University of Warwick: Cultural mega events must bring about change, but the cultural sector must change first, says conference report

Cultural mega events must bring about societal change – and to do this the sector itself must become equitable and open to new collaboration. These are the conclusions of a report published by the University of Warwick.

The Road Ahead: Creating Irreversible Equitable Change document summarises the discussions, ideas and findings of the AHRC Coventry Cultural Policy and Evaluation Summit which took place in June this year.

The Summit brought together leading figures from the UK’s arts and culture sectors and Coventry City of Culture 2021, who met virtually to discuss the role the Coventry UK City of Culture 2021 festival will play in the sector’s recovery, as well as what it will mean for the city of Coventry itself. In addition, participants discussed the ground-breaking Coventry model and using it to shape how future cultural mega-events can create and measure social impact and change.

Jonothan Neelands, Academic Director for Cultural Partnerships at the University of Warwick and Academic Lead for Research and Evaluation for Coventry City of Culture Trust, said:

“The AHRC Coventry Cultural Policy and Evaluation Summit brought together regional and national leaders to consider the post-pandemic road ahead for cultural mega-events and other place-led cultural interventions. Based in a new model for UK Cities of Culture developing in Coventry, the Summit suggested the need for radical change to tackle inequalities, promote social change and prosperity and ensure that all citizens benefit from publicly invested culture.

“We are excited to release today, for a wider audience, a summary of the main themes of this milestone event and an edited version of the programme on YouTube.”

In discussion at the event was the immediate need for change within the culture sector itself. There was a strong realisation that there are barriers to access, collaboration and equitable working which need to be addressed.

Report author and Director of Counting What Counts, Jon Knell, said:

“There were two dominant strands of passionate conversation at the summit. Firstly, we saw strong endorsement from the Summit’s leading experts that UKCC21 is creating a new and distinctive model, with its much greater focus on social impact, intercultural dialogues, diversity, inequality and health and well-being. This report details what we can learn from the Coventry approach.

“Secondly, there was wide acceptance that if culture is to better address questions of equity and representation, the sector is going to need to repurpose its cultural ambitions and actions; its language; and its evaluation practices. There was an urgent demand for irreversible equitable change. By capturing that spirit so clearly, we hope this Summit report helps everyone across the sector to act on its powerful rallying call and practical insights.”

Commenting on the call for change, and Coventry acting as a beacon project, Chenine Bhathena, Creative Director, Coventry City of Culture Trust, said:

“By building a programme in partnership with a wider range of arts, business, charitable, educational, health and community organisations, UKCC21 has created a programme that tests new ways of working together and moves forward the discussion on cultural democracy: changing the rules of engagement, exploring co-creation between services and communities, sharing decision making, building collective power, investing in people to increase capacity, inspiring new collaborations across sectors. This investment in people should leave a legacy of skills and knowledge, build ambition and inspire greater social and cultural activism, whilst remaining fun, engaging, mischievous and joyful.

“This Summit report highlights the need for cities to be brave, courageous, and ambitious in their cultural planning. It encourages us all to review what is culture and whose culture is it. It provides a map for the road ahead, as we travel towards creating better, healthier, more liveable places with our citizens.”