What does a socially just cultural sector look like?
Shoubhik Bandopadhyay, our Head of Programme – Arts, reflects on some of the questions we’ve been asking ourselves about systems change in the arts with the help of our learning partner.
I started this job with the intention to write regularly, both for my own reflective practice and to share what’s going on inside Paul Hamlyn Foundation in the day-to-day, what we’re trying to achieve and what challenges we are encountering along the way. Eight weeks in I began this blog and twelve weeks later I have finished it!
One of the reasons I was so excited to join PHF was to try and answer a question: what does a socially just cultural sector (or system? more on that later) look like, and how can we help to realise it? In my first few months I’ve spent time thinking and talking to colleagues about how well-equipped our organisation is to approach this challenge. Are we able to have difficult and discomfiting conversations? Are we sensitive to the internal dynamics of staff, leaders and trustees and the power structures we are all positioned within? Like every organisation I’ve worked at, sometimes we are and sometimes we aren’t. This can be frustrating, but grant-makers are natural optimists and well-practiced at dreaming of a better world, so that gives me positivity.
I’ve spent time getting to know the amazing team of grant-makers who I now manage. The team have a blend of lived experience and grant-making knowledge which makes for rich conversations about all facets of our work, and we’ve already begun reflecting on the broader context and purpose of the Arts Access and Participation Fund through some sessions with our learning partners, looking at systems change in the arts. The Foundation is in a fascinating space right now, feeling our way into our commitments to anti-racism, justice and equity and getting a sense of the transformational possibilities of seeing our work through that lens.
My initial reflections from this so far are:
The linear structures of traditional grant-making cannot contain the generative messiness that art and culture grows from. With the volume of applications we receive and our overriding desire to get money out into the world, we have less time than we need to engage with the emerging movements shaping our culture today. This mode of grant-making favours more familiar and structured work over the work at the margins, and tends toward incremental improvements rather than radical solutions. Being a more equitable funder will require us to step out of this cycle and see what possibilities lie on the other side.
At one of our earlier learning partner sessions we discussed whether we should be funding into the sector or the system. It’s easy to conflate the arts sector (the bit which receives public money or is in the orbit of this money) with the arts system (which includes everyone who wants to be participate in art in any way – basically everyone). If you work in ‘the arts’, then the sector is familiar. It has established genres, institutions and ways of doing things. But the system is fuzzier – it is shaped by diverse income streams and has fewer formalised ways of working than the sector (e.g. diversity data and evaluation and learning practices). It includes everyone from commercial recording artists to grassroots activist artists and everything from video games to village fairs. Actors in the system have a range of motivations, which are often contradictory, for example profit & fame vs. love & care.
We are naturally drawn to the predictability and stability of the sector as a place in which to enact change. It is easier to see cause and effect, to know which policy levers to pull and what language to use and we will always focus some of our energy and resource here. But what new possibilities are opened up to us by thinking about the whole system
Perhaps we can more intentionally connect our arts funding to PHF’s broader social justice ambitions, not just by making the sector more equitable but also by exploring the role that art and artists could play helping us create a just and liberated world. It’s a subtle shift in the framing of our work, but it opens up some new possibilities for change. This is something I’ll be sitting with as we move through the next few months.
It is dizzying trying to grapple with the privilege and potential of this work. To critique a great organisation from the inside as a rookie grant-maker can feel exposing at times, and to try and articulate how things could be feels both naive and important. In the first few months I often found myself thinking, ‘am I making sense?’ but that’s evolved into ‘where might this lead?’ We’ll share some answers as we find them.