Event | AMA 2016 Daily Blogs - Oliver

Oliver Mantell rounds up his AMA 2016 conference experience...

I generally approach conferences like the AMA with four key questions in mind:

  1. What can I learn from the stage?
  2. What can I learn from the audience?
  3. What does this all mean for how we deliver valuable support? And…
  4. Something else.

It’s the ‘something else’ question that’s often most defining and useful, although it is also often, at least at first, the least defined and abstract.

This year has been no exception. I started off with a few semi-connected niggles on my mind. Brexit. Internationalism and intra-national divides. Who we are as a sector, and who we represent. Who we work for. Turmoil in Westminster. Crises of institutions, leadership, expertise. Of refugees.

But as the conference progressed, a clearer message emerged. There is a need to connect with communities (eg Madani Younis’ work connecting the Bush Theatre with its surrounding populations along the Uxbridge Road). Of, as he said: “enlarging the problem” to find the bigger, more inspiring solution. The presentation about the Creative People and Place projects showed other ways it could be done, with inclusive practice in areas with lower levels of engagement (as defined by Active People survey indicators).

It’s notable too, that almost all areas with CPP projects voted ‘leave’. Brexit is clearly a source of anguish for many in the sector, as evidenced at the lunchtime discussion, but it should perhaps also be a source of humility and reflection, in terms of how connected much of the arts are with those groups most likely to have voted leave. There’s surely a cautionary tale about a bubble of often highly educated, middle-class urbanites, disproportionately clustered in London, who are convinced of the rightness of their cause and internationalist in outlook, but who don’t realise how far removed they have become from the country as a whole…

When it comes to connecting with different communities, Donna Walker-Kuhme asked what was, for me, the key question: “how do you do that with integrity, joy and passion?” It’s fine – essential even – for us to keep a strong hold on our values (diversity, inclusivity, creativity), to share and champion them. But we also have to genuinely listen, and to get on with responding to the needs we’re currently failing to meet (I share Jo Verrent’s impatience, tweeted during the morning session: “how long do people need to wait? #tiredofwaiting #inclusionnow…”).

If we shouldn’t let a good crisis go to waste (hat-tip to both Nina Simon and Mark Robinson), we should follow Donna Walker-Kuhme’s example and get out into our communities more. Where there’s great inclusive work being done, we should celebrate it. Equally, we should be less indulgent of exclusiveness and bolder in how the arts can be participant and facilitator in these big national questions. I’ll give the last word to Madani, from that Brexit lunchtime conversation: “This is an opportunity for honesty: to shorten the gap between the arts and our country.”

That, surely, is a mission that matters.

Follow Oliver on twitter @olivermantell