Nina Simon: Reimagining relevance
Nina Simon, author of The Art of Relevance and founder of global charity OF/BY/FOR ALL, shares her perspective on new tools being offered to help build more inclusive and relevant organisations as part of Arts Council of England's strategy for 2020-2030, Let’s Create.
The last trip I took before the pandemic was to visit the Arts Council England offices in London. I was there to discuss one of my favourite topics: relevance within the context of the recently launched Let’s Create strategy. It was a nerdy affair, fuelled with a sense of optimism and excitement for the future. The Arts Council team signed my copy of Let’s Create, and I signed their copy of The Art of Relevance. We discussed the rollout of the Inclusivity & Relevance investment principle and how my small global charity, OF/BY/FOR ALL, might contribute.
On February 29, 2020, I flew back to the United States with a copy of Let's Create in my bag and a long list of ideas in my notebook. And then the world changed.
2020 was a year of visceral loss and dislocation. It pushed many of us to seek solidarity - to get support, to share resources, to stay alive. In the Zoom rooms of cultural organisations, arts leaders were asking: how will we keep this organisation going? Should we hunker down and focus on appealing to the patrons we've served well in the past? Should we take our planned programmes and transfer them online? Or do we have a shot to try something different - to be of value to our communities in new ways?
Angela Wynter & Eclipse Theatre's - Ashley Zhangazha in A Raisin in The Sun. Photo: Richard Davenport
The organisations that inspired me most this year reimagined their relevance to deliver real meaning to their diverse communities.
- At the beginning of lockdown, Casa Santa Ana, in Panama City, supported mutual aid by sharing food and art supplies in their low-income neighbourhood.
- In San Francisco, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts coordinated an Artist Power Center to help artists align with relief resources.
- In England, Black Womxn In Theatre created the #AllOfUs campaign to provide care and resources for Black, Asian, Ethnically Diverse and Migrant arts workers at the risk of redundancy.
- Even today, Slung Low theatre company in Leeds is inviting every resident of Holbeck to paint a rock, to sprinkle the region with joy and hope.
Each of these is an example of an organisation using its limited resources in a creative way to deliver value to their communities. That's what inclusivity and relevance is all about. An inclusive and relevant organisation is one in which people feel invested, represented, and welcomed. It doesn't take big budgets or fancy buildings to achieve inclusivity and relevance. It takes a sincere interest in serving the many communities around you. It takes curiosity about what might be of greatest value to them. And it takes courage, to radically reimagine how you might relate and work together.
Building a more inclusive and relevant organisation is fundamentally a creative act
Now is a time for radical reimagining of our individual organisations and the cultural sector as a whole. In April 2020, Arundhati Roy wrote: "Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next."
There is a role for the arts in the future -and it's likely different than it was in the past. The tools OF/BY/FOR ALL is offering in partnership with the Arts Council will help you imagine and sketch your way into the world to come. You'll find exercises around relevance you can share with trustees and staff to identify communities of interest, create a vision of the inclusive future you'd like to create, and assess your starting point on the path to change. These tools have been field-tested by over a hundred cultural organisations in the OF/BY/FOR ALL Change Network - organisations from different sizes, sectors, and regions of the globe.
Slung Low's food bank at The Holbeck. Photo: Slung Low / Simon K Alle
Building a more inclusive and relevant organisation is fundamentally a creative act. There have always been artists and changemakers who envision a better world in the midst of struggle. There are likely many of them in your community and on your staff. Sometimes we risk ignoring or marginalising their voices and losing the necessary perspective they bring to help reinvent and adapt our organisations to the world around us. Now is the time to listen to them, and to invite them to help lead the conversation about what comes next.
My hope for you, and for everyone who encounters these tools, is that you use them to imagine a new future for yourself and your organisation. That you use them to see people you have not fully seen and to listen to communities you have not fully heard. That together with our many communities, we can build organisations that are truly of, by, and for all.
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Nina Simon, Spacemaker, Founder of the change network Of/By/For ALL