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Chaotic, cruel and unknowable

In 2016 the challenges facing society can appear chaotic, cruel and unknowable. To understand and make positive change we need expertise, knowledge and insight from the widest range of perspectives. The arts and culture are uniquely placed to bring the creative imagination to bear on these complex and difficult times, and to enable deeper understanding of who we are in relation to the world around us.
Posted by Dominic Gray

We have a responsibility to equip and enable young people, and others experiencing transition, to understand their world and how they might change it; a process which is as much about self-awareness, identity and narrative as it is about economics and the workplace. The arts have a powerful role to play in deconstructing the stories we are told, and in contributing to possible answers and new ways of thinking. At the same time the arts can empower and enable people young and old to contribute their own voices and imaginations to our possible futures. Above all the arts can bring deep experience of collaboration, co-design and ideas-sharing to enable vital partnerships between individuals, groups and sectors.

For many people in the arts this is self-evident; civic engagement is so obviously part of what they do, and why they went into the arts in the first place, that these conversations can seem almost nonsensical. Surely the arts and culture have civic engagement in their very DNA. Yet this story and condition isn’t widely or rigorously thought about or told; it is hidden in plain sight. We need the arts to be better at articulating their engagement, and pressing their value to the wider civic agenda. The arts, and cultural organisations in particular, need to play a more visible role in how society is (re)organising itself in the 21st Century.

Barriers for cultural organisations developing their civic role include time, funding and expertise. However we perceive that the future funding of the arts will be much more dispersed than it has been, and cross-sector projects and programmes will lever resources from a much more varied range of bodies, from the Wellcome Trust to the Arts and Humanities Research Council, from local health trusts to the probation services. The reliance on a single body (ACE, local authority) will give way to a much richer, though more complex, network of bodies engaged with the civic agenda.

Illustration – The value to health and wellbeing

At Opera North we are three years into a five year programme of community engagement, working specifically with groups and individuals who are perceived as disadvantaged in terms of their ability to engage with cultural activity. This project, funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, entails close collaboration with other bodies including health, social services and charities such as City of Sanctuary. Since the project’s launch in 2013 we have enabled 6,500 attendances at Opera North from people who would not otherwise have been able to attend. One participant recently wrote: ‘I had a lovely evening at the theatre watching Carousel, the dancing and the set was magical. I especially loved the leaves falling off the tree. My mum is sick and I am her carer full time. Going to the theatre was a lovely experience because it stopped me thinking of my mum. I want to go again and would love to take my mum also so we could both forget about her illness…’.

Illustration – The value to educational attainment

In Harmony Opera North is a Community Residency programme taking place at Windmill Primary School and Low Road Primary School impacting on 650 children in full-time education and the wider community in the Belle Isle area of South Leeds. It aims to transform aspirations and learning outcomes for children through an immersive programme of high quality music tuition, and regular performance opportunities. Windmill Primary School, where 92% of children come from families classified as ‘hard-pressed’ and 60% are eligible for free school meals, was selected through extensive consultation with the Local Education Authority, based on the potential to create the greatest impact for children and their families. The programme is funded by the Department for Education and Arts Council England.

In 2015 Windmill Primary School saw a 20% rise in their KS2 SATS results. Although this rise cannot be attributed fully to the In Harmony programme, the Headteacher is of the opinion that the programme enhances both personal and academic development and, in doing so, has made a major contribution to improved academic results at the school:

‘The In Harmony programme at Windmill Primary School continues to go from strength to strength. We have observed many significant effects on the pupils’ skills at Windmill such as teamwork, co-operation, social etiquette and self-confidence. It is my belief that the cultural enrichment provided by the In Harmony programme has had a direct impact on the positive learning culture and subsequently contributed towards improved results.’

Andy Gamble, Executive Headteacher

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