How will arts, culture and creativity shape a better future for Coventry?

A blog about Art for the People, a Talking Birds project, originally written for Coventry 2021.

We’re hugely excited to be developing Art for the People with the support of Coventry 2021. This is a project that has been a very long time in the gestation – and for a while we didn’t know whether we would be able to convince people to invest and make it happen – because it doesn’t really take the shape of a traditional art project.

At Talking Birds, we believe that arts, culture and creativity are a fundamental part of everybody’s lives – the music we listen to, a dance around the kitchen as we cook, the rhythms we tap out with our feet while waiting for a bus, the photographs we post on social media… Our taxes help pay for our galleries, music venues and arts companies – and the TV dramas we watch, the books we read and the festivals we go to show us different lives and experiences, and give us things to talk about. We don’t acknowledge it very often, but art is a powerful part of all of our lives – it binds us together, helps us understand ourselves and the world, and is part of what makes us human.

Back in 2016, when the artists and arts organisations in Coventry were working on the city’s bid to become UK City of Culture, we at Talking Birds were concerned with the question of how you make such a bid a truly democratic process – something that really engages the people of the city in thinking about what the point of arts and culture is – and imagines what a City of Culture is, or could/should be. Because what is the point of gaining the title of City of Culture if it doesn’t have a real material impact on every person in the city and somehow use creativity and imagination to enrich all of our lives – not just for that year but forever?

And so we went out into various Coventry neighbourhoods to ask those questions: we enticed people in to talk to us by offering a free cup of tea and slice of cake, the opportunity to sit down and somewhere for their kids to play – and we asked them about arts and culture, about creativity and imagination. And we learned so much about our city and the people who live here. We fed all this knowledge, these ideas, discussions, thoughts, hopes and fears – everything we had learnt – back to the people who were writing the bid. And it felt that, when Coventry won the title of City of Culture, these voices had been heard.

Although these conversations went into the bid, we felt like this wasn’t really enough. It was cultural democracy – yes – but we wanted to go further, to shift the power and to find a more democratic, impactful way for “ordinary people” to have a say in how arts, culture, creativity and imagination were perceived, valued, funded, used and/or celebrated in this city fundamentally – not just for one extraordinary year.

Our conversations with knitters in Bell Green and shoppers in Tile Hill (and other people in other parts of Coventry) had shown us that, of course, the lives of the people of this city are full of culture and creativity but that these things are not always seen to be of value. It’s not surprising, given the fact that Government policy has chipped away at arts in school, that the chance to learn a musical instrument, or be part of creating and performing a large scale performance, or to go on a school trip and experience famous paintings or a west end musical close up has been replaced by more maths and English classes; that school art lessons are more likely to consist of a sheet of A4 paper and some coloured pencils rather than a the chance to explore the expansive joy of messy materials such as clay or paint on a larger scale; that Theatre in Education, which was invented in Coventry and spread across the world, has been cut and young peoples’ chances to explore the world through their imaginations have been so reduced and restricted (unless they are privately educated or have the money to access these experiences outside of school); that the pressures of life are such that there is often just no space for thinking, let alone imagining…

Not surprising, perhaps, but absolutely unfair.

We wanted to find a way to make interventions in the city that would share the decision-making power and allow “ordinary people” to collectively explore all of this, amplify these conversations and really make long-lasting change. For Coventry to once again develop something new and special that would make the world sit up and take notice…to use the arts to connect people, to imagine together and make change, to help solve the problems we all face and to make all of our lives better.

We kept coming back to a little snippet of history that had been given to us by Tony Howard from Warwick University. He had told us that, in 1941 after a second heavy bombing raid had hit Coventry very badly, the people in the city were fed up and frightened. They had had enough. Morale was low and worker militancy was high. Having previously been lauded for their ‘Blitz Spirit’, the people of this city were on the verge of rebellion. This was a huge problem for the Government of the day, threatening the war effort and the social order – and so they did something unexpected – they sent art and theatre into the factories. A programme of “Art for the People”.

Depending on how you look at it, you could say this was a patrician tactic to distract the workers and diffuse the tension – but you could also say it was a kindness, a gift of beauty and imagination into lives so ground down that all hope was gone. And in this duality is the spark that has inspired our project, also called Art for the People. We know that this touring programme of work developed over time into the formation of the Arts Council – and the inclusion of arts and cultural provision into the post-war social contract which included the creation of the NHS. And perhaps it also contributed to Coventry’s proud tradition of social responsibility, of looking after each other, welcoming strangers – of all that is best about our city?

This is where our project came from – everything it was built out of – but what is it exactly?

Art for the People begins with what we believe to be the UK’s first Citizens’ Assembly on Arts and Culture, in November 2021, exactly 80 years after the wartime unrest shook the city.

Fifty people will be randomly selected to represent Coventry’s population and make up the Assembly. Over a period of weeks they will hear from expert witnesses and discuss what they hear with their fellow participants, friends and family members. They will then use this learning, these discussions, combined with their own knowledge and life experience to work together to produce a set of recommendations. These recommendations will be presented to the City Council as a part of the work they are currently doing on Coventry’s cultural strategy, but they will also be used by Talking Birds to commission prototype arts projects in city neighbourhoods that test out some of these ideas and add weight to the Assembly’s recommendations.

Citizens’ Assemblies have been used to great effect in places, and on issues, where a deeper understanding of the complexities is needed in order to break a deadlock or a divisive binary. This Citizen’s Assembly is intended to open up the debate around the roles, purpose and potential of art and artists, the way the arts funding system works, how communities engage with and influence arts and arts policy, how we might rethink education to value creativity and nurture imagination. Most importantly it will re-imagine how – in a world threatened by climate breakdown and forever changed by its brush with a pandemic, and in a city inhabiting the title of City of Culture – Arts and Culture can truly work ‘for the people’ to re-invent ‘The Arts’ for the times we inhabit, and help solve the problems we face now.

There are established guidelines for Citizens’ Assemblies – the process is tried and tested to ensure that every participant is fully valued and involved. We are working with deliberative democracy specialists Mutual Gain to design and run this Assembly but, as it is the UK’s first on Arts and Culture, we are taking the opportunity to incorporate more art and creativity into the process than might usually be the case.

It is a reasonable question to wonder how we can randomly select 50 people that will represent the city. It’s not something that an arts organisation necessarily has the expertise to do, and so we are working with the Sortition Foundation. They specialise in putting together random stratified samples of populations for Citizens’ Assemblies and other social democracy projects. Essentially they begin by looking at the city’s demographic information in percentages – of age, ethnicity, disability, income, education etc and they build up a picture of the city through this lens to guide the selection of participants.

They are sending 15,000 letters out to randomly selected households in Coventry that, collectively, hit the demographic make up of the entire city. These letters invite people to take part in the Citizens’ Assembly, offer payment for their time and ask them to sign up by the end of September. Out of the people who volunteer to take part, the Sortition Foundation again check these against the City’s demographic snapshot – to ensure that the final 50 selected include people from all walks of life, from all over the city, and are a truly representative sample. (For context, the recent UK Climate Assembly comprised 108 participants, selected in exactly the same way, that represented the entirety of the UK.)

The question that this Citizens’ Assembly will set out to answer is: How will arts, culture and creativity shape a better future for Coventry?

We know that we need to work together to solve the huge problems facing humanity, and the arts are one of our fundamental ways of connecting with each other, of imagining and testing out different ways of doing things. If a City of Culture can’t lead the way on determining how the arts, culture and creativity can help shape a better future, who can?

Janet Vaughan
Co-Artistic Director, Talking Birds
September 2021

Art for the People has been created by Talking Birds, working with Mutual Gain and The Sortition Foundation. The project is supported by Coventry City of Culture Trust, Arts Council England and Coventry City Council.

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