Saturday, 13 August 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Engaging with the EU

Earlier this year Arts Council England released a set of figures, showing how local authorities invest and engage with the arts across England. This was done using the NI11 Indicator and was monitored over a three year period.

The research notes that the places with the lowest levels of engagement weren't necessarily 'cold spots' for culture, indeed, many of the places with low engagement are places that are rich in heritage. However, the boroughs with low engagement rates were also places that were more likely to have lower levels of educational achievement and social mobility. The research also noted higher levels of engagement in London when compared to the rest of the country, which was partly attributed to the city being "super-served" by culture and the arts at large.

Something that intrigued me enough to research it were how the places with low, or lower than expected levels of arts investment and engagement, voted in the EU Referendum. After reading the wonderful article by Frank Cottrell Boyce in The Guardian, and several other articles arguing for the importance of the arts in post-Brexit Britain, I did a bit of swift Googling, and the results were largely unsurprising.

Key:
Highest Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Remain - Lilac
Highest Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Leave - NONE
Lowest Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Remain - Light Green
Lowest Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Leave - Dark Green
Higher than Predicted Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Remain - Orange
Higher than Predicted Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Leave - Yellow
Lower than Predicted Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Remain - Dark Blue
Lower than Predicted Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Leave - Light Blue

The local government boroughs with the highest levels of engagement were Kensington and Chelsea, City of London, Richmond Upon Thames, Camden, Wandsworth and Islington, all in London, and Chiltern in Buckinghamshire, Waverley and Mole Valley in Surrey, and Oxford in Oxfordshire.
Of these places, all voted Remain. None voted to Leave the European Union.

Local government boroughs with higher than expected levels of engagement were Lambeth, Lewisham, Hackney and Greenwich in London, Southend in Essex, Wirral in Cheshire, and Liverpool in Merseyside.
Of these, only Southend in Essex voted to Leave.

Boroughs with the lowest levels of engagement were Newham and Barking and Dagenham in London, Slough in Berkshire, Sandwell in West Midlands, Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, Easington in Humberside, Bolsover in Derbyshire, Doncaster in South Yorkshire, St Helens in Merseyside, and Leicester in Leicestershire.
Of these boroughs, Newham in London, and Leicester both voted to Remain. The other eight boroughs voted Leave. 

Finally, boroughs with lower than expected levels of engagement were North East Lincolnshire and North Lincolnshire in Yorkshire, Thurrock in Essex, Telford and Wrekin in Shropshire, Swindon in Wiltshire, and West Berkshire and Bracknell Forest in Berkshire.
Of these, only West Berkshire voted to Remain.


Image Source: southwirral.wirral.sch.uk

Is this a legitimate correlation or merely coincidental? Can we genuinely say that there is a relationship between taking part in cultural activities and wanting to remain as part of the European Union (which, not incidentally, is one of the biggest funding sources for arts and culture)?

So many articles argue for the good of engagement with arts and culture; that they help us expand our horizons, see things from other people's points of view, witness events from outside of our own experience, gain empathy with situations we wouldn't engage with otherwise, and so on and so forth.

If, as greater and wiser minds then mine have argued, the arts have this power, then surely this is a huge argument both for greater cultural investment? To invest more and more often. To support the arts and that culture that helps people, especially in the lower engaged areas, to see life from another point of view, a point of view that may seem alien or uninteresting at first but will help grow empathy and understanding instead of mistrust and suspicion.

Culture is, in many places, seen as a 'dirty' word; as something synonymous with privilege and wealth. It is not seen as the singing group in the library, or the little festival in the local park, or watching a band play at a nearby nightclub. But culture includes these things along with the sterile art galleries and overpriced theatre tickets.

The arts, it is argued, help us understand who we are, where we have come from and where we are going to. Without this timeline of understanding, how can people fathom the effect of their actions? Without knowledge of the great events of the past, more easily accessible through theatre or artwork than textbooks and timelines, how can society empathise with the events of the day?

 
Image Sources: ww1memorials.midhurstu3a.org.uk/ and glogster.com

I fear that arts funding is going to take a hit in the years to come, and that means that the situation will only be exacerbated as fewer and fewer people have access to culture, and still fewer people will want to engage. It's a vicious cycle and we risk it becoming a spiral.

I don't know what's to be done about it, except to continue arguing for investment in the arts, in culture, in outreach and in engagement. In those little things, like letting kids play with paints at playtime, that foster a love of art; or singing during school assembly to help nurture an aspiring performer. 

It's little things that affect the big things. As we have seen with the arts and with the referendum.

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