The recent No Boundaries conference sought to challenge and reflect on some of the major issues currently facing the arts, while demonstrating the breadth, ambition and innovation of work being made by practitioners and organisations of all scales.

Taking place simultaneously at Home, Manchester and Hull Truck Theatre, the two-day conference alternated between live and live-streamed presentations to audiences at both venues. Supported by Arts Council England and the British Council, it also provided the platform for Sir Nicholas Serota’s maiden speech as chair of ACE.

Previous iterations of No Boundaries have been criticised for lacking artists’ perspectives, and this was addressed with inspirational and provocative presentations from artists including the performers Jessica Thom and Paula Varjack, and poet Inua Ellams.

With 34 speakers, the conference was divided into key sessions, with day one featuring ‘Disruptive influences’, ‘Are we in the right place?’, and ‘Present people, future success’, followed by ‘New internationalism’ and ‘Citizenship’ on day two.

Disruptive provocations

The word ‘provocation’ was liberally used throughout the two days and there was a sense of wanting to shake things up, with the speakers asked to provide or respond to provocations in their presentations.

Consequently, ‘Disruptive influences’ set the tone from the start in raising a series of challenges, the audience asked to consider what we can learn from artists and influencers who have taken steps to reshape thinking.

Diversity was high on the agenda and author and editor of Rife magazine, Nikesh Shukla, began proceedings with an impassioned speech saying, “It’s not about diversity, it’s about inclusivity.” Stating that arts institutions and the gatekeepers to arts and culture should mirror society, Shukla argued that organisations should stop being led by attempts to fulfil diversity quotas and instead work towards models of inclusivity: one BAME person in an organisation is tokenism, and organisations should be open, accessible and equal for all.

This perspective was shared by Claire Hodgson and Jamie Beddard of Diverse City / Extraordinary Bodies. They advocated for the need for representation that better reflects society as a whole, citing that only 4% of the NPO workforce is made up of disabled people, yet 20% of the population (and an even higher ratio of the arts sector) identifies as disabled.

The key to tackling these issues is what Hodgson termed “unlikely alliances”: bringing diverse smaller organisations into larger organisations; mentoring with a focus on identity and community; and encouraging everyone to support and speak up for those outside our immediate community.

Key points for organisations were that they need to: move to assimilate minorities into the system; create task not time-based contracts; make flexible working practices commonplace; move quotas towards matching the population; and share power so we build a multitude of leaders.

The need to form “unusual alliances” and partnerships across sectors and communities was echoed by Áine O’Brien and Almir Koldzic who work with migrant and refugee communities through Counterpoint Arts. Art’s role in social change, in questioning, and in community was considered alongside migration and histories of displacement becoming the new ‘norm’ in a post-colonial UK.

O’Brien and Koldzic advocated for activism in connecting communities, and asked how we might address our past and our present, while reiterating the need for sustaining the cross-border pan-European approach post-Brexit. “Art is not a salve, or a band aid for political situations, but artists can and have successfully stepped into this void” in order to instigate change, to connect, engage and create a more inclusive environment.

Jessica Turtle, founder of the Museum of Homelessness, movingly spoke of “the power of lived experience” and asked, “What is community?” In her experience, the notion of offering the gift of creativity, to improve levels of access and employability, betrays a certain a level of arrogance. We should be asking what we can learn from those we seek to help, and embracing failure as key to the learning process.

A highlight of the first day was artist Paula Varjack’s presentation riffing on her current touring performance, Show me the money. She opened with “Payment is anticipated – what if you said this in any other sector?” and provocatively followed up with “What is the human cost of making art?”

The need for transparency in discussions around pay for artists (and across the whole arts sector) was forced home, her research exposing the lack of understanding among many organisations about how artists and freelancers actually exist.

In addressing if lack of pay meant artists should become better at applying for funding, Varjack discussed the unfairness and imparity of a system where individual practitioners have to compete with institutions and well-oiled fundraising departments for the same pot of money.

What can venues do to better support artists? Varjack had some suggestions, compiled via research across artistic communities in the UK, including: keep applications really simple (ideally one sheet of A4); support artists in applying for public funding; create co-working areas for artists in art spaces; give feedback on applications; answer emails; rethink the term ‘emerging’ and what it means; involve artists in artist development programming; and finally, give artists a role in governance.

Place-making and ownership

The session ‘Are we in the right place?’ interrogated the use of cultural projects for place-making and asked whether there might be a different approach that benefits those areas and communities outside the mega-city model.

Claire Doherty, founder director of Situations, took umbrage with the word ‘relevance’ in funding and policy criteria. She found it was often used as a “means to beat ambition out of the work” and advocated for the ‘local’ role in relevance, in harnessing the power of untold stories and the untapped potential of specific places.

Gabriella Gomez-Mont, founder of Laboratorio para la Ciudad in Mexico City, was an inspirational example of a different approach. Invited by local government to propose a new way of working, she considered what role a creative office within government might take, and invented an entirely new city department whose key goals were civic innovation and urban creativity. Working with what she termed “experiments plus public policy” Gomez-Mont demonstrated an infrastructural shift that viewed the creative ethos as part of the democratic system.

Helen Ball, in her role as engagement director at Creative Barking & Dagenham, has been using a similar approach in the UK, working with ‘cultural connectors’ (such as Farida Mohamed and Susanna Wallis) with the ethos of “art in the area created for and by the people that live there”. Removing hierarchical power structures, they have created a co-authored commissioning process with fully collaborative decision-making rooted in “real people wanting real-life experiences”.

Such community-centric approaches were revisited from an audience and marketing perspective in ‘Present people, future success’, a session that suggested a rethinking of quantitative audience data capture might be underway. It asked what new methods exist for building loyalty and connections with the public, as we forge new space for the arts alongside institutions – online, on the streets, and in communities.

Independent producer Yemisi Mokuolu focused on notions of need, desire, and inclusivity in access to cultural spaces; for people to become “custodians of their own culture” through joint or shared ownership of projects and spaces.

The type of spaces we consider were addressed by Rachel Coldicutt, CEO of doteveryone. She advocated for the web as a public art platform as opposed to a marketing strategy. Believing that society has never needed more artists and writers, she proposed that there was also space for them to occupy everywhere with the provocation: Can you turn an Instagram account into a place where ideas live?

The conference invited a number of speakers working outside of the arts, including Adam Brown, founding board member of FC United of Manchester, an award-winning supporter-owned football club. Brown focused on the power of harnessing audiences, rather than treating them as consumers, by involving them in the ownership and running of the organisation.

In advocating the handover of control to an audience, he argued that globalisation and the crisis in public funding could be addressed by community share capital, providing organisations with social investment tax reliefs and equity release.

He added that Nesta research has identified a lack of sector-wide support for the community share approach in the arts, with Arts Council England confirming that arts venues don’t engage with the concept or have community ownership in place. Directing his question to the organisations present, he asked: “What are you afraid of?”

New internationalism and citizenship

Given that Article 50 was triggered on day two of the conference – which was focused on the themes of ‘new internationalism’ andcitizenship’ – it was no surprise that Brexit formed an undercurrent to the proceedings. Speakers considered where the UK sits as part of a global community, and what the options are for the role of the arts in helping to shape the identity and perceptions of a nation.

Honor Rhodes of Tavistock Relationships focused positively on “being trusting in an age of anxiety,” while Manchester International Festival artistic director, John McGrath, talked of the effects of migration and asked that we “embrace belonging, embrace tradition, but also engage with change”. He ended on a call for us to activitely engage with those with differing viewpoints, to create spaces for listening, but also spaces to be raucous, to disagree, shout, and be freed from politeness.

Citizenship, and in particular, community, evolved as the key themes that underpinned the entire conference, and seemed most pertinent to speakers’ current thinking and approaches. Specific to the Citizenship session, speakers were asked to consider how arts and culture can support a socially responsible society.

Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern, discussed how notions of play and takeover had become integral to the organisation’s thinking around audience engagement, forging collaborative approaches with audiences and wider communities. An example of this was the recent work with artist and performer Jess Thom, who simultaneously rallied for inclusion and resistance with her presentation, ‘Acknowledge, anticipate, adjust: potential tools for deep-rooted resistance’.

Morris’ approach was interestingly reflected by the following speaker, Evie Manning, co-artistic director of Common Wealth, who stated that if institutional mechanisms aren’t there, democracy will fail. She focused on a theme of strength in unity and removing the ‘demonisation’ of the ‘other’ (whether that other be class, disability, ethnicity, gender, or wealth): “When asked this question about citizenship, I thought it’s so simple. All we need to do is start talking to each other.”

Conversation was key to the work being undertaken by housing and property developer Bolton at Home – the only housing office in the UK to have three arts officers in its employment, and the first one to ever employ an arts officer. In asking ‘what is a home?’, chief executive Jon Lord answered that you have to produce more than just bricks and mortar – community, dialogue and engagement are key to successful living, creating estates and new housing developments.

Lord advocated that the arts are the best way of communicating with people that he’s found, which was both refreshing and timely given the current housing climate in the UK – much could be learnt here in relation to policy making and community.

Finally, a positive creative response to Brexit came in the closing presentation of day two. Director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, posited how arts and culture might pull itself out of the “echo chamber” on the very day the PM was taking us out of the EU.

Recounting his despair at the referendum outcome, Norris channelled this emotion into creating new work responding to the current mood. The resulting My Country: a work in progress is a verbatim piece, the culmination of interviewing 100 people between the ages of nine to 97 and from diverse backgrounds, over several months in the wake of Brexit.

Explaining that the people interviewed were mostly angry about the lack of opportunity, it appeared that the two main commonalities were a distrust of leadership and a mourning for the loss of community.

Believing an overhaul of the education system is key to the required transformative change, Norris rephrased the question he was originally asked, to request of us all: “At a time when many people feel excluded from the opportunity that exists in barrel loads in this country, how can we in the arts be more socially inclusive than we already are? How can we contribute to the restoration of community more than we already do?”

No Boundaries took place in Manchester and Hull on 28-29 March 2017. The full conference is now available to watch online, including subtitle and BSL options:

1. Paula Varjack, No Boundaries 2017 conference. Photo: Chris Payne; Courtesy: No Boundaries
2. Jessica Turtle, No Boundaries 2017 conference. Photo: Chris Payne; Courtesy: No Boundaries
3. Audience at No Boundaries 2017 conference. Photo: Chris Payne; Courtesy: No Boundaries
4. No Boundaries 2017 conference. Photo: Chris Payne; Courtesy: No Boundaries
5. Adam Brown, No Boundaries 2017 conference. Photo: Chris Payne; Courtesy: No Boundaries
6. Inua Elms, No Boundaries 2017 conference. Photo: Chris Payne; Courtesy: No Boundaries

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