The language of democracy in the arts

Recently I have begun working in my local community. It is a first. I have never entered into any working arrangement with or alongside an area that I live in. I feel slightly shy and a bit nail bitten about the proposition of my private home space and working life space rubbing alongside one another for any period of time.

It has got me thinking…How democratic are we with the communities that we are working with ? How much are they involved in deciding what, how, where, when things happen ?

I met the local history group who were really passionate about all things local. They were keen to show me photos of forgotten times, contrasting the old and the new and remarking about what had been lost, changed or torn down. They operated as detectives, exploring, sharing, shaping and piecing together moments in time. They all referenced and acknowledged, involved and offered advice to one another. One person was very keen to explain the history of hedgerows and the number of species living in them while another drew gasps of excitement for road signs and pathways. Another provided a vast array of maps which detailed moments of history, land ownerships, bridle paths as well as family homes. How was it that the local history group were able to engage me about a subject that I felt that I could participate with ? In an area that I didn’t grow up in. Quite simply, they used language that didn’t confuse me. They didn’t refer to me as hard to reach, difficult, troublesome or other. They made me welcome. Their enthusiasm was infectious. They didn’t bowl in with language that I didn’t understand. They simply showed me a variety of ways that I could take part or not whilst stating clearly that there were loads of areas that “we” could explore or not and that they were learning as well. Everything was negotiated and decided as a group. Anyone could join. They seemed to operate quite well, democratically even. They aren’t funded, they aren’t governed and they aren’t paid.

What on earth has any of this got to do with my work ?  After all, I can’t live on air so I need to be paid. Often my work is funded and governed. So, how much of our relationship with language and democracy within the arts is shaped by our funders and the policies that we create to manage ourselves?

“EVERYONE is so goddamnit hard to reach!” I remember one artist saying to me after a long exhausting day.

I know many organisations who have spent lots of time researching and developing a funding proposal. They have worked hard to develop partners and new providers in new areas. But still the numbers are low. Does it matter? Maybe the art form wasn’t quite right. Maybe the timing was off, maybe one of the partners folded (I have personally experienced this!) or maybe the entire youth service has ceased to exist, (I have also experienced this!) or maybe we just didn’t have time to build some of the key areas to help it grow. Or maybe no one wanted what was on offer or didn’t quite understand what the offer was. After all, most communities have their have own view on arts and culture.

So, If we are to talk about working democratically with/for and alongside communities surely we need to admit that we have a sometimes flawed, back to front, upside down approach. Surely we should start by developing a language alongside these communities that they feel part of ? Enough of the elitist language?

I have worked with communities that are incredibly rich with culture and arts but maybe this culture wasn’t “HIGH art” or “HIGH quality”. Therefore it needed some help to really engage. Make it proper.

“But we already have a cinema. We already show films that our community want.”

Or

“They came in with a bunch of new artists to work with our artists. People who we trust, who we knew. It felt like we were being told how to do it. We didn’t even ask them to come here”

The above is a real quote that has stayed with me from the last few years. It does feel a little like we are in danger of turning into missionaries with that kind of approach.

Not very democratic. Certainly not authentic.

Maybe we need to be more like the hedgerow local history lady in our approach with communities. Gentle, timely and clear that we are just as passionate about arts and culture as she is about hedgerows.

Certainly, go where we are needed but also where they want us. Don’t complicate language and embrace ALL art forms and culture. After all, our notion of what is arts and culture is shifting and we need to change with it.

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