Civic Potential

In May 2016, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (CGF) launched a major initiative, titled ‘Inquiry into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations’. I latched onto it pretty quickly as it chimed with the reading I was doing around the shifting role of art museums and their relationships with the public. Their research team did a phenomenal amount of consultation and, like the proverbial watched pot, it has felt like a long wait for the findings to be published. So you can imagine my happiness when an email arrived in my in-box this week, informing their mailing list subscribers that the Phase 1 Report, ‘Rethinking Relationships’ was ready.

The report is divided into two sections. The first section provides a broad international and historical perspective, exploring the different ways that arts organisations have worked with audiences and positioned themselves in their communities. It also includes a length discussion on terminology and the team’s rationale for not providing a fixed definition of the ‘civic role’ of arts organisations, but a set of principles instead. The second section  is made up of 20 case studies, sharing inspirational examples of arts organisations championing civic engagement, and the CGF website provides a further 20 case studies.

Like all good research projects, the team has set the bar high: “our ambition has been to find out what would enable the arts sector to move beyond addressing issues of diversity and education, often narrowly and separately framed, to something which feels more holistic and democratic”. (p.6) The consultative spirit that has underpinned their work continues – the report is dotted with further questions and an invitation to email in your thoughts and responses. It concludes:

“when we established the Inquiry, our goal was to have facilitated a strong and growing movement of arts organisations that fully embrace their civic role by 2025. Our aspiration is for these organisations to improve the lives of large numbers of people across England… We want to work with others – arts organisations, funders, policy and research organisations – with ideas and resources to help design and deliver what we hope will be a strong collaborative programme for change”. (p.61)

There will be more reports and consultation to follow, so if this is up your street, there is still time to get involved.

With my museum/gallery educator bias, I saw the fingerprints of learning methodology all over this report, although it was given insufficient credit. It was acknowledged that artists, producers and curators require further training to be able to work directly with a diverse range of audiences, but that thought wasn’t extended to recommend that learning specialists within these organisations could take a greater leadership role. It seems that the largest shift required, both for learning staff and the organisation as a whole, is to elevate the work beyond projects to strategy:

“One challenge that has emerged is the difficulty of getting people to think beyond individual projects to the ‘civic stance’ of an organisation. To illustrate, when we initially canvassed for inspiring examples of arts organisations re-imagining their civic role and at the cutting edge of practice, most suggestions were of individual projects, the majority participatory performing arts projects. Relatively few were examples of arts organisations taking a strategic approach.” (p.21)

This finding says a lot about how organisations engage with communities, and where that work lies in the hierarchy. As the Paul Hamlyn-funded ‘Our Museum’ project made clear, to deliver an holistic approach to community engagement, the whole organisation needs to be working towards that commitment. Bernadette Lynch wrote in her 2011 report, ‘Whose Cake Is It Anyway?’, that the kind of work that the Inquiry aspires to is often marginalised and subservient to other organisational agendas. If you add to the mix the short-termism of restricted funding pots, and the accompanying requirement to always be working with new and different audiences, you end up with the situation that has been observed – smatterings of projects that are not adding up to greater than the sum of their parts, and a lack of interest in transforming the embedded organisational cultures that are keeping this work piecemeal.

The’ Rethinking Relationships’ report, and the Inquiry generally, are a gift to museum and gallery learning specialists – they provide powerful leverage for organisational change, and recognition that learning programming has a far greater impact when it is folded into an organisation’s strategic planning. My Churchill Report includes examples of what incredible change can be achieved when Learning has a seat at the top table.


IMAGE: James Stewart, in ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’,


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