“Do something utterly different from your day job, when will you get this chance again?”, the wise words of my friend Jonny, travelling with me on the journey of self-discovery that is the Clore Fellowship. My day job is curator of Wakehurst, Kew’s wild botanic garden. It involves plants, seeds, horticulture, woods, meadows and occasionally sheep. What challenge could drag me out of my comfort zone and teach me something new?
When I first spoke to Jo Hunter, I was posed a question: what did cultural democracy mean to me? I thought I knew this one, it’s about giving people more access to the arts and encouraging participation, isn’t it? Superficially yes, encouraging more people to experience the arts is a great thing, but it’s not cultural democracy. The penny dropped when Jo challenged me to forget about the end product ‘give control and responsibility to the participants, let their creative experience be the thing that matters’.
I was excited, the idea of sharing power and responsibility was a tantalising thought, a natural way for big institutions to evolve and give themselves relevance and new connections to a fast-changing society. With funding in place from Arts Council England, Jo and I would try to define cultural democracy through the people doing it, creating a practical ‘how-to’ guide for anyone keen to learn more or change how they work. My challenge, to do something utterly different, was on.
Over the last 6 weeks, I’ve spoken to museum directors, theatre CEOs, dramatists, pub managers and artists about cultural democracy, why they do it and the results. I’ve been inspired by co-produced new galleries in Derby, electrifying plays penned by 10 year olds in King’s Cross and theatres offering their spaces to anyone wanting a stage in Coventry. I’ve seen directors of cultural institutions step back from their traditional role of ‘leading with big ideas’, acting instead as facilitators and guides. Our cultural democracy report will celebrate empowerment, everyday creativity and the immense value of shifting power from leaders to participants, I hope you’ll find it an inspiring read.
The report was commissioned by Arts Council England and will be published in July.