The Warwick Commission Report – A Timely Manifesto?

Over the years I have worked in the arts it has sometimes felt that national media coverage of the arts in terms of policy and sector development usually only makes national outlets when Arts Council is about to announce, or has announced its latest round of funding decisions.  So I was heartened last week to see some national debate on the arts attempted in the media.

Front Row on Radio 4 broadcast an arts funding debate from Hull at the beginning of last week.  More memorable for the misunderstanding of what the big blue cock on the 4th plinth at Trafalgar Square actually was rather than the depth of debate (Even the economist on the panel didn’t always take the polar opposite view or create real contention), it was however a high profile debate about the value of the arts in modern society and took the conversation beyond the merely financial.

BBC4 broadcast an Arts Question Time on Sunday.  I was disappointed by this. Maybe working in the sector I’ve just heard the arguments a lot before, but there was no real contention, either between panellists or audience despite Jeannette Winterson giving it her best shot.  I’m not sure what anybody really learned from either debate, but the simple fact that they happened is to some extent a positive.

Another rarity occurred last week, a significant speech on the arts from the leader of a political party.  Ed Miliband spoke at the Battersea Arts Centre about putting the arts back at the heart of government policy. He spoke of giving all young people a cultural education, and intriguingly suggesting that he will set up a Prime Minister’s Committee on Arts, Culture and The Creative Industries with membership drawn from across the country and with people from all backgrounds.

Also last week, The Warwick Commission report Enriching Britain: Culture Creativity and Growth was published.  Now this is a fascinating document, a call to arms built upon five main goals for securing the long term sustainability of the sector.  Whilst I can’t help but think that some of these are a reiteration of things that the sector has always felt important and always will do, it was important to see them laid out not just with the challenge facing the sector but a series of recommendations for Government, funders and most importantly the sector itself.

And another reason that this piece of work could be fundamental to our future is that it was specifically referenced in all of those events mentioned above.

The report frames the future of Arts and Culture under the banner of an eco-system to reflect a dynamic flow and exchange between different parts of the cultural and creative industries.  The goals themselves are surely within reach:  Stronger cultural wellbeing and economic growth, production and consumption of arts and culture to be an entitlement for and enjoyed by the whole population, a world class creative and cultural education, a thriving digital culture and a vibrant creative life at local and regional levels that expresses community identity.

I am particularly pleased to see Cultural Education within this.  There is a wealth of evidence for how the arts impacts across whole curriculum areas and how cultural engagement can lift attainment in other subjects.  I have long been concerned about the marginalisation of the arts in the curriculum in many schools so this is great news.

I am also glad to see the recommendation for joined up policy making across government departments, seeking a holistic plan to deliver investment in sustained creative and economic success, alongside targeted investment in research and development.  This is all good stuff.

I am keen to ensure that the diversity of audiences and the workforce, whilst an obvious and on-going challenge allows for local context.  The report states that the 8% wealthiest, better educated and least ethnically diverse of the population accounts for at least 28% of live theatre attendance and 44% of live music attendance according to the taking part survey as just two examples.

There is an obvious imbalance here that the sector needs to address.  I do believe that a targeted approach needs to be adopted taking into account local need.  In an interview in The Stage last week Indhu Rubasingham suggested that we need to look closer at the word ‘Diversity’ as it is often used to refer simply to racial cultural diversity. Her focus as Artistic Director of The Tricycle Theatre is also around class and the role income plays in an ability to engage.

I’d agree with that as a priority for arts development in Lincoln. A particular challenge that needs addressing is the age diversification of our population, with recent reports highlighting large increases of up to 49% in 18-24 year olds moving to our city.  Nearly a third of the City’s population is aged between 15-29 years old.  There are also a relatively high number of wards in the city that fall within the highest percentage in multiple indices of deprivation lists, including the one in which our venue is based.  Therefore our current equalities plan at Lincoln Drill Hall focuses on age and socio-economic factors as two of our key development areas.

I’m also really delighted to see the role of community and place making as a key driver of this document.  Our venue is in the heart of our city.  It has developed over 125 years and served a range of purposes from army training venue to makeshift hospital, music venue to the building where wrestling took place.  But it is as an Arts Centre that we are known and loved. The report states that The challenge for the arts, culture and heritage sectors is to bring people from communities together in ways that reflect their expressions of identity and creative aspiration in a manner that can have a lasting impact upon that local society. Among the recommendations are requirement for arts organisations to forge links with schools and higher education providers and to offer their communities shared gathering spaces.  We recognise this and are looking to develop and build on our wider cultural engagement.  Beer Festivals, Seed Swap events and Vintage Fairs bring more people to share in our venue. The arts will always be at the heart of what we do, but we recognise the need to build that wider cultural identity.

The Warwick Commission report has come at a good time for my work.  We are heading into a period of review and development at The Drill Hall regarding our mission and long term artistic and business strategy. Alongside local reports such as Lincoln Drivers and other national Manifestos such as Achieving Great Art For Everyone, The Warwick Commission Report can help shape and guide our thinking on priorities for the future.  The sector should welcome and embrace it.