31 May 2018

Special Plenary 2018 – Lessons for philanthropy from key cultural actors

Katherine Watson, Director of the European Cultural Foundation, moderated this inspiring plenary, which focused on how individual players in the cultural sector play a role in galvanising a deeper, stronger bond between individuals from all walks of life, and the communities they live in. Delegates saw how the efforts of cultural actors can break down barriers, challenge preconceptions, encourage diversity and stimulate exchange.

The plenary started off with an awe-inspiring performance by a group of young drummers who participate in FanfaKids, a local initiative for children from lower-income neighbourhoods of Brussels. After the performance, Watson held a brief Q&A with one of the young drummers:

Q: “Who is the leader?”

A: “No one.”

Q: “How do you do this, how do you play so well?”

A: “We listen to each other – It’s easy playing in a group.”

With these simple yet profound statements, the tone for the plenary was set. Watson told the audience how this initiative received an award from the European Cultural Foundation, because the initiative recognised that, “Change has to start young and together, with a drum, with a beat.” This plenary would look at how culture can move communities to bring about change, and how it can, “make a loud noise, wake us up, shake us up and get us together.”

“An orchestra is like society, we are dependent on each other.”

Watson started off with Cem Mansur, Conductor, Founder and Music Director of the Turkish National Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. Mansur has launched a project called the Laboratory of Democracy, which aims to help immigrant communities integrate into society by using classical culture as a doorway. The project brings people to a rehearsal of a symphony orchestra for open discussion and debate, using the orchestra as a metaphor for a democratic society.

“An orchestra is an ideal metaphor of issues arising in a democracy,” Mansur said. “Nowhere is the will to co-exist as strong as in an orchestra. An orchestra is like society, we are dependent on each other.” Mansur sees tremendous potential in music education as a force for societal change. “Music is not just an ornament in life,” he said. “It is one of the best ways of coming to terms with life itself.”

“We are fighting to be recognised as humans, let alone artists.”

Jenny Sealey, MBE, Artistic Director of Graeae, is a pioneer in theatre and performance art by deaf and disabled people. She works nationally and internationally to change perceptions around deaf and disabled artists, pushing for a cultural shift and an equal playing field. Sealey, who was appointed Artistic Director of the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, started off by sharing a video of that stunning production.

In her presentation, she emphasised the importance of effectively implementing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “All people are born equal, but we know they are not,” she said. “We are fighting to be recognised as humans, let alone artists,” she said. Action has to go beyond using buzzwords like “diversity”, which she sees as devoid of real meaning. She bristles at the attitude that diversity dumbs down theatre, sports, and other areas of social life.

Sealey urged philanthropy to step up its involvement. “Our community is wearing a bit thin, we’re getting tired of having to fight this on our own.” she said. “We want to have allies like you.”  She stressed that we all have responsibility for helping society move from a medical model of disability to a social one.

“What if we weakened ourselves getting strong…”

Lemn Sissay, MBE, is the author of several books of poetry alongside articles, records, public art, and plays. He is the Chancellor of the University of Manchester, and was the official poet for the London Olympics, among many other honours.

Delegates were moved by Sissay’s video rendition of his poem, “What if”, a powerful questioning of ourselves and the way we – as societies, as individuals – perceive the world and our actions in it. Agreeing with Jenny Sealey about diversity, he said that the attitude that diversity lowers the bar proves that positive discrimination works. “The people who have benefited from positive discrimination… can’t even see it themselves.” So he argues that if it worked so well for them, it will work for all.

Much of Sissay’s work focuses on children in care in Britain. He listed well-known fictional characters in British culture that were fostered or adopted – Superman, Cinderella, Pippi Longstocking, Oliver Twist and Harry Potter. Then he said, “Ask yourself the simple question about these people at the heart of popular culture: How is it that we have not made the connection between them and the child in care in the midst of our societies?” He sees his job as an artist to get society and policymakers to understand that, “These kids are seers, and seekers – they are extraordinary.”

Sissay also touched on the issue of migration, which he said was at the heart of who and what we are. “It’s anti-human to be anti-migration,” he said.

Exploring what philanthropy and artists can achieve together

Katherine Watson asked each speaker to name one way in which philanthropy could better support arts and culture.

Lemn Sissay said philanthropy should support artist residencies in all sorts of institutions and contexts, from legal firms to the City of London. He stressed that people are born creative, and an artist with an open brief in an institution can change it.

Jenny Sealey said the best thing philanthropy could do for artists like her was to trust them. She says she still has to jump through so many hoops to prove to funders that she is capable. She cited the Gulbenkian UK Trust as an exception to this – they simply trusted her to do the work, which was fantastic, she said.

Cem Mansur stressed that as music helps us be better humans and better neighbours, sustaining musical education and culture is critical, and philanthropy can play a major role in this.

The Plenary rounded off with a breath-taking video rendition of Lemn Sissay’s poem, “Invisible Kisses”.