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‘Cultivating Culture’ was the title of a symposium organised under the auspices of Birmingham City Council, which took place on Tuesday 18th March 2014 at the new Library of Birmingham.

The day was a chance to reflect on the provision of arts in Birmingham and in particular on Local Arts Forum (LAF) development in the city and its Arts Champion Scheme, both of which have relevance for our project and activities in Balsall Heath in particular. In addition, Phil Jones had been asked to make a presentation on our work on cultural intermediaries.

Birmingham’s LAFs were set up in each city district by BCC’s Culture Commissioning service between April 2011 and March 2012. The aim of the scheme is to bring together individual artists and local arts organisation, education providers and community groups with an initial brief to organise public meetings, audit cultural infrastructure and to build a contact database for cultural workers. The brief has developed over the last year in tandem with the Arts Champion Scheme.

Indicative of the straightened times, funding for these activities has been miniscule yet the very existence of such initiatives testifies to a continuing faith in cultural provision as well as a desire or need to support the well established cultural infrastructure of the city (see illustration in link below). Indeed Ginnie Wollaston, Culture Officer of BCC’s Culture Commissioning Service described many in the audience as ‘fed-up’ yet ‘brave’ for their perseverance in the face of current pressures and their dedication to the value of culture.

Arts Champion Scheme

Faith and the missionary zeal for the value of cultural projects and participation (as well as issues of ‘nourishment’ and well being), particularly amongst the economically disadvantaged were familiar refrains heard across the day. Indeed, it was a rich day for those of us from the project who were present (Jones, Saskia Warren, Dave O’Brien) for the occasional discussion of notions of ‘hard to reach’ communities. That such discussions took place between a sizable assembly of arts administrators, artists, community leaders and local policy makers allows for a sense of ethnographic observation regarding the dispositions of the very intermediaries whose work is the object of our study.

Derry: City of Culture 2013

The day was organised into a series of presentations for the first half followed by ‘break-out’ sessions later in the afternoon. The first keynote speaker of the day was Claire McDermott, Cultural Programmer for Derry’s UK City of Culture tenure of 2013.

Something of the potentially high stakes game of culture was conveyed in McDermott’s presentation – illuminating the economic hopes for such initiatives as well as the potential impact of policy on the lived culture of communities like Derry. Of course, what is at stakes is underlined by the fact that in instance a representative of the ‘winners’ was addressing those of a losing bid in the City of Culture round and points of comparison and practical instruction were a focal point.

As is often the case in such instances, we heard a lot about the many interesting things that had taken place – from running competitions to a massed choir of Orphan Annie – and the quantitative evaluation of Derry’s year of events. However, direct comparisons and lessons are hard to draw. For instance, Derry spent around £20m on its programmes compared with Brum’s positing of a headline £121m budget for culture and development (of which £100k is actually for for Culture & Commissioning, £45k for community arts for instance). Derry’s population of around 100k souls is barely that of one of Birmingham’s wards. Furthermore, cultural differences in Derry based on historical/religious traditions meant that the very use of UK in the project title of Capital of Culture was tendentious (Londonderry is of course the city’s official name, Derry the preference of nationalists ): in previous bids in his category Birmingham’s champions have advertised its cultural variety as a basis for its added value and attractions.

McDermott was candid and insightful regarding some of the challenges of Derry’s year, whether in the form of local cynicism to how some initial promises had failed to materialise – largely in terms of financial support for arts organisations. Of particular attention here was a digital history project that she identified as one initiative that had not been fully realised and which fed broader questions about the legacy of the kinds of cultural intermediation represented on the large-scale of the City of Culture. Likewise, and balancing the emphasis on ‘leadership’ manifest in so much of the discourse of intermediaries and policy makers evidenced early in the day, McDermott framed some important ideas about the democratic entitlement of communities. Positioned as consumers or co-creators of cultural work, a priority for Derry’s activity aimed to develop autonomy and empowerment amongst communities in terms of their participation in City of Culture developments. Such ideas were clearly manifest in some of BCC’s current small-scale endeavours and resulting projects and of course resonate with our research as it aims in the next work package of enabling arts commissioning in Balsall Heath and Ordsall by community members.

Soap Box

The morning also featured several ‘Soap Box’ presentations including one from Sheila Arthurs of Active Arts of Birmingham’s Castle Vale area. Castle Vale is an interesting reference point for how cultural activity has played a part in local regeneration initiatives – in this case where the declining quality and reputation of a post-war estate have been overturned by community engagement. Arthurs offered an impassioned testimony of her own tenacity in engaging her fellow residents to get involved and to produce the kinds of cultural work that were on show across the event. Here, I think that Arthurs’ authenticity and connectivity to place and its lived culture carried a different weight to those who come from without of such geographies. Such presentations are heartfelt and whatever ways in which we approach questions of value and meaning in cultural intermediation, they are tangibly affective evidence of the passions such work capitalises on and is felt to evince in participants.

Cultural Pilots

The next session surveyed the pilot programmes of the LAF’s across the Birmingham areas of Castle Vale, Shard End and Balsall Heath. Our research team pinpointed the first two areas as the possible sites for case studies in the current work package investigating community responses to cultural intermediation. Of course, we have decided upon Balsall Heath for our investigations and it was both stimulating and challenging to consider the evidence before us. LAF work is well known to us, as is a wider variety of activity which underpins the manner in which Balsall Heath represents a site where a lot of policy and practice has been enacted.

An apparent challenge was presented for us in consideration of the fact that local company Merida Associates are conducting an evaluation of the impact of the variety of pilots. As Karen Garry of Merida revealed, the research will be published in May and will add to our variety of materials to consider ‘in the round’ of activities, some of which are emerging (or not) in our pilot interviews in the area as points of discussion. It would have been valuable to explore how our research diverges from that of Merida and the servicing of BCC expectations. Likewise, we might have explored the politics of our approach that mean that we are not seeking to repeat impact research or track individual projects within the lineaments of policy discourse and its rationalisation.

Whatever opportunity might have been missed on this occasion, the nature and integrity of academic research was outlined by Phil Jones as a conclusion to this session. In these circumstances this proved to be a useful means of attracting local attention for our project and inviting comment on themes that emerged on the day such as the nature of the ‘hard to reach’ and cultural value.

Certainly, the interest in our work was also couched in some comment from the floor on communications across the local cultural scene, between organisations and policy makers about their work and with audiences too.

Further points about communication and a familiar aspect of conceptual confusion was brought home by an impassioned request from one participant for more activity in the city based on Bollywood dancing. As a representative from one organisation pointed out not only is there regular programming of such dance across venues, there was actually a wealth of specialised activity organised last year – the centenary of Bollywood film. To my mind, these exchanges raised questions about the degree to which any one individual – whether a full-time cultural worker, or an audience member – is able to keep track of what is in effect a vibrant scene of cultural programming of some variety, some of which takes place in spite of a lack of funding. The digital world is one means of advertising the fact that so much takes place in a city the size of Birmingham that it would be a full time job to keep up with it. Whatever the complaints about what appears to be lacking, from one perspective such individuals sound like malcontents who might be failing to appreciate what it means to live in a modest utopia.

Break out

The afternoon saw several break out groups concerned with ‘Empowering individuals and groups – creative leadership opportunities’ (concerning the development of local leadership in the arts; ‘Branding Local Arts – finding the local appeal’ (challenging perception of arts activities in city wards where projects already exist); ‘Building partnerships and collaborations – local to global’ (concerning how to overcome a local lack of infrastructure in order to connect Arts Champion offers with the ambitions of residents). Then there were the two in which I participated: ‘Capturing the local – making it resonate’ which explored how venues connect with areas in which they are not based and ‘Responding to diverse communities and inclusive agendas’ which explored how to overcome ‘cultural barriers of perception’ in order to develop intergenerational and family audiences.

Each explored session themes via presentations from four arts organisations or their representatives. Time prevents an overly detailed outline of the many interesting accounts and personalities present but I was particularly interested in how the Town Hall and Symphony Hall (THSH) had developed a virtual project to explore memories of the legendary rock venue Mothers.

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This project resonates with this researcher as the heritage aspects of popular music are an area of specialisation and I was intrigued to discover how the project had created little wooden artefacts in which to house and display MP3 players with some of the accrued testimony (pictured). I was not surprised to find that one or two of these artefacts had disappeared: if there is one thing worth knowing about the canonisation of pop culture as heritage it is that original, and reproduction artefacts are totemic and highly treasured.

Elsewhere, an account from Erdington Arts Café revealed how, in this Northern ward of the city, there were few venues where cultural events could be programmed although there was a wealth of amateur and ‘off the radar’ activity taking place. As someone with a keen interest in the amateur and informal aspects of cultural work this insight proved tantalising and I am eager for more data about the extent of this activity.

Across other discussions I was taken with a reflection from a representative of the Birmingham Rep theatre concerning how so many people within walking distance of the venue rarely attended. Some of the issues impacting on this locality – around the edge of the glittering Broad Street entertainment strip – are explained in part by high levels of deprivation. The nature of relations between institution and locality was further underlined and explored for him by Rep activities at a local hospital in search of families to recruit as audiences. Underwhelmed by the lack of response to the cultural institution amidst the rather vibrant regular business of the hospital this representative gained some kind of enlightenment from his colleagues in health when he discovered that a significant proportion of hospital users were non-English speakers, a fact that impacted on wider average measures of literacy amongst the recruits they sought to enlist. When it comes to definitions of ‘hard to reach’ and assumptions about the need for cultural participation, such factors barely touched upon the kinds of challenges faced by such organisations – for their outreach projects and indeed for their very conceptual basis and faith in the transmission of Culture.

Across these two break-out sessions there was much discussion of the audience and a challenge to the idea of ‘hard to reach’, of who and what this term was meant to describe and in fact whose responsibility it was for being ‘hard to reach’ at all. In tandem there was discussion of the distance described in such terms between those who ‘have’ culture and those who may be without it, which, as we explored (and as Raymond Williams noted) reduces the category to a formulae. Nonetheless, others reflected on the difficulties of cultural work with the ‘hard to reach’, of the cynicism, rejection and sometimes outright hostility to the kinds of projects with which they have sought to engage communities.

In turn, these sessions gave way to some final performances that made use of the Library of Birmingham’s elegant ‘rotunda’ space. These involved the choirs Ex Cathedra and So Vocal as well as poetry from Amera Saleh and Joe Cook of Beatfreeks as well as the current Poet Laureate of Birmingham Jo Skelt. A fittingly cultural turn at the end of day of reflections on cultural work.

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Finally

As a veteran of such events it was a pleasant surprise to find that it was both focussed and marshalled evidence from participants in order to direct discussion in meaningful and provocative ways. While there was much for us as researchers to connect with in terms of project themes, there was a wealth of insight that inevitably escaped: many threads might have resulted in further productive discussion. For instance, an issue that emerged for anyone with a perspective on the day overall concerned the intense localism of cultural work in each of Birmingham’s wards and how a missionary zeal for meaningful activity and structure was the object of so much activity. There are particular reasons for this approach given the nature of ‘barriers to participation’ for so many in a city of the size of Birmingham and the logistics of its geography. On the other hand, such devolution poses familiar questions about the quality and ambition of cultural provision for a city like Birmingham and the possibilities of trompe l’oeil projects that look outward as well as inward in bringing together communities rather than running a risk of confirming their separateness – even at the level of the post code.

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