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Collaborating but not listening

Local authorities and the Arts Council agree a framework but don’t engage communities

The Arts Council and the County and City Management Association (CCMA), the local government management network, have just agreed ‘A Framework for Collaboration’. The Framework culminates thirty years of collaboration between the Arts Council and the local authorities. It is promoted as a new way for these partners to work together, maximise the impact of their collective efforts, and reflect their shared belief in the contribution of the arts to cohesive and sustainable communities.

Could this new partnership agreement be the Irish hub to lead-out a strong, democratic voice for culture? Could it reflect the ambition of The Agenda 21 for Culture, with its concern for the interdependent relationship between citizenship, culture and sustainable development? These are the expectations which should underpin the Framework.

Local authorities spend €37.5 million annually through their arts services. They are the most significant supplier of the arts – appropriately since they are the elected bodies with the closest relationship to person and place. However, local government is poor at community-led participation. This raises questions as to the very starting point of the Framework and its capacity to live up to any expectations of a strong democratic voice for culture.

The state and its executive will lead out the Framework Agreement with no sign of engagement by elected representatives or citizens. In 2016 the first in a cycle of three-year plans will be developed by a Management Liaison Group that will establish strategic priorities. A Working Group will develop and implement strategic actions to reflect these priorities. Both structures are limited to Arts Council, CCMA, and local authority executive representatives. This is more of the discredited top-down management approach to the arts.

There is a notable absence of the obvious linkage to the community-development responsibilities of local authorities. The Framework puts too much emphasis on its own role and infrastructure and not enough on its potential to integrate the arts into a community development agenda and to ‘work with’ rather than ‘on’ or ‘for’ communities. It ignores the role of civil society, artists, and communities. It gives no consideration to their pioneering work of re-rooting the bonds between people and place across people of diverse backgrounds and orienations, and of empowering these diverse communities.

The four shared commitments identified in the Framework do suggest an intention to foster some interdependence between citizenship, culture and sustainable development. There is a commitment to “access to and engagement with the arts for all people”. However, this is posed in economistic terms: ensuring public investment in the arts “benefits as many as possible”.

There is a more promising if nebulous commitment to ensuring “a diversity of contexts and types of participation that constitute public engagement, most particularly social and cultural diversity”. After that there are the workaday commitments to value the work of artists and to achieve quality and the best possible artistic outcomes.

Sadly, with our closed-in artocracy focused on who gets funded and on mechanisms of control, our arts institutions and services continue to be more interested in the objects rather than the subjects of culture. The Framework reflects this situation in leaning more towards being a service agreement.

Five of its eight goals are internal to its own modus operandi, focused on issues of delivery rather than content or vision. We get a delivery mechanism for arts services to citizens, when we need improved capacity and resources for local authority arts officers to deliver as agents for a local arts ecology sustained in tandem with citizens.

The Framework fails to open up fresh thinking and remains trapped between binaries: the right to art and its intrinsic value versus the cultural tourism and economic arguments for the arts. It is silent when it comes to the stark reality of cultural inequality; issues of gender inequality and discrimination in the arts; and opportunities presented in the diversity of local communities.

The Framework should have paid more attention to the way people experience their engagement with arts and culture. It should place more emphasis on the cultural value and public value of the arts. Local sustainable development is about people and place. It belongs to all citizens and is only given to local authorities to administer.

The Agenda 21 for Culture highlighted “Cultural goods and services are different from other goods and services, because they are bearers of meaning and identity”. It set out a challenge in noting “Artists, cultural organisations and cultural institutions play a central role in developing sustainable urban and rural space”. The Framework remains far from any such aspiration.

By Ed Carroll