|2. Policy and Practice Panel:
Christopher Thomson studied at Edinburgh University and at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. He was a founding member and, from 1983-86, artistic director of Ludus Dance Company. From 1986-1991 he directed the Community Dance Diploma course at Laban, where he also taught drama and arts administration, and took an MA in Dance Studies, specialising in Sociology, Aesthetics and Choreology. He is a past Chair of the Foundation for Community Dance, Vice-Chair of Dance UK and member of the Arts Council's Advisory Committee on dance education. Since 1991 he has been Director of Learning and Access at The Place, responsible for a wide range of dance provision, from regular classes for children, young people and adults, to youth dance and a variety of projects in schools and the community. Chris is a member of the DCMS Dance Forum, Chair of CreateKX, Co-Chair of the Dance Education Group and a member of the board of Crying Out Loud.
When Professor Christopher Bannerman first asked me to take part in this seminar, I had to ask him, ‘what do you mean by cultural policy?’ as the wording was not immediately meaningful to me. It did not strike me as being one that I relate to on a day-to-day basis. However, then I looked at my diary for September 2008 and found about six meetings and four conferences concerning health, social exclusion, the 2012 London Olympics and a youth dance strategy. I also realised, after a moment’s reflection, that I am perfectly aware of the Arts Council of England’s current agenda and that I am usually reasonably up-to-date with their latest formulation of ‘vision and priorities’.
In the end Chris and I agreed on a broad and inclusive definition of cultural policy that could include the policies of the arts council, government, arts organisations …everything.
(Of course, you could argue that policies about health and welfare are social, not cultural policies, but let us leave that for the discussion.)
Here is a dictionary definition of policy:
A course or principle of action adopted or proposed by a government, party, business, or individual. (Oxford English Dictionary 1998)
Policy, therefore, in general terms indicates a principle or a course of action, adopted or proposed. My starting point, then, is that policy is anything arts organisations or government bodies say (usually formally and print) about their principles or plans. Yet when we speak of policy in the arts management world (and today I speak primarily as an arts manager in the field of dance education), it is usually linked to a strategy or plan of action. How are we going to apply the principle, or make sure the plan of action is undertaken? How will we resource it and make sure it is effective?
There is no single template for a policy document; sometimes what we refer to as policy will contain these important strategic elements, but not always. My point is that policy usually has to be interpreted (unless we have been closely involved in the process of writing it), and this is good in that it gives us some freedom of interpretation, but also bad, in a way, in that it does not tell us exactly what to do, or what others are doing. Policies also do not usually come with a bag of money attached to help you carry them out!
Chris suggested several additional questions, and I have used them to help structure these thoughts. Let me address them in turn. His first question was:
How aware are you of cultural policy in your daily work and do you feel it enhances or restricts your work?
When I thought about it, I had to accept that, as a manager, not only am I aware of cultural policy, as it is expressed by my ‘stakeholders’, but in fact it is a constant field of reference. Formal statements of policy:
• tell me what others are thinking and doing
• help me to understand and communicate principles and plans of action
• define the institutional landscape of culture and help me find my way around it
• are part of the public discourse about the value of cultural activity and how it is to be supported and promoted.
Being part of the discourse means that, for example, government policy often affects (though it does not exclusively determine) how local government and charitable trusts allocate their money, and that in turn can affect how arts organisations prioritise what they want to do.
But does policy enhance or restrict my work?
Well, my first response is that I don’t feel it usually enhances my work, but it can facilitate or sometimes (to borrow an idea from a friend in the theatre world) can ‘difficultate’ it. For example, when policy suddenly changes, we can find that:
• we are doing this but now the government (or another funder) wants us to do that instead
• we want to do this, but it depends on that and our funders are not interested in that
• we would like to do that as well as this, but we do not have resources
– and so on.
But difficultating – forcing us to reconsider, re-prioritise or re-frame our practice – can also be helpful, because it embodies the idea of rigorous questioning (something artists are good at doing and we managers should demand of ourselves). Does policy in this way sometimes sharpen our faculties and force us to articulate better what we do, and why, and how? Maybe it does.
I also passionately believe in the importance of clarity and precision in language. Having explicit statements of policy, and being required to discuss and analyse their meaning, must help communication between the different players in this arena.
Chris’s next question was:
What policy development would most assist your work?
I work in the area of dance education and particularly dance for young people. For me, a policy development that would assist me would be a policy of giving youth dance the same priority and resources that youth music currently enjoys. Also, a policy of giving adequate resources for the aspirations we are asked to sign up to... Finally, but very importantly, a policy of improving salaries for all dancers since historically these are comparatively low in this country.
Thirdly, Chris asked:
Is policy development a priority for those in the arts, or is the work of individuals and/or organisations more significant?
I do not want to say policy development is a priority for those in the arts because our work is based on artistic practice; the idea of cultural policy development being prior to art feels nonsensical. However, art is produced in a social/cultural/economic context. Policy is part of, or helps shape, that frame or ‘field’ in which art emerges, or is produced. So there is potentially a dialogic or iterative process by which policy and practice shape, and are shaped by, one another.
As an aspect of practical arts management, you can not get away from policy. Cultural policy interacts with the policies of funders and with attitudes to art and art education on the part of the media and the wider public. Thus it is also part of the context in which art is received and evaluated. The vocabulary and values of cultural policy – whether implied or explicit – permeate the discourse in which art and related practices take place.
The key issue here though is perhaps ‘accountability’. If we receive public funding then we are accountable for it, and this brings us into interaction with the world of policy. If this is not the case then public policy may not affect us. I suspect Damien Hirst does not lose sleep about cultural policy.
Lastly, Chris asked:
Are you aware of an example of policymakers responding to changes in arts practices?
Many policymakers have been artists or producers. Those who do not have this background are sometimes the most difficult to deal with. To give just one example, I am confident that artists, particularly in dance and new circus, led the way in Britain to the popularity of site-specific and large-scale public performance/spectacle. There is a complex intersection here with the economic /regeneration agenda which is difficult to untangle, but dance certainly has led the way in terms of the policy importance of participation and the notions of inclusivity, and to some extent diversity.
To conclude, policy can have at least three functions: it can be
descriptive – what is done
prescriptive – what must be done
or enabling – what may be done.
Most policy statements will be a combination of all three.
Policy development is part of the important process of institutionalisation, through which cultural practices become valued and embedded in society. Boring and sociological as it may sound, successful institutionalisation has been central to the successful development of community dance and dance education in the UK.
(1998) The New Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford: Oxford University Press.