Friday, August 19, 2005

Peter John Cooper's View

The PDC document "Castles, Carnivals, Coast, Heath and Peoples" is a fair appraisal of culture in Purbeck. It does, however, draw some extraordinary conclusions which are at odds with its broad sweep. The main conclusion - support for a sports centre in Swanage - is admirable and necessary but detracts from the overall aim of producing a cultural strategy. This is not meant to be a rebuttal of the PDC document but, rather, aims to provide some ideas and positive thinking to a rather limited range of ideas.

Some Definitions
The OED defines culture as.... "The training and refinement of mind, tastes and manners....... the intellectual side of civilization. There is also a sense in which it is .."the combined understanding of a single group of people in contrast to any other." In other words it is to do with ideas, stories, arts. Neither of these definitions includes sport, health, youth offending, footpaths or other subjects which, whilst important, worthy and necessary do not contribute to the overall cultural life . However the government does include some of these peripherals in its own definitions so it is fair to make use of them in a wider definition. But it is clear that these issues are not included at the expense of actual cultural activities. It is also clear that these side issues are only included insofar as they contribute to the cultural life of the community. In other words, a test needs to be applied to developments to see if they actually are contributing to cultural life. We may ask of a sports facility "How does it enhance or reflect the cultural life of the community?" If the answer is "It will be a venue for a local choir to rehearse" or "It will provide a base for a literature festival" then, yes, it is a cultural facility. If it only provides sports, health or fitness facilities, then it is not. Culture is the software that joins us together in our communities. It helps us understand who we are, how we got here and where we are going.

Cultural Life
Purbeck people have a concept of their own culture as an old fishing, quarrying, farming community. And even as a tourist venue with a culture of service. But there are few opportunities to record, respond and challenge the ideas of what it is like to be part of Purbeck culture in the 21st century.
The various cultures of Purbeck are as diverse as any in rural Britain today. There is the culture of the elderly, the hard-pressed farmer, the foreign language students, the builders and developers, and so on.
A far greater percentage of the population engages in cultural activities (art classes, cinema, reading, listening to music, tap dancing) than attend or participate in, say, sporting activities. (According to the Arts Council of England 26% of population attended a general art event including carnivals, festivals and circuses in 2003/2004 25% went to the theatre, 26% attended a musical, 8% attended a cultural festival, 4% a dance event) Yet, unfortunately, Purbeck does not have a great tradition for encouraging or supporting these activities. Even the admirable Heritage Committee sees its role in supporting infrastructure rather than the heritage of ideas.
There is a range of small community venues that are able to act as centres of cultural activity (there is a strong tradition of music making and performing in churches, the schools provide facilities for adult classes, the village halls are venues for dances and occasional theatre performances ) But again, there is no mechanism or facility for encouraging artistic or creative activity. The Mowlem, originally set up as an institute and reading room, is restricted by its Trust to the provision of a hall and a meeting room.
There is a strong tradition of amateur arts activity which, while performed with commitment and enthusiasm is not able to take on new challenges or raise its game to new standards. It might be worthwhile to make a resource available to amateur groups and individuals that would enable them to take on new challenges. At the same time, there is no local professional organisation that can access and direct funding into the area. This has resulted in the sorry position that Purbeck has been unable to access its share of Lottery and other monies over the years and is regarded by some as being a cultural wasteland.

Culture and Tourism
It is inevitable that culture and tourism will go hand in hand. Most of the tourists coming here will have a cultural aim in mind (even if it is the expectation of seeing old fishermen with grizzled beards and tarry jumpers mending nets and singing sea shanties) The cultural life of a small sea-side town meanstranquilityranquillity to some, amusements and glitter to others. But it is extraordinary how little of the actual cultural life of the place is on show to the visitors. Farming interpretation centres such as Putlake and farmer Palmers do a good job but Sunnydown and its Dinosaur Footprint exhibition did not survive. There are indeed, small museums and the prospect of some sort of interpretation centre at Durlston as well as the heritage and tourist centres but there is no feature that can provide the sort of cultural highlight for the main tourist areas in the way that the Tank Museum and Monkey World can do in the North.
The Festivals and carnivals are high points of the year but mostly occur during the summer months and there is a general awareness that there needs to be events happening in the shoulder periods.

Culture and the Community
One of the objectives of any strategy should be making available cultural experiences to communities that live here. At the same time it should be reflecting the cultural activities that exist here to other communities in Purbeck and outwards to the wider world.
There are few opportunities for cultural interchange. One of the ways in which culture is propagated is through critical mass. this is when individuals and communities are close enough together for ideas to take off and become amplified. Such "hot spots" have occurred with painters in St. Ives and Newlyn in Cornwall, for instance. (Interestingly, this is a homegrown Dorset idea with the development of the idea of "Community Plays" by Ann Jellicoe) In Purbeck, one of the cultural problems is the physical separation of rural communities and their fragmentation in towns. PDC could encourage one of these Hot Spots , a centre of excellence for a particular arts activity, whereby local amateurs, young learners and older beginners could come together with professionals to share interests and ideas. An ideal area for this could be in sculpture which has a natural fit and, indeed a proud history in Purbeck. PDC could encourage a tie up with a local quarry, seek out space for a sculpture park and offer micro workshop space. Local hoteliers might be encouraged to wade in with sculpture weekend breaks. there are many other areas where PDC could be proactive in promoting cultural hotspots without the cost of anything more than the time of a culture and arts officer
Nobody expects PDC to have the resources or expertise to generate cultural programmes itself but there is no reason why it should not use its offices to promote and support this sort of activity.

How Culture Works
We mentioned earlier that there needs to be a test for cultural value. But there is not a distinction between life and cultural life. They are one and the same thing. Our Culture linfluences what we do and the world around us influences our cultural life. However whilst developing a cultural strategy there is no point in trying to justify culture in terms of other activities or in hiding other topics under the banner of culture. Culture has its own worth and must be looked at for the benefits it provides in itself.
The provision or signposting of a footpath is not a cultural development. The naming or describing the story of that footpath is. So that, whilst a footpath was being improved it could provide the opportunity for an artist to contribute to the waymarking. Posts or tablets could demonstrate "This path was originally used by quarrymen walking to work." This will underline and preserve the cultural significance of the path for future generations. What about extending the idea to a network of cultural trails "The Priests' Way" "The Spy Way" and so on.

A cultural Strategy.
The body of the PDC document makes quite clear that cultural activities are vital for the well-being of Purbeck. The conclusions are, unfortunately, skewed by its emphasis on Sports activities. While there are clear cultural links, they should, rather be removed to a separate "Sports, Health and Fitness" document. It appears that the Cultural Strategy is being used to hide other, non-related, activities. This leaves an extraordinary thin strategy for culture. However we can now flesh this out with some concrete suggestions:

Sponsorship of a fund for arts innovations and projects

Facilities for music making (recording studio, practice rooms.)

Development of music teaching and mentoring network in the area.

Rehearsal and studio facilities for local performers

Promotion budget to encourage non-profit making performances

Art gallery space

Development of other cultural festivals (literature, art, dance) with particular Purbeck themes.

Encourage one of the Dorset or regional arts organisations to relocate to Purbeck

Encourage the development of a cultural critical mass

Sculpture hot spot including sculpture park, micro workshops for craftspeople

Interpretive waymarking for footpath network

Public art in new building developments

Sponsorship schemes to attract practitioners into the area.

A culture and arts officer.

An acceptance that cultural activities do not need to be justified by unrelated labels.