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On Cultural Democracy

Last month, Arts Council England (ACE) revealed plans to award grants on the basis of “relevance” rather than “artistic excellence.” As Deputy Chief Executive for Arts and Culture Simon Mellor put it in previewing the national funding agency’s 10-year strategic plan, “Relevance is becoming the new litmus test. It will no longer be enough to produce high-quality work. You will need to be able to demonstrate that you are also facing all of your stakeholders and communities in ways that they value.”

The announcement has been greeted with skepticism, particularly by those in the field who question the agency’s appetite for change that might call its support of a core set of organizations that receive the lion’s share of its funding into question. Nonetheless, I find the public turn towards “relevance” remarkable for an organization that was founded on the premise of a particular and narrow view of “artistic excellence.”

The concept of relevance is nothing particularly new, of course. In 2016, Nina Simon, the forward-thinking director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, wrote a book called The Art of Relevance. And ACE’s adoption of the concept of “relevance” leaves open the question “Relevant to whom?” What is most striking about ACE’s recent announcement is therefore not the idea of relevance, but the implication that the agency’s commitment to “artistic excellence” may be softening. Is the very idea of “artistic excellence” being questioned as an abstract concept that is separate from the value system of the beholder? Is the idea beginning to crumble that “excellence” can be identified and proclaimed by experts with the expectation that the unwashed masses will accept its superiority even if they don’t see any value in it themselves?

ACE’s recent reorientation is taking place before a backdrop of lively debate about cultural democracy in the UK, which goes a step further than relevance. The gist of the cultural democracy movement, as I understand it, is that it seeks to put the determination of what types of arts and culture are valuable (and worthy of public support) in the hands of local communities. Last fall, ACE drew heavy criticism for trying to portray itself as a torch bearer for cultural democracy, highlighting the community engagement programs of the organizations in its national portfolio – organizations that were centrally selected by a pool of experts. The critical response from the cultural democracy movement was swift and predictable. ACE’s appropriation of the language put forth by the grassroots initiative carried the distinct scent of astroturf and ran counter to the movement’s demand for real change: They’re not asking for a bigger slice of cake, they’re preparing to storm the bakery.

Are we on the cusp of a cultural revolution? Will the “the arts” as we know them vanish along with the ideal of “artistic excellence”? I wouldn’t count on it. But at this moment in time it does seem worth remembering, as Eleonora Belfiore and Stephen Hadley point out, “There can be no true exploration of cultural democracy without the acknowledgment that hierarchies of cultural value have always been, and always will be, bound up with questions of power and authority.”

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2 Responses to On Cultural Democracy

  1. Steven Hadley says:

    Thanks for mentioning our work – the original full article is available FOC from the Cultural Trends website via this link:

    https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09548963.2018.1474009?scroll=top&needAccess=true

    Happy to discuss further,
    Steven

  2. John Carnwath says:

    Thanks, Steven, for the link and the historical context.

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