Cultural Diplomacy News (CDN)
John Holden (Associate & Former Head of Culture, Demos)

28.07.2009 - Interview conducted by Mailin Obermueller & Diana Leca

John Holden is an Associate at the independent British think tank Demos and a Visiting Professor in Cultural Policy at City University London. With a background in investment banking and Master's degrees in both Law (Oxford) and Design History (Southampton), Holden joined Demos in 2000 where he held the post of Head of Culture for the next eight years.

Holden's interests lie in the synapses between arts, culture, and politics. He has been involved in a profusion of culturally-relevant projects across a wide spectrum in the cultural sector, including performance arts, museums, and libraries, as well as having worked with such major cultural organisations as the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Tate Museum. An outspoken advocate for rethinking our current model and definition of culture, Holden has argued for a tripartite model of culture that includes the interrelated branches of the public, the commercial, and the home-made (which includes everything from knitting to YouTube).

A principal organiser of the influential Valuing Culture Conference of June 2003, Holden has retained the theme of valuing culture throughout his body of work. The speech he delivered to the International Symposium of Cultural Diplomacy on July 28th was thus aptly entitled: ‘How to Value Arts and Culture and their Role in Politics’. Afterwards, Holden sat down with two of the ICD staff members to expand on issues such as cultural transformation and democratization, changing urban demographics, and the effect of the recession on the arts.

In your lecture you proposed a new model of culture that takes into account the value rapidly evolving cultural forms has for politics. How do you think cultural policy might change in the future with regards to this new cultural model?

I’d expect that people will realise that culture is being funded by all sorts of different arms of government, not just locally but centrally as well. All in all, there are about eight different parts of government that are directly involved in art institutions. What I suspect will happen, is that there will be a need for much more integration between all of these departments, ministries and divisions on the subject of culture.

Arts funding has generally been thought of as a matter of funding the supply side, in other words, funding the artists to do what they do. I think increasingly we will move to a model of cultural funding that looks at what we need to do to enable people to lead culturally rich lives. If you look at it that way around, you need a much more integrated model, because you’re not just dealing with subsidising the artists, you’re dealing with giving people the cultural life they need. That means interventions in planning, funding, the education system and so on.

Can you elaborate on the relationship between this changing cultural model and the democratisation of culture? It seems that cultural professionals have lost their monopoly on cultural production if they ever had it.

Yes, absolutely. I think that there are very few people operating just in that publicly funded, subsidised space anymore. I don’t really know what will happen beyond saying that I think it’s almost inevitable that new kinds of business models will emerge, new kinds of collaboration will happen, and new partnerships will be formed—these will all be increasingly both localised and international. Exactly what shape those will take remains to be seen. I think that the shift that you’ve identified is indeed what is happening.

What impact do you foresee in the realm of cultural diplomacy in light of increasingly culturally diverse urban demographics and changing notions of soft power?

That’s a very complicated question. We wrote a pamphlet on cultural diplomacy, and I think what we were trying to do there was not so much make an argument, as to bring to light things that were happening in the world that needed to be stitched together and commented on. These were: mass tourism, the Internet, diasporic communities in cities and elsewhere, and how those were changing the cultural sphere and hence the sphere of cultural diplomacy. I think what you’ll find happening is that, because these things are bumping up against each other more and more, new art forms will begin emerging.

Cultural diplomacy and cultural contact used to be a matter of one fairly rigid and traditional culture meeting another one, and they would exchange and learn from each other. Artists have always been very interested in that kind of exchange: in the technicality of it, in the practical aspects. But now artists are able to travel much more freely than they ever were. And through the Web, they’re also able to produce new art forms without actually travelling. So rather than having these blocks of culture meeting in a fairly formal dance, we now have a really messy informal dance if you like, and all the outcomes of that are pretty unpredictable. [Laughs]. So I am telling you everything is unpredictable—but in an interesting way.

On the topic of unpredictability, let's talk a little about the recession. Many cultural departments and organisations that depend on government funding are heavily suffering due to the economic crisis. What strategies are these artistic communities coming up with to survive?

I think the situation is patchy, and I think in the UK it is likely to get worse. If there are to be any cuts in public funding—and I think almost inevitably there will be —they will also affect arts organisations. These cuts are likely to feed through next year or the year after that. In terms of what seems to be happening on the ground, people are seeing different kinds of shows for instance. There still seems to be a great demand for exceptional experiences that people feel they might not see again, but not for run-of-the-mill “it was here last year, it’s here this year, it will be here next year” shows.

I actually recently wrote a paper on strategies people are adopting in the recession, and in that paper I made some recommendations for the arts community. One was that in times of recession you usually find that culture gets a bit safe, since the public tends to want comfort and familiarity. And I said that, while it was perfectly valid to cater to this, the arts also need to have challenges and to take risks. Equally, I said it was important for the arts to be a place for people to express anger (though I have yet to see the angry arts I expected to emerge from the recession). The third thing I said, was that if there are to be cuts in public funding and if there are to be declines in private sponsorship, both of which seem to be very likely, the arts organisations need to get to know their public and audiences much, much better. They need to use their social networks to create a considerably wider support network for themselves, which could be financial as well. What we need in the arts is the type of change we saw in American politics with the Obama campaign donations: rather than having huge corporate sponsors for an exhibition, why aren’t we having five or ten pounds from hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands or maybe millions of people to support the arts? And of course, doing that involves a wholly different relationship to the public. You have to get to know them much better, build long-term relationships, and take their feedback seriously. That was the strategy I was suggesting for getting to know your public better.

One last question, it seems that a lot of the discourse surrounding cultural models and cultural development is only applicable to the West. Is there any research being done that could also be applied to more repressive regimes?

I don't really know of any research being done in this field. I’d only have two observations: one is that culture as an element in development has been very undervalued, but I think it is becoming increasingly important. And the other is about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and how the arts and culture only came at the top. And I was remembering about places I have travelled in Africa in particular, where people get so much joy out of the emotive power of music and dance, that this seemed to me just as much a basic a need for people as all the stuff that goes on the bottom of that triangle. In the developed world, expertise has often been thought of very much as a one-way flow in terms of money and aid. With regards to poorer regions, I like to think we also have a lot to learn from them in terms of culture.

Thank you very much for your time.