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A call for regenerative practice: reflections on our Covid-19 research conference

A young girl holds a “rhubarb lantern” she has made, in front of others like it in the “forcing shed” experience, in the former Market Hall at Wakefield Council’s Rhubarb Festival.

Ben Walmsley, Centre Director, reflects on the perspectives and conversations shared at our Covid-19: Changing Culture conference

When we were planning our Covid-19 research conference, we were clear that, following the spirit and ethos of all of our Centre for Cultural Value events, it should offer as many opportunities for interaction, discussion and debate as possible. Whilst we did (and do) have so many research findings to communicate, we didn’t just want to talk at people and share or disseminate our research in a way that felt far too definitive, never mind uni-directional.

Instead, we decided to frame and pitch the conference as part of our ‘engaged research process ’, to use it as a rare opportunity to get representatives together from the interconnected worlds of cultural funding, policy, practice and research to share their own perspectives about working through the pandemic and to help us fine-tune our own emerging findings so that we could collectively think through their implications.

The result of this effort was two days of rich, stimulating online exchange. In the first session, we were moved by powerful narratives of acceptance and self-kindness by artists Ellen Renton and Cheddar Gorgeous. Then we heard several inspiring examples of pioneering business models. What these seemed to share was a ‘pivot to purpose and people’, rather than a pivot to digital per se. In the cultural sector, successful business models inherently involve effective audience engagement and we all agreed that digital only really works when it is designed with or to connect audiences.

In the several plenary and fringe sessions dedicated to understanding audiences, we discussed the reality that although the number of cultural engagements might have increased during the pandemic, the number of engagers remained stubbornly static. Yes, digital distribution transformed the cultural experiences of some disabled, younger and rurally-based older audiences, but sadly only amongst those who were already highly engaged. No, then, it wasn’t the great diversifier that some commentators are setting it up to be.

At the end of the first day, we focussed deeply on what we called new localism: the pivot to hyperlocal and civic engagement (yes, pivot was the buzzword of the day!). We heard some fantastic examples of how artists, organisations and local ecosystems had pulled together to support local communities but also heard how the significant cultural recovery funding had to a large extent supported the status quo, with established ecosystems like Manchester garnering disproportionately more than those clearly more in need.

On day two, the focus remained very much on inequalities and we heard from a wider range of our own research team and colleagues from trusts and cultural organisations how the pandemic had again exacerbated existing inequalities within the cultural workforce, disproportionately affecting younger workers, female workers, disabled cultural workers and ethnically diverse workers.

In the final session, we reflected back on all of the salient points we’d picked up over the last two days and tried to translate them into concrete actions that might instigate positive sector change. Dave O’Brien offered a useful word of caution here, reminding us of the dangers of over-egging any one particular recommendation or elusive silver bullet: the pandemic essentially shone a spotlight on existing issues that predate the pandemic and that will take systemic change to overcome. Abigail Gilmore focused on the rising importance of local cultural policy, challenging us all to become custodians of our local cultural ecosystems.

Our Co-Director Anne Torreggiani highlighted kindness as a core value the sector will need to move forwards in a productive way – kindness towards ourselves as cultural agents, workers, funders and researchers, and kindness between different components of the ecology – between large and small venues, between employers and freelancers, between funders and practitioners, and between policymakers and academics. Kindness might even help us move beyond some of the ‘ruptured trusts’ between these groups as highlighted by Ali Fitzgibbon’s research.

Our Associate Director Sue Hayton noted that networks have flourished during the pandemic and doors have opened that need to remain open. But whilst networks can certainly boost skills, morale and capacity, they can also be exclusionary; so as we move beyond the pandemic we will need to think carefully about the kinds of networks that we want to support and maintain to foster a more sustainable and equitable sector.

Two things in particular stood out for me from all of the presentations and discussions: Wanda Wyporska’s call for ‘compassionate leadership’ and Mark Robinson’s decision to include ‘time’ in his model for creative resilience. Combining these two ideas made me think about the concept of regenerative practice and leadership, by which I mean an ethos that carves out time for all of the good things that we witnessed across the cultural sector during the pandemic: revisioning and restrategising, professional development and network development, reflection and evaluation, play and innovation.

Regenerative practice accepts and works in tune with natural and seasonal cycles. It embraces the ‘less is more’ philosophy and aims for sustainable development rather than unsustainable growth. It promotes and carves out time for rest, recuperation, wellbeing and celebration. But it also involves sacrifices: less relentless producing and production, less product and income, less hidden labour and overworking, less solipsism and introspection. This idea seemed to strike a chord with our delegates; but we agreed that it can only be achieved if we work together as a joined-up ecosystem rather than fracturing at the seams.

Image: Wakefield Council’s Rhubarb Festival 2020. Photo: Stephen Garnett

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