Monday, 31 October 2011

Leading Cultural Learning part two: dazed and confused

So, where did all those stories leave me? I used to think and say, frequently and stridently, that cultural organisations needed to put learning at the core of their mission and operation. Now I'm not so sure. All I can offer are a few maybes.

Maybe we need to recognise the tension between cultural and educational 'pedagogies'. As Susan Sontag once wrote, the role of the artist is to make things more complex. Generally, the role of the teacher is to explain, simplify, ensure understanding. In learning through culture, how can we make sure that the arts aren't serving a more reductive learning agenda that they probably won't serve that well anyway.

Maybe learning is best left as an unintended or unplanned outcome of the artistic opportunities that artists and organisations provide through making and showing work - creating spaces where learning can happen, but might not.

Maybe the most effective educational strategy is for artists and organisations to focus on the quality of their products, and make sure that as many different kinds of people as possible engage. This requires serious, sustained targeting at 'not yet reached' audiences, rather than random acts of cultural kindness, and needs a reclamation of the concept of audience engagement from marketeers.

Is this cultural learning heresy? One person thought my views were straight from the 19th Century. I made it clear that I wasn't arguing for the abandonment of education officers, departments and programmes. Too much great work and progress has been made, and England's cultural learning infrastructure is the envy of much of the world. I also wasn't arguing against those whose mission is largely or entirely focused on learning. Their work adds huge value to our artistic and educational landscape.

I also suggested that there might be some fascinating work to do in terms of the learning offer of the arts-producing SMEs - the small producing or touring companies, festivals and other venue-free ventures, who might be able to offer much more to children and young people with some minor tweaking and regearing.

But I am not sure what I am arguing for... and maybe that reflects the problem and potential of art's relationship with public policy and public services.  The education sector and wider policy world are crammed with people who are more certain of their position than their position deserves... who put doubts aside to exaggerate the strength or their argument. How can art compete in this environment? As Wayne MacGregor once said, 'the job of the artist is to not know'.

I also know that we're dealing with an education sector that, more than ever, is systematically wired to neglect the arts, and relies on cultural partners to cover up for their deficiencies. And we are also facing a cultural sector that, despite the Arts Council goals, strategies and occasional words, is also subtly being offered the option to 'stick to their knitting' (and maybe my 'maybes' above are guilty of this too). With the  Henley Review about to offer recommendations to government, those passionate about cultural learning need to lobby collectively and coherently - rumours are that there's money to be released. But as we coalesce and create ever more stunning evidence for the power of cultural learning, let's nurture rather than neglect our doubts about the whole enterprise - ultimately, doubt may be our most valuable currency.

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