Post COVID do local Cultural Trusts hold some clues for the future of cultural leadership in our town and cities?

Cultural Trusts come in many shapes and sizes across England. Some emerged to protect local authority cultural assets, set free to operate outside the constraints of local government austerity-driven cuts. Others were set up to lead large DCMS-funded projects such as the Great Places Scheme. Whilst others appeared through a coalition of interested stakeholders in a city or town. Whatever their birth, a Culture Trust can play a critical role in local cultural leadership. Now perhaps more than ever as we emerge from the cultural rubble of the last year. The idea is far from new. The 1953-54 annual report for the then Arts Council of Great Britain urged local authorities to set up "Civic Arts Trusts". These trusts would gather data, fill gaps in programming (through pilot projects), and look to raise additional funds for culture in cities.

Cultural Trusts have a separate and different role in local leadership to Cultural Compacts, another model of cultural leadership (currently supported by ACE and DCMS). There is an interesting debate around which of these models can be most effective, but that is probably a whole separate article. 

In 2019, Southampton Cultural Development Trust (SCDT) asked independent evaluator Annabel Jackson to look at the SCDT's achievements since the appointment of a Director in November 2015. With Annabel's help, the Trust identified four key areas, in each of which they had made a measurable difference to the city. These broke down to more money, more information, a more strategic approach, and more unity.

Accurate local information matters to the sector but is often hard to obtain. The Arts Council England's resources are increasingly centralised and overstretched. Historically it funded Audience Development agencies in each region that provided local market intelligence but no longer does so. Instead, it centralises all its audience development resources into Audience Finder - a convenient tool but it is not always manipulated sub regionally to its best potential. Arts Council England's own research and collection of previously funded project evaluations are now almost impossible to find or retrieve online. Research findings that are published have been reduced to a tool for advocacy for cultural investment at best. 

Trusts like SCDT handle research, data, and evaluation and meet and talk to many people in an area. In so doing, they act as mavens (Malcolm Gladwell's term). These are "information brokers, sharing and trading what they know … people we rely upon to connect us with new information"; they accumulate knowledge and share it with others. So Trusts can provide both formal and informal market intelligence. The frequent beneficiary of this is new cultural entrepreneurs, unrepresented artists, and organisations flying way below the Arts Council's radar. These cultural start-ups have exciting ideas, the new ideas that will be needed post-pandemic, but often not the knowledge or connections needed to turn ideas into viable plans. The Trusts can provide this. 

More money: The current trend of government funding favours collaborative bids. Established partnerships with "shovel ready" projects do best. Some Trusts in the South West were set up specifically to help deliver funded projects making the most of new community involvement opportunities (Gloucester, Torquay*). At an earlier stage, Trusts can encourage collaboration and bring potential partners together. Trusts can provide essential seed funding. In the summer of 2017, SCDT awarded £500 to "a space" arts that unlocked a £5,000 Arts Council grant to get a business plan written and governance work completed, and that in turn was critical to securing £400,000 of NPO funding. A 799% return on investment. Of course, this result was down to "a space" – their visionary director and excellent team – but SCDT was able to offer crucial financial and strategic support to them at the critical moment of change.

A more strategic approach: The British Council publication "What is Cultural Leadership?" suggests that "Leading the cultural sector is practiced in two different ways. First, it concerns competently managing the organisations of the cultural sector… Second, it means leading culture itself - making work, productions, and projects which show different ways of thinking …". Trusts work to identify gaps, align programming, drive strategies, and help to target audiences collectively. They exist to provide cultural leadership in this British Council sense. Trusts are uniquely positioned for this. Other cultural investors in a city or region have competing priorities: they can support cultural development, but their position to lead is compromised. NPOs and their boards must look after their own long-term existence, whilst local authorities, BIDs, and universities are responsive to constituents, levy payers, and students, respectively. Trusts can be the independent voice for the cultural and creative industries. 

More unity. Trusts can be "connector organisations" (Charles Landry): acting "beyond self-interest… both powerful and not powerful simultaneously". They draw people together – often people who would not otherwise have met – but are careful not to "take too much credit" for collective achievement. Trusts can have a backdoor political voice, gently reminding funders of their commitments, warning of unintended consequences, and arguing for long-term progress over short-term gain. Trusts can promote widely inclusive cultural debate, giving individuals and small community groups space, a voice, and the confidence they need to contribute to long-term strategy when local authority and Arts Council experts are also present.  

So the Arts Council had it right, in 1954.

"Acceptance of the arts as a public and local responsibility needs a cutting edge on it, and that, above all, is what a well-directed Civic Arts Trust might supply". Local Trust momentum faltered when Regional Arts Associations were set up – later turning into Regional Arts Boards, later still abolished – but now it seems to be picking up again. Indicated by the number of cities and towns that have approached Directors of Trusts for advice and support on setting up their own versions.  Possibly they may also hold the key to local cultural leadership as we seek to "build back better". 

Published by GJG April 2021 

*Correction: Torquay Culture is part of the TDA, the trading name of Torbay economic development company, which is owned by Torbay Council and not actually a Trust. They did lead Great Places and their evaluation is here.