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TBA Online: News & Features: March 2018

Finding Your Place In the Cultural Ecology: An Interview With John Holden

Wednesday, March 21, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Rotimi Agbabiaka

John Holden loves the environment and the arts so it makes sense that he is a leader in the field of cultural ecology, which he describes as the way arts organizations influence and fit into their communities. At this year’s Theatre Bay Area conference, to be held on April 30 at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage, he’ll give the opening plenary address and lead a workshop to help arts leaders better advocate for the societal value of their organizations and navigate community networks. 

Holden, visiting professor at the University of Leeds, came to international prominence in the the early 2000s with the publication of his writings on the value of culture but he’s been working on connecting artists with their communities since the early 90s, when he ran Business for the Arts, an organization which gave business advice to arts companies. He has since served as head of culture for the London think tank, Demos, taught at institutions all over the world, and helped companies like the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Tate museum develop their cultural leadership.

I chatted with Holden about theatre’s role in society and what attendees at the conference can expect to learn from him.

John Holden. Photo courtesy of AMAculturelive.

How have societal attitudes towards the arts changed since you started studying cultural ecology?

I’ve seen a huge difference. When I started there was a much bigger divide between the world of the arts, the world of commercial culture, and the amateur world and [now] I’m seeing quite a lot of convergence. One of the things I want to talk about [at the conference] is how we should understand culture these days. In the last thing I wrote called The Ecology of Culture I started trying to develop a number  of models that might help to understand not just how the cultural system works but how that integrates with the rest of life … because bringing an ecological way of thinking about culture enables you to have insights about it that are not available using either a purely economic viewpoint or a purely political viewpoint or a purely social organization viewpoint. What I hope to offer is a number of ideas about using some of the language of ecology to enrich the way we think about our place in that ecology and when we understand our place that then enables us to act within the ecology with more self consciousness with more organizational flair.

What are some of the ways in which theatre influences society?

There are many case studies you can bring to this about how the changing relationship between many arts companies and their communities are enriching those communities. What I can talk about is the Stratford East Theatre in London where they are programming what they do partly through a dialogue with the public that they serve and how it changes both the theatre practice and the community as well. But one of the big things I want to argue is pretty much everywhere around the world, the arts culture has been seen by governments as kinda nice to have as a peripheral subject … to put in United States terms, it’s an East Wing issue and not a West Wing issue. That actually is in the process of changing and culture is becoming a very central feature across politics from the economy to international relations to education to the way we organize our cities, all kinds of things like that are being very much affected by culture and its almost like one of those things where it’s so big you don’t see it.


What does the seemingly constant anxiety about arts funding say about the value our society places on the arts?


I think where funding comes from really matters. It’s not just about funding but about the validation of particular types of funding and the way that politics and society kind of states its purpose through funding of the arts. If [a society] doesn't care about the arts, what does it say about that society? That it’s purely materialistic, purely driven by considerations of the individual rather than the community. Practically all over the world we’ve seen reduced government funding to the arts sector since the financial crisis of 2008 but what I found when I was doing research for this ecology paper is a lot of interesting stuff about mixed business models. In the UK for example we used to have a model where you got funding from the arts council, from your local authority, from the box office, and then you get maybe a little bit from business but now I’m finding much more people are running arts companies like social enterprises and they are doing things like crowdfunding and they are deploying the assets that they’ve got—building, people, and so forth—in quasi-commercial ways as well. So the way that funding is raised as well has changed quite a lot.

It matters what the source of the funding is because if it’s just rich philanthropists it drives a wedge. The conflation of arts and social status is very damaging.

What can attendees expect at your workshop?

There are two points of focus. One is the articulation of value. How you make the argument more simply and how you order [the argument] in your mind: this is what we’re doing, this is how we talk about value, this is what we mean when we want to explain why we’re valuable to funders, to society, to people. The other thing I want to do in the workshop is get people to understand their place in [community] networks so that they understand how they can benefit from those networks, how those networks might bite them, and how they can use those [networks] to best effect. And again it’s not “networks” in a kinda cynical, marketing sense of we’ll go in a room with badges on and work the room. It’s more in an ecological sense of understanding what the flows are within that network and what the feedback loops are within that network both beneficial and malign. Those are the two big things: value and networks

The Theatre Bay Area Annual Conference takes place on April 30 at Freight & Salvage. Register here:

Rotimi Agbabiaka is the Features Curator for Theatre Bay Area. He is an actor, writer, director, teaching artist, and a collective member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Learn more about him at