There’s a really exciting document I want to talk about. It talks about the how modern societies need urgently to place creativity at the very heart of how we operate. It talks about how digital technology is transforming how we work and how resilient populations need to lean on creativity to stay ahead of the curve and remain relevant. It identifies the need for a quantum shift in how we talk, fund and teach creativity, that it needs to move to the very centre of how we view the world. And it talks about how our specific problems, and tendency to see culture as a binary tribal bolt on can be interrogated within the context of a broader cultural framework in which everyone can co-exist.
This document is called ‘Unlocking Creativity’ and it was published by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in early 2001.
I remember reading it at the time and being really excited… and then nothing. Reading it now, with my kids in schools where the creativity is being stripped out rather thing built up it’s pretty depressing. This was revolutionary stuff in 2001, a big ask. As it turns out too much of an ask.
There’s another document out at the minute. Another document which has got me and a lot of others in the creative sector excited. It speaks of all these things and more. It talks about place making and public spaces and inter-departmental partnership. Most of all it nails what one could argue the ACNI has failed to effectively articulate before now - creativity is not some leisure pursuit, it’s core to all of our lives and absolutely vital for ANY city that wants to remain relevant in the 21st Century.
There’s so much to love about the content, the tone and the ambition of this piece of work. It’s exciting to see an official document that finally articulates an understanding of the potential of the creative sector to transform individuals, communities and cities. There’s pretty much nothing contained in the document that I wouldn’t give my 100% backing to. However I would like to comment on a couple of things that I think need to be articulated that perhaps aren’t spelled out in as much detail as I’d like.
Something that has increasingly started to bug me of late is that the arts seems to be seen exclusively as something to be funded - charity. As someone who runs a business with ‘arts’ in the name it’s amazing how often people just assume that you’re a charity or a not for profit or that you will work for free. Now agriculture gets subsidised, and industry, and tourism, but no-one assumes that that subsidy is the only means of operating. Once I was producing a tourism product I was amazed at the support that was suddenly thrown my way by all sorts of bodies. Media support, networking events, business consultancy. It’s great being a tourism thing. There’s no such support for those of us who are developing the creative content that makes Belfast class. I’m not eligible for funding. I don’t want it, but I want help and most of all I want people to clock that you can be Arts AND Business and still do interesting work. YES fund more the stuff that needs funding but the core of this document is so much more impactful than mere money.
If we can have a strong Council voice saying to all citizens ‘this stuff is important’. A Council that advocates at the highest level and consistently drills home the value of aesthetic, place making and creative challenge internally and externally, that will change everything.
So the key question here is not is the proposal any good, the key question is who can implement it? No matter how great the arts officers are, they don’t have the weight to deliver this. It’s brilliantly ambitious but it needs a champion with the stones to knock on doors and the authority to turn the tanker around.
Over the last number of years the rest of Council has been moving in the opposite direction to what’s being talked about here. Placing Arts under the heading of Tourism in the staffing structure. Stripping all arts programming out of the Waterfront and Ulster Halls and handing them over to an external business. Channelling huge sums of money to events that service one tribe of the other. These things illustrate institutional values of an organisation currently completely out of step with the document before us.
So, and here’s the rub, this document will fail unless changes are made to how arts and culture are resourced. And I’m NOT talking about money. I’m talking about staff. A senior post, reporting directly to the Chief Exec, with power and staff is what’s needed - a Directorate for Place Making and Culture. We all know it is that important for building great cities, the evidence is clear but if I learnt one thing during my time at BCC it’s that Function Follows Form not the other way around. Only a revamped and powered up staffing structure with direct responsibility for this agenda will enable it to come to pass.
Imagination is amazing and this report has got ours all excited. But after a career of seeing ambitious policy documents stutter when it came to delivery it’s REALLY important to call this out now. If you actually want this to happen put a BOSS on it and if you haven’t got the right boss, go and get one.