The elephant and the flea

London Essays – Issue 4: Culture

The elephant and the flea

Ensuring the future of the arts in London depends on understanding culture as an ecosystem.

By John Holden

When people talk about the evaluation of culture, they usually mean disciplines like economic studies that look at employment, tourism and added value; research into specific programmes designed to achieve such aims as rehabilitating offenders or reducing drug usage; and social impact measurements showing how culture helps with ‘placemaking’ and ‘vibrant communities’.

These managerial approaches are certainly useful, but they treat culture as a means to an end: they fail to see that it has a value in its own right. And although culture is created by all of us, evaluation usually assumes that culture is delivered by a professional class of artists and administrators to a passive ‘audience’. Tim O’Reilly, the editor of Wired, says that, ‘a true web 2.0 application is one that gets better the more people use it’. Culture works in the same way: citizens need to be able to create culture, as well as experience it.

Economic and social studies rarely connect with what city-dwellers want from culture. People think of culture in terms of enjoyment, pleasure, stimulation, emotional connection, and as a means of self-expression. Nobody sits in a darkened auditorium thinking, ‘I am so glad this performance is helping to meet regeneration targets in East London.’ Rather, they wonder: ‘Will this be any good?’ Their questions are about quality, not quantity.

One of the central issues for cities today is how to enable all citizens to live a rich cultural life. Can people explore the culture of the past and the present? Can they understand the varied cultural world they inhabit? Can they make and share their own work?

To achieve this requires us to assess the quality of the cultural system as a whole, ecologically, seeing culture as a unified and entire system. It means assessing the health of culture in its own terms – asking not whether culture produces economic and social goods but whether culture itself is meeting the needs of the public.

The American writer Ann Markusen has defined an arts and cultural ecology as ‘the many networks of arts and cultural creators, producers, presenters, sponsors, participants and supporting casts embedded in diverse communities.’ Taking an ecological approach allows for a number of useful words and concepts to be introduced. For example, in a natural ecology all species are equally important in the functioning of the whole ecosystem. The elephant would not exist without the flea. Similarly, in a cultural ecosystem, a child’s piano lesson is as important as a symphony orchestra, so cultural policy (which tends to concentrate on the elephant end of the scale) needs to concern itself with a broad set of concerns – not just national museums and large-scale concert venues, but art education in schools, jazz in pubs, and theatre in community halls as well. Ecology looks at resilience, growth, evolution, emergence and vulnerability. It asks questions about relationships and connections, causes and effects.

In a recent report for the Arts and Humanities Research Council called The Ecology of Culture, 22 I put forward some models of culture that can help policymakers both to understand how their cultural ecosystem works and to judge whether a cultural ecology in a particular city or region is functioning well. The first of these models looks at the interconnections between the publicly funded parts of culture, commercial culture, and ‘homemade culture’. Publicly funded culture includes all those organisations that receive public money through grants or tax concessions, whose work needs support either to exist or to pursue public policy aims like providing cheap tickets. Commercial culture operates through the marketplace: while individual cultural productions like a book or a film may fail the market test, overall publishing and the film industry survive mainly through sales. The homemade sector covers all those aspects of culture where people do things for themselves without direct payment from anybody: traditional ‘amateur’ work such as choirs and amateur dramatics, but also new internet platforms.

In the very recent past the homemade sector has been transformed by new technology. Whereas, previously, making and distributing high-quality work involved professional training, costly equipment and unionised labour, now we can all get our hands on cheap and easy-to-use instruments, cameras and software, enabling people to organise, create, curate, collaborate, share and sell their work. This has led to an explosion of creative expression – every young Londoner is in a band, or dances, or uploads their videos. The revolution in homemade culture has both created and destroyed business models in the commercial sector and has transformed the way that publicly funded cultural organisations relate to their audiences.

The cultural ecology of any city or nation includes all three of these sectors, and the research I undertook showed three important things for policymakers. The first is that the vast majority of organisations operate in a mixed economy. So, for example, we think of our national museums as being publicly funded, but they also have significant earning from other sources, and they are run as a business even if they have public service aims. Likewise, supposedly commercial companies rely heavily on public infrastructure and indirect public funding. Where would the West End be without actors and technicians who trained in the publicly funded theatre?

The second is that there is a continuous flow of ideas, money, product and talent between the three spheres. For instance, actors will often start as amateurs, make a career in funded theatre, appear in films and then move back and forth. Dancers, musicians and technicians have a similarly fluid trajectory. Funded orchestras will make commercial recordings that are used in advertising. From an ecological point of view, it rapidly becomes apparent that the systemic connections are so intense that one part of culture cannot be separated from another. A particularly obvious case is the relationship between publicly funded theatre, commercial theatre and film: take away the subsidised writing workshops for new playwrights at one end, and sooner or later a uniquely British expression of film will wither.

The third major finding from the research is that the health of a cultural system is affected by a large number of externalities. Just as a rainforest is shaped through climate change or deforestation, so the cultural life of a city is encouraged or discouraged by such things as policing, licensing and planning, and above all education policy and practice.

In The Ecology of Culture, I suggested a second way of looking at the health of culture. This proposes that rather than considering how culture is financed, we should look at the roles that are needed within a system. In order to function, culture needs Guardians (people and organisations that look after the culture of the past), Platforms (places where artists of all types can show and possibly sell their work), and Connectors (those who put the other parts of the system together). All of these roles exist across funded, commercial and homemade culture. An obvious example of a Guardian would be the British Library or the British Museum, mighty institutions that care for and provide public access to vast historical collections.

But the culture of the past is also looked after by commercial companies, such as Sony and Disney, who own some of the music that goes round our heads and forms part of our shared cultural experience. A Beatles song is as much ours as it is the copyright holders’ – which is why public policy must take an interest. And Guardians also exist in homemade culture in the form of millions of individuals who look after their own cultural inheritance, from a historic property to a collection of matchboxes.

Similarly, Platforms exist at the (publicly funded) Southbank; in the form of community and church halls, and online at sites such as Youtube and Instagram.

Connectors can be commercial producers and impresarios, or public servants who network across the cultural system and beyond in order to make things happen (in London, the Mayor’s Office is a particularly effective Connector).

Again, this model offers lessons for policymakers. Policy tends to concentrate on the physical aspects of culture – especially infrastructure – whereas it should also look at the process of how things come into being and how culture happens. It funds buildings and neglects Connectors. It regulates commercial culture but often fails to understand the cultural public interest in what it sees as entertainment: it does not pay enough attention to the homemade sector’s need for Platforms. Above all, it sees divisions between the professional and the homemade, and between the public and private sectors where there are interfaces and collaborations.

In an open and democratic society, it should be possible for everyone, from whatever back­ground or viewpoint, to take part fully in cultural life. If that is not the case then that society is selling some of its citizens short and operating inefficiently, failing to draw on the talents of all its people. The way that the cultural system within a city works is thus inextricably linked with issues of social justice.

An ecological approach to culture enables us to take a broader view and to see cultural life in the round. In doing so, it illuminates the role of policy, and helps show where the most effective interventions can be made.

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