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.
It has taken a while to think about out how What Next? might work in Norfolk and Suffolk. There are a number of Chapters (11?) around the country and they all work slightly differently. So it was really interesting to hear Kenneth Tharp from The Place tell us about the provenance of What Next?, how it started, how it has progressed - and also what the ethos of What Next? is. 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 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 outcomes and tasks and those who think that we need 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. 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.
Maybe the watchword is conversation followed by action and their website www.whatnextculture.co.uk has plenty of tips for what you can do to positively advocate.
I'll keep you posted