Turning Vision into Strategy.

In February, a Cultural Strategy – placing culture and creativity at the heart of Lincolnshire – was launched at the National Centre for Craft and Design.  The document drew on discussions with over 200 business leaders, political stakeholders, creative artists, organisations and others.  It sets out cultural challenges, maps existing excellent activity and suggests actions to truly embed culture across our county. There are five key themes contained within it; Children and Young People, Creative Talent Development, Participation and Wellbeing, Supporting the Economy and Strengthening Communities.

A lot of detailed work has gone into its creation. However more needs to be done before it can truly be a tangible strategy for developing the themes rather than a visioning document that sets out simply what could be possible.  I think it’s a better start than we’ve had for years.  But, there needs to be real ownership and leadership to drive through the excellent work done to date and turn it into action; action that delivers fundamental change to people’s lives and perceptions of the wider value of culture and to Lincolnshire as a place where culture drives growth. The sector as a whole needs to own the strategy, but leadership needs to come from a single place. Currently it’s not 100% clear where that leadership will come from.  The document was commissioned by Lincolnshire County Council, so should they drive the sector to deliver?

It comes at a pivotal period for the development of culture in Lincoln. The County Council has made fundamental changes to the way heritage services are going to be delivered in the future.  Venues continue to explore how to co-exist in a small city facing significant challenges in the coming years. At the small scale, we continue to see a growth in the desire to make Lincoln home for a raft of emerging artists, aligned to a perception of lack of career opportunities and pathways.

As traditional funding sources for arts and culture continue to face significant reductions, the need for innovative business models, finding ways to inspire the business community to invest meaningfully in the value of culture and creativity to produce and retain their workforce for the future is more crucial than ever. Engaging with our audiences is also key.  It has never been more necessary to encourage more people in our communities to take part in what we do, alongside inspiring those that already do buy tickets to do so more regularly.  In order to do this we need to work collaboratively with our audiences to help shape our programmes, retaining the exciting breadth alongside entry route activity.

Communication and coordination are going to be fundamental. In the last two years, there has been a noticeable growth in bigger commercial artists being presented in larger outdoor spaces at higher ticket prices.  In the coming months, The Human League, Razorlight, Bill Bailey and Billy Ocean to name but a few will perform at venues such as Lincoln Castle and Lincolnshire Showground.  More organisations than ever are offering audiences ways to engage with the arts.

One strategy that I see as key to ensure that culture becomes embedded in the daily lives of individuals, businesses, education providers and others is ensuring that all of this activity becomes an ecology that feeds each other rather than trampling across each other.

The rise in large scale commercial concerts and gigs fills an existing gap in provision. But does it feel part of a wider strategy to embed culture in people’s lives across the city or is there a danger that it could squeeze out small scale work, chances for emerging artists to engage audiences? We need to remember the socio-economic demographics of our city and county.  Does someone paying £100 for a couple of tickets to see a high profile popstar do that instead of other performance they might see, or as well as?

Strategy needs to ensure the growth in high profile and high priced populist events as part of an artistic or cultural journey for an audience that encourages more cultural engagement rather than one off occasional interventions.  We need to collaborate with commercial promoters to ensure that those attending Billy Ocean feel inspired to engage regularly with the wider city culture rather than disappearing until the next big music act appears.

Strategy needs to coordinate activity better.  Bringing arts and entertainment providers together regularly to discuss plans, to try and coordinate programming so we can try to grow audiences for each of our offer, rather than competing for the same group. That could be better use of shared programming calendars, most radically, could it see one programming team servicing multiple spaces?  Possibly?

Venues often struggle for audiences for theatre as there is a significant gap in that provision.  I believe that Lincoln has to some extent lost that culture of theatre going in great numbers. But the choice that they have is interesting.  A lot of new theatre and performance currently being made is devised, collaborative, multi artform, experimental and/or issue based.  It can be truly inspiring, innovative and interesting.  However, there is very little work being made that can act as a springboard between not going to the theatre at all or immediately taking a risk with something edgy, risky or unknown. A colleague of mine recently commented that programming Pride and Prejudice is as risky as new writing.

It’s unsurprising that in recent years Lincoln Cathedral has seen fantastic audiences for Jesus Christ Superstar and this year Jekyll and Hyde.  The venue provides a breathtaking experience and the titles provide some guarantee to audiences that they will have a good time for the money spent on tickets.  Again though, a proper cultural development strategy should include plans on how to use those successes to encourage wider engagement with other theatre across the city throughout the year rather than once a year.

There is no quick solution to this.  Lincoln is a wonderful, dynamic city that is growing in contemporary culture alongside traditional heritage.  Our audiences deserve a more joined up approach to what is offered to them.  Lincolnshire’s Cultural Strategy provides a starting point and some signposts for success.  Major stakeholders need to deliver the leadership for the good of the entire sector.