At a time of strategy review and development, as the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Belfast City Council, Derry City and Strabane Borough Council and others are currently engaged in across Northern Ireland, we have the opportunity to stand back and ask the broader questions. An opportunity to see the landscape with fresh eyes. I think it would be fair to say that we find ourselves in a time when there are serious challenges to sustaining a healthy cultural life and a vibrant cultural democracy. Our current approaches, perhaps especially in Northern Ireland, appear to be broken. In such a context what then are the fundamental questions we could be asking ourselves that might help us reimagine a better future for the arts? And what are the helpful provocations that can encourage progressive change?

One of the opportunities provided by the current lack of devolved government is that we citizens have every right to fill the policy vacuum with proposals to improve things. The fact that we are not operating within an active political dynamic means that we also don’t have to be bound by its usual pressures. The advantage of a brief discussion paper is that I can pose questions and provocations with a view that answers and solutions can be explored together, at a later date, in conversation and civic discourse.

From my perspective there are two fundamental questions that are worth asking at this point. ‘Why is a healthy cultural life important to us as citizens and communities?’ and ‘How do we sustain our shared cultural life?’ These go beyond the current narrative around the arts and the narrow public policy focus on sustaining artists, an arts sector and its engagement with the public. Important as these are and indeed a core part of the very clearly defined remit of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, they can’t possibly be the totality of the public discourse around the arts. We need an expanded view here.

Following on from that my first provocation is to think through again the relationship between arts and culture and the arts and the public. I think it’s time we moved away from the term ‘arts and culture’ which has the tendency to conflate the two together as if they are one and the same. Culture is really our way of life and the arts, alongside many other cultural expressions, are part of our culture. This shift would immediately strengthen the case because we could talk coherently about our cultural life and how important that is to everyone and simultaneously about the distinct role of the arts within it and the contributions ‘creative cultural activity’ is making to a healthy cultural life.

Public engagement in the arts has been a consistent thread in cultural policy usually based on the premise that the arts are good for you and not enough people are taking part. Perhaps only one of those statements rings true. I think virtually everyone would agree that doing something creative that you love is good for you and one of the reasons everyone would say that is because they are already involved and experiencing the benefits. The truth is that creative cultural activity is all around us - people get involved everyday in the creative things they love to do for themselves and for the common good. It’s an abundant picture. So why do we persist with the narrative of bringing people to the arts or the arts as defined within narrow frameworks? Is there a version of creative cultural activity that people ‘should’ take part in or are we prepared to enable people to make their own versions?

My second provocation is to recognise that the arts is inherently oriented towards an ecological approach, with its messy, organic, non-linear way of operating and high level of interdependency. The idea of a creative ecosystem has been well aired in cultural policy (see The Ecology of Culture report by John Holden), but as of yet does not seem to have led to policy changes or indeed organisational practice that adequately reflect that reality. Perhaps this is also one of the reasons the arts is such a poor fit within narrow economic frameworks, especially those that thrive on creating artificial scarcity and depleting natural resources to extract financial wealth.

That is not to say that creative cultural activity isn’t part of the economy or doesn’t interact with markets. Far from it. My third provocation is that we explore the value of the global trend towards commoning in sustaining our creative economy. Put simply commoning is pooling - resources, knowledge, capabilities - and the simple act of doing so creates new resource that otherwise wouldn’t exist. As it stands we are caught between two seemingly competing forces - the market and the state - both, it could be argued, operating within a dominant neoliberal narrative. Crudely put our cultural actors are either being asked by the state to contribute to instrumentalised social outcomes or by the market to extract maximum economic profit. Neither seem to be approaching the arts from the basic human need for self-expression and meaning and how to enable that. This binary, either/or thinking is not only severely limiting, it misses the potential of commoning as an additional support structure. I wonder what the approach to investing in our cultural life might be if an environment was created in which the State, the Commons and the Market work more interdependently?

Running through these provocations is the idea of paying more attention to the relational aspects of our policies and practices. Our ability to transform our cultural life will depend on how well we connect, collaborate, co-design and co-govern our future. Finding common cause and working together are profoundly regenerative. Any new strategy needs to inspire that.