Our cultural leaders have a choice about what they want to be: brokers or gatekeepers…

Globalisation, borders, migration, and the collapse of regimes feature daily in headlines as the world is reshaped politically, socially and culturally. Historians will say it has been ever thus – every few hundred years empires topple, centres of trade move. 

Embrace, resent or ignore it, our worldview and ways are challenged by exchange with other views and cultures, and in turn our way of behaving as a society and a nation influences and affects others.

Now is the time to discuss our mutual responsibility for this intercultural exchange and its implications for future dialogue, society and work.

From where I’m sitting, the place to start this conversation is not good relations work or diplomatic affairs but in the arts and cultural world. Artists very often start to question or think about society in new ways before everyone else. They breach and transcend borders and form part of revolutions.

Not always, just very often (think about HG Wells anticipating the Cold War in the 1910s, Margaret Atwood’s depictions of state-controlled fertility from the 1980s, Vaclav Havel and Birgitta Jonsdottir as leaders of political movements in the Czech Republic and Iceland).

Looking at what artists are saying through their music or books or plays, their relationships and actions gives insight, inspiration and often introduces new voices and new people to the debate. There is, however, another dimension to this conversation that I want to explore.

The decisions about what and how cultural work in all its forms gets done, who gets to see it and who gets to do it, are made most often by the heads of a hotchpotch of small businesses, film companies, non-profit arts organisations and venues, voluntary groups, publishers, local authorities and public bodies; some specialists in a particular artform and some not. 

I want to have a discussion about the implications of this changing world for the heads of these cultural organisations and bodies – call them artists, managers, artistic directors, coordinators, producers, officers, CEOs, ministers, whatever the title. If they are in the driving seat, navigating this changing landscape, do they know where they want to go and how to get there and whose map are they using?

So let’s have this conversation. What will we talk about?

We will most likely talk about the problem with things being ‘self-evident’ – we assume our view is the norm. Is this a problem? Well of course it is. Think for a moment about the words ‘our’, ‘indigenous’ and ‘culture’ from a Northern Irish perspective (assuming you accept that).

Now try to imagine what these words mean if you are not within the perceived norm of ‘orange and green’ or indeed white, Christian with English as a first language. Would they mean something else if you were running a cultural business in Nashville or Milan or Shanghai?

And now think about how as a venue manager or creative business head you have to take in to account all the different versions of these words if you want to achieve goals around internationalisation, equality, inclusion or diversity? 

What does this look like in your planning, your markets, your outreach or CSR and your recruitment? And how do you express your aspirations in words when someone else has a different meaning for them?

I expect we will talk about the things we don’t know, as Donald Rumsfeld would put it, ‘the unknown unknowns’. We do not understand what we do not know and we cannot know everything.

We can, however, demonstrate leadership in how we accept and approach our ignorance about other cultural norms, forms of cultural expression and ways of doing business. We can be the biggest challenge to our lack of awareness.

Could this change our ways of developing cultural programmes, how we choose and work with artists? Does it affect what we think we should do – the cultural obligations we have around representation for example or what we assess as ‘excellent’ or ‘popular’?

Would it have an influence on the business models many cultural businesses adopt, the way public and private financing is managed, or the skills and attitudes we look for and train in our labour force? Most likely it would.

Cultural contexts may be unique but there are common challenges and opportunities arising from globalisation throughout the world, and one of the great opportunities is sharing experiences and approaches virtually and in the real world. There is a worldwide network of people having these conversations and next week in Belfast, one small part of it will be discussing this.

My last thought about the conversation I want to have is this. Our leaders (those in arts and culture as well as our public officials and political representatives) have a choice – to be brokers or gatekeepers.

They can be the ones thinking openly, making connections, loosening the reins of control, negotiating and challenging a little further; or they can be the guardians, protecting cultural uniqueness against external forces, controlling and managing those exchanges, shaping them to fit their worldview, determining the meanings of ‘them’ and ‘us’.

Neither is straightforward and neither is without compromise or difficulty. One certainty is that the choice of how we manage our intercultural relationships is also the choice of who is considered as an audience or community and who is not, whose voices are heard and given the stage, whose images are seen and whose are not. 

With choice comes responsibility. If we are to embrace this new world order in a forward-thinking positive way, now is the time to have that conversation.

To be part of this conversation, you can book a (free) ticket to an event on Thursday 6 April hosted by the School of Arts, English and Languages at Queen’s University Belfast. This is part of a research project supported by the Arts & Humanities Research Council. For more information, go to www.managingculture.net

Ali FitzGibbon is a researcher, independent consultant and programmer/producer with over 20 years experiencing of leading arts and cultural organisations and projects.