Can the arts and cultural sector meet the challenges of delivering public sector contracts?

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Toby Lowe is Chief Executive of Helix Arts, a participatory arts organisation which works with the most disadvantaged and marginalised people in society. Before Helix Arts, he worked for Arts Council England, North East as Head of Resource Development. He has a background in social inclusion and political philosophy, particularly the way in which “community” is used a concept in political thought.

He likes dancing and ping pong, preferably at the same time.

For arts and cultural organisations, delivering public sector contracts can be an opportunity to connect with new people and new sources of income. But arts and culture organisations who want to work in this world need to ensure that they understand these complex policy contexts, and above all, ensure that they can meet the needs of the people that they will work with. Can you do all that and remain true to your creative vision? This is Helix Arts’ experience of wrestling with these issues.

At Helix Arts, we have twenty years of delivering arts programmes as part of public services. We’ve worked in prisons, and other areas of the criminal justice system. We’ve worked in hospitals. We’ve worked to improve the skills of unemployed adults, and develop emotional wellbeing of young people leaving care. We’ve enabled homeless adults and people with dementia to express their needs more effectively to those who care for and support them. And for most of that time, it hasn’t been arts money which has paid for this work, it has been public services themselves.

We deliberately place ourselves at the nexus of the arts and social policy worlds, seeing it as our job to create the space in which artists meet the creative needs of the participants with whom we work, and both fulfil and challenge the objectives and practices of our public and voluntary sector partners.

What does it take to for us to work successfully between these worlds? This is our experience.

For starters, we need to speak two languages

We need to be comfortable talking about both the ASSET scores of young offenders, and artistic co-production. Moreover, we need to do more than translate from one sector to another. We need to create a third space in which the practices and discourse of social policy organisations and those of artists can learn from one another and develop.

We also need a person-centred approach

The best public services are built around the needs of individual people. And those are our values too. We start from a belief that equality of opportunity to make art is important. But each person needs to find their own route into the art that is meaningful for them. So rather than starting from an ‘outreach’ mentality, we support each group of people we work with to create the art that fires their imaginations.

Being person centred also means understanding what it means to make arts opportunities real to those whose lives may be chaotic, to people who have been damaged, to those with impairments. And when we promise to create programmes which meet those needs, we need to deliver, otherwise we add to the list of people who have let them down.

To do all this we need to have systems which work, and artists who care. Our systems need to understand how many days it takes to help a group of homeless adults to choose their own artist, and what roles are required to meet their support needs. And our systems need to be able to cost these things accurately. We need artists with the skill and experience to work in challenging circumstances, who get excited by what they can learn from the participants with whom we work.

Finally, we need a dose of reality about the impossible challenges that the public sector is being set right now. Entire services are being cut. Key staff are being lost. New providers are offering cut price services that focus on those easiest to help because they generate ‘results’ for which providers get paid. As a consequence, many people in this world are either demoralised or disorientated.

Artists and cultural practitioners can help with some of these things, and we have many roles to play. We can help those who are voiceless to have their strengths and needs heard. We can bring new thinking and new resources to bear on the most intractable issues. But to do so, we need to involve ourselves in the social policy world: to make ourselves knowledgeable, to be part of the debates around service provision, to challenge established thinking, and to champion the role of creativity.

Who’s up for that?

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