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A Culture of Participation aka ‘Growing Our Own Culture’

By Matt Baker

In this post I’m going to talk about sport, or specifically, about how we value and fund sport in Scotland and how this could positively enhance culture[1] in Scotland and deliver on our national strategy for culture[2]

We fund sport in Scotland in two ways, firstly we support sports venues, organisations, individual sportspeople, international competitions and the promotion of sport. So, a very similar picture to the way we fund culture.

But, importantly, we also fund grassroots sports development, local clubs and opportunities for everyone to take part in sport. It can be strongly argued that this support for participation in sport embeds many of the qualities of sport in our nation – such as teamwork, self-improvement, physical activity etc far more so than would be achieved by simply watching others playing sports. It also clearly drives an accessibility and inclusion which we see demonstrated in the diversity of backgrounds of successful sportspeople and those who comment on/present and administrate sport.

I need to say before I start to talk directly about support for culture that all my arguments are based on the foundation that we must retain the support we already give to culture. Everything I am saying here is about additional support which compliments, enhances and relies on continuing support for our national cultural infrastructure and development.

Fundamentally, in Scotland, we do not have a comparable second strand of support for participation in culture. In 1946, the first chairman of the Arts Council of Gt Britain announced, ‘It is about the best not the most. The principle is we support professional artists. That’s our obligation. And our second obligation is to enable others to appreciate, understand and benefit from that’[3] and that is still pretty much the principle of how we fund culture in Scotland today. As a result, culture has ended up in something of a silo of its own, concerned with culture in and of itself rather than the potential for culture to make the deepest contribution to society as a whole.

Yes, we do our best with the cultural support we have in Scotland to encourage growth from the grassroots of our communities and there are some incredible isolated examples of this – but fundamentally Scotland does not have a clear policy or a mechanism to support widespread participation in culture. There are many cultural groups, projects and organisations that promote grassroots participation, however, in order to support their work, they find themselves in competition for funds with other groups working in food poverty, addiction services etc and unsurprisingly ‘culture’ often misses out, seen as a ‘nice to have’ but not ‘necessary’.

So, why is the situation for sport so different? The straightforward answer is that sport made a focussed and sustained case for the health impacts of physical activity and inclusion in communities. One direct outcome of improving people’s wellbeing through sport is that there is less demand on the health service with a consequent saving of money. 

Culture has a myriad of similar arguments for the societal value of participating in and shaping the culture of the country:

  • Mental health/wellbeing and positive pathways for disadvantaged individuals/communities
  • Reducing social isolation
  • Education in teamwork, problem-solving and adaptability
  • Community cohesion/safety
  • Community visioning and placemaking
  • Innovation growing new businesses and social enterprises

(to name but a few…)

So, why don’t we have support for participation in culture as we do in sport? I believe that part of the answer lies in the very multiplicity of societal impacts from participation in culture, the argument can become diffuse and unclear because of its diversity. However, the issue also lies with the culture sector itself, we have been starved of investment for so long that we cling with white knuckles to what we have and that the way we are used to doing things. In that anxious state the concern expressed is that a participation strand in culture would somehow dilute the quality of our cultural offer by setting up a two-tier system of ‘first and second class art’. The argument goes that this could disrupt the perfectly equal and accessible meritocracy we have now. In truth, culture is the very opposite of equal and accessible currently, and risks side-lining itself into irrelevance unless it finds the confidence and optimism to open itself up and be part of the change required to build a society that is founded on wellbeing, fairness, and opportunity for all.

And of course, as with sport, funding grassroots participation is wholly dependent on the existence of, and a relationship with, a strong and healthy professional cultural sector.

Making the Case

I believe the opportunity and case for supporting culture as a key building block towards a Wellbeing Economy has yet to be effectively made to our politicians, so that they can lay a pathway of understanding and support in parliament and government. The Culture Strategy offers a policy framework for this work, and I’d propose we’d use the strategy as a foundation for making the case through its three pillars of Strengthening, Transforming, Empowering through culture and its core principle of culture being ‘mainstreamed’ across all the portfolios of government.

We need to work across portfolios and in collaboration with those working in government and policy and listen to advice about how to make the case for participation in culture. In the spirit of furthering the idea, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on how such an idea might be implemented. These are simply in the form of a framework or principles for making embedding participation in culture one of the features of the Scottish nation.

A Percentage for Culture

Because of the diverse impacts of cultural participation any approach needs to be cross-portfolio (health/wellbeing, education/lifelong learning, communities/regeneration, justice, economy/enterprise). An idea that has been talked of for a while is a ‘percentage for culture’ – this could take the form of a tiny percentage of the budgets of departments whose outcomes could benefit from the impacts of participation in culture (see list above) being allocated to cultural participation programmes.

A principle of any ‘percentage for culture’ policy would require that the departments contributing budget would hold accountability and a degree of control of how budget is spent and the delivery of outcomes. How this would work in practice is beyond the scope of this paper. All I seek to do is propose some principles, one being that a ‘percentage for culture’ cannot simply be handed to a cultural agency to be distributed without the ongoing involvement of the departments contributing to the scheme. Long-term impact and change in society needs to be built into this idea and the mechanism for growing deeper and more integrated joint working between culture and other departments of government.

Other thoughts on implementation would be a need/opportunity for a regional and place-based approach reflecting the very different challenges and opportunities of working within the urban and rural areas of the country. Such an initiative would also be an opportunity to explore the potential for longer-term funding agreements with programmes, projects and organisations. This is a principle that comes up in every sector consultation and the benefits to service users, service providers and funders of long-term agreements has been clearly articulated. One possibility could be to use ‘percentage for arts’ public funding as the basis for regional (or national?) ‘endowments for culture’[4] which could lever additional funds from local sources to develop added value and security for participation in culture.

A Framework

In summary a Participation in Culture Initiative framework could include:

  • Percentage for culture across government departments
  • Accountability/collaboration across departments in implementation of Participation in Culture
  • Regional/place-based approach to implementation
  • Innovation in funding models

I’d be very interested to hear from anyone with thoughts about supporting participation in culture and particularly anyone who’d like to help develop the case. Please get in touch at [email protected] or @_mattbaker on Twitter

[1] ‘Everyone has the right to participate freely in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits’ (Article 27, Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

[2] ‘Scotland is a place where culture is valued, protected and nurtured. Culture is woven through everyday life, shapes and is shaped by society, and its transformative potential is experienced by everyone.’ (Culture Strategy for Scotland. 2020) Full strategy here

[3] The beginnings of the British Arts Council and its shift away from ‘participation in culture’ to ‘professionalised culture’ is well covered in ‘Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art
– The British Community Arts Movement’ edited by Alison Jeffers and Gerri Moriaty.

[4] The work of Leah Black at EVOC is instructive in this regard – see her initial report into setting up a long-term fund for Third Sector organisations in Edinburgh

Matt Baker is the Orchestrator of The Stove Network and one of The founders of the organisation. His challenge is to remain attuned to the overall direction of The Stove, through remaining true to our values and leading a culture of learning, empowerment and excellence within our organisation. Matt is also the interim chair of the National Partnership for Culture, the independent group appointed by the Cabinet Secretary for Culture to support the delivery of the national culture strategy.


Public Money – a personal reflection

by Matt Baker

I’ve had cause to think about public money of late – what do people mean by the term? Why is it such a loaded term? Are attitudes different in different societies? Has the nature of public money changed for us over the years? What should it be for now?

I suppose things started with chiefs and monarchs demanding taxes from the people within their tribes or lands to pay for organising their safety and keeping the peace. Then when we moved to a democratic way of organising our society we kept the taxation idea but attempted to make a system whereby the money gathered was a form of common-wealth that was directed to making the best for everybody. In Britain this resulted in incredible, visionary things like the National Health Service and free education for all. In other societies (e.g. Scandinavian countries) there still seems to be a strong sense that everyone contributes and everyone expects to benefit from the resources, services and opportunities provided by the common-wealth of the community. This is not public money viewed as the bare minimum to provide a safety net for those too poor or sick to look after themselves or base-level provision of things we have a ‘right’ to expect like cleaning the streets…rather it is a conscious and deliberate system for giving the best standard of living and opportunities to the most people within a society…and  how that builds a place long-term, not just patch the streets.

This is what I have been pondering – Why do we often seem to have such a different attitude in our society? Why are we not proud and passionately engaged in the process of deciding on the best way to invest our common-wealth to give the maximum benefit to everyone? To debate answers to these questions would be to analyse hundreds of years of politics, culture and history. I can’t pretend to be capable of doing that – and, ultimately I am not all that interested in the answers.

What I am passionate about is the situation that we find ourselves in just now, and what we, as a modern society, as a community of people, are going to do in facing up to our situation. We have created a massive and shameful gap between people with nothing and people with everything – and the gap is growing larger by the day. The terrible logic of this is that people seem to feel that they must hold tightly to the relatively little they have, a perverse culture of fear … ‘devil take the hindmost’… ‘I’m alright Jack’’. This fear actually supports the widening gap … whilst we are protecting our crumbs others are gleefully stashing away full cakes. But what if instead of fearing losing more – we were to build strength rather than merely try to stem a decline that we have been convinced is inevitable?

It seems to me that this is the root of current attitudes to ‘public money’ some people are so deeply wedded to this culture of acceptance of doom that they see any use of public money as either a ‘waste’ or ‘too little too late’ or ‘naïve’ or ‘corrupt’… may be such people have lost hope of improving their situation (or that of their neighbours) or they have a vested interest in the current status quo and seek to undermine any attempt to change it.

The truth is that Public Money (our common-wealth) is, along with our passion, spirit and creativity the most powerful tool we have for levelling the playing field of opportunity in our society. If we can create the opportunities for more people to achieve their potential everyone will be raised up together. Feeling pleased at seeing someone struggle is simply a mirror of your own struggle – by celebrating the growth of others we all grow together.

This is why I (and The Stove) am proud and humbled to be trusted with sums of public money. I feel the responsibility to extract every ounce of usefulness and benefit for my community. I see public money as an investment in our collective passion, spirit and creativity and a means of reaching out a supportive and compassionate hand. Public money can be smart and inventive, but above all it needs to be a force for equality, because only understanding ourselves as a community with the power to grow together will we have any chance of bridging the gap that threatens to destroy us all.



Ignition Fund Awards Announced

Three community projects have received funding from the Stove Network’s Bounce Back initiative. Bounce Back is a project supported by the Development Trust Association Scotland and aims to support community initiatives to help empower people living in the communities of NW Dumfries.

The Ignition Fund launched by Bounce Back

The three projects awarded each showcased a commitment to their local area by engaging people in new activities related to community resilience and significant engagement with local people.

Sandside Gardens

Sandside Community Garden

Who are they?

 A community initiative based in Sandside dedicated to transforming the old caravan site on Sunderries Road into a welcoming, inspiring and beautiful garden for the whole community to enjoy and participate in.

What’s their idea?

‘We are having a Big Lunch at the Goldie Park with food, music and arts activities for the whole family. The money will go towards hiring equipment for the entertainment and material costs to promote the Big Lunch event. At our first event in 2015 we had over 300 people turn up – this year we hope to make it bigger and better than ever so to engage with some of the more isolated members of our community.’

Lochside Baton Twirlers

 A Lochside institution – the baton twirlers are a small and friendly group comprised of coaches, assistants and parents based in Lochside and the surrounding area. Some of their athletes have even had the chance to compete at national level bringing home the title of national champions in 2013.

‘We are looking for funding to help towards new tracksuits for all members of the club. We have 26 members in our club who compete at a local and national level. The majority of our members reside In NW Dumfries. We are a strong community with club leaders, coaches, assistants and parents all working together to run the club. Having a club tracksuit for all girls is a huge part of us being able to go to competition!’


LIFT (Lochside Is Families Together)

 An ambitious group with a big heart LIFT are a community organization based in Lochside dedicated to helping their community by breaking stigma, supporting those in need and collectively transforming their local area for the better.

‘We would like to enter a float into this year’s Guid Nychburris parade. We want to ‘show off’ the fantastic array of wildlife we have in Lochside by dressing local adults and children up as foxes, swans and butterflies – all the wildlife local to Lochside!’

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