Equal Arts/Claire Ford

As a policy maker authenticity in our work takes root when we have open, meaningful and at times uncomfortable conversations with the communities of artists and people we serve.

The invitation to participate in the British Council’s Arts for Ageing Society study tour in Japan was perfectly timed as we embark on a journey to develop a new 10 year strategy for Arts and Culture here in England. 

International exchanges are critical for artists and policy makers alike. They create opportunities to share practice and learn from our international peers. Most importantly exchanges enable us to reflect on how we respond to familiar challenges through the benefit of participating in conversations and practice in unfamiliar settings. 

Historically the debate on Diversity in England has centred primarily on Disability, Ethnicity and Gender. Age has too often been code for Children and Young People but we’re beginning to see a shift through programmes like ‘Celebrating Age’ and our partnership with the Baring Foundation. This is taking place against the backdrop of a rapidly changing demographic in the UK where people are living and working longer.

Ahead of the Arts for Ageing Society study tour I was fortunate enough to join colleagues from Drake Music and our Japanese music peers in Kawasaki to discuss the increasingly critical role technology is playing in making music more accessible to disabled people. 

My short visit to Kawasaki would prove pivotal ahead of our visits to Tokyo and Kyoto. It provided a moment of reflection to look at how inter-connected our work around supporting disabled artists and older artists can be. In Japan conversations are further ahead exploring the relationship between growing older and becoming disabled later in life. It’s a discussion I’m keen to progress now I am back in England and I was delighted to hear about a new Unlimited commission ‘Delicate’ which brings together a collaboration between Jamie Beddard and Aislinn Mulligan to explore the relationship between Ageing and Disability through the medium of storytelling and circus.

In meeting Shuichi Awata from the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology I was struck by the quality and depth of research and data on ageing society in Japan. The presentation was illuminating and highlighted the integral role arts and culture could play as part of a much more complex ecosystem of provision that was responding to an accelerating trend of people living longer in Japan. 

It was apt that after our meeting with Shuichi we had the opportunity to join a group of local artists from the Tokyo Metropolitan Concert Hall delivering a participatory music workshop at a care home in Kuramae. 

We too often grapple with the notion of how do we make the public investment case for the arts. That afternoon in Kuramae I was reminded that the best way to make the case is through the art itself. It was incredibly moving to see first-hand the impact of music, song and movement on the participants but just as importantly the care and passion of the workshop leaders. Our conversations afterwards were a deeply enriching exchange of artistic ideas, peer feedback and advice on developing their practice further.

Whilst the primary purpose of our trip was to learn from and share with our peers in Japan, I had the good fortune of embarking on the visit with an equally inspiring collective of practitioners from the UK including Jane Findlay (Dulwich Picture Gallery) Andrew Barry (Royal Exchange Theatre) Julian West (Royal Academy of Music) and Catherine Cassidy (Scottish Ballet). The trip enriched my knowledge of world class practice not only in Japan but also from the UK. We’re incredibly fortunate to have such talented advocates and champions for work for and with older people and I’m looking forward to visiting each of the UK partners to find out more about their work and practice too! 

In Kyoto I was struck by the honesty and openness of our conversations with local artists. I have to confess there were moments of frustration. As a policy maker working for a national funding agency I was reminded of the importance of our purpose to serve artists. Some of the artists we met had found it challenging and difficult to access funding, others felt it was not for them. It was important to be in that space to hear that feedback directly, it opens the door to the possibility of doing things differently. As funders and policy makers we need to be accessible and open to constructive feedback.

The public forum events in Tokyo and Kyoto provided platforms to bring together artists, policy makers, academics and the care sector. I was struck by the rich diversity of practice involving older people both as artists and participants. 

It is critical in moving forward we continue to value, invest and champion the practice of older artists. How often do we see the work of older artists recognised and celebrated on our stages? How do we nurture a balanced ecology for artists and makers that creates meaningful talent development and progression opportunities for new and emerging talent without it being at the expense of older practitioners? I came away from Japan more convinced of the importance of convening intergenerational discourse and practice. The worst thing that could happen is communities living in silos. Art has the ability to connect and to help us understand one another. We can’t lose that.

I can’t reflect back on my journey without recognising the role of the British Council team in Japan. They play a crucial role as a connector and a broker. They have not only facilitated introductions, they have assisted in nurturing artistic collaborations, new friendships and served as a catalyst for cultural exchange. 

In my time in Japan I was struck by the recognition and understanding of arts and cultural policy from England. Our colleagues from the Japanese Agency of Cultural Affairs were familiar with our 10 year strategy and recognised its value in developing priorities and a strategic arts and cultural framework for Japan.

Coming back to England I’ve been inspired to reflect on how we can better support individual artists. I’m determined to ensure work by and for older people becomes a more visible and prominent part of our equality and diversity work over the next decade. It is vital we embrace the creative, holistic and social case for investing in arts and cultural opportunities for older artists and audiences. 

I’m indebted to everyone who made the time to meet with us, who inspired us with their passion, who challenged us to explore new ways of doing things and shared the benefit of their practice. Most importantly I’m looking forward to developing our conversations into collaborations that create inspiring new work and commissions both in England and Japan.

Abid Hussain (Director, Diversity, Arts Council England)

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