Post-Pandemic: The Cockroaches of the Cultural Sector

During the 1980s and 90s, when social enterprise was an innovative concept in Scotland, Strathclyde Regional Council, Objective 3 Partnership and the Scottish Centre for Regeneration were surprised when Fablevision board members thanked them for turning down applications for funding on the grounds that we were ‘not sustainable’.  Having funding bids rejected forced Fablevision’s artists, like most other creative practitioners, to develop other, entrepreneurial business models that would allow them to continue their practice without compromising their vision or values and we thanked them for forcing us to be independent. Over the ensuing decades, Fablevision inherited furniture from Strathclyde Regional Council when they shut up shop; computer equipment from the Objective 3 Partnership when they closed and co-created learning materials on the demise of the Scottish Centre for Regeneration.  The ‘unsustainable’ small cultural social enterprise outlasted all the big beasts. Like other small cultural organisations, we were light on our feet – able to adapt and pivot creatively and meet the new requirements of whatever adverse social/economic/political circumstances presented. There is a joke in community-based cultural practice that practitioners of these arts are like ‘cockroaches will be after the nuclear holocaust – they will be the only living things to survive’.

For more than four decades, Fablevision has created ‘glocal’ experiments in artistic interventionism. Taking a cultural planning approach (and with the intention of making a difference), in the early years this involved supporting people with disabilities to find their voice and make stunning theatre, resulting in the formation of Birds of Paradise Theatre Company.  In the middle years, with partners in the Banlieues d’Europe network, we focused on place-based cultural planning in for example, north east Glasgow with the Royston Road Project and BoltFM. More recently, through collaborations with River Cities Network members on a project entitled, Memory of Water EU, we have worked in Govan with partners from Sweden, Poland, Greece, Ireland and Belgium asking what difference socially engaged, interventionist artists can make on post-industrial waterfront heritage zones: an exploration that has, over the last five years, expanded to include Ukraine and Georgia.

These international sharings of learning and practice are vital.  They provide the oxygen for locally based artists working in communities/communities of interest (as well as those local residents who gain inspiration from seeing what’s possible in other countries) to ‘keep going’ in the face of, at best, indifference and often, outright hostility from politicians and planners.  Artists empowering local people to speak out is one thing but empowerment to the extent of taking ownership; taking control and affecting transformation on their local area plans is not always welcomed by landowners and housing developers.

Fablevision survived the first waves of the Covid-19 pandemic thanks  to European funding (which helped to lever local and national ‘match’).  We concluded the final year of Memory of Water, (a major Creative Europe 6 cities, EU project) during 2020, delivering a ‘blended’ residency programme in spite of lockdown.

In early 2021, we secured a successful Erasmus bid to explore this experimentation with new working practices further. Over the next three years, collaborating with partners in Greece, Poland and Sweden, we will map examples of best practice in each of the participating countries: experimenting with case studies that will be delivered in real time. The ingredients for success will be unpacked, teased out, analysed and compared across the four partner countries. From these mappings and case study examples, we will create a set of learning materials  for artists, educationalists (formal and informal) and community arts organisations, to facilitate adaptations in post venue based performance arts.

All of this is now threatened by Brexit, however, as , over the last 5years, we have seen ourselves reduced from lead partner status to ‘ third  world country’ where we can’t participate in Creative Europe or Erasmus at all unless invited and subcontracted by an EU member state.

To be clear, it is not just the Fablevision business model that is under threat here. The whole premis of collaborative learning and sharing of practice with mutual understanding and in the spirit of shared values is now in jeopardy for all independent cultural organisations and practice based researchers throughout the UK.

Whilst many of our colleagues in the UK Creative Europe network of beneficiaries are moving themselves into mainland Europe or setting up satellite organisations in Cyprus, Paris and other welcoming ports in a storm, Fablevision is pondering available options. The jury is out on whether or not Brexit will spell the end of the line for Fablevision; if we can ‘pivot’ and survive the storm yet again,  or if reinstatement within the EU family will come in time to save us.

This article was first produced by Liz Gardiner for The Centre for Culture, Sport and Events (CCSE) website – the blog for the collaborative partnership between the University of the West of Scotland and Renfrewshire Council. CCSE will provide a space to undertake collaborative research and development work that has relevance for the Renfrewshire area, nationally and internationally.

Liz Gardiner is founder and Director of Fablevision and a PhD candidate at the University of the West of Scotland. All of the projects mentioned above have been developed with the support, partnership and supervision of colleagues within UWS.