Working together or putting the wagons in a ring?

Unfortunately the catalyst for collaboration across our sector has often been finance rather than creative zeal. As the current context demonstrates, faced with future financial austerity we are once again attempting to co-operate across and within arts forms (and with the Arts Council) to get our financial arguments heard in government rather than to fully embrace collaborative working as a long-term organisational development strategy.

Collaborative working has a history in our sector, and particularly in Liverpool, where collaborative arrangements were formalised through the creation of the Liverpool Arts Regeneration Consortium (LARC)* in the run up to delivering the European Capital of Culture Year in 2008 and further supported by an investment from Arts Council England’s Thrive programme.

In Liverpool we have not been immune from the impacts of the current financial situation, but through long-term, proactive and planned collaboration LARC has successfully supported the development of a profile and voice for culture in the City of Liverpool that has sustained relationships and influence with non-cultural strategic partners.

The fact that this influence has been maintained through changing political contexts and very difficult economic times is testament to the power of the collaborative approach. Working together has allowed the LARC partners to speak with one voice and has supported the creation of not just a joint aspiration for the cultural direction of the city but also a shared vision and action plan.
Perhaps most importantly, Liverpool is a demonstration of the fact that, with a collective voice and a collective will, the sector is capable of making effective arguments about return on investment can help shape the strategic development and growth of a major city.

Almost 18 months ago the Thrive programme in Liverpool came to an end and LARC, in partnership with the Arts Council, organised Let’s work together a national conference that examined how (and why) collaboration works. With 180 delegates from a range of sectors, the conference provided a platform for arts and cultural organisations and ACE to develop a strategy around the role of collaboration in future organisational development.

The recommendations emerging from the day included the need for clear guidance on what was expected from arts and cultural organisations in terms of collaboration and advice on the rationale and the business drivers that should underpin future collaboration in the sector. The aspiration was that this should support a nationally developed plan for organisational development that contained practical collaborative actions, including a potential series of regional working seminars, and supported by learning from both within and outside our immediate sector.

Now, 18 months later, as we begin to batten down the hatches again, we have to ask ourselves how much we have really done to follow up on these aspirations. Have we worked proactively to collaborate and ensure that we are better placed to weather any coming storm, (and if not, then why not?) or do we remain a sector that continues to view collaboration solely as a defensive reaction to be employed in times of financial crisis?

*LARC is currently a consortium of seven of the major cultural organisations in Liverpool and includes the Bluecoat, FACT, Liverpool Biennial, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse theatres, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Tate Liverpool and the Unity Theatre. National Museums Liverpool was also part of the Consortium until 2010.

Richard Nutter
Richard has been Director of the Liverpool Arts Regeneration Council Thrive programme at Liverpool Philharmonic since November 2010. Before that he was Assistant Executive Director of Regeneration at Liverpool City Council.

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