Cultural commissioning – part of a bigger arts movement

Tim JossTim is a social and cultural entrepreneur, Chief Executive of AESOP, Chair of the Arts Ventures Steering Group and Vice Chair of the Advisory Group for the Arts Council England-funded Cultural Commissioning Programme.

The cynic would say that cultural commissioning is simply about filling funding gaps left by Arts Council England. How wrong! It is part of something much bigger: removing old blockages and fostering new ideas to give the arts a more central role in social change.

A wider vision for the UK’s ‘artistic capital’

We are blessed in this country. Through a mix of imagination, innovation and public, philanthropic and private investment, the UK has created formidable world-class artistic capital: world-leading creative artists, modern venues, conservatoires and other training institutions, art form developments, presentation skills (live, digital and broadcast) and expertise in learning, participation and public engagement.

We’re not making the most of our capital

Yes, we have substantial creative industries. Yes, the arts are an important part of the leisure industry. But the arts have a power to benefit wider society and this power is largely unrealised.

Take the example of the arts’ contribution to health. Intuitively you would think that the arts are good for physical and mental health, good for enhancing hospital environments and good for health staff.

You would expect to see wide arts take-up in the NHS. Yet the arts remain on the periphery of health, too often disregarded as entertainment, a diversion, fluff or a nice-to-have. Thanks to the Cultural Commissioning Programme, arts organisations are becoming more knowledgeable about health commissioning and activity growing. Commissioning arts interventions nevertheless remains a minute part of NHS expenditure.

Another sign is the arts’ failure to engage NICE. Mainstreaming any intervention in the NHS usually means NICE has to have issued guidance on its use. Line up the 100s of pieces of guidance from NICE and you will find just one mention of the arts: a visual arts therapy for schizophrenia.

Other fields have their arts challenges too. In some, there are even signs of going backwards. In criminal justice, all visual arts education programmes in prisons were axed in 2013. In education, the arts continue to have an insecure position in the national curriculum and government education policies.

How to realise the arts’ wider power

1. Address the lack of evidence

It is understandable that health, criminal justice, education, community development and other sectors want to see relevant evidence of the arts’ power. Sadly, the evidence base has been small, patchy and poorly disseminated. This is changing. For example, in the last two years the Arts Alliance has published its Evidence Library for the arts in criminal justice, my organisation AESOP has published the Aesop 1 Framework for developing and researching arts in health programmes, a UK Network for Arts & Health has been created, and Arts Council England’s research department is increasingly active in this area.

2. Remove blockages – ‘intrinsic versus instrumental’

A debilitating tension exists in the arts world between the ‘intrinsic’ and ‘instrumental’ benefits of the arts – that is, between the artistic benefits derived from your freely choosing to engage with artworks and activities and wider benefits in society such as improved educational attainment, increased community cohesion and reduced mental health problems. This is commonly presented as the ‘intrinsic versus instrumental’ tension. ‘Instrumentalism’ or the ‘instrumental approach’ has attracted particular opprobrium because these wider benefits are not sought freely by citizens but driven by the agendas of government and other non-arts institutions.

There is a way through. It involves two simple steps. The first is for the arts world to hold on to its belief in the transformational power of the arts, and acknowledge that the problem is the unwanted link to others’ agendas. The second is to recognise that the quality of the artistic experience is crucial. Focus on that and social benefits may follow.

This encourages a move from ‘intrinsic versus instrumental’ to ‘intrinsic then instrumental’.

3. Inject new ideas – ‘arts push’ and ‘society pull’

AESOP is opening up a new field of opportunities based on a ‘society pull’ approach. To explain, ‘arts push’ is where an initiative to link the arts with wider society comes from the artist/arts organisation. This is the more common way to establish the link. With ‘society pull’, AESOP starts with challenges/unmet needs in society, scans all artistic options and creates something suitable, effective, sustainable and capable to growing into a national programme. We are developing partnerships with Big Local (improvements in disadvantaged communities), the Care Quality Commission (using creativity to move regulated organisations from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’) and NHS Clinical Commissioners (sustainable, cost-effective arts contributions to clinical commissioning).

This chimes well with the Cultural Commissioning Programme. It is not only working with arts and cultural community but also with commissioners, to encourage them to understand value of arts and cultural provision as a way of tackling social challenges.

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