No Boundaries Condensed: State of the Arts

Do we need another symposium on art & culture in the 21st century? Yes we bloody do if No Boundaries is anything to go by. A fantastic two days. Brilliant speakers expressing coherent arguments with energy and passion. Presenting Google Goat Lady, Amazing Mayor Man, the T-Rex poet and many more surprises.

Having spent the last few months designing experiences for retail, it felt like coming home. Indeed, held simultaneously in Bristol and York, I travelled home from London to Bristol for No Boundaries, a State of the Arts conference produced by Watershed and family. A conference about doing, not funding.

The conference team practiced what they preached in content and form. Diversity and accessibility were writ large on the agenda. That means speakers – black, white, male, female, conservative, liberal, from the arts, games, theatre – and accessibility options – BSL sign language interpretation, live speech to text, a free online stream, responsive site…

In his opening address delivered on-screen to both venues, Dick Penney, Director of Watershed, reminded everyone this was a learning experience behind the scenes too. Coordinating live across two venues is very hard work. Innovation all round then.

A little on the format. Starting at 12:00 on the first day was a masterstroke; get the inbox cleared before 11, load up on coffee and start chatting with people. Between day one and two, a live-streamed party with DJs in York and Bristol alternating on the decks was bizarre but in the spirit of things. Finishing at 3 on the second day was another revelation; wind down, reflect, catch up on things.

Once accustomed to the sometimes clunky “Over to you in York…” exchanges, the combination of live and live-streamed presentations was curiously rewarding. The TED format didn’t allow for questions but the volume of speakers and breadth of opinion more than made up for it.

A little on the content. I can’t possibly summarise every excellent presentations, some of them the culmination of many decades of work in arts and culture. But the common ground, summarised further in our handy Twitter Poster, is distilled below.

Diversity, or We’re not there yet and we need to be

Jude Kelly, artistic director at Southbank Centre, reminded us that white male hegemony is systematic in the way we construct our culture. Art will be its own boundary if the same people control it.

The practical advice from Bigga Fish’s Nii Sackey is to employ one in five people under 25; young minds are natural organs of innovation. Only by getting “comfortable with our uncomfortableness” can organisations benefit through diversity. More Olympic ceremony, less Downton Abbey please. Margaret Heffernan reiterated that good chemistry is at the heart of the arts and this means working with people outside traditional channels.

Perhaps more a knowing provocation than realistic strategy, Kelly’s final rallying cry for arts organisations to play a significant role in formal arts education spoke to the enduring theme of the conference. The happiness, economic stability and social integrity of future generations, indeed the world itself, are inextricably linked with access to art and culture.

To be an immigrant is to view a culture from 40,000 feet, argued Kwame Kwei-Armah. In this and many other eloquent points, he consistently endorsed the value of diversity. Where cultural specificity may help a piece resonate locally, its soul is universal and therefore borderless. More to come on the value of the arts in crossing borders.

Youth, or Ignore us at your peril

The Library of Birmingham, the Lowry, Bigga Fish and a fast-talking, big-hitting 17 year old all spoke around the topic of youth. Where the latter was youth personified, the others outlined various strategies for bringing culture and young people together. Program WITH the people, not to them; talk WITH people, not to them; feedback (i.e. dialogue) is as important as the content itself; provide physical spaces to congregate; give young people the power to affect change themselves – they’re breaking boundaries online, argues Sophie Setter Jerome, try fueling that enthusiasm.

At weekends, 6,000 people attended the Nai Ni Who arts festival in Nairobi while 350,000 engaged online. Joy Mboya suggests this reflects the changing habits of a young city. In Nairobi, 70% are under 35, public space has all but disappeared and ‘culture’ isn’t fetishised quite like it is in the UK.

Value, or It’s not what you pay it’s what you receive

Vikki Heywood, Chair of RSA, states it loud and clear. Art is not extra, not a luxury; it is about wellbeing, learning to express emotions and understand the changing world around us.

We can sit back and wish Arts Council England the best of luck with their dossier on the value of the arts or, as Heywood argues, make sure artists are represented at board level throughout society. Embedding entrepreneurs in the other direction doesn’t play to anyone’s strengths.

More feather-ruffling came from Alex Fleetwood, formerly Hide & Seek, who wants to see funding mechanisms turned upside down. With quangos competing for their right to award grants, the system would be leaner and regeneration would be a more naturally occurring process.

Another model for valuing the arts: the curve! Or, free access for the majority, paid-for better access for the superfans. Or, make good stuff because people like good stuff and some people pay for better good stuff. Nicholas Lovell, the brains behind, was a much-needed pie-chart, bar-graph, number-crunching contrast to the more ethereal presentations.

Kwame Kwei-Armah finished his warming piece on value thus: art asks the big questions and makes political provocations without being like a hammer to the head. On a fundamental level art and culture is borderless. In a disintermediated, decentralised world it has a huge role to play but how to make this case to the money men? A book recommended by Russell Willis Taylor – Why Democracy Needs The Humanities

Borderless, or Local triumph global triumph

Three tales from three continents. In Christchurch, New Zealand, a theatre rises from the ashes, consolidating the local community and inspiring a global one. In New York, the 9/11 Memorial Museum will open soon, on the footprint of Tower 1. A museum born barely a decade after the event it records. And in Exeter, England, the Bike Shed Theatre; blossoming against all odds through brave programming, strong word of mouth and some hefty bar tabs in the adjacent cocktail tavern. There’s gold at the bottom of those martini glasses.

In the most popular and impassioned talk of the conference Benjamin Barber rallied against the privatisation of public space – Times Square, Piccadilly Circus – and how the arts are outmuscled by commercialisation. With the backdrop of culture as a borderless power for good, he proposes cities are forces for global change. Urban public goods are global public goods. Mayor George Ferguson, referring to Bristol’s propensity for street parties, talked about “opening a street, not closing a street” and is changing the signage accordingly.

The C word, or Share your way to sustainability

It is a muscle, says the wise and wonderful Russell Willis Taylor, and must be exercised. Where competition drives commerce, collaboration is the fuel of non-profits. In straightened times, collaboration is to culture what crack is to Walter White, an ideas lab for a meth lab, more sharing than scaring.

A metaphor I may have smoked dry, but collaboration came up a lot. Where money is scarce, it is the sector’s most potent resource. Before signing off, here is a great example (referenced a few times) of interdependent cultural collaboration: Newcastle Gateshead Cultural Venues.

And to finish, our latest Twitter Poster in our growing series of conference summaries. 140 characters never looked so good.

Download the hi-res version here


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