Steve Dearden, Writer, Facilitator and Founder and Director of ‘The Writing Squad‘, reflects on how Covid is or isn’t impacting on how cultural insititutions and museums think about the buildings they inhabit. He asks what prioritising ‘building’ as a verb, as doing, rather than as the thing, made of bricks and mortar, where they do their work, could open up for cultural organisations in Bradford.
In 2016 Chitra Anand gave a talk in a Canadian Book and Publishing Council event at Toronto International Festival of Authors. Anand was the Head of Public Relations, Communications and Corporate Reputation for Microsoft Canada. She partly plugged Microsoft and partly her own business philosophy of intrapreneurship — encouraging change in companies by enabling internal disruptors to drive innovation, creative thinking and new ideas. She also spoke about a Microsoft partnership they were particularly excited about, a new building in Amsterdam for Deloittes in which people wouldn’t have desks or fixed work stations, instead they would be encouraged to work from home, on the move, in pods, all connected by technology. If you wanted a desk or a meeting room you had to book them.
I was with Anand on the internal disruptors and hope I run an organisation in which my sole role is to create a space for others to fill. But when she talked about the world of hot desking and mobile working as if it was some kind of revolution, I wanted to shout out: But that is how we have always worked, that is exactly how the non-commercial literature sector has always been: a matrix of dispersed individuals and cottage industries relating to each other through virtual means. And it is always how the Squad has worked. Set up in 2001, we are an elite programme of workshops and 1-1s for writers aged 16-21. We are all part-time, have no offices, meet where we need to when we need to in coffee shops, libraries, bars, hotels, and when people can’t come because they are in palliative care, out of the country or just because it is easier, we use the phone, Skype, Zoom. For us building is a verb and not a noun. At first we used the clunky academic online tool Pro-boards, then Yahoo groups, and we were just about to commission our own network solution when the young people we worked with said, What on earth are you doing? and they set up the Facebook group that we still use, but is just one bit of the virtual plant that glues and fuels us as a community.
Covid-19 has accentuated the difference between building based organisations and ones like ours in good and bad ways. We have been able to respond quickly and flexibly, but all the discourse and most of the recovery planning has been dominated by the language of bricks, mortars and payrolls. Individually, Covid was as mixed an experience for our writers as for everyone else, but for the Writing Squad – always a dispersed virtual organisation – the restriction imposed by the pandemic played into our characteristics and strengths. Because we are a light flat structure we can act quickly. Right at the start we had an online Distance Social, asked our writers how they wanted us to respond and came up with a few ideas of our own.Normally we do between 12 and 15 sessions with our writers a year, we switched to doing five a week. We began seeing people we were in regular contact with more often, but also people who had drifted away from the Squad because they found physical meetings difficult for time or health reasons. The change has not only led to new kinds of support but also creative projects – work to be shared immediately on line, but also projects we are saving for book form later, and mail art, physical work shared now.
For a while It was fun seeing the rest of the cultural world catch up. It felt a bit like you sometimes get in the north of England when southerners move up and start telling us how wonderful things are here. All the reasons we chose to stay, live and work here.
Culture people spoke with the same arriviste enthusiasm about Zoom dialogues and digital expression. The closed cultural institutions got out all their old holiday snaps and videos and stuck them on line. They began offering virtual commissions – for peanuts considering how much they were saving on productions and exhibitions. They talked about their new digital selves like Chita Anand, championing as ‘new’ way of working exactly the way writers, publishers, musicians, sole traders have operated all our working lives.
But taking Chitra Anand’s other strand, intrapreneurship, I began to feel that despite all their talk and policies and the arts being society’s creative cutting edge, the possibility of any serious internal disruptors driving innovation, creative thinking and new ideas would have a pretty hard time of it in our cultural institutions. They’d be shunted off into projects or schemes, or sat on by the vested interests, have policy documents and working papers written about them in the top down management style of the old guard who still run these places. The people I’ve sat in meetings discussing access, inclusivity, diversity with. For thirty years.
In every cultural forum in which I operate, lockdown conversations are dominated by discourse based on institutional footfall, people going to see shows in buildings, people going to look at art in buildings, people coming to participate in buildings, building based people going out to engage and bring people in. The closed buildings described themselves as “the beating heart of culture,” but listening to their conversations is like listening to a skeleton continuing to talk long after its organs have been removed. In the dispersed and virtual world, we know the beating heart of culture is people and they don’t stop making or enjoying or sharing art when the plant is closed.
Writer and broadcaster Nick Ahad, once the theatre critic of the Yorkshire Post, asked on Twitter what should he write about with the theatres closed, and began a series looking back one by one on the region’s theatre companies and their past glories. I suggested he contact some of our playwrights and theatre-makers, report on what they were up to now, suggested theatre doesn’t just happen when the critic is watching. He didn’t reply.
Of course, narrating positive lockdown narratives is difficult. I live with a Director of commercial theatre (no grants no safety nets, just box office) so I know that. The positive narrative needs to be told sensitively, but is rarely heard. All lockdown discourse quickly became about rescue, re-opening, opening up, creating the new-normal — which sounds pretty like the old normal with social distancing.
Over the last two years we have been helping deliver the Ignite project, working with industrial collections to re-engage young people with their industrial past. Perhaps one of the best sessions occurred when the teacher in a school had forgotten to get permission for the children to visit the museum. We had to do two days thinking about the museum, it’s collections and artefacts, the stories they told, without actually visiting the museum itself, without ex-workers telling how things were from their point of view, without curators ordering the way we walked though the chronology or dominant narratives of that industry. We imagined a museum, and by doing so ‘built’ something that was about their experience, their geographical and familial connection with an industry that, at the start, they felt they had no connection with. An existential rather than a physical museum!
Maybe those two days prepared us as much for the current situation as our dispersed and virtual working habits. But what next? Are we teetering on the edge of a great leap forwards, or baking the old hierarchies, vested interests and inequalities into the post-Covid settlement?
I fear that post-Covid the cultural institutions will re-open and not open up. That despite discovering how close real people are, the engaged communities, the specialist makers and cottage industries, the independents and freelancers, the different ways of exploring and making, our re-opened cultural institutions and organisations will still be controlled by white men and women all from a very similar background, and their product will resemble what went on before and not the world that continued without them.
A world that when they reopen will be squished out of the shallow depth of field of their artistic lenses, shuffled back out of centre picture into outreach departments and policies. I have seen it already. Quite rightly cultural leaders have woken up to the digitally disenfranchised, people without computers or smart phones, households fighting to share limited data. The policy papers are already being written. This is important but I suspect that rather than adapt to the way the ground shifted around their well planted feet years before this crisis hit us, the institutions will add digital disenfranchisement to the agenda of their long grass meetings for the next thirty years along with who runs, who makes decisions, who controls our culture.
Dispersed and diverse culture will not be central to these cultural institutions until they become platforms rather than hobby houses. Run by not one artistic director but a director a season, not one company hogging the plant, but having facilities shared by many. So organisations, programmes are diversified not by policy but by people, their activity and their audiences.
Will Covid be the entrepreneur, the disruptor inside footfall organisations? Have Covid and the crescendo of the Black Lives Matter movement come at a time when we can force beyond the platitudes of virtue signalling to real institutional change? Or will the inequalities and old structures be baked into the post Covid settlement?