Notes on the Culture and Commerce One Year On Reception – for my CF:SLR Cohort

Group of dancers, 4 on floor in different positions looking pensive, one standing behind clearly trying to work out positioning

I didn’t have a photo of the Pappy Show, so here’s an image of a representatively diverse London dance group, rehearsing at the RSA before the event I held there in 2019. These people were selected purely because they were (and still are) good at what they do. E14 Dance rehearsal, DanceGRiST at the RSA, image (c) Kate Coleman and DanceGRiST 2019

We were asked to write short summaries of our experience at the One Year On celebrations for Cohort members unable to attend. My summary – which represents my opinion at the time of the event only –  is not short, and follows.

 

Overall Impressions

First up, the evening itself was lovely. It was relaxing and quite surreal to find myself in a real-life meeting with actual real people after all this time. Fellow cohort members were all as interesting, committed, and sparky as I would expect from our online interactions. Recognisable too. I’m not sure why, but that surprised me. The event – basically a reception or celebration of an annual anniversary – was exactly what was billed. I was sad not to have heard more about what has been achieved but accept that this has probably been published within the Culture and Commerce cohort already.

 

Representation through dress code

As representatives of the cohort (https://www.london.gov.uk/questions/2021/2732) and of ourselves and our missions, our lot – myself included – had put a lot of thought into what we wore. From deliberate declarations of counterculturlism, through practical, to high-end vintage, our choices said a lot about our experience, aspirations, and the message we wanted to give.

 

Accessibility and spontaneous social groupings

As with all such events, peer groups conglomerated. With my CF:SLR perspectives I can see how the gathering of people with similar levels of influence and control could be seen as discriminatory. But it is human nature – simply natural – to seek out people you’ve met before, especially after our awful shared interregnum. In addition to this, healthy humans have a knack of finding others with whom they feel comfortable. This creates a self-sustaining pool of apparent exclusivity. Don’t get me wrong, that was no-one’s intention. I am happy with strangers, have a mission in DanceGRiST, like – and am interested in – people and talk to strangers all the time. So, provided events have sufficient duration, mixing in such groups won’t stop someone like me. However, more sensitive individuals will always find such things difficult.

Challenge: make people feel more comfortable about joining spontaneous social groups in official events.

Proposed Solution: have a host, person, or people responsible for introductions (done with Youth Representative at this event).

 

Making gatherings accessible and safe

I’m not sure if the highest levels of decision makers were present and hidden, popped in for a minimum of time and then disappeared, or were absent completely. I found none. Not for lack of trying! I did meet some of the members of the Culture and Commerce Taskforce. With the virus still rampant – the delta variant particularly – and a developing awareness that vaccination protection drops off over time, there are so many legitimate reasons for people to minimise personal interactions that I don’t think much can be taken from this aspect of my experience.

Challenge: give accessibility of senior decision makers to a diverse audience in invitationals.

Proposed Solution: ensure that senior decision makers feel safe enough to stay and that they are explicitly aware that they need to be accessible to those outside of normal peer groups for at least part of an event.

 

Social stuff and networking

I didn’t realise how much I have missed big gatherings until I was in the Museum of London and already participating. For me it was well worth the risk.

On the way home I also realised how poorly my pre-lockdown networking served me, simply because I wasn’t meeting people who I found interesting. I’ve never before met so many people I’d like to know more about at a business event. Everyone was engaging, approachable, easy to talk to, and committed to making a difference. Some were members of the Culture and Commerce Task Force. Some worked with or participated in aspects of London’s Coronavirus recovery. Some had more tenuous connections to the Culture and Commerce Taskforce. I have not yet followed them all up.

Challenge: Disability sucks. I have been disabled for 12 years now and still wish I could take a pill that would make me feel healthier. We’re going in the right direction in terms of includion for people with disabilities, both as a country and a culture. But we are still so far away that I can’t even articulate what I need to make things right. I can’t imagine the minds and contributions we are losing, and the sooner we get proper accessibility and treatment sorted, the sooner our society and economy will benefit.

Proposed Solution: (personal) Approach all those interesting people and hope they understand.

(general) Support Unlimited  and take Diversity and Cognitive Bias courses.

 

Speeches summarised (kinda)

The speeches talked of how ‘we’ needed to bring people back into London, to make it ‘worthwhile’ for them to do those hard old commutes. They celebrated the successful beginnings of initiatives, of how ‘partnership is better than sponsorship’ and of the ‘diversity’ of participants. None of this really jibes with me. I’m not sure whether this is because people think what I’m about to say is an obvious and implied part of the background of the Culture and Commerce Taskforces’ premise, or if it is one of those gaps in peoples’ thinking that we are all working on (back to cognitive bias?). But we all know that ‘givens’ and ‘obvious’ things – even when they are not specific to a culture or group – get lost.

 

Implied Culture and Commerce Group structure

All the partners I met during the evening represented, ran, or were employed by hubs. Hubs of business (like shared office space), hubs of academia (really cool fashion research), hubs of the arts (NDT). All these organisations were able to participate because – being salaried – they can devote the time to relationship building and forward thinking that freelancers and smaller cultural enterprises cannot. That’s sad. As well as the inevitable bias that will result, a good proportion of the funds given to them to assist small businesses will go to the hub’s administrative and management structures rather than the creatives in need. Moreover, because smaller organisations and freelancers are so focussed on earning enough to support themselves, they often don’t see Callouts for such things.

Challenge: Better and more explicit awareness by decision makers as to how assumptions can be deconstructed, group- and cognitive biases acknowledged and mitigation steps included at each major process, program, or project step.

Proposed Solution: Not my area. Training? More in the press? Non-threatening challenges from peers?

 

The meaning of ‘worthwhile’

The phrasing around what is ‘worthwhile’ in London made me wonder exactly what the Taskforce’s objectives were. I met people in architectural practices who were thinking about how London might change, but the message I got from the speeches was that we should be working on bringing commuters back in the old pre-covid ways. I could be wrong, but if I’m not, London is missing a huge potential opportunity and shutting the stable door after the horse is bolted.

Challenge: Demonstrate commercial ‘above the line’ reasons for increasing diversity and accessibility because this will shift assessments of what is ‘worthwhile’.

Proposed Solution: Explicit quantified reasons for the benefit of diversity in commerce, community, and governance. DanceGRiST is working on this.

 

Binary thinking and Exclusion: Not just Partnership or Sponsorship

Now let’s look at ‘partnership is better than sponsorship’. Two or more organisations partner together to explore a future when they both can afford to invest that time. The implication here – a bias towards partnership – is itself discriminatory, unwittingly killing the emerging artists and small businesses that London needs to thrive.

Challenge: demonstrate commercial ‘above the line’ reasons for increasing diversity and accessibility will shift assessments of what is ‘worthwhile’.

Proposed Solution: Explicit quantified reasons for the benefit of diversity in new developments. DanceGRiST and a load of other organisations and academics are working on this. Also, this shouldn’t be an ‘either or’. There are loads of models around that help everyone. Other people in the cohort are working on this.

 

Creating a properly diverse economy

Now let’s get to that ‘diversity’ word. I’m not sure how many people were in the room. 150? 200? Of those I counted 10 or 12 black people, one management-looking type SE Asian and one on the stage, and no one who looked as if they might be from other parts of Asia.

Which begs the question, how can we create a culturally diverse economy when the senior influencers and decision makers are a homogenous group? I’m not suggesting we need people in power who just happen to look right. I know Black and Asian people who are hugely competent. They’ve had to be, to survive. Most were not there. I ask myself why.

Challenge: Better diversity, better awareness of diversity.

Proposed Solution: Not my area, but I bet IncArts can help.

 

Diversification is not just about juniors

To an extent, diversification has started working in London (albeit, it seems, only at junior levels). The guest performers – NDT Associates The Pappy Show – had a moving performance of humour and empathy. This smart physical theatre duo started with smooth alliteration, then developed a powerful message based on lived experience thar was punctuated by complimentary moves. A message of pride, of caring and consciousness, warning a putative friend or family member not to sacrifice his identity just to fit in. It was a moving and vital message. One for everyone. It is by collaborating and combining our cultures richness that we can help London recover, become resilient and truly thrive.

It was with some dismay that, while waiting to talk to the artists, I heard a senior-looking man in a suit asking Kane (the Creative Director) to ‘send him the poem’. While I understand that his intention was to congratulate, this assumption of copyright ownership along with the reductionism of a performance that worked precisely because of the blend of words, rhythm and movement as a ‘poem’ is so many sorts of wrong.

Challenge: Better appreciation of what goes into an artists’ work, the value of that work and copyright issues and more.

Proposed Solution: We are working on this in the cohort, and so are loads of other organisations.

 

Addressing CF:SLR Cohort Member Concerns

I can’t speak for whether or not the Culture and Commerce taskforce is on schedule to meet its objectives or whether it has made or will make real change, because achievements, outcomes and plans were not shared on the night. But I can speak about expectations and perspectives.  Because creative freelancers are so often left outside of decision making and strategic planning it is easy to have unrealistic expectations of their speed, these expectations extend through everything: from initial ideation, through strategy creation, planning, project specification, funding and all the way to implementation. The only way this will change is by finding more ways to introduce creative freelancers into strategic planning, oversight and decision making. While one part of me hopes that CF:SLR might be the beginning of making this happen, other parts of me look back at the Freelance Task Force (https://freelancetaskforce.co.uk/), and all the other credible programs, and wonder how we can increase thirst – and a sense of urgency – for real and lasting change.

Challenge: address a mismatch in expectations and be more transparently accountable.

Proposed Solution: I’ve said it all, already. Explicit understanding for the abilities and contributions of the creative community is something that DanceGRiST and the cohort are working on.

 

Conclusion: despite challenges it’s all quite positive

Getting truly equal rights, good diversity, endemic and systemic acceptance of what creatives bring to the economy will be a long hard battle. It took hundreds of years of campaigning before we got women’s votes in 1918. The first paper in favour of a living wage was written in 1894, the National Living Wage was created in 1988 and London Living Wage campaigning is even now ongoing. What has started at the Culture and Commerce taskforce is exciting. However, despite many good intentions there is still huge cognitive bias in decision making circles. That is changing, slowly. That there is a culture and commerce taskforce is important. That our cohort has been put together signals great intention. We need to be pragmatic, thoughtful and strategic in our actions, research and planning, so that we can make sure it works.

Pragmacy and Advocacy previous notes on CF:SLR