This week, faith leaders, unions and others called for 2020 to be the “decade of reconciliation and reconnection”. Creating cultural opportunities in our towns and villages – those exact towns and villages that feel betrayed and abandoned by politicians – would be a powerful and dynamic way to make that happen.
Sadly ‘culture’ can often feel like something that happens elsewhere in big, shiny buildings. But culture has the capacity to be just another part of life in the same way sport is enjoyed at an international level at big tournaments and at local grounds and parks by everyone.
Culture is happening everywhere. It’s a gig in a room above a pub, a trip to the cinema, a Bollywood dance class, a trip to the local museum, a storytelling workshop or a local youth theatre show.
In other words, culture is part of the very fabric of our lives but in too many communities across the country, it’s under-valued and often dependent on the goodwill of talented individuals on peppercorn budgets.
We can do so much better.
This week Nick Serota, trailed the launch of the Arts Council England ten-year strategy announcing a number of impressive priorities - more funding for those starting out in the creative industries, the east of England getting more cash and libraries playing a bigger part in the cultural life of communities where arts engagement is low.
He also touched on rumours that the department of digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) will be dismantled. Not a massive surprise when the prime minister has already lifted the secretary of state Nicky Morgan into the House of Lords, unaccountable to the citizens she is meant to serve.
And of course it’s welcome when Serota says the priority should be to “reach those people who are not participating”.
In Batley and Spen we’ve seen the power of creative people and places through the brilliant work of Creative Scene, empowering people not just to watch but encouraging them to create and perform.
Working with Labour Towns on the idea of a Town of Culture and the performers alliance all-party parliamentary group (where I chaired the inquiry into the class ceiling in the arts) I know that if we truly believe this coming decade should be one of reconciliation and reconnection, art and culture must no longer be seen as just nice to have, but as a right.
Culture is a tool to bring reconciliation and forgiveness, whether it’s the Israeli-Palestinian orchestra taking its message of peace around the world or the EU programme for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland tackling sectarianism and racism through artistic engagement, or in the Congo, where after years of fighting, traumatized and violent child soldiers are brought back into their community through the power of dance.
Art has the power to transform lives.
On a less epic scale, just watching a performance is as good for you as a 30 minute jog. Participating is even better. Engaging in a creative activity with others ends loneliness and boosts wellbeing, strengthening our sense of belonging, making us kinder and more tolerant. And, as I’ve seen with the brilliant group Creative Minds, it can literally save lives.
So replace DCMS if you must, but with the UK’s creative industries a global leader and fastest growing part of the economy, we must support the next generation of creatives.
With cheap rents and supportive councils, our towns have the potential to be the incubator for a new golden decade of regional art and creativity. So if DCMS has to go, it must have a voice elsewhere with special cultural advisors placed in every governmental department.
Culture that connects has the potential to end the tribalism created by the binary identities of Leave or Remain. To build empathy and understanding of the ‘other’, regenerate our town centres to create a sense of belonging, pride, wellbeing, kindness and hope for the future.
We must show vision by investing in all our communities to create cultural opportunities to heal our wounds and bring us back together. It is possible. We just need the political will.
Tracy Brabin is the MP for Batley and Spen.