The question What Next? was originally asked publicly by David Lan, former Artistic Director of the Young Vic, and a large number of other arts and cultural professionals at a conference in March of 2011.

Colleagues wanted to ask the government what its strategy and plan was for culture once the immediate cuts ‘necessitated’ by the recession and banking crash were made. Would the government restore funding for the arts once the economy recovered or was retrenchment an ideological decision? A letter was written to the Prime Minister and a number of moving and memorable testimonials were given by artists and participants – notably by the Sadler’s Wells Elders Group. Many people who are now involved in What Next? cite these testimonials as real personal turning points, where they were reminded of the power of hearing from participants whose lives were transformed by and steeped in culture.

In the summer of 2012 a small number of colleagues began meeting in London at the Young Vic. This group met to ask whether there was anything further that could be done to progress the discussion about the value of the arts. They asked parliamentarians to advise them on influencing government, and they asked a number of key campaigning specialists from the voluntary sector to brief them on effective ways of making the case. It was widely felt that a new way of working might be possible; a mature dialogue on the issues facing arts, culture and society without the sector reverting to self-interest or falling back on entrenched arguments.

Each week the number of colleagues attending the conversation at the Young Vic grew by word of mouth, with people in the room recommending to friends and colleagues that they join the discussion. Senior representatives from the Arts Council began to regularly attend alongside colleagues from PR industries, from philanthropic foundations, from umbrella bodies and from the commercial sector. A number of expert guests were invited to come in for Chatham House conversations with the group at the Young Vic, and Ministers and Shadow Ministers began to request invitations. – notably Ed Vaizey, Dan Jarvis, Harriet Harman and Maria Miller. The Chatham House rule allowed visiting colleagues to feel comfortable in expressing opinions and frustrations, and allowed cultural sector attendees to feel that they could be very open in asking difficult or basic questions.

Setting priorities

As the growing Young Vic group discussed what was important to its members, priorities began to emerge, with colleagues identifying the following as key issues that they would like to engage with and influence:

  • National policy relating to arts and cultural education; 
  • The Comprehensive Spending Review and the levels of funding allocated to culture.

At the same time, many colleagues felt that it was important to frame questions and discussions about the arts and culture in the widest way possible – with the key question ‘what kind of society do we want to live in and how do we make it a reality?’ placed at the heart of any shared action.

Growing the movement
Colleagues from across the country were involved in the initial conference in March 2011 and were signatories to the letter to the Prime Minister, however the group meeting regularly at the Young Vic was primarily London-based, with colleagues attending from other regions when they happened to be in the area. This was felt by all to be a real impairment to the effectiveness of the growing alliance, and, after much discussion, it was felt that the best way forward would be to hold a National Conference to discuss the viability of a new movement and way of working, coupled with a simultaneous invitation to colleagues across the country urging them to set up their own What Next? meetings, with colleagues taking the model set up by the Young Vic Group and replicating and adapting it to their own needs.

Definitions and principles
Colleagues felt that in order to expand the Young Vic What Next? meeting into a wider, effective, national movement they would have to broadly define what they were doing and why they were doing it.

In early 2013 the following documents and tools were therefore created: 

  • a useful strapline to describe the purpose of each meeting: Shared agendas, regular conversation and agreed actions; 
  • a short document which described why a new movement might be needed and which articulated broader aims for a stronger, arts-rich society; 
  • a set of broad principles for What Next? meetings.

These documents were distributed to anyone wishing to set up a What Next? Chapter in their area.