The Company we keep…..the art of cultural diplomacy in a curated world

The Company we keep…..the art of cultural diplomacy in a curated world

Is it important that our arts leaders come from the communities they serve?

A 3 minute read (image – Behind The Scenes of Saans – East London)

Recently, as I scrolled through social media photos from Arts and Culture leaders, primarily colleagues and acquaintances, I was thinking about representation and diversity within the leadership of organisations, networks and institutions which present work outdoors. There seems to be a lack of serious public discourse and attention to diversity in leadership regarding race, gender and ethnicity in the Outdoor Arts sector.

If we don’t address a problem, perhaps it’ll go away, people will forget?

Shared arts and cultural experiences build alliances, enhance the quality of debate, and promote understanding among people. Arts and culture have the power to change the way we think, feel and behave. It’s no surprise that arts and culture is a means of Soft Power between nations.

Cultural diplomacy plays an important role in promoting diplomatic relations between people, communities and nation-states and is perhaps the oldest form of state-to-state communication. It’s rooted in an essential concept that cultural exchange can impact the policy-making process and international politics by creating positive relations between nations. Cultural diplomacy offers an opportunity to ‘reach out’ to unite, socialise, educate and communicate with other countries (Doeser and Nisbett 2014).

The 2020’s decade of change has begun – from new and emerging leaders from small island states to a broader understanding of statecraft and monarchy. All of this, a decade after the UN included culture in 70% of the United Nations Development Assistance Frameworks. Culture is not going away in a hurry.

In my role as a Civil Society Advisor Governor for the Commonwealth Foundation, it’s been a fascinating insight to see how different the 54 nation-states celebrate, plan, debate and use culture as a means of progress, expansion and power.

Given that cultural events are used by leaders to build alliances, attract investment, and exert influence on other nations, it seems logical that the events held should reflect the diversity of a nation’s people. But this is not always the case.

In fact, some art and cultural experiences, arranged as a means of cultural diplomacy, can have the opposite effect, often loaded with political meaning, imbued by the organisers, attendees, or venue. And as we’ve seen, events both outdoor and indoors are susceptible to cancellation during adverse external conditions such as pandemics.

3 Cultural Diplomacy Takeaways

1. Arts in public spaces creates more spontaneity

The guest lists, invitations and seating plans for artistic, cultural and sporting events for cultural diplomacy are often highly strategic in design. No one gets an invite or sits next to each other by accident. Although this can be useful when the organisation or country hosting an event has an agenda they would like to push, it limits the opportunities for unexpected relationships and alliances.

Tight seating plans at outdoor events? If we think of unconventional settings we can immediately rule out seating! First barrier removed, phew!

During the second wave of the pandemic in 2020, as spring turned to summer, my company, Nutkhut, staged Saans (Breath) – a dance piece presented and filmed in a public space, Queens Market in the London Borough of Newham – an area of the country with some of the highest covid infection rates. It was the first UK Outdoor dance piece to commence production after the first lockdown.

Who attended Saans (Breath)? Market traders, local shoppers, stallholders, shopkeepers, people passing through who use the market as a thoroughfare. This unconventional setting provided us with what is often described as an unconventional audience; but unconventional to who? Having grown up in and around outdoor street markets, this was a conventional and familiar setting. The market is a place of theatre, of exchange, of stories, of banter, a place of friendship and convenience. The element of surprise that these settings produce, creates a joyful spontaneity in both our audiences and our performers.

2. Arts in public spaces & neutrality

Cultural events can be loaded with political meaning. Particular events, buildings, and spaces can awaken political memories or opinions in an audience. These are sometimes calculated by the event organisers (designing a stage to resemble a government institution or painting murals depicting state-run industries), and other times not (curating art that draws unconscious parallels to current social struggles).

Outdoor art events can occur in public spaces where political messages or ideals can be weaker or diluted by the space’s openness and use.

As summer turned to autumn, the opportunity to present the story of Diwali in the City of Bradford in a shopping mall was an opportunity not to be missed. As part of this performance Nutkhut’s Lotus installation educated and entertained late night shoppers, security staff, covid officers, key workers, cleaners and a host of communities who have no immediate connection to Diwali. Placed in the centre of a shopping mall – next to a cathedral of so-called well-being, Superdrug, the well-being properties of a Lotus had found its home!

3. Arts in public spaces attracts greater diversity and offers more opportunities

Despite Outdoor events and festivals claiming access for all, there are always situations and programmes where people feel left out from knowing about cultural events, not welcomed or not allowed to attend. Controversial, no, a reality yes! The lack of public transit to a venue or site or an unfamiliar building or neighbourhood at night. Feeling uneasy, unwelcome, volunteers of festivals who may only be drawn to their own image, language, so many barriers add to the idea of not fitting in. Yet what does it take to understand these concerns; leadership, empathy, real interest?

I started making outdoor art performances and specifically Mela to make public parks accessible for a whole new generation of people and communities, the same public parks that were inaccessible, unconventional when I was growing up. The Mela Partnership in the UK is a unique commissioning ground for new work and to develop emerging artistic talent. The Mela Partnership works best with underserved communities with little or no access to arts activities nationally and over the past 5 years, in many of the 54 priority places identified by Arts Council England. Where a visit to a theatre or a play may never have happened and where English is a second language. These places exist and having grown up in these places, it’s where I feel at home.

The Company we keep…..

All around the world, people are flocking to open spaces to participate in arts and cultural activities. According to Google Mobility, people’s use of parks and public green spaces was higher in the summer of 2020 than in previous years. An increasing number of cities and towns are investing in open space projects because they realise the social and economic benefits their community will experience.

Staging more cultural events in outdoor public spaces is an opportunity for a more neutral atmosphere, more diverse audiences, for flexibility and adapting and the emergence of surprise, less contrived relationships and alliances. It’s an opportunity for individuals to better know their communities and for our leaders to better understand the diversity of the people they serve.

The British Council recommended that Soft Power, of which Cultural Diplomacy plays a major part, be a mainstream part of the UK’s public policy. I agree and would further add that arts in public spaces should be a mainstream part of any Soft Power strategy

The recently published “Outside the Conventional and into the Mainstream” commissioned by 101 Outdoor Arts, talks about “the potential of work in public space has only just been tapped”. To maintain its reputation as an outward-looking, engaged and adaptable nation, the UK must continue to promote culture and arts to a broad audience, especially during difficult times.

I learnt by doing, I learnt by failing – perhaps now is the time to take that next step towards leadership and take stock of where our leaders emerge from. To look beyond the privately educated, the confident interviewees, beyond those who say the right things, now is the time to search more broadly and to keep more open minded. Perhaps those 54 priority places are where we start, or amongst those 54 nations. The time now is perhaps to listen to the shy, the quiet, to listen to those who listen and to keep a check on the company we keep.

About the author
Ajay Chhabra is an Actor & Artistic Director of Nutkhut. Driven by bringing people from different countries, cultures, and communities together through festivals, events, and creative partnerships. As a Civil Society Advisory Governor for the Commonwealth Foundation, he brokers, makes and creates cultural connections between the 54 member states, with a focus on small island states.


Photos: Kois Miah