A New Year’s provocation from Fun Palaces’ Co-Director Stella Duffy
I’m the youngest of seven children born in a council estate in south London. Both of my parents left school at 14, my siblings left school at 16. There was nothing in my background or my schooling that led me to think it was possible for someone like me to become an artist. To be the writer and theatremaker that I wanted to be. Yes, I knew galleries existed, I knew there were theatres, but other people made that work, other people attended that work. Middle class people, posh people, people who were not like me. My life changed when I was fifteen and a touring Shakespeare company came to my school. (Sorry bard-lovers, it wasn’t the words that did it.) What made the difference was that someone in the company was the brother of my primary school friend. His father worked in the same mill my father did. He came from the same small town as me. Someone like me was being an artist. Someone like me was actively creating culture.
In 2016 I was a panel member for the Gulbenkian Inquiry into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations. More broadly, the whole Fun Palaces team has been part of many discussions about the role of creativity and cultural organisations at a time where so much is in flux, so much uncertain.
The big ballots of 2016 showed us that there is a mass of people who believe they are not listened to, people who don’t trust those of us who run the organisations (however small and underfunded, however vast and running the nation). If we do not listen to the people who believe this to be true, if we do not find ways to include them, on their terms rather than ours, they will find ways to exclude us. Most likely at the ballot box.
In Fun Palaces we believe that all cultural organisations – all arts and all science – need to be for and of the people. ALL of the people.
We need to be the change we want to see.
We all say that we want culture that is inclusive, diverse, accessible, available to all.
We all say that we want culture that is boundary breaking, challenging, new.
If we want an inclusive and diverse cultural ecology, we have to BE an inclusive and diverse arts and cultural ecology.
It is no longer enough to talk about it.
We can create internal quotas if we don’t have the courage to do so publicly.
We can consider that our views of ‘excellence’ were defined by white men of privilege centuries ago and are no longer relevant for the people we must work with and for.
We can risk change.
If we want an accessible culture, we have to create it.
As long as the vast majority of the population does not feel welcome to join in the business of creating our culture – and not simply receiving it – then we will never achieve the groundbreaking science and great art needed, because the pool of creativity we are drawing from is just too small.
As long as that pool remains primarily white, primarily middle class, and yes, all too often primarily male, we will keep making the same culture and that same culture will continue to touch only the same people.
As long as most people cannot say of arts and science, ‘that artist, that scientist, is someone like me’ we will continue to perpetuate the divisions we say we despise.
It is not enough to speak of education as the solution.
There are so many people currently in their 20s, 30s, 40s, already beyond education, who hated school, who were never touched by the arts or sciences. No matter how well we work with children as cultural practitioners, the best way to enthuse young people is through their own family and community. If we are not working with these adults – the millions who are over 18, often well over 18 – then we have lost generations of potential artists and scientists.
Creativity is not about the status quo – cultural organisations cannot be the status quo either.
Creativity and culture are about deep and passionate human interaction, they are about the darkest we can be and the heights we can soar to.
Right now, the arts and sciences in the UK are made by a minority, accessed by a minority, and make a difference for a minority. Our role then, is to have the guts to do something about it. Open the doors, tear down the walls, get out of the glass and concrete ivory towers in which all too much of our culture is hidden. Get out to the people whose lives and loves are full and valuable with or without a cannon of high art and an understanding of hard science – people who often believe that cultural organisations don’t care about them. When the people who currently feel discarded, not heard, not reflected, are the artists and the scientists – when everyone is an artist and everyone a scientist – then we won’t need to worry about creating a diverse, accessible cultural ecology, we will be one
How do we do this?
Obviously we think Fun Palaces is one way.
Our last Fun Palaces weekend had 292 Fun Palaces worldwide creating locally and community-led cultural engagement with 124,000 people taking part. Most Fun Palaces were led by a Maker team with an average of 16 people in that team – 27% of Maker teams included someone/s with a disability, 62% included someone/s in an ethnic minority. In the UK, 85% of Fun Palaces were outside London.
We have achieved this in just three years on less than £120,000 a year with a part time staff of six. (And no, we can’t keep managing at that level, not when we doubled our output and impact in 2016 with no more money, no more staff and no more time.)
We have achieved it by putting people and communities first. By being very clear that we believe anyone can make a Fun Palace and we will support anyone to do so. By not only saying yes to everyone who wants to join in, but by actively inviting people to do so, by going to them.
There is so much we don’t yet know, we have way more to do, and much further to go. We are only beginning to scratch the surface of the ‘genius in everyone’ that we hope to reveal and work with. But four years since Sarah-Jane and I started Fun Palaces, three years since we’ve been working with our tiny team, I think we can say we have begun.
And it’s not just us …
64 Million Artists, Voluntary Arts, Get Creative, the British Science Association are among our partner national organisations working in everyday creativity, with grassroots engagement, asserting the value of cultural engagement – active participation – for, by and with all, with an emphasis on doing, on taking part. There are thousands of small, hyper-local groups, organisations and individuals doing the same, the length and breadth of the UK, we meet hundreds of them every year with Fun Palaces. They’re rarely as shiny as the ones that get named in every big report, they certainly didn’t get cited in the Culture White Paper, but they are doing it.
Top-down instrumentalism and the belief that culture is ‘good for people’, have left us with an urgent need to rebalance our cultural ecology, not simply for the sake of culture, but for the sake of society. It is time to give grassroots-up cultural democracy a chance. There is no community in the history of humanity that has not created their own culture. Arts and science ask the fundamental questions of who we are, what are we for, what is the point of being? If we want to find genuine answers, answers that include all of us, then cultural organisations and individual practitioners must ensure that everyone gets the chance to answer those questions, that everyone gets the chance to create.
Together – and only together – we can build an inclusive culture. It is time to not only believe in the genius in everyone, but to allow everyone to act on that genius.