Following our involvement with clients on the Cultural Recovery Fund bid process, Six Till Six consultant and collaborator Jayne West suggests that now could be the time for the industry, its stakeholders and members to look more closely at their engagement with the cultural sector; nationally, and on their doorstep.
We need to get this out of the way up front. The night time economy is culture. Anyone in hospitality knows that. Every customer, staff member and performer knows that. Local food and drink is an ever growing sector, and the places we come together to experience, dance or discuss culture are a much missed part of the UK’s neighbourhood landscape. This piece is about the more formal arrangements that support culture and creativity across the UK and how the leisure sector could be a bigger part of that discussion.
There is considerable, if perhaps cautious, pent-up demand across all customer profiles to eat, drink and socially experience performance. The collective experience is distinctly different to sophisticated streaming and online interactive entertainment. All of which we have become far more familiar with, do more of, and have become better at, but we really, really, miss doing this together. It can feel like a one woman campaign to remain optimistic in the face of such unprecedented challenge, but human nature does not evolve as quickly, or in the same way as the tech that pulls us away from what we are. Nevertheless, tech disseminates and sells creative output to many more than can experience it in person. It connects us to our communities and creative tribe. More widely available Augmented Reality presents real opportunities as do some of the new streaming platforms hopefully more equitably balanced for both creatives and smaller, perhaps niche host venues.
Introducing the cultural and creative sector
Pre-covid the Arts and Cultural sector generated around 30bn for the UK economy , employed 190,000 full time equivalents. Its sister, the creative industries, is bigger at 115.9bn turnover with around 2m people employed , slightly larger than the NTE . Over the last 15 years the creative sector has been one of the fastest growing sectors in the UK year on year.
The cultural sector is a recognised as a key driver in inward investment (read public sector investment, attraction to new residents, in addition to, particularly creative, business activity) and contributes significantly to the sense of place experienced by residents and visitors. Visual and performing arts, theatre, crafts, cultural events, music, dance, museums, libraries and the literary arts are experiencing the same issues as the hospitality and night time economy industries: lack of money, recruitment challenges, move of artists and freelancers into other fields and deep uncertainty in the short to medium term. A less than attractive public realm which attracts antisocial behaviour presents a long term significant challenge for all of these sectors, particularly post-covid as consumers weigh up ‘Go Out or Stay In (with a digital performance, a perceived safer, cleaner environment and a top-grade meal delivery)’.
Covid created a fast forward in terms of dissemination of artistic and cultural events to audiences . Time will tell how much of this remains or is absorbed into the physically collective space. The NTE similarly developed new ways of catering to customers. Will this all disappear once socialising is safe again? How each evolve post Covid will impact on the other. A useful question might be, how could they evolve together for mutual benefit?
Each sector brings footfall to the other and creative freelancers, performers and hospitality staff need both to work, to provide a sufficient work ecosystem and their own leisure experience. They are interlinked. Even where ‘work’ or creation is managed virtually, the local hospitality and venue scene is one of the key reasons people choose an area to visit, host meetings or live in. Placemaking is a big issue for national and regional government and cultural agencies given the proven social and economic benefits that flow from good community identity and services, in all their forms.
Government and cultural agencies and organisations across the UK are now looking ahead to recovery, however that might manifest. Cultural activity and events take time to put together, even longer to create deep change, so how can the NTE take part in that conversation? It makes sense to collaborate, it always did and has always happened, but how can the NTE get in a bit deeper, both nationally and on the collective doorstep?
On the Doorstep
The development of and investment in the arts and cultural offer outside the capital primarily comes from local and regional actors and communities. Collective participation in events and initiatives not only brings footfall and awareness, but creates closer working between the stakeholders, venues, and communities for a collaborative social and economic ‘value add’. On one level, simply being aware of what our local communities, arts and cultural organisations are planning, and whether we can play a greater part is a good start. Sharing plans and aspirations with colleagues in the cultural, creative and agency landscape is also of benefit. Local partnerships of the type Six Till Six works with, and develops, are a good platform for venues, restaurants, and bars to communicate with the local or regional agency ecosystem.
One more formal arrangement is worth a mention here, for clusters of NTE businesses. Cities and some of the larger towns in England have been piloting a new approach to arts- and culture-led local financial sustainability and growth. Cultural compact directors are bringing the arts and mainstream cultural communities into better and more structured dialogue with local and regional businesses and funding agencies. Early signs are encouraging albeit recognising, still, that collaborative action isn’t always easy to achieve. The Compact Directors and their Chairs must be independent of all participants in recognition that historically the ‘same old players’ didn’t always generate the level of activity and economic development that could have been possible. In the absence of a compact, every local authority will have an officer responsible for cultural or arts strategy who has input to any substantial bid into the Arts Council or similar agency. There will be established cultural players (both human and physical) wherever you are located. All partnerships start with a simple introduction.
The NTE is truly collaborative by nature, and packed full of people in businesses that care deeply about their customers, their performers, their local communities, freelancers, and the future. If some of this purpose, drive and passion can be realised more formally in regional partnership with the ‘mainstream’ cultural community, the benefits could be significant for all concerned.
Nationally: Looking ahead to 2022
Having said all the above, there is one UK wide cultural event worth keeping an eye on. FestivalUK 2022. The Director of this ambitious endeavour Martin Green is a good choice. Green was responsible for the Olympic Opening Ceremonies and has deep experience with the traditional cynicism that seems an inevitable pre-curser in the UK to anything of public ambition. And yet he and the creative team delivered an opening ceremony that was an undisputed success.
Culturally, 2022 is a big year for the UK. It will be the Queen’s platinum (70th) Jubilee, the BBC’s centenary, the world-renowned Edinburgh international festival will be 75 and the Commonwealth Games are to be held in Birmingham. Green is also creative director of the Birmingham Games.
Born as a concept for a Brexit festival in 2016, Festival UK 2022 (still a working title) aspires to showcase the very best of UK Creative, Community and Tech. The festival will feature 10 truly ground-breaking commissions designed to reach millions, bring people together and showcase UK creativity globally. The creative minds have been drawn from Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM).
The selection process is also worthy of note. Over 500 organisations and individuals were paid to develop their submissions. This part of the creative process, the time-consuming heavy lifting, is rarely supported in this way and should ensure the results meet the stated aims; to be open, original, and optimistic. I would argue there could be an additional, significant, outcome from this investment in development. Our participation in the festival, observing new technologies deployed in new ways to engage audiences, could teach us all a few, new tricks on how to disseminate content and reach out to communities around us.
The commissions are being kept under wraps as they continue to develop but promise to feature state of the art projection technology, light and sound augmented reality and Cosmology and Geolocation technologies. Transmedia storytelling, poetry, a physical manifestation and celebration of the British weather and UK coastline. Mass participation, new rituals, environmental science, live performance, and the largest grow your own collective endeavour ever seen.
Autumn 2021 will see further details of the commissions announced (although don’t expect the entirety of the plans) and finally, the name of the festival tied down. The team aims to reach as many people as possible throughout the UK, stating their audience target is anyone within one hour on public transport to any of the performance locations. There will be events, public engagement activities, participation opportunities and a learning programme aspiring to reach millions of children and young people, demonstrating the importance of creativity in people’s lives and our collective future. Events timings and locations will also be announced although those timings and locations are not likely to mirror traditional festival start, do, and end dates.
It could be great, right?
Culture is collective. It doesn’t, or shouldn’t, happen to people. It happens with people. Surely the raison d’être of the night time economy. Looking ahead, and we must do that, there is room for better cross sector engagement, nationally and locally. Who knows, a marriage could follow. Like all marriages there has would have to be an air of optimism and aspiration about the whole thing. Emotions, admittedly, that are in short supply, such are the range of unknowns we face – but surely the rewards justify the required leap of faith.