This piece is part of a weekly series of articles curated by Voluntary Arts and authored by cultural thinkers and doers. The series will be published between November 2017 and March 2018. It is being shaped in response to the emerging practice of cultural commoning and as a way of articulating ideas that have arisen in conversations about Our Cultural Commons over the past two years across the UK and Republic of Ireland.

Our intention is that the series will help make visible the cultural commons in action and will encourage new approaches to sustaining creative cultural activity in local places. And we hope that the articles and the conversation they stimulate will contribute to the forming of ever more enabling cultural policy.

Sometimes it seems that theory and practice run parallel with each other: like two sides of a ladder where it's the steps linking them that enable us to progress. Written as just such a step, this paper describes an instance of ‘thinking-by- doing’ which is - and not co-incidentally - the basic methodological discipline of the arts. The aim is to show that the way in which local arts practice, which is currently evolving in Birmingham, contributes to shaping and evolving the theory of cultural commons.

Birmingham by nightIn 2010, Birmingham City Council had become aware that its hitherto extensive and successful community arts service was no longer sustainable. In going out to tender with community-based groups, council officers took a first vital step towards democratising arts provision in the city. Accordingly, ten small arts groups of a variety of types were commissioned to manage Local Arts Forums. With a Forum in each of its ten Districts, Birmingham has created a local arts structure embedded in a notably wide range of socio-economic locations. Significantly, Forums were led by artists who were resident in their respective Districts.

Because of this physical and management structure, the Forums were able to generate local arts activities in a notably different way. Systematically employing co-design methodologies, artists functioned as facilitators with the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of creative activities determined by what citizens perceived as appropriate for them. The full impact of this approach soon became evident. Questions arose about the relative importance of process and product, and the consequent issue of how quality could be assessed and by whom. Tensions emerged about the role of the Forums. As commissioner, the local authority saw them instrumentally as a vehicle for delivering the city’s cultural offer in wards and neighbourhoods that it had designated as priority locations. Major arts organisations in the city tended to cast the Forums as localised agents for their outreach and audience development programmes. Ironically in all this, the Forums were weakest where they were strongest. Physically localised, spread across the city, and operationally pre-occupied, they were disconnected and thus vulnerable to divide and rule tactics. The earlier promise that Forums would develop a radically citizen-based approach to the arts was beginning to be undermined by institutional interests of the cultural establishment.

Old No. 11 bus in BirminghamThe turning point came with two developments. In 2014-16, and alongside councils from Bristol, Bradford and Burnley, Birmingham participated in ‘Connecting Communities through Culture’, a project funded by Arts Council England and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. The Forums were tasked with co-designing arts activities to encourage socio-cultural interaction between otherwise disengaged communities. However, in generating arts activities with citizens simultaneously in widely differing neighbourhoods and communities of interest across the whole of the city, the ten Forum leaders became fully aware of the exciting potential of the Forum structure. They resolved to form an independent company that could speak with one voice for all Forums, raise funds in its own right and champion citizen-led arts. They named the company ‘No. 11 Arts’ after the famous Birmingham bus route with the symbolism that it too links out-lying micro-communities and, as a circular route, does not radiate from the centre. At more or less the same time, arts organisations in Birmingham - large and small theatres, production companies, galleries, concert halls, etc. - followed a similar path to the Forums and came together to form their umbrella organisation, Culture Central. No. 11 Arts and Culture Central are currently engaged whole-heartedly in exploring how they can co-operate on equal terms in future. Thus, we now have a strong platform for radically re-thinking the identity, place and functions of the arts in the City of Birmingham.

Whilst continuing to hold the council commission to manage the Local Arts Forums in Birmingham, No. 11 Arts now receives funds from other sources. Co-design methodology is a key factor in this respect. Through this process No. 11 Arts employs a wide range of art forms to enable citizens to articulate and share not only how they see themselves, other citizens and the worlds around them, but also how their perceptions and those of others might change in future. In this way, No. 11 Arts is actively re-shaping where the arts lie in the wider socio-cultural profile of a major European city. Through practice, the case is being made that the arts form common land and an integral feature of the daily lives of all citizens alongside a field owned by professional providers and privileged consumers.

The capacity of the arts to mesh with other aspects of daily life and with wider social issues is evidenced by a recent No. 11 Arts commission from a consortium of West Midland universities. We were asked to conduct open-ended ‘creative consultation’ with citizens about re-shaping urban services, such as transport, policing, housing etc. Artist-facilitators co-designed activities with contrasting resident groups, enabling them to articulate how they saw themselves in relation to the provision of urban services. The groups chose to engage in yarn-bombing their neighbourhood, composing rap lyrics about the buses and creating a community quilt highlighting what they valued in their environment. Citizen perspectives on urban service providers, revealed through these activities, were notably different from the ways in which providers see citizens.

No 11 ArtsBut how does the practice of No. 11 Arts help to evolve the theory of cultural commons? There are indications that a more democratic approach to culture is emerging. Socially loaded hierarchical values are deeply embedded in our ideas about culture. Consider, for example, the values associated with ballet and zumba classes. Through its structure, ways of working and its place in the Birmingham cultural spectrum, No. 11 Arts is in a position to set up change-making and place-making dialogues across such divides. Employing co-design methodology enables citizens to benefit from artists’ creative skills and cultural insights, whilst simultaneously developing their creative capacities, without surrendering their own sense of socio-cultural identity.

To conclude, No. 11 Arts is engaged in Birmingham-based practice that is helping to shape two processes of cultural commoning. We are fostering a power balance between two forms of authority: rigour that comes from professional capability in the arts, and relevance that comes from citizens’ lived experience. We are also engaged in realising the idea of creative ‘place-making’ by demonstrating that any venue housing an institution dedicated to the arts is no more a centre of culture than any other city location where citizens live, work or gather together.

Tom Jones
No. 11 Arts, Birmingham

Tom JonesFollowing forty-years employment in adult, access, further, higher and post-graduate education in Art and Design, Tom Jones is now on his second largely voluntary career devising and organising arts activities with citizens in Birmingham. Centred on a belief that we are all innately creative in some way or other, these are led by artist/facilitators enabling people themselves to negotiate what is useful to them.

Next week, on Wednesday 14 February, Niamh Goggin of Small Change Ltd questions who pays and who benefits from different models of culture.

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Creative Commons license - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

This article is published under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.
Images: Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, No. 11 Arts