Kerry Harker provokes debate and suggests value in small arts organisations being heard.

In his closing remarks at a symposium in May of this year, Dr Edward Harcourt, the Forum’s Vice-Chair, asked ‘Who’s not already in the room?’ There is one immediate possible answer: the smaller-scale organizations and groups that are spread right across the north of England. The ones who rarely seem to be in the room when these high-level, ‘institutional’ conversations are being held through platforms such as CFN and Creative Industries Federation.

Why is the voice of this sector, highly articulate and active, often educated at HE level and socially/politically engaged, with robust networks across the whole of the north, not present in crucial debates that will inform future policy? The organizations I’m thinking of are small-scale and often, but not always, working outside of Arts Council England’s ‘national portfolio’. Although many run spaces for art, many are engaged in other activities including art writing and publishing, roving curatorial projects, online activity, and/or provide studio spaces and professional development opportunities for artists. Some are located outside of the metropolitan centres which doubles their sense of exclusion.

Does the very small scale, rapid speed of change, and low capacity of these organizations prevent engagement with conversations such as that being facilitated through CFN, even when awareness of these ‘open’ forums exists? Or is the issue that it looks too much like one-way traffic? Are there language barriers that prevent two-way communication? What difficulties does the difference in scale create when trying to ‘find the front door’ of our universities to even begin a conversation?

Enhanced partnership with these smaller organisations, and perhaps crucially agencies that work with them (ACE, CVAN and regional counterparts, the newly formed Artists’ Union England, AN, Axisweb and others), could help to amplify their voice and make it heard. Could shared research agendas and allied funding streams be identified instead, in partnership with these agencies, in graduate retention, place making, and talent development for example, where this small-scale sector is particularly effective? What examples already exist?

What role can the new cultural institutions within HE play in marshalling this conversation, amid increasing pressures on all elements of the cultural sector under austerity, or in grasping the slippery potential of a ‘northern powerhouse’?

How can the collective perspectives, networks and expertise of the small-scale sector be heard and supported through HE partnership, as a vital and characteristic part of the northern arts ecology?