In October 2014 we held our Fun Palaces pilot - 138 local communities, organisations and venues across the UK and beyond created free and local public events using arts and sciences. Crucially, these events were created and curated by 3,183 Fun Palaces Makers - many of them neither arts nor sciences professionals, many of them leading events in community for the first time. Forty thousand people attended in person and tens of thousands more took part online.
Two and half years ago, when my Fun Palaces co-director Sarah-Jane Rawlings and I first started to speak to major funders and public organisations about Fun Palaces, telling them we envisioned grassroots, community-led events, with arts and sciences as the catalyst for engagement, we were almost always told "Yes, but they - communities - need leaders to make this happen", or "Nice idea, but without arts and sciences experts in charge, it'll never work", and even more sadly, "Getting everyday people joining in with arts and sciences is great, but how will you guarantee the 'excellence' of what they create?"
My response to the latter was that excellence is always subjective, that the standards by which we currently measure quality were invented a century or more ago by wealthy white men for wealthy white men, and that what truly matters is the quality and excellence of engagement - do people join in and does it make a difference when they do?
Over the past year, I've noticed a change in people's attitude when we say "We believe in community, in what everyday people in any community can achieve". Partly this is because it's no longer a pilot, we can show that last year's weekend was not a one-off, and Fun Palaces Makers in communities across the UK have continued to work together, developing the links they made creating their Fun Palace.
It's also because we're better at sharing it now - we don't have to say it's an idea based on something Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price dreamed up, a single Fun Palace that was sadly never built despite years of campaigning for it in the '60s and '70s - we can talk about the actual cases where value was created.
The young woman in Whitstable who said on Facebook "My house is messy, I haven't seen my husband and children in days, everything I do now is about creating our Fun Palace - and I have never felt happier." The people in Farnham, not British nationals, who chose to make a Fun Palace to better integrate with their community and the French woman who led it saying "I have spoken more with my neighbours than I have in six years in Britain". Or the venue in the North East that opened their doors to all-comers, not just as audiences, but as creative participants MAKING the Fun Palace, and welcomed a 70% rise in first-time visitors.
We've always been very clear that the job of our (four-person part-time) core team is not to create the Fun Palaces movement, but to allow it to become itself, to hand it over, to unearth the brilliant things that are already happening in communities up and down the country, and to welcome those communities to join in - if they want to. Our job is to tell anyone who cares to listen how firmly we believe in our motto 'everyone an artist, everyone a scientist' and then to help those communities who want to give it a go. Our Fun Palaces ongoing campaign and weekend of events is a catalyst for new thinking and engagement, it is a bright light shining on already-existing community brilliance, and - we hope - it will become the web that links these amazing and disparate people together.
We're doing this job the best we can, and we're doing it with incredibly hard-working people, from the grassroots up. All we need now is those in the top jobs, the 'leaders' - both the elected and the self-appointed - to pay closer attention to what is happening right under their noses. To notice that we don't always need their bureaucracies and mechanisms to create, that we don't always need their middle management to innovate - but we do need their support, their buy-in, and above all, we need their courage to trust in what Joan Littlewood called 'the genius in everyone'. We need publicly-acknowledged leaders to be as brave as the unacknowledged leaders who are our community and local Fun Palaces Makers, those who step up and say, "Yes, I'll do this - we'll do this. We'll create something in, for, by and with my local community - something fun."
A nation of engaged and integrated communities - there is no reason we can't have this, it just needs people to say yes.