On Monday I was at Cecil Sharp House – the magnificent home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society – for the inaugural consultation event to develop a Participation Manifesto. Around 50 people from a wide range of arts organisations (including voluntary arts umbrella bodies, local authorities and institutions such as the Royal Shakespeare Company and English National Opera) spent an intense day discussing a vision for arts participation over the next 10 years.
It was fascinating how, over 5 hours on Monday, this large group more or less recreated all the ups and downs of the discussions the small manifesto development group has had over the past 12 months. Starting with the easy-to-agree premise that, if all those organisations involved in getting people to participate in the arts and crafts were able to work together and unite in a single clear message, we would be able to substantially increase and widen participation, the consensus quickly began to fall apart as we argued about definitions of ‘participation’ and whether what we were discussing was truly a ‘manifesto’. By lunchtime it felt like we had definitively established that the dream of agreeing a Participation Manifesto was completely impossible. (And anyone who left the event at this point must have gone away feeling incredibly frustrated.) But in the afternoon, through a combination of working in small groups and then sharing and combining ideas on a wall of post-it notes, a consensus gradually began to emerge. By the end of the afternoon we had agreed the key goals for the manifesto and a series of ways in which these might be met. We had also discussed the process for continuing the development of the manifesto and establishing a steering group.
There is clearly a long way to go – but this event was always intended to be just the start of a thorough participative process. It’s going to be hard work but it feels like we have made a very good start – which is great credit to all those who contributed to Monday’s event. It was an exhausting but absorbing day. And it felt wonderfully counter intuitive, at the home of English folk music, for the day to include a wonderful lunchtime performance of Indian classical music by ‘Ragarasa’.
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