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Our Cultural Commons

Picture of Jane Wilson, Chair of AD:uk

Jane Wilson, Chair of AD:uk

Our Cultural Commons is inviting leading thinkers from the cultural and related fields to provide comment and provocation to help stimulate discussion. This month Jane Wilson, Chair of Arts Development UK talks about the importance of cultural expression and the role of local authorities and the state in holding that cultural space open. Jane reports:

The term, Our Cultural Commons, as used here, came out through discussion, and only afterwards did we come across the use of the concept ‘cultural commons’, as a developing concept elsewhere, building on the work of Elinor Ostrom (a Nobel prize winner for her work on the commons as an alternative to market economics and government intervention). Hess and Ostrom (2007) defined Commons as a general concept that refers to a resource shared by a group of people, built on principles of self-governance, community action and local action. Within the cultural sector, we have become most accustomed to the use of the word commons in relation to intellectual property, and in particular the concept of creative commons, but the definition as proposed byOstrom and Hess goes much further, encompassing much more nuanced concepts of governance, sustainability, rules, accepted practices, and processes of evolution and change.

A commons provides…a new way of looking at what is shared or should be shared in the world around us. It focuses on collective action and the importance of understanding who shares what, how we share it and how we sustain commons for future generations” (Hess 2008). It is this more nuanced version that particularly resonates with the thinking that lies behind Our Cultural Commons.

If you would like to sign up to the Our Cultural Commons website and take part in the debate, please visit:

Cultural expression is one of the constants of human experience, but its manifestation constantly changes and reforms, a process which, to my mind, sits at the heart of why this indefinable ‘it’ has been present throughout human history. We struggle when we try to pin down too precisely what we mean by arts and culture, as in that definition we too easily tie ourselves to a specific time and place, one which almost inevitably exists in the past. The more fluid cultural present can help us imagine what it is like to be something other than ourselves, to appreciate our environment in a new light, to re-think established viewpoints. It helps us constantly define and redefine who we are, individually and collectively, and provides a way to manage the constant forming and reforming of the world around us. This is arts and culture as process rather than entity.

A lot of the time we outsource elements of this process to professional creators: artists, musicians, designers, writers, and to the industries that sit around them, but we still actively engage in deciding individually and collectively what we like, how we want to experience it, who we want to experience it with. For example, most of us are agreed that we enjoy fireworks, and in England, every year we collectively take part in Bonfire Night, a cultural tradition that has long out grown the initial reason for its existence, and which is now used in different ways in different places, most often simply as an enjoyable collective experience for local communities, and occasionally as in Lewes, to make a more political point. This relationship between (what we separate out as) ‘art’ and that process of collective cultural existence appears to have been with us for as long as we have been human, but this doesn’t mean that we can simply take it for granted. Effective societies allow the room for a diversity of cultural expression, and it hardly needs saying what the alternative can look like.

Except, that here, we have tended to assume that allowing room for that diversity was simply about maintaining an effective distance between professional artists and the state, so that we avoid the cultural dictatorships that so marked the twentieth century. In that laudable goal we have underplayed the importance, (as the environment in which we operate becomes both more managed and more complex)of the state in making sure that the space for cultural expression is held open, not just for those activities which have an established and recognized identity as art-forms, nor for the most commercially effective, the former the remit of Arts Council England, the latter supported by market forces, but the space needed in every community for the ground in between, where the local is created and re-created year on year.

Why does this matter? Many established local communities look after this space themselves, with long standing traditions providing a shared cultural environment where the next generation and new comers can find their place. But, at the minimum, in our contemporary world, we will expect that events will be safe, that there will be knowledge about crowd safety, child protection, fire regulations, insurance. These require time, and money, and make even established local activities vulnerable to changes in personnel and regulation. Not every community, every time, has the resilience to cope.

Local authorities have historically managed this territory, on a discretionary basis, nurturing and supporting ‘grass roots’ cultural activity, but their role in this area is under serious threat. Often, local authorities are not the organisations directly delivering activity, and in the short term their departure from the field might not seem to matter too much, but over time it will mean that the space for local cultural expression becomes more fragile, unless we take seriously the responsibility for developing our cultural commons.
Jane Wilson, Chair of Arts Development UK

If you would like to sign up to the Our Cultural Commons website and take part in the debate, please visit: