Start by valuing what’s already there

Last night, Arlene Goldbard and I recorded the next episode of our blog, ‘A Culture of Possibility’. Our guest was Lucy Wright, an artist and researcher whose work has often centred on the arts and culture that people do without asking for help or permission. Some of that gets called folk, or amateur art, by policy makers and academics, but a lot is so marginalised that it doesn’t get named at all. There are hierarchies everywhere, and degrees of disapproval too. It’s a fascinating conversation, in which Lucy speaks about valuing the subversive, alternative and feminist practices that thrive out of official sight. The podcast will be out on 15 April.

The conversation reminded me of the time I spent with West Bromwich Operatic Society, ten years ago. That was the first regular marvel, and my first attempt to write about undervalued aspects of cultural life using artistic rather than scientific methods. It was prompted by the list of ‘areas of low engagement’ published by Arts Council England in 2011. That ranking of local authority areas was based on a single question in a national household survey and seemed to me to result in a very misleading picture of cultural life in England. One reason for that was what art it recognised—principally what is supported by public funds. It was, in fact, a list of areas of low investment, which could have been drawn up simply by tabulating the Arts Council’s current spending. The programme that was developed in response—Creative People and Places—followed the same logic, hoping to increase engagement by increasing spending on what the art world thought was worth paying for. To me, the very foundation of this thinking was wrong. I have never met anyone not engaged in culture and art: if you don’t see that, it’s because you don’t recognise what they do or like as worthwhile. Human beings are cultural beings.

So I set out to prove my point. Sandwell, a metropolitan borough west of Birmingham, was third or fourth on the Arts Council’s list of areas of low arts engagement, but I knew it as a lively and creative area. I’d worked with Jubilee Arts, one of the oldest community arts groups in the country, and its successor, Multistory, and had seen lots of good work. With Multistory’s support, I began meeting local voluntary groups whose work could be seen as broadly cultural. That’s how I learned about West Bromwich Operatic Society (WBOS), sitting in a cafe while a kind man in his 60s talked me through files of programmes going back decades. WBOS put on its first production in 1937—years before the Arts Council was even imagined—and it’s only the fourth oldest amateur theatre company in the Black Country. It puts on two productions a year, hiring professional theatres for the purpose, and makes all the money it needs to keep going. It has over a hundred regular members, a youth section, and thousands of supporters. And it’s very, very good.

I followed the company as they produced their version of Mel Brook’s The Producers, talking to the people involved and watching as their work developed. I asked Benjamin Wigley, a Nottingham filmmaker, to accompany me and make a film to accompany the book I was planning. And we presented both at an event in the sadly now lost Public, exactly 10 years ago. Where We Dream is one of the things I’ve done that I feel most proud of, partly for the book and the film work, but more because I was so impressed by all the members of WBOS and their spirit. I think you’ll see why if you watch the film below.

And now, history is having a hiccough, and the Arts Council is being told by government to redistribute its funding in order to meet its rhetoric of ‘levelling up’. We live in a profoundly unequal and unfair society, and any attempt to address its injustices must be welcome. But only if it is real and meaningful. Only if it acknowledges the causes of the inequality. Only if it recognises what already exists and values what people achieve. Only if it respects people’s lives, autonomy and culture.

Art is everywhere, and most of it, happily, doesn’t need government help. Nor will it benefit from being told what to do, how and why by policymakers. If government really wants to ‘level up’ it could start by guaranteeing people’s right, under article 27.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to be able freely to participate in the cultural life of the community. Note that, please: freely. I won’t hold my breath. But in the meantime, if you want to see (or be reminded) how important amateur theatre is to people and communities, please read the book, watch this film, and go to the show in October.

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