_09_Pro I went along to What Next? Newcastle Gateshead's The future of culture in the North East: What, Who, When? event at Dance City in Newcastle last Friday (11th December 2015).  I have been attending some of their weekly meetings and have felt that, like the North East Cultural Partnership, the agendas are always set and dominated by large arts institutions.  The afternoon's events led me from optimism (at Chi Onwurah's honest and engaging opening speech) to sarcasm to disappointment to angry dejection.  This blog is a brief attempt at a catharsis of sorts.

Let's quickly frame proceedings.

The event was described as follows:

How culture is thought about and delivered regionally and nationally is undergoing profound changes.  It is a crucial time to understand what these changes are, who is responsible for them and what they will mean.

What Next? Newcastle Gateshead has invited key regional and national policy makers to share their perspectives on the future of cultural policy, programmes, structures and resources in the North East.

What Next? Newcastle Gateshead’s The future of culture in the North East: What, Who, When? offers everyone working in or interested in culture in the region the opportunity to learn more and consider the future together.

Quite clearly a policy-heavy meeting then.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Depends how such an event is curated and how capable the speakers are at addressing a mixed audience that included many non-policy wonks or arts management geeks.  Oh, and there were artists there too; quite a lot of artists.

The event also had a strong focus on the impacts of impending regional devolution on arts and culture.

At the start of the event we were told that the eight speakers would each talk for 10 minutes with breaks at appropriate moments.  I think that must have meant breaks because the event proceeded non-stop into what quickly became a barrage of tedious presentations interspersed with pre-selected "questions" mainly delivered by people from "senior" positions within the local arts and culture sector.

The exception was Chi Onwurah, the first speaker, local Labour MP and Shadow Minister for Culture.  Chi was down-to-earth and honest about the role of policy and (perhaps more pertinently) politics within both local and national situations.  She was critical of Tory cuts to local government and emphasised the need for a rebalancing of funding.  She also seemed to recognise that there must be a balance between big name cultural attractions and grassroots cultural activities for everyone.  'I've never been a culture professional,' she said at the start of her talk.  Hurray - thank goodness!  (I thought.)

The rest of the presentations were from the DCMS, CCS, ACE, Heritage Lottery, NECP, NECA, NELEP.  Look them up.  I won't describe each presentation as that's not the point of this post.  Let's just say that it was pretty much (although in the cases of Pauline Tambling and Jane Tarr not entirely) text book stuff.

So what was wrong?  Well, for me, the future of culture in the North East can be summed up as NOT THIS - something far less bureaucratic and at times dictatorial!

Now my own feelings (perhaps a rant of sorts)...

The event was, for me (and many other artists, freelancers and Artists Union England members present), a very difficult experience; akin to ACE RFO/ local council meetings of 10 years ago.  What Next? Newcastle Gateshead for some unknown reason constructed one of the worst conference formats I've ever known and the speakers (excepting Chi) were dismal to the point of embarrassing.  They lacked contexts outside of their own fields of "expertise", completely failed to provide any provocations or critical thinking or theoretical backgrounds or arguments.  The summing up at the end was simply belittling, biased and incorrect.  Some responses to questions were deeply arrogant and dismissive to the point of offensiveness.  We (the audience) had little chance to interact other than with the panel at the end.

This could have been so different.  A chance to open up discussions about potentialities where new ideas could be proposed and disagreements aired.  Policy can be interesting but this bombardment reinforced the gulf between many of those who "make" policy "for" others and the rest who are all too often forced to comply.

Instead, this event revealed the divide decisively.  THEY pat backs and smirk at their dominance. "ONE VOICE," they chant - message betraying their authoritarianism. THEIR technocratic language kills creative thoughts; stifles our sector.  Artists are barely ever mentioned other than under the apparent new descriptors: Micro Enterprises or Micro Businesses.  WHAT?  This is ludicrous.  Another perhaps inevitable consequence of the creeping neoliberalism ushered in with New Labour before becoming cast concrete in the recent "shift" to an all-encompassing "The Creative Industries".  There is something deeply worrying when WE are told by THEM that there MUST be consensus; there MUST be one voice.  A threateningly authoritarian tone.  Who's voice will this "one voice" represent?  What's wrong with many voices rather than the falseness of univocal communication?  For me, disagreement is good - sometimes.  Consensus always favours the strongest, most powerful voices.

So, if the future of North East culture is consensus, I fear that the voices of artists, collectives, small organisations and people interested (or not) in arts and culture will be squashed under the thumb of those who wish to protect their positions of power within our deeply unequal cultural sector.  I'm not sure What Next? (Nationally or Newcastle Gateshead) offers any future potentialities outside of the narrow and nepotistic status quo falsely constructed by New Labour.  THINGS CAN ONLY GET BETTER become THINGS ARE FAR, FAR WORSE!  We know THEIR game: "Partnerships" construct jobs for friends and old acquaintances/ colleagues; monopolistic practices; platitudes for the rest!  Nonsense.  Thinly veiled arrogance. NO!

Let's fight this sh*t.  Now!  We risk a devolved future even less democratic than the totally administered centralist system we unfortunately navigate today...