Learning from our first assembly in 2019

Author: Bridget McKenzie

Why are we looking back to 2019?

We’re evaluating the impact of CDE since our launch 4 years ago. We realised that we had a brilliant benchmarking dataset in a gigantic book of discussions from our first Cultural Assembly, when 300 people gathered at the Roundhouse in London, in July 2019.

As the climate emergency has accelerated, alongside the ‘cost of living’ crisis, the effects of the pandemic, Brexit and the ‘hostile environment’, and continued assaults on biodiversity and indigenous-stewarded lands, do we need to make fresh declarations and more radical plans? What are the transformative and adaptive routes for creative & cultural practices that we might pursue with communities? How do we grow capacity amongst our declarers and Hubs in the face of artist precarity and other pressures?

As part of this, we want to address limitations on our agency for both cultural practice and system-changing activism in a series of assemblies this Autumn. These include the ‘Together We Act’ assembly on 3rd Sept at the South Bank Centre and a movement-wide online assembly on 13th September. We’re also hoping to see more assemblies organised by local Hubs. We are aware from a survey sent to declarers this year, and anecdotally, that some challenges face declarers: a culture of shame & accusations around the Earth crisis; the technocratic focus on measurables rather than on systems and heart-led work; and a lack of funding for radical work.

It has been useful to look back and see what concerned people in 2019, what their visions were and what has changed since then to ensure we can move the conversation on.

What was our first assembly?

CDE launched in April 2019 with a spectacular performative event and follow-up actions, but it was felt that a large-scale conversation was needed to consult with the wider community of potential and existing declarers. Over 300 people came to the Roundhouse arts centre in Camden, in what used to be a turning place for trains, to discuss the role of Arts & Culture in turning round from the Earth crisis. So, in this round place, there were 38 circles of white chairs for discussion. It was richly curated and creatively facilitated with many music and spoken word performances, expert provocations and participatory activities. The expert speakers including Rupert Read, Paul Allen, Farhana Yamin, Sholeh Johnston, and Zuneira Malik challenged participants with insights into why the emergency is happening, visions of what might happen if nothing is done, and visions of what could be if we take this moment to change. Then there were several rounds of discussion, punctuated by performances and creative activities.

The discussions were in four rounds on the following questions, and were then synthesised into statements and fresh questions…

In response to the climate and ecological emergency we are in, what does the cultural sector:

  • need to relinquish
  • what might we restore and
  • how do we build resilience as individuals and organisations?
  • In the light of this what kind of art and culture will we make, cherish and share? 

What were the big themes?

Amongst the many points raised, these were the key changes that participants wanted to see:

  • Radical change to the cultural sector to be more inclusive, less commercial and less hierarchical. “How can we challenge institutional structures to distribute power more equally, and to encourage slower and more inclusive cultural production?”
  • A shift in practice from international touring, towards working locally and with communities. “If live art requires physical presence, how do we solve the problem of international collaboration in the context of climate breakdown?” 
  • More ethical funding relationships, and recognition by funders of the value of inclusive, local, low-footprint culture through more funding and management support. “Are funding structures and metrics helpful in this new situation?”
  • The arts sector playing a role in shifting social narratives from individualism to collectivism. “Can we go beyond the narrative of the individual hero, to tell stories of connection?”
  • A response to public feeling that was being expressed in climate protests, recognising that people need greater voice, equality and resilience to coming shocks. Also, a need to engage people who are not yet aware of the crisis, its causes and routes to change. “Collaborating on large-scale art projects that raise national awareness for climate change and get attention of politicians while also working with local communities and individual stories and connecting the two.”

Here is an example of the kind of art and culture the participants felt we should make, cherish and share:

  • Generative art, not based on mercantile value based on the greater good. It would have:
    • Minimal damage to biodiversity in the making.
    • Enhances other life.
    • Celebrates our connection to other beings.
    • Reconnect communities to their place or particular sites
    • Acceptance it is transitory – doesn’t have to last forever
    • But also, a legacy, art used by the community rather than a commodity value.

Essentially the discussion surfaced a desire for more radical sustainability within arts practices and organisations, integrating this with an existing shift towards more participatory and inclusive approaches to the arts. It would be really interesting to know if and how this desire came to be realised in practices and organisations, and we hope to hear some of these stories at the movement-wide assembly on September 13th.

Looking back, what was missing from the discussion?

  • Very few discussions addressed collapse, and this word wasn’t documented, although there was mention of survival skills and concerns about having children.
  • There was very little conversation about areas such as rewilding, biomimicry or the regenerative economy, and similarly almost no mention of climate impacts, biodiversity loss, planetary boundaries and so on. (There was mention of nature connection and paying attention to changes in the landscape.)
  • There was a great deal of focus on making culture less exclusive and elitist, but no recorded mentions of climate justice and migration, or the links between colonial histories and the environmental crisis.
  • The Arts sector was the dominant voice in the assembly. Although there were some voices from heritage and museums, and some recognition of the value of learning from the past there wasn’t a focus on conserving and protecting heritage from impacts, whether natural, built or intangible heritage. Not mentioned, although perhaps implied, was a shift from attracting tourists inwards or supporting flight-based tourism.  There also wasn’t a Design sector voice at the assembly.

This final bullet point reflects an ongoing discussion about whether CDE is really ‘Arts Declare’ or whether it represents the broader sectors of Design, Heritage, Museums etc. My personal view is that the breadth of Culture is our strength, giving us a potential convening power for an interdisciplinary approach (across science, conservation, eco-innovation, tourism etc). This breadth supports more attention to working with communities of place, expertise and heritage, and less inward-looking attention to the continuity and sustainable practices of the Arts. I’m aware this is a fairly unusual view, and adds a certain bias to my evaluation of this event. You can read more of my thoughts here about how CDE should encourage the sector to be collapse-aware, and focus on adaptation, transition, and resilience.

You can read a full report that documents all of the discussions and analyses them, as much as possible without applying bias. Please do share your own interpretations of the material e.g. by commenting here, posting on social media (tagging Culture Declares on our socials) or by writing a blogpost for this site. Similarly, if you are running or attending any of the assemblies coming up, blogposts would be very welcome.

Latest news

Skip links

  1. Top
  2. Skip to content top
  3. Skip to quick links
  4. Skip to main menu
  5. Skip to search