Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Try This For Size

We applaud PDC for its document “Castles, Carnivals, Coast, Heath and Peoples” and its attempt to describe the 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 flesh out a rather limited range of ideas.

However there are four main areas of contention:
1) We cannot agree with the narrowness of the strategy's definition of culture or with the parochial scope of the strategy itself. It does not accord with any known definition of culture and even falls short of the government’s own guidelines.
2) Consequently The strategy shows every sign of having been constructed backwards as it were with the aim of supporting and justifying particular existing medium term local objectives of PDC, without trying to come to grips with new ideas and thinking.
3) We consider that the strategy needs to be related to both PDC's vision statement and the policies of other public bodies. PDC was criticised last year for not identifying the means through which its vision is to be delivered. This strategy offers an opportunity to come to grips with this issue.
4) There needs to be attention to the economic value of culture and the relevance of tourism

The OED defines culture as.... "The training and refinement of mind, tastes and manners....... the intellectual side of civilization.” Anthropologists would say culture is .. "the combined understanding of a single group of people in contrast to any other.” In both cases it is to do with ideas, stories, arts. 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.
Neither of these definitions includes sport, health, youth offending, footpaths or other subjects which, whilst important, worthy and necessary do not form part to the overall definition of culture. However they do have a bearing on the “Quality of Life and, as the government does include some of these peripherals in its own definitions, it is fair for PDC to make use of them in its wider definition.
But it is not acceptable to reduce the definition of culture to “Leisure Sports and Recreation”. These Quality of Life issues are not included in the government’s definition 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 reflecting or 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 or be used for Adult Education classes” then, yes, it is a cultural facility. If it only provides sports, health or fitness facilities, then it is not.
Undoubtedly culture it is a leisure activity for those who may be describedas its "consumers", however, as we discuss below, culture is also a significant, indeed essential, part of Purbeck's economy and so does not fall to be dealt with simply as a form of service delivered or enabled by the council. Culture needs to be recognised as being at the centre of economic development and not diminished to a tactic for getting kids off the streets.

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, the alienated youth and so on.
These diverse cultural strands means that it much more difficult to define a Purbeck sense of identity. Many incomers feel a lack of ownership of the area. This particularly applies to young people for whom the idea of living and growing up in Swanage has an entirely negative air. It is inevitable that young people entering tertiary education will move away but there is a feeling that to stay in Swanage during your young adulthood means inevitable brain death.
PDC’s own figure demonstrate that a far greater percentage of the population engages in cultural activities than attend or participate in, say, sporting activities. (and there are many more that are not included such as , tap dancing, line dancing and so on). These figures show that Purbeck people participate in the Arts and culture to a greater degree than the national average (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, mysteriously, Purbeck District Council does not have a great tradition for encouraging or supporting these activities within the district. Even the admirable Heritage Committee sees its role in supporting infrastructure rather than the heritage of ideas.
It seems clear that the majority of culture consumers travel out of the area. This means, not only a loss of income, but an inevitable feeling that Purbeck has no culture of its own and its various cultures are not reflected to its inhabitants
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 ) These activities are small and ad hoc and 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. In order to comply with the conditions of its Trust it has no means to support creative and arts initiatives. It does a good job as The Village Hall for Swanage but it cannot achieve more.
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. They tend, as membership groups , not to have the resources or structures to include younger members of the community. 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 Arts Council monies over the years and is regarded by some as being a cultural lost cause.
So the cultural map is largely made up of culture seekers having to travel out of the district and of practitioners having to stumble on with little support.

The figures above show that Purbeck residents are a reasonably cultural aware community but the result of the small sample research seems to indicate the opposite.
The initial response to the random small sample research that was carried out by PDC is that we are a heathen lot who don’t care for anything cultural. But we know from our own experience that that is not (entirely) true. Our interpretation is that the research asked the wrong questions. Of course people don’t expect “leisure, recreation and sport” to contribute to the identity of Purbeck. And it is the same for the rest of the questions. If satisfaction was largely good then that is because residents are not aware of what could be possible. My guess is that respondents were saying “facilities are good considering we live in Purbeck”
It is telling that few people thought that leisure sport and recreation did not contribute to a sense of local identity or of contributing to the local economy. These are exactly the two ares in which a cultural strategy should operate and should be addressed with utmost urgency.
It has been enlightening to compare other Districts’ Cultural Strategies. Two downloaded at random from the internet (West Berks and Aylesbury Vale) show quite different approaches. In both cases there is a strong history of support for the arts and culture in the past. Consequently their residents show a great deal more awareness of , not only what can be achieved through cultural activities but have higher demands for more. As with many things in Purbeck, we are starting from such a low base that anything is better than nothing.

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 means peace and tranquillity 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. However, festivals cannot be just dreamt up and the expected to happen. Festival organisers spend vast amounts of time and, often, their own money to make these happen. They do this because they are committed to a particular idea and will sacrifice anything over long periods of time to make it happen. A District Council can never recreate this but it can support. A cultural advisory group can sniff out the committed groups and individuals and give them encouragement and show them where to apply for funds. The District Council should not be afraid to put small amounts of seedcorn funding in to kick start some of the new enterprises. Not all will succeed but one success is a success.
In other words in an area so dependent on tourism we must take account of the cultural aspirations of visitors and follow up the good work that has been done in the past on making Swanage an attractive destination with providing good cultural venues and experiences.
Tourist policy at regional and County level emphasises the importance of providing an enriched and extended cultural experience for tourists which goes beyond andtranscends the traditional "summer holiday" of previous generations. These policiesstress the role of "eco" or cultural tourism and very much revolve around the second definition quoted above. We consider that the strategy needs to relate to thesepolicies and the Jurassic Coast Arts policy and identify the role of PDC indelivering and enabling these within the district. We think that a cultural strategyfor an area with a tourism and environmentally based economy must therefore be a strategy for culturally based economic development in order to generate the wealth to provide for the leisure and sports needs, among others, of the local population.
In short, it’s the environment which brings visitors to Purbeck but it’s cultural activities which enrich the experience and bring in the money over and above the infrastructure of accommodation, car parking and fast food.

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 a particular idea 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. Our suggestion is that PDC encourages the setting up of a cultural steering group along the same lines as the heritage committee with the brief to explore a proper definition of culture as it applies to Purbeck and to advise PDC on possible cultural developments.

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 influences 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, for example, 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 Priest’s Way” “The Spy Way” and so on.

PDC can use its cultural strategy to provide a direction for the practical realisation of its vision for the District "Thriving communities in balance with the naturalenvironment." 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:

Remove the aims “Sport, health and Fitness” from the thinking of the strategy and include in its own document
Set up Cultural advisory group to develop a proper definition of culture for Purbeck
Eventually employ a culture and arts officer.
This group can advise on:
Development of a sense of identity for the District
Development of economic understanding of the need for culture particularly in tourism
This can lead to:
Sponsorship of a fund for arts innovations and projects
Including, for instance:
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.
At the same time PDC can:
Encourage one of the Dorset or regional arts organisations to relocate to Purbeck
Encourage the development of a cultural critical mass
Encourage a Sculpture hot spot including sculpture park, micro workshops for craftspeople
Include Interpretive waymarking for footpath network
Include Public art in new building developments
Develop a Sponsorship schemes to attract practitioners into the area.
It also needs to remember that:
Cultural activities never need to be justified


Keith Roker said...

I like the idea of having a sculpture park in a quarry. I cannot remember the name of the quarry but there is a plan to open a rockface which has the same geological sequence as the coast to the public so they can see the geology without having to be lowered from the cliff top in baskets. This would be an excellent venue. See the rocks and take a piece home with you.

I suspect the two funding streams would be suspicious of each other. My experience is that each funding source imagines its particular interest to be all important and anything else an irrelevance at best and an attempt to cozen them at worst.

Peter John Cooper said...

Any other ideas for getting culture into pole position over the other stuff?

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