I have been to two or three meetings in Norwich in recent weeks - they have been happening on a weekly basis, for an hour, since 5 March.
The idea, which started in London a couple of years ago, is to create a space in which discussions can take place about what is next for the arts and cultural sector in the face of government cuts and changes in policy. A lot of leaders of organisations felt that they needed to join forces, resources, contacts, skills and experience to help advocate for arts and culture, and to open up the debate on the value of both to our society, in a bigger picture kind of way, and to try and monitor the effects of changes and cuts.
This sort of discussion has been somewhat closed down in recent years as everyone has been preoccupied with fighting for survival, looking after their own corner and funding streams, and justifying their own existence, leaving little time to advocate for the greater good.
After hearing about the What Next? movement at an Arts Development UK meeting recently, I looked to see what was happening nearer to me as weekly meetings in London at 8.30am were a tad unfeasible.
I discovered that there is a What Next? Chapter in Cambridge but also one had started closer to home in Norwich, jointly with Suffolk, convened by Norfolk & Norwich Festival, meeting weekly on a Wednesday 1-2pm with a monthly meeting with both Norfolk and Suffolk together.
At the Norwich meetings, a lot of the discussion has been about out how What Next? might work in Norfolk and Suffolk. There are a number of Chapters (20?) popping up around the country and they all work slightly differently. So it was really interesting to hear Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp from The Place tell us about the provenance of What Next?, how it started, how it has progressed - and also what the reason for What Next? is. (see notes later)
On their website, there are a couple of videos from the 2013 What Next? conference which explain the roots and ethos of the movement, and they are in the process of updating the rest of their website at the moment - currently there are no employees of What Next? and the aim is to keep it as an informal movement rather than an organisational structure.
The London chapter of What’s Next has been able to meet with ministers, politicians and major influencers, and it has to be an opportunity for all of us to make the case for the arts and culture to our councillors and local leaders and get them onside.
In Norwich, there has been a lot of discussion about timing of meetings, how often, when they are held, where, who should come, how to get more people there, attracting speakers - and also, it has to be said, what is the point? There seem to be two camps, broadly – those who think that there is no point unless the group has a purpose with tangible tasks and outcomes and those who want a space for conversation and to allow ideas and discussions to grow.
There is probably a balance between the two in as much as I really believe that we do need space to think about what we believe and what we want to say about the value of the arts, to hear what others have to say and to learn about what other people know as well as sharing our own knowledge and experience, without being tied down by objectives and purpose.
But I also think that there is a real benefit to be had from being able to come together to bring about collective action - something we have not had for a long time - and there is real potential to act as a consultative body for policy makers and as a lobbying force. It is recognised across What Next? that there is a need for the public to understand how they can benefit from more resources for the arts and greater accessibility. This is an opportunity to formulate and reinforce arguments and evidence of the benefits of arts and creativity to life and human potential.
Kenneth’s watchword is conversation followed by action and big things start in small circles and their website www.whatnextculture.co.uk has plenty of tips for what we can do to positively advocate.
Marion Catlin, Culture Shift Norwich April 2014 www.theshiftnorwich.org.uk
Notes from the 2nd joint Norfolk Suffolk meeting Wednesday 23 April
It was the 2nd joint meeting and closely followed the first Suffolk meeting which happened earlier that morning.
The main speaker was Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp OBE CEO of The Place, London. He has been involved in the development of What Next? From the early stages
The movement has evolved. It was not always weekly meetings but as they (the initiators and spokespeople) started to meet with politicians and influencers, it became necessary to meet more frequently.
The meetings started from a point of shared values, not just fighting own corner. Part of a conversation, organic, naturally inclusive about the bigger picture and the value of the arts.
Four main areas of concern/action
- Olympics legacy was initial driving force - ie What Next? after the Olympics and 2012? What would happen with momentum and also what would happen to funding without the Olympics in the frame
- Political Advocacy. Perceived need to advocate on behalf of arts and culture in the post-Olympic context, and to act swiftly in the wake of 2012. This needs to be joined up and collective
- Education - the implications of changes to education system, curriculum and creative education. How can we use our collective knowledge and ability. Particular concern of ROH
- Public engagement - how do we convince e unlicensed as well as politicians and policy-makers about the value of the arts? And what they would miss without it. If other areas of life are threatened, the public come up in arms eg woodland when the Forestry Commission was threatened but arts are still often seen as elitist and for the well-off without people realising the reach in terms of well-being and quality of life, and how the arts have a fundamental role in the development of human potential.
- There is no What Next? party line but rather personal perspectives and experience in a melting pot. Not even organisational remit.
- Consensus may be reached but it is not necessary to do so
- Thinking can feed into other things such as local cultural strategies, corporate plans, joint work on audience development, data collection and evaluation
- Resources on website to help with advocacy. Everyone should think about who they can convince armed with clear arguments. This is useful for younger or less experienced people who need help with clear advocacy and reasoning.
- What Next conference 2013 was one year ago exactly on 29 April 2013. Next one 16 June 2014
- Opportunity to have a big conversation and air lots of views.
- What Next? generation ie the young people and rising artists and professionals in culture – now meeting on their own
Some of the issues
- Time is seen as a luxury to be able to spend it on non core work 'at the coal face'
- Frequent meetings too much to manage but infrequent meetings lose momentum
- Geography limits attendance and involvement
- Perceived as a leadership group, not for 'just anyone' – can be viewed as elitist
- If opened out do groups become too big?
- If not, are groups too small and depending on a few people?
- Split between people who are very outcome-focused and those who want a more soft edged approach and a space for debate and ideas to form organically
- It could become a talking shop with ideas not going anywhere
- Same old people talking to the same old people
- Working on the bigger picture for culture positively rather than being in retreat
- Sector has a strong and influential voice
- Renewed pressure on politicians and policy makers
- Potentially more inclusive as anyone interested can come
- Proactive not reactive
- Loose structure means that it is not owned by anyone
- More opportunity for non-leaders to have information and be in the picture
- Important for people at all levels to have the arguments to convince public and politicians at grass roots as well as Whitehall
- Opportunity for shared best practice eg evaluation and data collection
- Consultative group for strategy and joint actions locally
After a few meetings, It seems clear that What Next? is needed in Norwich, and hopefully will grow to include a wider range of people, including individual artists and practitioners. As well as its greater purpose of lobbying and applying pressure on politicians and policy-makers, it has the potential to become a platform for better information for people working in the arts at all levels, and for people to be able to join up for collective action, which has got to be a good thing.
If you are interested in coming to What Next? meetings, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and/or join the Facebook group Facebook.com/What Next? Norfolk