What is that special quality that the arts bring to our civic and civil society? This is the key question the UK Branch of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is asking through our new Inquiry into the Civic Role of Arts organisations. The answer will enable us to support arts organisations to play an even bigger civic role. It will help us to achieve the Foundation’s overall vision of a society which is sustainable and offers equality of opportunity. So why do we think the issue important and why do we feel we are well placed to help provide the answers?
Patterns of arts consumption are changing driven, in part, by technology. People want more and more to be treated as citizens not just audiences or customers. They have higher expectations about how they engage with those who produce art and there is a blurring of the boundaries between different art forms. Alongside this, there is growing disillusionment with conventional political processes, the development of innovative ways of engaging the public in other areas of our social and public life and an increased focus on leadership both at a community level and beyond. Funding constraints have stimulated a debate about the responsibilities public and philanthropic funding brings with it and who arts organisations believe to be their beneficiaries in a world which is increasingly diverse and fragmented.
‘Funding constraints have stimulated a debate about the responsibilities public and philanthropic funding brings with it.’
Are we well placed to provide the answers? Well, being an independent foundation allows us to helpfully do what publicly funded organisations cannot.
The UK Branch is proudly part of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation with its headquarters in Lisbon, Portugal. Some describe us as a laboratory: kicking off thinking and incubating new ways of doing things. Like many endowed foundations, the privileged financial position our parent affords us enables us to think longer-term. We are grateful in the UK for that covenant.
Our being part of a large European foundation gives us an international perspective that some others don’t have: looking to Portugal for where we can help make a difference and drawing inspiration from further afield. A good deal of the inspiration for our current grant-making to support participatory arts comes from Brazil. We’ve been inspired by examples such as the Brazilian theatre director Marcus Faustini’s A Agencia in which young people come together and, through theatrical techniques, are supported to develop creative and social micro-enterprises. With our support, Battersea Arts Centre in London is working with Contact Theatre to adapt, test and spread this interesting model across the UK.
In the UK and in Portugal, the Foundation has a track record of publishing influential reports and influencing wider policy. Our 1989 report, The Arts in Schools, hugely influenced arts education, not just in schools but in ensuring that all arts companies developed education policies with an Education Director on the senior management team – now the norm. Our independence as a foundation gives us the freedom to identify gaps and initiate unusual grant programmes to encourage the development of new ways of working.
So what next? We cannot be initiators without recognising the fact that ‘the big idea’ is probably already out there. There is already a lot of international exchange and we want to lift the lid on what’s special about what we find in other countries and how it might be translated to a another setting.
‘We want to ensure that the voices of those whom we ultimately want to benefit – members of the public, citizens and particularly those who are vulnerable or underserved – are heard.’
Moreover, we want this to be a different sort of inquiry; we want to ensure that the voices of those whom we ultimately want to benefit – members of the public, citizens and particularly those who are vulnerable or underserved – are heard and that a platform is given to those who have interesting ideas to air, who may not necessarily agree with us.
We want a report with recommendations to others but importantly also for ourselves. We want to adopt a tone which inspires the best but does not stigmatise those just starting out. Ultimately we hope this initiative will seed a strong and growing movement of arts organisations with a deep commitment to their civic role, with the passion, drive and leadership to make our communities more creative, vibrant, tolerant and nurturing places to live and work. We hope the work will inspire action in the UK and inform thinking in Portugal and further afield.
Andrew Barnett is Director of the UK Branch of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.