Response to Arts Council England's ‘Cultural Democracy in Practice’ report

The Movement for Cultural Democracy has now had the opportunity to consider the Arts Council commissioned report ‘Cultural Democracy in Practice’. It has done so with its members during its recent working sessions at The World Transformed in Liverpool and online.

We are agreed that the Arts Council report has almost nothing to say about Cultural Democracy – in practice, in principle or as public policy. It is a crude, historically whitewashed and politically inept attempt to co-opt to its own cause a long standing and now re-emerging strand of radical cultural debate, policy and practice that fundamentally challenges its record and its structure – particularly its use of lottery funding.

Unfortunately, for all its ambition the report is based on a fundamental category error that can be simply demonstrated.

The test that lets us know whether any cultural event is ‘Cultural Democracy in practice’ is to ask where the money/ resources that has enabled it came from and, equally importantly, who had the power to determine how and on what money was spent.

If the answer is that a particular grassroots community or group that is marginalised by current funding structures, professional bodies or elite arts organisations had the freedom to determine whether to spend the money/ use the resource on, or for, a range of possible cultural, political or democratic activities and chose freely to deploy that resource on these activities then we may be witnessing cultural democracy in practice.

If, however, the money, resources and power to define what constitutes culture and cultural democracy are located in a professional cultural organisation, or those selected without any kind of substantive democratic process by them, then we are witnessing something different. It is telling that the ‘guide is aimed principally at Chief Executives, boards and staff of arts organisations in the UK’ and that almost all the case studies represent the work of organisations in receipt of fairly substantial amounts of funding.

The report endlessly repeats the slippery assertion that ‘people and communities’ are at the heart of this or that project. It is laced with the new weasel words of ‘co-commissioning’, co-production’, ‘co-facilitation’ and ‘co-curation’ - terms designed to obfuscate the actual location of control of money, resources and process or, in other words, political, cultural and democratic power. Similarly, the suggestion that cultural democracy can be achieved through ‘Human Centered Design [sic]’ (as in the Creative People and Places case study) is entirely at odds with the very principles of cultural democracy. Its ‘iterative’, solution-focused process model reduces ideas gleaned from ‘target’ communities to ‘cheap, simple and usable’ prototypes that can be subjected to repeated ‘testing’.

The aforementioned examples (and there are many others we could have given) clearly indicate that the report distorts and dilutes the very ideas and ideals of cultural democracy it purports to promote. This is unsurprising given that nothing in the Arts Council’s history or its current manifestation suggests it is a competent body to take the agenda, policy or practice of cultural democracy forward.

Conversely, the Movement for Cultural Democracy is working for a genuinely transformative, radical, people-powered shift in cultural policy. It is not enough for the radical transformation of our cultural lives to be led by the narrowly defined and unrepresentative fields currently defined as UK arts and culture. We will therefore work to overcome attempts to appropriate the idea of cultural democracy, especially those made by undemocratic organisations and initiatives.

If Arts Council England is genuinely interested in cultural democracy, it must engage in democratic conversation rather than issuing ill-conceived missives that only serve to contradict and undermine the radically political project of cultural democracy. We are willing to engage in open conversations with the Arts Council and its agents about the urgent need for cultural democracy and await its response to our offer.