30 July 2020

Blog: Time for a Culture Reset

The CULTURE RESET programme is up and running. Richard Watts shares the vision – and the inspiration

Photo: Tom Grünbauer on Unsplash

*This article, sponsored and contributed by people make it work, is part of a series for ArtsProfessional sharing insights and learning to help organisations facing change challenges to grow and develop. It was first published on ArtsProfessional.co.uk.

I can’t think of a more important time for a reset within arts and culture to fuel and enable a wider reset within our society. But what do we mean by reset? To some it might mean the entire renewal of the arts ecology – a redistribution of resources and power; to others it might imply an acceleration of the change that was already evident; and to others, of course, it means an entirely new direction as jobs and livelihoods are re-shaped in this new world.

Transformational moment

Our CULTURE RESET programme, conceived rapidly to respond to this crisis, has begun with an assembly of 192 ‘souls’ online – arts producers, museum and gallery curators, theatre makers, artistic directors, festival producers, library managers, literary editors, musicians, visual artists, choreographers, composers, writers. Though working across vastly different contexts and from distinct standpoints – freelance, furloughed, employed and unemployed – every one of them was hungry to find their version of a culture reset.

They were selected from the 960 people who applied to the programme in just 10 days at the beginning of July. Having read every application, as one of a broad team of dedicated assessors, I was bowled over by the energy for change (despite the pressures of the current moment), the urgency that is felt and the range of ways that people across the UK are determined not to miss this transformational moment.

Developing this programme over the last eight weeks with Claire Doherty, David Micklem and the brilliant group of artists, facilitators and collaborators who are making it possible, has of course involved a dynamic conversation about why we need to reset arts and culture and how we could create a programme that left enough room for everyone to bring their own perspectives and distinct approaches to this programme.

For me personally, the need for a culture reset is a political issue of social justice and representation. As a white gay man from a working class rural agricultural background, a young carer and now in a mixed heritage marriage with my husband, I feel that the quality of my life experience today is largely built on the work of playwrights, actors, novelists, screenwriters and the wider cultural sector. They enabled the social attitudinal changes in the UK that mean I love my life. People like me are much more visible, enabled, supported and included today. I’m happy that is the case at last, but it also gives me a deep commitment to social justice and an unshakeable belief in the relevance of culture for each of us, every day.

Exclusion and inequity

Much of the ease, visibility and representation I experience isn’t shared by my husband who is a black man who grew up in the Caribbean. I notice that in other countries and communities (including the one he grew up in) the positive and embracing stories about sexuality are not told as freely and the social context for LGBTQIA+ people in those places and communities remains more constrained and contested than it is for me. I also notice that my experience as a white man in the UK is easier and more accepting than my husband’s, and indeed, I navigate any barriers I do experience with my white privilege.

So, culture is of and shapes society, and the exclusion of specific voices, experiences, identities and perspectives damages that society and the excluded people in it. Exclusion and inequity in that sense isn’t omission – it’s an aggressive act of harm. Jasmine Wahi, Social Justice curator at the Bronx Museum and a guest speaker at our first Culture Reset assembly, suggested that we need to see, “all of us in all of our elements” to bring about social justice. And further, “We live in countries that are predicated on the idea of oppressing others… It is at their core and foundation…. My view is that you do anything and everything you can to push back against it.”

The right to dream the future

Wahi’s provocation reminded me of Adrianne Maree Brown in her book ‘Emergent Strategy’, who said “Imagination is one of the spoils of colonisation, which in many ways is claiming who gets to imagine the future for a given geography. Losing the imagination is a symptom of trauma. Reclaiming the right to dream the future, strengthening the muscle to imagine together as Black people, is a revolutionary decolonizing activity. We are living in the ancestral imagination of others, with their longing for safety and abundance, a longing that did not include us or included us as enemy, fright, other… We are living now in the imagination of people who thought economic disparity and environmental destruction were acceptable costs for their power. It is our right and responsibility to write ourselves into the future.”

We heard that assertion too in the first Culture Reset podcast launched this week – Postcards to the Future – with Adele Thomas and Marc Rees. Speaking of the future of Welsh theatre, Adele proposed, “Who is curating our stories… do we as a nation believe in the right to tell our own stories and to create our own future… We have to believe in ourselves and believe our narratives are worth fighting for because if we don’t we risk total cultural erasure.”

CULTURE RESET is designed to be a dynamic conversation between creative people where each identifies the core challenge for them at the centre of a culture reset and interrogates, explores, discerns and arrives at a new direction through an inherently creative process of reimagining. These challenges are fraught with the inequities of our society of course – the distribution of resources, of opportunity and power. And so that creative process for all 192 producers requires a careful consideration of our own privilege, a consideration of our values and our own intentions.

Another guest speaker, John McGrath, Artistic Director of Manchester International Festival, reflected on how his role has shifted as he prepares to launch the Factory: “To fulfil my role, our role [as producers] for these artists and for the societies they represent and the communities for which they speak,” he suggested, “I have to ask a bigger question [than the parallel producing questions I would customarily ask] ‘what is the change that this work, these artists, this practice demands and how do I make that change happen?’ … If we are not profoundly shaken by every work we present or produce, we shouldn’t be doing this.”

Resources

These provocations from John McGrath and Jasmine Wahi are now available on the Culture Reset website – along with that of Marcus Faustini – who impressed so many with his passion and determination to centre the experiences and desires of young people in his work in Rio.

We will continue to make as many of the resources and conversations from Culture Reset available publicly as possible over the next eight weeks and actively encourage you to take part in the conversation on social media using the hashtag #culturereset.

There are public strands such as the Podcast series and forthcoming Instagram (@culture.reset) lives, and the resources will grow over the summer informed and changed by the contributions of participants and by the conversations across the UK.

A culture reset for good is a collective effort. It is complex and exhausting. As the news across our sector continues to bring at one moment hope, and at another devastating loss, we are going to need radical hope.

In his short pamphlet Beyond Survival, Graham Leicester suggests:

“We need to find among us the individuals and organisations willing to connect their actions today to a vision that is more than a patched-up version of the past. These are the pioneers…They are not waiting to be rescued. They are aware of the larger, shifting context for their actions. They can read the changing landscape and know when to move, when to hold back, how to pick their way through unknown territory. They are not afraid of big thoughts and wide ambition. They have strong values that feed their capacity to persevere through good times and bad. They show moral nerve and stand for the ordinary virtues of dignity and care. They provide inspiration to others. In other words, they are human – just like you and me. It is vital that we also find this capacity in ourselves and support it in each other if we are to flourish amidst the worst of what may yet lie ahead. This is, and has always been, the true source of radical hope – and the way we can turn it into reality”.

Here are a few suggestions of where to start:

  1. Join our podcast series, postcards to the future, by Claire Doherty and David Micklem for interviews with Marc Rees, Adele Thomas, Bryony Kimmings, Sharmaine Lovegrove and more on your platform of choice (transcriptions also available on our website as the podcasts go live)
  2. Watch videos from our opening Assembly by Jasmine Wahi, Marcus Faustini and John McGrath and keep an eye out for other videos contributions in the following weeks
  3. Access resources made up of tools, reports and inspiration we have organised to help you with your personal reset
  4. Review who is on the CULTURE RESET programme and connect with them, invite them to share their learning and to join your exploration
  5. Connect with others who are debating what resetting culture means for them on twitter #culturereset and @culturepeopleUK
  6. Join the Culture Reset mailing list to hear first about new videos, resources and insights as we publish them.

Richard Watts is instigator of and pro bono Exec Director at CULTURE RESET, CEO of people make it work and co-director of change creation.

www.culturereset.org
www.peoplemakeitwork.com
www.changecreation.org
@culturepeopleUK
#culturereset

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch) is supporting Culture Reset as part of our Civic Role of Arts Organisations programme. At a moment of transition and considerable need, we are focusing on strengthening the arts and cultural sector to respond to urgent community needs, build resilience, and prioritise relevance.