Lucie Fitton talks to Anne Torreggiani about what 'Cultural Democracy' can mean to and for the arts, culture and heritage Learning and Participation community.

October 19, 2020
Photo of the author - Lucie Fitton

Lucie Fitton

Recently our CEO, Anne Torreggiani, wrote an article for Arts Professional about cultural democracy titled: ‘Making progress towards a citizen-led future. I interviewed Anne to encourage reflection on the piece, particularly for The Learning Diaries readers. I was especially keen to unpick what cultural democracy means in theory and in practice.


Lucie: What is cultural democracy?

Anne: There is a concise definition which I expand on more in the article - Cultural Democracy proposes that the benefits of cultural and creative participation are distributed more widely, notions of cultural value are recognised more equitably, and decisions about the provision and resourcing of cultural opportunity are made democratically. It's a fairly simple idea, but one of the ways it's often described is by way of contrast with the Democratization of Culture. The idea that culture, broadly speaking, is good for you. That there are some people who are experts at it, they know what good culture looks like and they dictate to other people that it will be good for them. Whereas in a cultural democracy, what money gets spent on and where the expertise, energy, interests and activism goes, is all decided by the people in a much more democratic way. Who gets to decide what's good and which culture represents the nation. It is really linked to the notion of democracy.


Lucie: Do you think as a sector we get bogged down by terminology and language? Do you think there is a danger of another term, policy or buzz word jeopardising its application?

Anne: Cultural Democracy has become a rather trendy term and people have used it to mass together a load of different broadly participative practices. In fact, it is something much more distinct than that. I think the term was first used around about 1920. It's been hijacked by various people since, but it always has at the core of it, the idea that the people should decide what culture is. But of course, we started using it in the last few years in a much more practical sense.


Lucie: Terminology or buzz terms can exclude those who feel disconnected to something they perceive is almost owned by academics and policy makers. Alternatively discussions around the definitions and theory can be adopted as weapons by those with the power against proper application. There is the added challenge that the origins and policy are forgotten and the meaning is water-down or mis-applied – decision-making lite etc.

Anne: This notion of being citizen-led is increasingly more important. In the article I reference the three P’s which sets a framework for this people centred way of working: Process: distinctive approaches used to involve people and respond to their needs. Power: concerted efforts to distribute power through shared decision-making, equitable allocation of resources and distributed leadership. Principles: a way of working and acting based on mutual respect and social justice. The definition of Cultural Democracy really matters around power.


Lucie: Yes, and this relates more widely systematic racism and structural inequality, which is vital for the cultural sector to address; this conversation really brings home how important the quality application of Cultural Democracy is.

Anne: Moving beyond definitions and language my article was saying that it is very difficult for a cultural institution, which is funded and run by experts, to genuinely be an instrument of bringing about true Culture Democracy, but we can contribute something towards it.


Lucie: There are some organizations and programmes you reference in your article as positive examples of Cultural democracy in action, such as Fun Palaces, Creative people and Places and 64 Million Artists. One of the key things I observe is a lack of formal venue or site or collection. How relevant is this?

Anne: They are operating outside of an institutional framework to a degree. They are all in danger of institutionalisation at any time and so they have had to put lots of things into place to try and stop this. By institutionalisation I mean operating in a way where you have an inside a group of experts working for and to an outsider group of passive consumers. One interesting example is XR (Extinction Rebellion), trying to organise themselves in a way which tries to decentralise power and break down hierarchies. It's beyond democracy, really, but it's the power of the collective. (Read more about this in XR’s values).


Lucie: What challenges and opportunities does Covid bring to the discussion?

Anne: We have discovered that you can involve many (not all) people with decision-making digitally, and sometimes much more quickly, easily and dynamically, in a way that you couldn’t do face to face. You can talk to lots of people quick easily in their own homes in a non-threatening way by using digital methods in quite interesting ways. I think it gives us a chance to think about new models.

Prior to Covid we were already questioning - what is culture? who is it for and who gets to decide? In policy terms, there was already a real interest in a more equitable way of thinking about publicly funded culture. The question is whether you go backwards or forwards as a result of lock down? Whether in the panic to try and salvage some of the Crown jewels’ we just go back to old ways of working or do things differently. We need to be broadly embraced by most of the population, not just a small minority of it. I think it's too early to call though. We may have to give up some things, but I think it's opened our eyes to some of the practical ways we can involve lots of people.

I also think there will be a renewed sense of the purpose for organisations - as a way of bringing people together, helping us through really difficult times and that will mean that we need to talk to people much more broadly. I think we could see step change. I think we need our policy makers to be brave bold about that. I think that things that happen at a local authority or local level will be particularly important in making that happen. The wellbeing of communities as well as well as individuals. One of the ways you get those benefits is by inviting people into shape.


Lucie: How do our readers apply Cultural Democracy to their practice, especially if they are working in public funding organisations which by their nature are institutionalised?

Anne: Learning, engagement and participation staff have always been at the frontline of trying to bring cultural institutions closer to the will, interests, skills and creativity of their community. They’ll be acutely aware of the challenges of doing this. Cultural Democracy is not necessarily anti-expert. It's about power not expertise; it's about finding the right place to put expertise.

You could be the conduit for introducing people to ways of participating in decision-making and introducing to people into ways of bringing creative participation into their communities. You could think about how your constitution works; how your governance models work; initiate separate decision-making panels which influence - whether that's programming or how a building operates. If you work with schools, or community organisations, or third sector charities, for example, you know they will have particular needs of your organisation; look at mechanisms so that they have some sort of purchase on how your organisation behaves.


Lucie: Many I think most organisations we work with have established external decision-making panels (of one sort of a name or other) but I think it's the quality of how these are executed; how they are properly resourced, valued internally, managed, respected, embedded in the long-term and not project-based. Do you agree?

Anne: Yes. The devil is in the doing well it. Nobody would disagree, to do it really well, not just to listen, but to give people the opportunity, ability and mechanisms to confidently influence and even disrupt. It's well documented that organisational commitment is a must have, but what that commitment actually means in practical, power-sharing terms become much more challenging from an artistic or curatorial perspective. Shared decision making has be facilitated consistently and with proper feedback loop setup. It is about a commitment all the way through to delivery, not just the leadership commitment rhetoric.


Lucie: How can you overcome this implementation challenge and create more meaningful processes for shared decision making?

Anne: This is where the rigorousness of approaches become very important. The Creative People and Places programme has learned as collective group of organisations is that you can’t just go and ask people what they want; they won’t have the experience, confidence to respond meaningfully. Prototyping is so important; having tangible ideas about what could be possible is so critical to the process. That's where I come back to the idea that this is about good design and applying processes from design thinking. Coming up with ideas so you have something tangible to work with that, even if it's only a drawing of something that could be possible.


Lucie: What is the role of learning, engagement and participation staff?

Anne: One of the things that bothers me a little about the policy, is that we've all got to be Cultural Democracy experts these days, but some policy makers or those who are enthusiastically encouraging this way of working have skipped over the idea that there are specialist processes, skill and knowledge required. With engagement and participation backgrounds, Learning Dairies readers have this skill-set, expertise and sensibilities.

In a recent project, we interviewed a lot of leading experts and practitioners in this field, it became very clear that there are a whole set of defined attributes such as self-awareness and facilitation, which learning and engagement practitioners will have naturally and refined over their careers, but are essentially undervalued or not considered specialist skills in the same way as knowledge or specific artistic skills. These attributes are crucial to the high-quality execution of Cultural Democracy in practice. I just would like people to recognise that not everybody can do it.


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