Are Civic Societies ‘Cultural Organisations’?

When was the last time you participated in a ‘cultural’ activity? My guess is that, as a member of a civic society, you are more likely than not to have done something that might be regarded as cultural – after all, civic society members are sophisticated, discerning, erudite individuals, aren’t we?

Draw up a list of all the ‘cultural’ activities you’ve taken part in recently. What’s on that list? Trips to the theatre and cinema, perhaps? Surely you have visits to art galleries and museums, yes? Maybe you’ve been to a lecture or a concert, perhaps an exhibition? All these things comfortably fit into our shared understanding of ‘cultural’ activities. But are there any civic society activities on your list? Did you recognise that attending a civic society talk, a blue plaque unveiling, or a guided walk might also be thought of as doing something cultural?

The reason I’m asking these questions arises from discussions I have been having in Wakefield recently about the role culture can play in creating jobs and opportunities and thereby helping to support or even trigger economic regeneration. As I am sure readers will know, Wakefield is now home to The Hepworth Wakefield, a modern gallery that opened in May 2011. It has proved popular with many, but not all, local residents and has been a big draw for visitors to the city.

Across the Wakefield district, we also have museums (Including the National Coal Mining Museum for England), cinemas, theatres, castles and art galleries, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and Nostell Priory. So there’s a lot going on yet, surprisingly, in a recent survey conducted by an independent research company for Wakefield Council, some 41% of local residents surveyed said that they ‘never take part in art/culture’.

I personally find this statistic astonishing but it did get me thinking. What was the definition of culture used in the survey, I wondered? And did respondents’ own perceptions of what counts as culture affect the way in which they answered the question? What were the barriers to entry that put people off taking part in cultural pursuits?

Now, for what it’s worth, my view is that the definition of cultural pursuits should include things such as reading, doing family history research, taking part in guided walks and so on. I’d even include watching some television programmes such as documentaries, plays and so on (but we could have an interesting discussion just around that, I’m sure!).

There’s a Facebook page called the Wakefield Historical Appreciation Society which has over 13,000 members: that’s 13,000 people who share an interest in Wakefield’s architectural and social history. There’s a lively Historical Society in Wakefield (and others elsewhere in the district), six civic societies across the district and no doubt dozens of community and church groups, Rotary Clubs, WI associations and so on. There’s a burgeoning art scene in Wakefield, including performing arts, and at least one concert society; even the Yorkshire Philharmonic Choir is based in Wakefield! I’m sure there are many other societies, organisations and individuals contributing to the cultural mix that I’ve overlooked or am not even aware of.

All this cultural activity is made possible by people who work in the arts – whether they be the creative artists and performers or the management and enablers, the support staff both ‘front of house’ and behind the scenes. Also important in enabling cultural activities are the people who commission performers, writers, artists and so on and, of course, the people who provide the funding, either through grants and paid commissions or through audience participation and the purchase of tickets.

So, why is the relevant to us? Well, I often find that when I talk to people about what’s happening culturally in the city, the work of the civic society doesn’t usually get a mention and I have to keep asserting that we are a ‘cultural organisation!’. OK, we’re not a big player, we don’t have the money, but we are a frequent and reliable provider of talks and walks, occasional film screenings and blue plaque unveilings. We’ve written booklets and even occasionally commissioned creative work from others. But have a look at our constitution and you’ll find no mention of culture! There’s mention of architecture, design and town planning, but nothing specifically about culture. Perhaps this is one reason we don’t actually market ourselves as a cultural organisation – and if we don’t think of ourselves as a cultural organisation then it’s not surprising that others don’t either.

I think it’s time for us to think hard about how civic societies position themselves. I appreciate that some smaller societies won’t have the resources or capacity to organise the events and activities that we are able to put on in Wakefield, but many societies will and some may even do more. If we start seeing ourselves as part of the cultural offer of the place where we live, it might just open up opportunities to work with others, to establish new partnerships and maybe even open up new sources of funding. If nothing else, it might bring in more people to our events if we shift our traditional mindset of how we market the things we do.

Let’s bring a bit of show-business pizazz to our programming; let’s turn down the house lights, raise the curtain and put on a show!