AMA Conference 2020

Creative People and Places: Creating the Environment

Creative People and Places: Creating the Environment

By Creative People and Places Network

SUMMARY

This report draws on research conducted with the Creative People and Places (CPP) programme between June and November 2018. It explores the idea of cultural ecology, and the cultural eco-systems within CPP locations. By examining the local environments of which CPP Places are a part, it offers new ways to understand what place-based cultural programmes, such as CPP, can seek to achieve in the long run.

Executive Summary

This report draws on research conducted with the Creative People and Places (CPP) programme between June and November 2018. It explores the idea of cultural ecology, and the cultural eco-systems within CPP locations. By examining the local environments of which CPP Places are a part, it offers new ways to understand what place-based cultural programmes, such as CPP, can seek to achieve in the long run.

Ecology is the study of relationships between organisms and their environment. The term cultural ecology has been used by anthropologists since the 1950s to mean the study of human adaptations to social and physical environments. In recent years it has been more directly associated with the ‘cultural sector’.

However, the language of cultural ecology has been used with a variety of intentions and inflections. The CPP network commissioned a piece of research on the topic of cultural ecology with a specific interest in questions of sustainability, and to develop new ways to think about the future of CPP Places without drawing directly upon the notion of legacy.

Previous CPP network-commissioned reports have highlighted questions of legacy. How to ensure lasting legacy / sustainability is a key issue within CPP, and one that has particular significance given the nature of the programme. As Sarah Boiling and Claire Thurman (2018) highlight, “many CPP communities are (justifiably) wary of another short term ‘project’”, and CPP teams are clear in their commitment to enabling long-term positive benefit for the people and places with whom they are working. Major questions remain, however, as to how best to achieve this. This report shows how the wealth of insights concerning ‘co-production’ emerging from across the CPP programme has the potential to inform and enable long-lasting change, but that key systemic questions require further consideration.

Our research questions focused on what a cultural eco-system is, what a flourishing cultural eco-system looks like, and what has enabled cultural eco systems to flourish within CPP. We conducted interviews, focus groups, a questionnaire and a participatory workshop, in combination with critical examination of key literature. Our research participants were CPP directors, team members, and consortium board members.

Through our fieldwork we observed the diversity of cultural resources across the eco-systems of CPP. We offer an ‘inventory’ of the components of these eco-systems, which illustrates the huge breadth of elements involved in enabling cultural opportunity within these Places. We also identify a range of systemic factors that play significant roles in the cultural eco-systems across CPP. These include: public services, the funding and structures of local authorities, the presence or absence of universities and FE colleges, housing and changing demography, digital platforms, the geographic size and shape of the cultural eco-system, the role of neighbouring eco-systems, the places to which people feel they belong, and the extent to which people recognise themselves as part of a cultural eco-system.

In undertaking this research, it was important to distinguish between three different senses of ‘cultural ecology’. Cultural ecology is: (i) a condition of the world (an ontological reality). (ii) a descriptive and analytical perspective (an epistemological framework). (iii) an approach to cultural policy, programming and practice (an organisational, managerial or strategic method). In this report we explore the ways in which culture within CPP Places is ecological, needs to be understood ecologically, and how it can be actively nurtured ecologically.

It might appear that any place-based approach to cultural policy, programming and practice is inherently ecological. But to take an ecological approach (in the third sense) means engaging at a strategic level with interconnections and interdependencies between cultural resources of many kinds. It means paying attention to the dynamic nature of the relationships between the (tangible and intangible) ‘assets’ that enable and constrain cultural opportunity. Placed-based initiatives are not equally ecological in the approach they take. The reasons for this are, in part, due to the variations in what they are each trying to achieve.

Questions of cultural flourishing are inherently normative: they involve judgments of value. Our fieldwork makes clear that whilst there are many overlaps – and a strong family resemblance – between what different CPP Places are trying to achieve, they do not share exactly the same goals. We identified seven strategic aims across CPP Places:
1. Increasing arts engagement
2. Increasing listening, conversation and consultation
3. Increasing demand
4. Enabling voice
5. Telling stories
6. Community development and capacity building
7. Wider social change

Clarifying this range of aims, and their possible relationships, is an important part of considering the lasting influence CPP Places may have within their environments, and how this can best be achieved.

What the strategic aims of a CPP Place are has consequences for understanding what sustainability could and should look like. A key question is, sustainability of what? This is both a normative and a practical question. The answer depends on what kind of (cultural) world we want to make. It also depends on understanding what will work in bringing that world about.

Notwithstanding the differences between them, flourishing eco-systems are typically highly connected, heterogenous and conducive to emergence. Our research indicates that effective ecological leadership will involve ‘holding open’ conditions in which connections can be made, experiences shared, skills developed, and diverse practices of culture-making interact. Holding open spaces and structures is at the heart of ecological leadership.

CPP Places are inseparable from broader conditions of social, economic and political change. The CPP Programme is one of a growing number of placed based cultural initiatives. As such ‘cultural’ programmes develop, it is increasingly difficult to separate them from wider questions of social justice, which so often find their crystallisation in the politics of place. This should not be shied away from, and is ever-more central to discussions of what cultural policy should be seeking to achieve.

There has been a recent upsurge in debates around cultural democracy. Building on our previous work in this area, this report makes a specific contribution to those debates. What should the role of the state be in culture, and in cultural eco-systems? In Chrissie Tiller’s CPP paper on ‘power’, she notes that “There are those who question if any ‘top-down’ initiative can bring about real change.” One of the reasons notions of cultural ecology are helpful is the alternatives they offer for thinking beyond the dichotomy of the top-down state and the neo-liberal market.

This research demonstrates that a key benefit of the language of cultural ecology is that it offers a way to communicate the plurality of culture (and of cultural value), whilst highlighting that such plurality is part of an interconnected system, for which there must be public responsibility. Cultural eco systems can never be ‘outside’ of the domain of public policy. This report shows why this is the case; and drawing on the capabilities approach to human development (with its non-paternalistic account of state responsibility) suggests new ways to understand what the role of public policy could and should be in supporting conditions of cultural opportunity: in which people have the substantive freedoms to live flourishing lives.

On the basis of the research presented, the report offers a set of considerations for the development of a flourishing cultural eco-system. These are intended not only for discussion within existing CPP Places, but for any communities, networks, agencies, organisations, groups or individuals seeking to adopt an ecological approach to cultural development.

Considerations for the development of a flourishing cultural eco-system

1. Take time to build and sustain relationships: with a clear focus on developing trust, on an ongoing basis.

2. Seek out partnerships with specific organisations embedded within the life of the area: to enable deep local knowledge and connections.

3. Make sustained and creative use of consortium boards (or other collaborative governance systems): to enable deep local knowledge and connections.

4. Deliberately build and support networks: in ways that are democratically co-designed and appropriate to the specific location.

5. Support skills development and cultural ‘capacity building’: in ways that are democratically co-designed and appropriate to the specific location.

6. Make use of non ‘arts’ spaces: as part of the process of developing interconnections between cultural resources of many kinds.

7. Reframe local ‘assets’: exploring ways to defamiliarise, refamiliarise, reframe and reclaim cultural resources within the area.

8. Work in the spirit of action research: establishing conditions in which it is okay to try things out, take risks, learn from experience, and work iteratively.

9. Undertake ongoing processes of (always unfinished) ‘mapping’ of the cultural eco-system: collectively co-producing knowledge of the cultural life of the area, including tangible and intangible cultural resources of many kinds.

10. Develop, test and promote ecological leadership: with particular emphasis on practices that enable connections to be made, experiences shared, skills developed, diverse practices of culture-making to flourish, and ‘open structures and spaces’ of cultural governance to be sustained.

11. Ensure clarity of strategic aims within cultural governance systems: whilst holding open the space for these aims to evolve and grow.

12. Create democratic spaces for ongoing discussion of cultural experience, value and ambition: ensuring people have the substantive opportunity to get involved in shaping strategic aims for the cultural life of the area – as part of a process that is maximally welcoming to all, and open to processes of evolution and growth.

13. Explore possibilities for adopting the language of ‘cultural ecology’ and the capabilities approach: to better communicate the nature of cultural opportunity, the plurality of culture (and of cultural value) – and, in turn, to help develop and sustain a non-paternalistic account of state responsibility.

14. Make an explicit and sustained commitment to ‘holding open’ the cultural eco-system. In practice, this will mean those involved in cultural governance systems asking a series of evaluative questions on an ongoing basis:

i) Does our existing strategic plan keep ‘open’ a) who we engage with; b) who we partner with; c) our relations with and role within local, regional, sectoral and national networks and structures; and d) the kinds of outcomes being produced?

ii) Where there is evidence of ‘closure’, how can we challenge the strategic approach (from the inside) to consider what could be done to open it up? And, in turn:

iii) Does our strategic governance have in place a decision-making ‘feedback loop’ that attends to this ‘ecological perspective’?


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Creative People and Places is an Arts Council England funding programme which focuses on parts of the country where involvement in creativity and culture is significantly below the national average. More.

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Resource type: Evaluation reports | Published: 2022