(why we are doing this project, why an arts organisation is calling a Citizens’ Assembly, what inspired this project and who is involved)

Why are we doing this project?

We believe that arts, culture and creativity are a fundamental part of everybody’s lives – the music we listen to, a dance around the kitchen as we cook, the rhythms we tap out with our feet while waiting for a bus, the photographs we post on social media… Our taxes help pay for galleries, music venues and arts companies – and the TV dramas we watch, the books we read and the festivals we go to show us different lives and experiences, and give us things to talk about. We don’t acknowledge it very often, but art is a powerful part of all of our lives – it binds us together, helps us understand ourselves and the world, and is part of what makes us human.

One of the things we want this project, and Coventry’s time as City of Culture, to do is to increase the conversation around art and culture, creativity and imagination. We want to find ways for Coventry people to have a say in how our city views, values and uses arts, culture and creativity.

With the pandemic, the climate crisis and the social and racial inequality that we humans are facing right now, Talking Birds believe that we will all need to think creatively in order to ‘build back better’. We also believe that every sector will need to play a part in building a better future, so our question to you is what part could, or should, the arts play?

The 50 Coventry people selected to take part will listen to expert witnesses and then contribute their ideas for how culture can impact on real lives in the city. The recommendations this Assembly draws up will influence the City Council’s cultural policy, some projects for City of Culture, and the work that Talking Birds does for (at least) the next 5 years.

If you want to know the full background to the project, read this blogpost!

Why is an arts organisation calling a Citizens’ Assembly?

Talking Birds has been based in, and making work in and for, Coventry for a long time – it’s our 30th birthday next year and we’ll be inviting you to join us in celebrating at Nestival all year, but that’s another story… In that almost-30-years we’ve come back again and again to the knotty little question of how, as artists and citizens, we can influence policy-making in our home city.

In 2003 there was a big debate (and expensive consultation exercise) about venues in the city – and there was a lot of talk about how we really needed a large new purpose-built concert hall. Here at Talking Birds, we disagreed. Having spent over a decade exploring, and making work in, empty and underused spaces across the city, we had a rather different perspective. We felt that Coventry was rich in interesting and unusual spaces that were perfect for all kinds of performances and events but, in its haste to compete with the sparkly new spaces sprouting up all over Birmingham, Coventry had just forgotten what good stuff it had.

This wasn’t necessarily a vote-winning perspective and we didn’t have particularly loud voices or much influence, so we didn’t feel we were being particularly heard within the debate. Our solution was a project called The Virtual Fringe – commissioning artists to propose projects for empty or unused spaces in order to show what was possible with what we already had, and what would need to be sorted to bring those spaces back to life. This was, effectively, an early foray into cultural democracy and we were rather chuffed when a national arts magazine wrote: “It is a very creative and practical exercise in showing just how vibrant the city could be…How artists can influence the arts policy of their local council is a difficult question to resolve: Talking Birds’ independent but engaging approach could be something of a model.”

So – we’re interested in how we, as residents of the city, have a say in how things are done. But we are also interested in how we can use the contacts and influence we have built up in our 30 years to help make space for those who don’t have those contacts, or whose voices don’t often get heard. How we make sure we are listening to all kinds of opinions – not just those we broadly agree with.

Now that we have been at this for 30 years, we have to accept that we’re effectively ‘elders’ and that perhaps means we have even more of a responsibility than before to make space for those voices and encourage everyone to listen. When Coventry was bidding to be City of Culture, we went round the city and chatted to people about arts and culture, what a City of Culture could, or should, be – and it feels, to us, like this is the next step.

We are calling a Citizens’ Assembly because we think it’s a really good way to involve residents in decision-making. We want arts and culture to be owned by, and enrich the lives of, the people of this city – and we want that written into our city’s arts policy. We also know that every single one of us has to play our part in helping build a better future – in combating climate breakdown and building a just, equitable, regenerative society. We want to know what part ‘ordinary people’ want the arts to play in all that, and we want their mandate to act.

What inspired this project?

We’ve been working on this project for the best part of 4 years – and throughout, we kept coming back to a little snippet of history that had been given to us by Tony Howard from Warwick University. He had told us that, in November 1941, after a second heavy bombing raid had hit Coventry very badly, the people in the city were fed up and frightened. They had had enough. Morale was low and worker militancy was high. Having previously been lauded for their ‘Blitz Spirit’, the people of this city were on the verge of rebellion. This was a huge problem for the Government of the day, threatening the war effort and the social order – and so they did something unexpected – they sent art and theatre into the factories. A programme of “Art for the People”.

Depending on how you look at it, you could say this was a patrician tactic to distract the workers and diffuse the tension – but you could also say it was a kindness, a gift of beauty and imagination into lives so ground down that all hope was gone.

And in this duality is the spark that has inspired our project, also called Art for the People. We know that this touring programme of work developed over time into the formation of the Arts Council – and the inclusion of arts and cultural provision into the post-war social contract which included the creation of the NHS. And perhaps it also contributed to Coventry’s proud tradition of social responsibility, of looking after each other, welcoming strangers – of all that is best about our city?

80 years after Coventry’s workers threatened the war effort and the social order – and were placated with art – Art for the People seeks to reimagine and redefine what art for the people can and should be, putting cultural policy making into the hands of ordinary people.

Who is involved?

Art for the People has been created by Talking Birds, with MutualGain and The Sortition Foundation and supported by Coventry City of Culture Trust, Arts Council England, Coventry City Council and the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation.

MutualGain is an organisation that exists to promote greater participation and active citizenship for the mutual benefit of all. They have several years experience of running participatory processes such as this one. www.mutualgain.org

The Sortition Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that specialises in recruitment for these kinds of events, will recruit and randomly select people to take part in the event in a way that is broadly representative of the area’s population.www.sortitionfoundation.org

Huge thanks to our marvellous Oversight Group: Molly Adkins; Farah Ahmed; Colin Bell; Sujana Uphadyay-Crawford; Anne-marie Greene; Kim Hackleman; Laura Saxton; Alastair Smith; Janet Vaughan; and Frances Yeung.

To find out more & get involved:

Find out about how a Citizens’ Assembly works, follow the progress of our Citizens’ Assembly and have your say about arts, culture, creativity and imagination in Coventry by using the arrow buttons below: