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Blog: Culture Matters

Culture Matters

riverThe River Sherbourne disappears under Coventry at Spon End. The BBC reported on this in 2015 in 'Tracing the hidden River Sherbourne'

The high rise estate flats right at this point (George Poole House, Givens House, Spon Gate and other smaller parts of the estate) were built in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Locals told us some are due to be demolished in the coming years and replaced. The beauty of this compact area of Coventry lies in the River Sherbourne and its proximity to strips of green areas along the bank.

Okay, so there is a bit of rubbish, masses of Himalayan Balsam etc, but Covid19 has prevented the usual local get togethers in Spring to Love Your River and tidy up the banks, pulling up the balsam before it gets a grip. If you are walking quickly through the estate you might miss the river but locals have a lot to say about how important it is to them. They even wish there was more water in it.

For City of Culture Coventry Creates, Jo Garde-Hansen has been working with Jana Fried of the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry University and the photographic artist and educator Jo Gane to test an arts and humanities approach to river regenertion and cultural values of water.

Developing an approach she has used in the River Cole in Birmingham, Gane shoots with the Calotype process from 1841 during the day and makes nocturnal photograms of the flow patterns of the water. Hanging around Spon End at night in the river does raise some eyebrows and interest.

During July 2020 (as soon as lockdown relaxed) we were delivering copies of Jo Gane's artwork as beautifully presented postcards to all the residents of the high-rise buildings and surrounding flats. The kind of photographic images that you would gladly place on the wall, a notice board or generally keep hanging around the home as a reminder that you live in a place of beauty, memory and history, however hidden from view.

Please share images of the River Sherbourne and how you use it with us on Twitter and Instagram using the hastag #hiddenrivercov

img_20200612_101822.jpgOne of my favourite pieces of public art is the Metronome that stands over the Vlatva River in Prague. Created by the artist Vratislav Novak, the piece was installed in 1991, after the Velvet Revolution, on a plinth that used to hold a statue of Joseph Stalin. That statue, at 15m tall and weighing 17, 000 tonnes, was raised in 1955 but was destroyed (by high explosives – and with the strict enforcement of a no filming policy) in 1962 following Nikita Krushchev’s denunciation of the brutal excesses of his predecessor. Thus, Stalin went, in the accelerated history of the mid-20th century, from heroic father of the Soviet family of nations to shameful secret in 7 years.

Those regimes which imagine themselves to be in the vanguard of history and progress to a new kind of society always seem to have an eye on the significance of symbolism and are keen both to erect statues in celebration of themselves but also as in this case, or the cases of statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan or Cambodia, to use the destruction of statues as a means of erasing or re-starting history. It is perhaps this belief in the role of symbols in making the future and re-shaping the past that is a more meaningful link with the Victorians who put up the statue to slave-trading Edward Colston, over a hundred and fifty years after his death, than some that have been recently made.

In her book Memorial Mania, the scholar Erika Doss discusses the proliferation of statues and monuments raised in the mid-to-late nineteenth century USA as an expression of the anxieties of the period about rapid social changes and the quest for national unity in the light of them. As she describes it, these anxieties were met by attempts to re-make the urban landscape with an eye to negotiating between pressures for change and the existing order of things. We can perhaps see statues raised by the civic elites of the Imperial, Victorian UK as a similar attempt to narrate, to the newly enfranchised populations of its expanding cities, to whom it was they ought to be grateful. It is, of course, an on-going risk to state or civic authorities, of whatever time and place, that their citizens may re-interpret the symbols with which they live. That is what makes the ticking of the Metronome such an eloquent response to such statues and a reminder to the vanities of such leaders – made all the more poignant perhaps by its own current state of disrepair – that this too will pass.

I’ve been reminded of the Metronome by the welcome and timely light shed on the UK’s monuments by the Black Lives Matter movement, not just on Colston and equivalent slave traders, but also other figures whose views on race or other political sympathies are perhaps less widely known. The issues I’m concerned with – about how popular culture is memorialised – clearly lack the pain and political urgency of the current discussion but there are also some affinities. The first is the extent to which statues can become ‘invisible’ – they fall into the background and become part of the unremarked, taken for granted fabric of the city scape. It is valuable to look up and remind ourselves what they mean and who or what they celebrate. The ‘who’ is especially important because, as the philosopher Fred Evans has argued, the celebration of the lives of any individual in public art raises questions about two competing political values – the desire to celebrate diversity and the desire to appeal to a collective unity. Mediating between unity and diversity is an abiding problem for democracies but this is brought into sharp relief when one virtue obscures another, as it might do once the lives of commemorated individuals are subject to focussed attention (the recent unveiling of the statue to the first woman MP Nancy Astor, for example, was both a re-balancing of the well-established gender inequality of UK statuary and an occasion for her anti-semitism to be publicised). As Evans indicates, one response to this dilemma in contemporary monument making is to celebrate groups or archetypes (e.g. migrants or workers) in public art, rather than specific individuals.

This links to the second point about the difference between the statues of Victorian place-makers and those monuments put up today – when public art is again used to make city spaces liv-able, meaningful and, importantly to tourist economies, visit-able. While civic leaders of 19th century cities might have been able to raise statues without much in the way of broader scrutiny or critique, my impression of the statue projects that I’ve been looking at is that they emerge from years of committed and careful negotiation, between enthusiasts and campaigners, local planning authorities, chambers of commerce, communities and artists about who is to be commemorated, how they are to be depicted and where a statue can be put up. Any contemporary plan for a monument seems likely to be subject to sustained scrutiny – political and aesthetic- before it can be approved – and local councils and authorities are likely to be increasingly cautious about the kind of monument that can be raised. As, perhaps, they should be. Conversations about the kind of symbolic expressions of collective identity that have the ambition to reflect and be inclusive of a range of experiences are likely to be long and complicated. Statues from earlier periods have not always been subject to such scrutiny and it seems to me right that they are now being considered in this way. Bristol residents, includings its elected mayor, have long voiced their frustration at a lack of progress on even marginal changes to how this particular statue was sited.

The joyous scenes surrounding the toppling of the Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol – and the relative ease with which it was bounced down the street and tossed in the harbour - might remind us that, while a broadened, inclusive conversation about who should be commemorated makes it far harder to put statues up, it need not be difficult to take them down again.


Image by Brooklyn Museum

By: Elena Ruikyte, MA student in International Cultural Policy & Management

Whilst the United Nations (UN) is marking its 75th anniversary – which has at its heart the idea of promoting conversation and creating a global dialogue – multilateralism and international collaboration are facing a substantial challenge, yet for many countries, collaboration is a necessity. The current crisis of COVID-19, that turned into a global pandemic, has highlighted the state’s own capacity for action but also the interconnected and global nature of our existence and therefore the need for a Global response (Bhatia).

That is why now more than ever, it is important to see other nations as partners. It is important that countries are in a process of mutual learning, understanding and respect. As stated in a joint report Culture in an Age of Uncertainty (2018) by the British Council and Germany’s Goethe-Institut, when global challenges become increasingly transnational, International Cultural Relations (ICR) can make an increasingly important contribution. The report suggests that, while ICR cannot directly solve the global crisis, cultural engagement especially when it is mutual, can contribute by offering spaces for dialogue; strengthening civil society and independent actors, and managing tensions between them and the state. However, even though collaboration is often seen as a key to overcoming the toughest global issues, the fact remains that there are many real obstacles to collaboration that all actors involved are facing and must attempt to address.

COVID-19 is a crisis of uncertainty, physical separation and digitalisation. It has highlighted the barriers to international and interpersonal collaboration and the central role played by emotions in both communication about and responses to the pandemic. Even though geopolitical shifts and technological revolutions enable states to reach out to an ever-growing audience beyond borders, lockdowns have suspended peoples’ personal freedoms to travel and gather. The loss of control over our freedoms and global uncertainty resulted an overwhelming sense of anxiety, loneliness and danger. All these emotions lead to fear, a pivotal emotional state at this time of crisis.

Levoy (2020) observes that the current crisis has triggered a second pandemic, that of fear. We fear strangers who might breath too close and we are each a stranger to the other. With this sense of ‘stranger-danger’ fear is directed towards, not only a stranger at the checkout line but any foreigner, immigrant or refugee. As George E. Marcus notes, many scholars have argued that it is fear that drives the public towards nationalism and often xenophobia. What he adds, is a perspective of the theory of affective intelligence, that recognises anger as a fundamental motivation for nationalism. Anger – is a result of any excessive feeling of fear, or distress. So, with the terrifying spread of COVID-19, nationalism, rather than internationalism, is shaping the response.

The way governments choose to respond to and manage the pandemic – working on their own or together – is shaping future perceptions of the national and international public’s perceptions of a country’s competence, honesty, and dependability. Over the past couple of months, the world has seen examples of national leaders blaming migrants for bringing the virus to their shores and there have been discussions over the ideologies that will emerge and gain strength in the future, who will emerge as leaders of the post-coronavirus world?

Despite the global competition, decisions made by world leaders, that are affecting the livelihood of nations, are governed by the same emotions of uncertainty, fear and anxiety. From an analysis of how world leaders have responded to the crisis New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden emerged as the front runner in her management of the pandemic. Her communication, as Suze Wilson notes, is a balanced combination of: ‘direction-giving’, ‘meaning-making’ and importantly ‘empathy’. The latter comes more naturally when people have direct access to each other’s emotional cues, and people tend to empathise with others who are close or similar. In the current crisis, when the fear, of both the disease and the other is spreading fast, the fragility of empathy and the importance of an empathetic rhetoric from world leaders is paramount.

Covid-19 has emerged in the age of fake news, misinformation and disinformation spread through the powerful conduit of social media. Charlie Warzel points out that there is an ongoing flow of true and false information about safety equipment, treatment, rules, decisions etc. that is especially challenging for social media platforms and can be harmful and misleading for the users. This has been orchestrated not only by individuals but also some world leaders. Interestingly, but maybe not surprisingly a recent report by Reuters Institute points out that politicians and celebrities are the sources of 69% of all social media engagement with misinformation. In this time of instant and global communication government rhetoric takes on a new power but also a renewed responsibility.

Culture however can also provide an antidote to fear and stranger-danger, it has throughout the crisis provided opportunities for people to come together with a sense of community and unity despite physical distance. Various forms of culture can now be accessed online, as cultural institutions opened their doors in a digital space providing engaging initiatives and live streaming. During the UNESCO ResiliArt online debate, it was noted that people tend to turn to arts and culture as a form of escape from a difficult reality, helping to keep people’s inner lives and emotional sanity together, it is a space of empathy. The important role of culture in helping the public to deal with the challenging circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis is also recognised in a Consumer Tracking Study published by the Policy Evidence Centre (PEC, UK).

In Europe, Germany is seen as a leading country in recognising the value of culture, education and International Cultural Relations (ICR). They announced a federal aid package featuring a whopping €50 billion to be distributed to freelancers and small businesses, including those in the creative sector. Also, additional funds were provided to Germany’s Goethe-Institut to continue their work, focusing on language courses online, highlighting the importance of cultural exchange and collaboration in the future. The Baltic countries, Lithuania and Estonia announced their economic support packages that are quite similar: €2.5 billion in Lithuania and €2.6 billion in Estonia. However, neither of these support packages offer additional funds for ICR practitioners and the institutions that develop global understanding and engagement at a time when working together is demonstrably crucial.

The practice of ICR is far from easy even in normal circumstances. Now, when people’s freedom of movement is restricted and emotions of fear, anger and anxiety are playing a central role in nearly all actions – international collaboration and ICR has become even harder to achieve. Whilst a majority of the population is connected in a digital world, there are still people who lack access to technology or a good internet connection and for them it is an obstacle to continued learning, collaboration and connection. Intergovernmental and international organisations have taken action and are already acting as platforms for dialogue, for sharing knowledge and experiences, and for guidance in the current crisis. Nevertheless, what the crisis brings now is the need to rethink and reset the status quo, to establish a different language, a new way of talking that can re-centralise culture’s role in our public life and articulate a collective, global concept of collaboration and sustainability for the future.

As debates on the current crisis and its impact continue, it would be useful for governments to look ahead and start by asking what can be done, by whom and what resources are needed? After the crisis – what will unite us? What will connect us to each other again? Most likely there is still no one who can predict or plan how countries should act after the crisis however, the COVID-19 pandemic gives an unexpected opportunity for countries to reflect on peoples’ orientations towards or against collaboration and to rethink old models of International Cultural Relations by including and foregrounding the role of emotion.

This blog post is part of the development of an event proposition research done during the Placement at the International Cultural Relations Ltd. I am grateful to my placement’s supervisor Stuart MacDonald, FRSA for supporting me, and to Dr Jonathan Vickery and Dr Heidi Ashton for their insights on my research.

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Art in the Time of Corona

Empty seats © Maria Barrett

Image © Maria Barrett, 2014

Even before the British government finally closed down public spaces last Friday in response to the global pandemic, many theatres and galleries were doing the responsible thing. The previous Monday, the Society of London Theatres had announced that their theatres would temporarily close, and throughout the week, first one independent theatre then another publicised its closure on social media, postponing, curtailing, and cancelling productions that had taken major investment in time and money and had once been somebody’s dream. A poignant post circulated, showing the ‘ghost light’, said to be left lit on stages all over the country, an evocative symbol of the future return of theatre to our nation.

But we were never without access to art and culture. Offerings were announced on social media: the Royal Opera House is streaming opera and ballet for free; The Globe Theatre has opened up its online catalogue of filmed performances; and in the commercial sector, West End production of The Wind in the Willows starring stars Rufus Hound and Gary Wilmot is available to stream at no cost. It is similar in the visual arts and museums, where art (albeit a largely Western canon) has been globalised; you can now take a virtual tour of the Chateau of Versailles, or of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC; look at some Monet, Cézanne, or Gauguin at the Musée d’Orsay; or take in some Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum, all while preserving not just a safe social distance or complete isolation, but indeed a reduced carbon footprint.

This augmented cultural offer appeared deceptively quickly; certainly a lot faster than it has taken the Prime Minister to present a cogent public health strategy. The larger cultural institutions, with the funds to invest in and experiment with the digital, already had something up their sleeves. Building closures and increasingly limited public movement due to the global pandemic meant lifting paywalls and increasing marketing of existing digital offers, rather than starting from scratch. The online reach and brand recognition of large institutions and the recognisability of their artworks should appeal not only to existing audiences who need their culture fix but can no longer pop out to the gallery, but also to potentially new audiences of the home-schooled and perhaps the newly bored but culturally curious.

This is important to institutions in the context of indefinite closure, as they can continue their remit of public engagement. It might also be asked: when arts venues close and re-open, do their audiences come back? My observation as an erstwhile board member of theatres which have temporarily closed for refurbishment or rebuilding, is, often not. Knowing this risk, some theatres go on tour for the duration, or decant elsewhere, temporarily setting up shop in another space, as the Almeida famously did in 2000, in order to keep their brand alive and their audiences warm. This clearly can’t be done under the current circumstances, making physical closure a long term risk. Being able to engage your audiences and even extend your reach digitally then is a real advantage.

However, it is apparent that it may be an advantage available only to those large cultural institutions that have been well funded or are wealthy enough to have engaged in digital engagement. Smaller theatres and galleries working on smaller margins have not always been able to invest in the same way, and many of the subsidised have struggled to even survive under ‘austerity’ funding. Such organisations don’t necessarily have a back catalogue of digital repertoire they can launch across social media channels or an institutional knowledge of digital creation, and in any case might lack the resource to do this well whilst simultaneously closing down a building and dealing with contracts, cancellations, contingencies, and insurance. Like the weather, a pandemic hits everyone, but the wealthy are always more ready to survive the storm.

Smaller arts organisations are still engaging digitally, of course. But much of what they are doing is less visible, and more local. Many smaller theatres such as Polka Theatre in London and Unity Theatre in Liverpool are using their social channels as a community resource, sharing announcements and information from local government. On the one hand, this is not their usual cultural fare, and may not be enough to keep audiences engaged. More positively though, it might mean that small venues become more relevant to their communities in this time of crisis, and bonds built now will sustain in the future.

But do these small cultural organisations matter? My colleague Heidi Ashton has talked here about the importance of arts and culture both economically and to the sense of who we are. The small scale contributes greatly to this cultural ecosystem, and engages a significant number of the freelancers who, as Ashton points out, are now struggling without government help. Small scale names may be less recognised nationally or internationally, but they often have higher local visibility and importance. Moreover, the small scale often nurtures the start of cultural product life cycles; In the past small scale theatre has nurtured work that has later been commercially exploited like Blood Brothers, or plays have become feature films like Letter to Brezhnev; and of course the small scale can provide a step on the ladder, nurturing writers, cast members and crews who can learn their craft. Importantly for theatre, and for society, the small scale can take formal risks, it can experiment and innovate, and it can offer a dissenting voice.

Without an obvious way to continue to engage its audiences, many small scale venues may struggle to survive. Indeed, we appear to have the first casualty of the Coronavirus shutdown: 30-year-old Square Chapel Arts Centre in Halifax announced this week it was going into administration. The Arts Council of England (ACE) has reacted to the crisis facing cultural organisations by acting swiftly, communicating in exemplary fashion, and releasing an impressive Emergency Response Package. Even applying to this will be a struggle for smaller organisations without dedicated fundraising and development departments. When distributing funds, ACE needs to note the particular circumstances of smaller organisations, already struggling financially and with fewer staff, and continue to invest in the small scale as well as the big names. ACE needs to keep them afloat in the current crisis and to develop their resilience, including their digital capacity, in the future. If, as seems likely, there is a protracted period of closure for cultural organisations due to the pandemic, it is worrying to wonder how many of our small, local, independent theatres will be able to go back and turn the ghost lights out, and put the flood lights back on again.

Empty Theatres

It is fair to say that the recent Government advice to delay the spread of Covid-19 has had a profound effect upon many sectors including the cultural and creative industries. There are many reasons why closures in the cultural sectors have hit people so hard and why we need to protect them going forwards.

1. The plight of freelancers

The cultural and creative industries have one of the highest rates of freelance workers of any sector in the UK. These freelancers work across a range of areas. For example, a theatre performer might also work on cruise ships, on television, in film, music or fashion all of which have been halted due to the pandemic. With no permanent contracts and minimal employment rights most of these workers have suddenly found themselves losing their jobs immediately whilst also having future work cancelled.

Being used to periods of unemployment freelancers are adept at using their skills to find alternative work but this is also on a freelance basis and often in hospitality, education or sport and leisure - all of which are similarly affected by the crises.

It is times like these when the precarious nature of freelance working is most starkly evident and harshly felt. Of course, freelance working is not limited to the creative industries. The ONS (office for National Statistics) estimates that around 15% of the total workforce are currently freelance or self-employed.

2. The invisible workers

When a theatre closes it is not just the performers that have lost their livelihood but the many, many jobs and businesses that are connected to the theatre. Within the theatre there are front of house staff, box office staff, cleaners, technicians, carpenters, electricians, wardrobe staff etc. Then there are the businesses surrounding the theatres, corner stores, shops, bars, restaurants, cafés, hotels, car parks. Finally, there are the related businesses providing marketing for theatrical productions, theatrical and musical agents and managers, production companies, promotors, physiotherapists and more. The next time you watch a film look at the credits, almost all the people on the seemingly endless list of jobs and names are freelance workers and with television and film production closing down all of those jobs and incomes have gone.

3. Financial cost

The financial loss to individual freelancers is catastrophic. The reliance upon numerous short-term contracts that are often poorly paid means that there is little chance of substantial savings. With no way to regain employment in the foreseeable future freelancers face the prospect of being unable to pay basic rent and bills. They also cannot afford to buy services of any kind so related businesses suffer. At the community level there is the loss of passing trade and tourism associated with cultural sites such as theatres and a loss of work for locals who work in those sites. The same of course is true for those working in sports venues.

At the National level the creative industries contributes around £101.5 billion to the UK economy and is one of the few sectors that grew during the last recession. The DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) reported that the sector provided 5.3 million jobs in 2018 and London’s West End theatre generated £133 million in VAT revenue. With almost all cultural and creative sector activities closed there will be a significant loss to the economy.

4. Do the arts matter?

The arts and creative industries provide opportunities to come together, create and learn. They provide vital health care and well-being both physically and mentally. Community arts projects provide classes and sessions for people with dementia and Parkinson’s Disease as well as babies, toddlers and those with differing learning and physical abilities. There are community arts projects that provide opportunities for people of all ages, encouraging and inspiring young talent and developing future artists of all kinds. The power of cultural and creative activities to bring people together has resulted in initiatives such as Cities of Culture of which Coventry will soon be host. It is how we understand and challenge the world around us, it is how we understand and challenge ourselves and others, it is our past, present and future. It is our culture.

As a final thought, I'd like to highlight some of the positive ways in which cultural and creative workers have responded to the crises in addition to the ways in which cultural activities have brought people together at this time.

In Italy we saw opera singers and DJs performing from their balconies, and support and solidarity was expressed through communities singing together from their homes.

Here in the UK freelance workers from the arts are providing online exercise classes that people can join for free, they are streaming live recitals to entertain those in isolation, they have created networks for passing on information as it appears and are providing online music lessons and crafting sessions in addition to taking active roles in the responses of local communities.

The economic contribution of the arts is clear not only from the DCMS figures but also the many, many jobs that surround and support the venues and workers, and the income generated from exports and tourism. They provide entertainment that reproduces but also challenges our perceptions, values and beliefs through games, films, television, theatre, music, dance, museums and galleries. A world without any of these is unimaginable.