Thursday, 21 July 2011

Arts Council and libraries.

This week I went to Dewsbury to take part in a regional roundtable event, hosted by the Arts Council England (ACE), for key museums and libraries stakeholders within the region. The event was part of the 'journey' to transfer responsibility for libraries from the MLA to ACE as covered in my previous blog. It looked at Estelle Morris's review and focused on thinking around how we can make the most, in Yorkshire, of our broader cultural footprint.

 It was in many ways a symbolic meeting. There were no major developments to report and it was not a forum for hard bargaining about what the libraries and museums sector want from ACE. Instead it was an opportunity to get to know each other. We are still in the 'forming' stage of team development and will have to move on to 'storming' and 'norming' before we start 'performing'. It does mean that libraries in out region can now put Dewsbury on their cognitive map.

 Many items of interest did emerge from the discussion. Some in the arts world are concerned that the inclusion of the museums and libraries sectors will dilute the support of ACE for their sector, and this is exactly the point that I made about the concern of librarians. However everyone recognised that there were areas of common interest and possible synergies to be had. The Arts Council has a good track record in influencing its sector through advice and in the distribution of funding from government and lottery sources. It recognises that the position of public libraries with regards to funding is different but is keen to engage with the sector.

 The roundtable gave a general welcome to the Morris review and is looking forward to the appearance of a revised ACE strategy document. It was suggested that there should be a stronger and more aspirational overarching statement on the value of 'arts and culture' and I contributed the Darien statement that "the purpose of the library is to preserve the integrity of civilisation" with a warning that such statements can be too aspirational!

 ACE has the role of advocacy for its sector but like the MLA before it we should not expect them to be a 'Save our Libraries' campaigning body as such. The MLA did come in for criticism of its role in this respect and this is one issue that ACE will need to sort out. ACE does have a good track record in protecting the arts and influencing decision makes. It was pointed out that this comes down to winning hearts and minds and in this sector the contribution of creative and performing artists in arguing for the value of the arts has been critical. The impact of authors supporting Save our Libraries campaigns has been significant (e.g. 'Bennett to read riot act in court over library closures' The Independent 20th July 2011), and links with the wider arts community can only help.

 This led on to my asking a question about measuring the value of arts and cultural activities. I had noticed that in the ACE strategic framework for the arts - Achieving Great Art for Everyone - there is a section on evaluation which says "Robust evidence will be important, both to inform effective policy making and to demonstrate the impact and value of the arts" and this echoes what is happening in our sector. (Come to the SINTO Members' Day if you want more information). One aspect that was raised in the meeting was wellbeing, and this is an area where arts and culture can be shown to have an impact. English National Ballet has been working with people with Parkinson's disease and a recent report identified seven steps to protect against Alzheimer's which include mental stimulation in old age. Given the rising costs of care of elderly people to society, the benefit of cultural activities including library use is compelling. Of course ultimately we don't want to save libraries, or ballet, because they have a cost benefit. They have an intrinsic value which transcends this. Achieving Great Art for Everyone contains a number of statements on the theme 'What can art do' which are applicable to culture in general and to libraries by implication. I will finish with a small selection:
  • Art reminds us of what more is left to do in the world
  • Art can help us find expression for the ecstatic joy of being alive…
  • Art in the form of books and the written word can … make us better human beings and create the circumstances for a creative and humane society.
  • Art gives meaning. Life is meaningless and art is an attempt to make sense of it.
  • [Art] allows us the illusion of escaping our daily lives while simultaneously taking us deeper inside ourselves.





No comments: