Who’s going to write our story?

September 3, 2020

Working together is a good thing, but throw a global pandemic into the mix, and it becomes more difficult, not least for the arts and cultures, which exists to bring people together. Richard Dawson sits down with Professor Katy Shaw, director of cultural partnerships at Northumbria University, for a ranging discussion on collaboration, how people turned to culture during lockdown and why we need writers from all backgrounds to shape our cultural responses to COVID-19

Collaboration is something that the business community is increasingly embracing as the benefits of working together to boost innovation, productivity and revenue become clear.

For the arts and cultures though, collaboration is the starting point – writers and filmmakers have always worked together as have visual artists, musicians and so on.

People often refer to the arts and cultures as an ecology for precisely this reason – a system of interdependent stakeholders that together shape demand for and production of the culture we consume every day.

Interdependence is undoubtedly a strength in the good times, but what the coronavirus pandemic has also shown us is how fragile this ecology can be when you take away its main purpose – bringing people together.

While most parts of the country and the economy have emerged from lockdown, albeit with reduced capacity, mask-wearing and other restrictions; many arts venues are still closed and artists, writers, musicians and performers are still struggling to make ends meet.

Even as the Government moves to allow theatres, music halls, cinemas and art galleries to reopen, many may not be able to due to cash flow issues that no emergency funding scheme could ameliorate.

There might, therefore, come a time in the next year or so when we simply do not have the same volume of new music, new TV shows and films, new theatre productions and art exhibitions that we’re used to.

That’s a shame because if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is just how valuable culture is to our lives and well-being.

“The first thing people did in lockdown was turn to culture,” says Professor Katy Shaw, director of cultural partnerships at Northumbria University.

“They started to share poetry, they started to watch the National Theatre online, they wanted to see and read and watch and view more than ever.”

Whether frightened about catching the virus or worried about losing a job or a business, being able to take refuge in a good book, TV show or film has been a lifeline to many.

The ability to escape, even just for a moment, what has been an incredibly challenging year is only made possible by having a thriving arts and cultures ecology.

Katy has been a part of this ecology for many years and knows all about the importance of collaboration. Her role at Northumbria University is to forge stronger relationships between the region’s cultural institutions and education.

Northumbria now has established cultural partnerships with Baltic, Live Theatre, Tyneside Cinema and Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums – each of which faces challenges in reopening following the pandemic.

Katy says: “The relationship between successful cultural venues and education has always been there, whether that’s at primary school level or through to university.

“This is because so much of a venue’s long-term strategy is about engaging the next generation and situating itself in the community.”

When the pandemic hit, Northumbria’s cultural partners were affected in much the same way the university was.

“We felt like we were all brought to our knees,” says Katy.

“Right now, the priority is that we get up together. The process of recovery has to be one that’s founded on collaboration and supporting each other.”

It also has to be founded on making the case for how important the arts and cultures are to the economy, as well as society.

Katy explains: “The arts and cultures are one of our biggest exports as a country. We literally can’t afford to let them slide. It’s in everybody’s interest to support them.

“It’s a huge industry that does not begin and end with well-being and social benefit – it also has a really important economic contribution to society.”

As a professor of contemporary writings, Katy has been particularly taken by the extent to which people have turned to the written word to try and make sense of the maelstrom that is 2020.

“I think people have turned to reading and writing during the pandemic because narrative and storytelling help us make meaning,” she reflects.

“Now more than ever, people want answers, they want explanations and I think we’ve used reading and writing to make sense of the seemingly incomprehensible experience of living through a pandemic.”

Writing is also important because writers provide the source material that feeds into other forms of culture, whether it be the screenplay for a film or the narrative and script for a video game, for example.

“Writing touches all other creative practices,” Katy adds.

When you factor in COVID-19, what becomes clear is the extent to which writers will be responsible for creating our cultural responses to it.

As we use culture to rationalise our experiences of the pandemic, it will be writers who have the final say on which stories are told and how it is remembered in history.

It is therefore of the utmost importance that our writers come from as diverse a range of backgrounds and perspectives as possible.

This is something another of Northumbria’s cultural partners, New Writing North, is trying to address.

As the largest of several regional writing development agencies across the country, New Writing North has lobbied to encourage the publishing industry to move away from an over- reliance on London by creating more opportunities for Northern writers.

This effort took a major step forward in June when one of the world’s largest publishers, Hachette, announced they were going to open five new regional offices, one of which will be in Newcastle.

Katy says: “The publishing industry can be guilty of unconscious bias where people tend to hire people who look like them, sound like them or went to the same university as them.

“Until we change the gatekeepers and have them be more reflective, we’re not going to be able to open up the industry to more diverse representations.”

A project that personifies efforts to promote cultural diversity in publishing is the subject of a recent report titled ‘Common People: Breaking the Class Ceiling in UK Publishing.’

As author of the report, Katy worked closely with New Writing North and other stakeholders to highlight the scale of underrepresentation in publishing and create a strategic model of intervention that could be used to address it.

The Common People project ran for 12 months and engaged 17 new working-class writers in a writing development programme, documenting reflections on their lived experiences and on their interactions with the publishing industry itself.

Katy says: “What we were trying to bring to the foreground was that, as a society and as an industry, we need everyone’s voices to be heard.”

The pandemic has brought this point into sharp focus.

At a time when our collective story is still being written, it’s more important than ever that different experiences and perspectives feed into it, not just in terms of class but also race, gender, ability and sexuality.

Katy concludes: “The big fear with coronavirus is that, with all of these competing demands and priorities, is equality and diversity going to be kicked to the sidelines now?

“The point is that it can’t. We need more diverse voices and we need everyone to have an equal opportunity to tell their stories.”

Northumbria University Cultural Partnerships
www.northumbria.ac.uk/ about-us/our-partners/cultural- partnerships/

New Writing North
www.newwritingnorth.com

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