Places Matter is the name of a conference organised by The Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon on 12 January 2017. The event was announced to be the first of a series being held under the auspices of the new Arts Council/Local Government agreement called A Framework for Collaboration. I did not have the chance to attend the event in person, but was able to stream most of the conference via Facebook live.
Insightful speakers framed the issue of arts development, mostly from the points of view of audience engagement and participation, diversity in the arts, and cultural planning. Measurability, cultural value and particularly the value of the arts in society, the role played by local authorities and the importance of collaboration were some of the key issues raised by the speakers and the audience.
As a researcher with an interest in Festivals, Cultural Production and Cultural Policy, I was particularly interested in hearing two of the keynote speakers: Prof. John O’Hagan and Prof. Geoffrey Crossick. I first came across Prof. O’Hagan’s work when writing my PhD dissertation and, particularly, analysing The Performing Arts and the Public Purse (1987), a research paper that the Arts Council commissioned in the 1980s to prove the economic value of the arts (with a focus on performing arts). Prof. Geoffrey Crossick is Director of The AHRC Cultural Value Project, which strives to answer the question of why culture and the arts matter in contemporary society.
Unfortunately the presentations of these two speakers were not live-streamed. I was however able to tune in for the Q&A session and one question coming from the audience caught my attention: “How can Ireland develop its cultural capacity?”. The person in the audience made it clear that the answer to this question should focus on the themes of participation and better engagement.
Prof. John O’Hagan began to address this question. He mentioned festivals and cultural infrastructures as ways of generating access to the arts at a local level, while building a sense of community. This answer immediately brought the concept of ‘communities of practice’ to my mind. This notion has been used as a theoretical framework to understand the extent to which festivals are settings where both artists and audiences learn by doing and/or interacting. I am less familiar with the idea of cultural infrastructures such as arts centres, museums or sports centres as communities of practice. Surely this is some food for thought and further research.
Prof. Geoffrey Crossick led the conversation to a different direction. He stressed the importance of ‘innovation’ and ‘experimentation’ – two notions that could be taken for granted when it comes to discourses on culture and the arts. Focusing on the idea of ‘experience’, the AHRC Cultural Value Project shows that the arts can change lives and places. And so I drew a connection: a culture of innovation and experimentation, one that is not afraid of failure and difference, is key to social inclusion and perhaps even arts development. In other words, a culture of innovation and experimentation is important to develop cultural capacity, where ‘capacity’ is to be intended in terms of participation – the ability to be ‘cultural’, to make, share, elaborate, refuse and absorb meanings.
If innovation and experimentation in culture and the arts are key to cultural capacity, from the point of view of the research needed in this field, case studies are very important. Prof. Crossick indeed noted that we need case studies to demonstrate the need for change and therefore demand change. They are needed to eventually scale success up and, I would add, throw light on what could be done differently.
But, to me, valuing experimentation and innovation also goes hand in hand with valuing dissent. I was delighted to hear one of the speakers making reference to dissent. Artist Emmet Kirwan made the point that “good art should be contradictory” and that dissident points of view are needed. I understood at the time that dissident points of view needed in the arts, like in culture as everyday living.
Like Jim McGuigan would say, the idea of artists as rebels is “a myth in Barthes’s sense, neither quite true nor false” (McGuigan, 2009, p. 49). It seemed that Kirwan’s perspective – coming right after a discussion centred on arts development, cultural value, planning, measurability and public subsidy, aimed to be rebellious and provocative. Dissident, in fact.
Very soon it became clear that, for Kirwan, dissent is not necessarily synonymous with opposition. It is about representing and being represented. It is a question of stop fearing and/or concealing difference. Dissent is about having the power to re-think and re-formulate, where ‘power’ should be understood more in cultural rather than economic terms. And that is why access to education – arts education, Kirwan noted – is important.
Allowing dissident perspectives is necessary when we speak of increasing cultural capacity. “Giving voice to voices”, Kirwan said.
Having listened to other speakers on the day – Louise Lowe and the story of ANU Productions in Plymouth and Anne McCarthy from the IGNITE project, for example – this is what the arts seem to be doing already, in Ireland and abroad. Giving voice to voices: a pillar of civil society.
Emmet Kirwan performed for the audience. I could not find a recording from the conference, but I found this. Enjoy.
McGuigan, Jim. Cool Capitalism. London: Pluto Press, 2009.