Follow the footprints

Christopher sardegna i Ry Gm A no2 Q unsplash

Three days of three different meetings about culture have left me even more resolved that there is a golden opportunity to make a big difference here in Cumbria - a massive step-change opportunity brought about by the right people being around, the change in local government, and a change-making government funding stream.


On the Monday I was privileged to be at Parliament at the launch of the Mela Partnership report that my organisation is part of, Tuesday at Energus for the West Coast/Cumberland Cultural Strategy launch – again something that we have some role in, Wednesday for an an open space event at the Brewery in Kendal hearing from creatives about their hopes for the future under the new authority. I think that we all have to view the creation of the two new authorities - Cumberland, and Westmorland and Furness - as an opportunity.

At all of these I heard person after person talk about the importance of culture, how it changes places, how it enriches our lives, how it is essential, the blood in our communal veins, how it works best when it works across sectors. I heard about successes from people like Elena from Deco Publique and the Festival of Making who work with Blackburn Council, a council switched on and engaged with culture across its portfolios ie health, economy, communities, regeneration all listen to her and have ‘ownership’ of what culture does (at the last NPO round Blackburn (pop 150k) saw FOUR new NPOs, Cumbria (pop 500k) saw just ONE). Sam Hunt who now works in Cumbria shared about his learning from Hull and their City of Culture and the London Boroughs of Culture that he has worked on. I heard about the value of place based locally driven inclusive culture from my excellent friend and colleague Ajay Chabbra of the Mela Partnership; I heard about the success of risk taking from Keith Merrin the former CEO of Sunderland Culture, and from Andrea at Arts by the Sea in Bournemouth as we compared notes about the challenges and opportunities that present themselves when local government reorganisation occurs, and how capital build regeneration folds into the mix from Mike Pemberton CEO of BEC; and I heard from countless creatives saying that they want to contribute and who are already doing so - people like Emma at Soundwave.

From these people and all the others who are part of our closely related networks, I heard lots of brilliance and knowledge and expertise and experience to add to my own accumulated bundle. The talent is at our fingertips and in our contacts lists.

And like Groundhog Day it all led to one place – a feeling that we have been here before and that there is both a need and opportunity to make a real change - an opportunity so great that it would be a dreadful mistake to miss it.

If we are looking for a genius idea it is that the ‘genius’ idea that will make a difference is not really genius at all, because it is as simple as learning from and copying other places’ success. It is about recognising that wherever there has been cultural development which in turn leads to improvement in liveability, health and wellbeing, economic benefits, recruitment benefits, to say nothing of the sheer enjoyment and reputational change that comes, there has been some form of properly resourced agency that delivers a cultural strategy and bridges the gap between the creative sector, the communities and the local authority and other bodies - an agency that takes actions and has the resources to do things. That agency can take all sorts of forms, and it does around the country - but to be successful it needs one magic ingredient. It must be properly resourced, specifically by the local authority in the first place and then tasked with raising more elsewhere. Under-resourced local committees and steering groups are great, but at some point we have to buy the t-shirt or we don't get to wear it. Without local backing we can not get national and regional backing.

How can we do this? Is it even possible here….? It is. If we really want it. Like this.

Last June in my role as Co-Chair of Carlisle Culture I created a proposal for such a body for Cumberland. That proposal was for an ACTION NOT TALKING agency that could bring agendas together - just like in other places, could commission culture just like in other places, lead and shape and support and raise money, just like in other places. It would initially be supported by around 15% of the funds available through the Shared Prosperity Fund that the government have given to the two new local authorities. I didn’t propose using all of the £10m shared prosperity fund for Cumberland, just 15% of it ie leaving 85% of it to other things. This wasn’t tomfoolery or cuckooland stuff, delivering prosperity through culture is one of the things that is specifically mentioned in the government’s £2.5billion SPF scheme.

Aside from the joining up and promoting and commissioning success, the benefit would be that more funds would be generated by that investment in that new agency. My proposal is that the agency would bring a further £1m of funds from external places – the Arts Council, the Big Lottery, the Heritage Fund, from trusts and foundations and through earned income and business sponsorship and partnership. Why? Because that's what it would be tasked to do. Would it generate £1m more? I am certain it would, and it could well be more than that, I don’t know. What I do know is that nothing will be generated by the current modus operandi whereby the existing cultural organisations are few on the ground and scattered across our big geography and always scratching for resources, where younger creatives often do not feel supported so leave, where the truth of Emma McGordon’s excellent piece at the West Coast launch is so apparent – that “you can not be what you have not seen” and that our young are not seeing enough cultural inspiration, or not enough outdoor arts organisations and theatre companies and dance companies and public galleries, and that the chances of being paid to produce creativity in Cumbria is more unlikely than likely. My proposal is to use SPF strategically to generate more and be a multiplier rather than in a piecemeal way for a little bit of this and a little bit of that, a grant here and a grant there.

Genius - copy the success of other places and to use the funds provided by the government to do that very thing.

It is time to turn the wick up and seize the opportunity in Cumbria to achieve the step-change we have seen elsewhere in the UK. We need two properly funded (£1.5m over two/three years) new strategic agencies, one for Cumberland, and another one for Westmorland and Furness if we are to enjoy the successes we see in other places. These agencies would help us to get up from near the bottom of the pile in terms of cultural provision (we are very low in terms of investment compared to many other places), and see us providing properly for our people, being a greater place for our young, becoming a cultural producing and exporting place. We should be famous for our outdoor arts made for our amazing outdoor county, that cap should fit and we should wear it.

Cultural funds are low in Cumbria - in an analysis of Arts Council NPO funding at the recent awards WFC organisations receives around £11 per head of population and Cumberland around £5. This compares to places like Lancashire with over £20 and the Manchesters and Newcastle Gatesheads in the high £40s and £30s. Clearly we are not a metropolitan area, but we do have people here and we also have millions of tourists. ACE will fund and support us if the ask is right and the proposal is coherent.

Culture and creativity makes a real difference to communities, civic pride, economy, tourism, health and wellbeing; supporting creatives to do what they can do makes a difference – this was apparent at the West Coast strategy launch where I think it was universally recognised that the bits of the event that creatives made spoke the loudest– where the creatives were allowed free reign to contribute; which was exactly why I proposed commissioning Jamie Holman and Emma McGordon in the first place ie because they would be unpredictable and add and speak and move and inspire. This is what creativity given a free reign does.

We have leaders here who are working hard to bring about improvement, people who understand the role that culture plays in that journey because they have seen it work elsewhere, people like Julie Mennell VC of the University, Mike Pemberton of BEC, the Deputy Lieutenant Marcia Fotheringham, Gill Haigh of Cumbria Tourism who all gave their time at the West Coast launch and Darren Crossley who presented on behalf of the new Cumberland authority, and Jen Cleary of the Arts Council who came and showed support for us; and we have deliverers and experts such as Sam Hunt who is saying let’s have City of Culture bid for Cumberland (YES LETS!), Julie Tait of Lakes Alive and the Lakes International Comic Art Festival who has done great things over the last decade and more, we have the leadership and example of things like Jacquie’s Kendal Mountain Festival team, we have people like Maddi Nicholson and Rachel Ashton and others in Barrow like Signal and Barrowfull making big successes – and there are new people, new younger people like Natalie Morrell of The Knotted Project (I know you are not brand new Nat, I am making a point here!), who want to achieve here; all of these people and more who are brilliant and capable, yet they will all tell you that they are doing their best but that they are held back by lack of resources and that there is a gap between them and the local authorities and that we work with less resources here.

This really is a golden opportunity, one that doesn't come around that often.

That is my proposal. Can we have a properly resourced ‘Cumberland Culture’ (and a WTC Culture?). We can. If we want it. All the circumstances and stars are aligned.

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