Five years ago, those of us who were around What Next? said that we thought it would be a 10 year project. Over that decade, what did we hope to achieve?
Thinking about the way artists, arts organisations and the arts in education operate in this country and the way they relate to their many and varied kinds of audience and participants, we thought that what we wanted to do was ‘change the culture’.
It’s an ambitious phrase.
If there was one change to ‘the culture’ we wanted to achieve above all others it was to break away from an assumption that the natural way for us to relate to each other was on the basis of competition.
Neoliberalism assumes that competition is king. And yes it may well be that in certain ways and at certain levels it is good for us to compete. But for the arts competition can never be the only way.
We wanted to replace this assumption with another: that what is natural to us is to collaborate, to look always for mutual benefit, in an infinite number of ways.
Perhaps this conference is a good moment to look back at the beginning, to remember how this movement acquired its name.
At the start of the coalition government, when it became clear that there would be a massive reduction in public investment across the board, a number of us gathered informally in London, leaders of arts organisation, big and small, the institutions and the pop ups, the long established and the new.
Together we sent a letter to the prime minister of the day that asked a question.
The government had stated that their priority was to reduce the underlying deficit by 50% in the life of one parliament. We asked: we understand that you will cut public investment in the arts and culture but is this policy or expedience? If you achieve this 50% reduction (as we know, this target was soon reset and has since been abandoned) – if you achieve it, will you then re-instate the previous level of investment or will the cut remain?
Here’s our key question: What is your arts policy? Do you have one? What’s coming? We need to plan so, if you know, tell us: What’s next?
The prime minister replied with a version of ‘Calm down, dear’, all will be fine, the lottery will bail you out.
As we know, in fact a 30% reduction in public investment in the arts and culture soon followed. So you might say that that first gathering had no positive outcome. But you would be wrong. It did.
It established a new way for us to come together: positive, eager for action, non hierarchic, always on the look out for the highest common denominators that enable collective action – as colleagues, as enthusiasts, as friends.
That we have become a national movement has enabled us to continue to make the case for public investment in the arts strongly, effectively and at the highest levels. But lobbying government – speaking with one voice – turned out to be only one of the things that, through collaboration, we can do.
So what have we done?
We’ve created 35 WN? chapters across the UK.
We’ve formed strong alliances with the Creative Learning Alliance, the Creative Industries Federation and the Arts Council.
We’ve convened meetings with national networks including the New Local Government Network, Arts Development UK, the Local Government Association, the Chief Culture and Leisure Officers Association, the Core Cities Group and the Cultural Commissioning Programme so as to strengthen our relationships with local authorities.
Through our system of setting up working sub-groups we’ve established an Ethics and Reputational Risk project and submitted an advisory document to the Treasury on tax reform.
We’ve made submissions to the Treasury in the lead up to the last two Spending Rounds contributing to an unprecedented – and unexpected – stand still settlement.
Our Arts for Britain campaign persuaded numbers of local MPs to become national advocates for the arts.
We’ve hosted high level discussions with culture and education Secretaries of State and ministers and with shadow secretaries and ministers including Harriet Harman, Jeremy Hunt, Maria Miller, Sajid Javid, John Whittingdale, Michael Gove, Ed Vaizey, Tristram Hunt, Nick Gibb, Matt Hancock.
Around the election we convened all manner of hustings, debates, speeches …
We arranged a roundtable for young people to contribute to Ed Vaizey’s White Paper as well as What Next? meetings at Conservative and Labour party conferences.
There have been public WN? debates at festivals including Latitude, Green Man, Edinburgh and Wilderness.
We launched Get Creative in partnership with the BBC, now in its second year. Through Get Creative 1,000 arts and cultural organisations have developed a close relationship with the BBC and have become champions of voluntary and participatory arts in their communities.
We’re partnering with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation on an Inquiry into the Civic Role of Cultural Organisations.
Up and down the country we’ve forged hundreds of ‘unlikely alliances’ as well as many quite likely ones that really should have been forged years ago …
So five years in: where are we now?
In the life span of movements – social, religious or otherwise – there’s a pattern. What starts as inspiration and is, for a time, energised and kept fluid and responsive to need and change by enthusiasm and imagination and generosity hardens into structure and bureaucracy. Rules arise, and then laws with sanctions and, in the end, punishments for those who dissent or disobey.
We’re a hundred miles from that. For us, let’s hope all that is a hundred years away.
But even so, there sometimes grows the assumption that in WN? we have created an agency charged with providing a service according to certain fixed regulations and that it has some sort of duty to do so.
Occasionally, for example, our three part-time executives are asked: What’s gone wrong? You should have fought this or that cause, organised this or that campaign.
So here is what WN? is really about. It began because a few of us felt it was needed. It took off because that proved to be true.
No one was an expert in organisational design. We just did what seemed obvious. If it didn’t work, we tried something different. We kept the door open. We made it up as we went along.
If WN? has a message it’s this: If you feel something needs doing, just do it.
A conversation should take place, a change is needed, an alliance should be struck, a policy revised or jettisoned… Just get it to happen. If you need an ally, find one. We are all around you, no further than an email away.
After years of sustained attack on our public realm, on the things we do together, on all that we believe in together, on what is ours because it is shared, on what has been won into commonality over history by struggles of class and of race, whether the NHS, or a common educational system, human rights, workers’ rights, our forests, our cities, our parks, our libraries …
… we have created a new form of public realm. It is ourselves. It is the alliance we have forged between us – a network, a safety net, an umbrella, a canopy.
We have discovered that we are each other’s most powerful resource.
Look at what we have done over these few years.
Look at what we are achieving here today.