Heart of Glass Events. Photo © Stephen King
Culture makes places better. How to achieve this is a different question in every place where it is asked, but culture provides an answer in every locality.
It is vital to work in partnership with those bodies who have influence in your local area, and Councils provide the local leadership that holds place making together. Invite your local councillors to come and see you, and tell them about the difference that you make and what you hope to contribute in the future.
If you are looking to make a contribution around a particular local priority, then you need to consider, alongside the local authority, who else you need to engage with. If you want to have an impact upon health and wellbeing, then you will need to work with the Clinical Commissioning Group, or the local council as it performs its public health role.
Should you want to maximise your contribution to the local economy then you need to think about how you relate to the priorities set out by the Local Enterprise Partnership or (in the case of tourism) the destination management organisation.
Very often these organisations can be very large and feel quite distant. If you want to have an influence you might need to join up with other cultural organisations in a formal partnership. Sometimes this partnership might include bodies from other sectors, such as heritage, education, sport or local business – whatever is appropriate to your locality.
Places are different, but many of the challenges and opportunities for cultural place making are shared. Looking at what others have done can be inspiring and instructive. There are many online resources. Make a start with the Arts Council/LGA Culture Hub and NCVO Cultural Commissioning websites.
Culture is rooted in place. The best of our arts and culture is made in and speaks to the communities around it – think of the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme, conceived of as theatre with a mission to work within the local community from its foundation. Cultural organisations like this are found up and down the country. When you hear a local politician asking how they can make a place better, we need to speak up and tell them that the answer is to give people more chances to engage culturally.
Culture can help make places happier. Many communities have increasing numbers of older people, who can be at risk of isolation and loneliness. In south London, Age Exchange helps older people to improve their lives through activity centred on reminiscence and the arts.
The evidence suggests that engaging with arts and culture can help improve mental health and wellbeing. Increasingly, the NHS recognises this. GPs in Salford and County Durham, as well as a host of other places, offer access to the arts through social prescribing.
Culture shapes identity – how people in places see themselves, and how they relate to the world around them. Sometimes the effect of this can be dramatic – witness the changes in civic confidence and international profile that are coming from Hull’s year as UK City of Culture. Sometimes the effects have a lower profile but are fundamental and long-lasting. St Helens’ has transformed its cultural offer through its participation in the Creative People and Places programme. Heart of Glass has brought together partners as diverse as the local Superleague Rugby club, housing and health partners and the local council to work with the community to develop the town’s cultural life.
Identity is not always shared. Many communities face challenges of integration and cohesion. Culture can provide safe spaces to explore difference and find commonality. The Arts Council and DCLG Arts and Communities programme supported artists and arts organisations to work with communities to bring people together. Bristol’s Acta community theatre were part of this programme, building on their track record of intergenerational work and involving Bristol’s immigrant communities.
Culture makes places more prosperous. It is a vital part of the creative industries, a sector which has grown and created jobs at a faster rate than the economy as a whole over the last decade. The Arts Council’s Creative Local Growth Fund invests in local partnerships across the country to grow culture’s contribution to more prosperous places. The cultural offer is a vital part of a place’s appeal to tourists. For example, Cornwall365, a network of the county’s arts organisations, is extending the tourist offer outside of the usual season through arts and culture.
Places are different, as is culture’s contribution to making them better. What is constant, though, is culture’s potential to make our places where people live successful, inclusive and happy.
Tale Trail to Robin Hood. New Vic Theatre 2015. Photo © Andrew Billington