How do we make world-changing art which is relevant to the real world and doesn’t shy away from the issues affecting communities we work with, whilst ensuring that we keep within the legal restrictions relating to charities and political campaigning?
That was the question under discussion in the first board meeting following our new workshop format.
(Backstory: we recently came up with a new plan for our board meetings and governance because boards need to change – and we wanted to be able to include lots of different perspectives in our board meetings.)
How it went
I opened up the Zoom call and started letting people in: a combination of our formal trustees and the guest participants who wanted to join this workshop session.
As the screen began to fill up, I genuinely had tingles of excitement – not something you usually associate with a charity board meeting!
Over the course of the meeting, we heard from artists, lawyers, producers and trustees. This was a room full of fantastic people. People generously shared their own experiences: of the police turning up at their show, of changing legislation through theatre, of being censored by their government, of being asked to tone down their work, being asked to make it ‘less political’.
We talked a lot about the big things – if you aren’t engaging with the real world and people’s experiences then what is the arts even for? – and about the more specific things – how does ‘education’ function as a charitable object in this context, for example?
Below are our notes from the session, which we’re sharing for anyone who might want to use them. We’ll be using this to write up our staff and board procedures for how we create and manage work which could be considered political.
A massive thank you to everyone who joined us in this new venture and who so openly shared their experiences – we really value it.
Notes and actions
We believe that failing to engage with the challenges of today’s society isn’t apolitical. Saying nothing is not a ‘neutral’ position. It’s an active choice to maintain the status quo and the privileged which that status quo serves.
It’s true that charities have legal obligations about avoiding party politics – but this is something else. This is the word ‘politics’ being weaponised to attack charities that are engaging with the real world.
Over the next year, Strike A Light will be supporting artists and communities making work about food banks, the climate emergency and Black history.
Is it possible to do this without being ‘political’? Or should we just stage plays about the upper middle classes, written by dead white men? Is that less ‘political’?
- Art is about sharing stories and sharing experiences, and it responds to the world around us. Therefore it will always include current events, people’s opinions, reflect society and to brand this as political in its own right is inaccurate.
- Charities are not able to undertake political campaigning unless it supports their charitable purposes – and such campaigning cannot be the continuing and sole activity of the charity (official guidance here). For many arts charities their purposes are related to promoting the arts and/or education, rather than specific social or political causes.
- It’s important to separate ‘political’ themes and actual political campaigning – the latter is only allowed for charities in some specific instances. The former often gets branded as campaigning but it isn’t. Engaging with social justice or social change could be branded as political activity or it could be about an organisation’s responsibility to the communities it serves, about equality, human rights or simply relevance in their work.
- Partnering with a campaigning body or organisation that does have a remit or purposes related to the cause can be a way of enabling the campaigning work without it being led by the arts charity. Academics or organisations with a policy remit will have expertise and knowledge that can drive this process, with conversation and public engagement facilitated by the arts activity.
- Co-creating with the communities that the topic directly affects, using verbatim theatre or asking the audience for their suggestions/ perceptions, means that as the arts charity you are providing the creative facilitation for the conversation but it’s not the views of the charity that are being presented. The charity themselves are not actively campaigning so this can be a way of managing risk as well as ensuring the work is authentic.
- Nervousness and risk-averse messages often come from venues and funders and very often from within the arts e.g. not external censorship of an artistic product but a risk-averse culture which stifles it. For example, venues won’t programme something out of fear of local authority funding being pulled or unspecific fears that it might ‘cause trouble’. For example, conferences asking for less ‘political’ work because they are concerned about a Charity Commission investigation etc.
- Do your research and explore what the real risk is – for example, what really counts as defamation of character. Just expressing a negative opinion about an individual’s conduct isn’t defamation. There may be occasions where it is appropriate to speak unwelcome truths to achieve change. Conversations with funders and venues in advance help determine the actual risk of funding being withdrawn. If funding was withdrawn what are the alternatives, is your reputation strong enough to withstand it etc. Is it actual risk or perceived risk?
- We talked a lot about balancing risk and ‘walking the tightrope’.
- Funding that is tied to central government funding is more at risk of being allocated or withdrawn in response to government policy
- Some organisations who want to explicitly campaign on government policy will choose a legal structure which allows for this or establish a separate campaigning organisation linked to the charity.
- You can create processes around a show to allow a space to air things that you might not be able to say publicly, so that you’re not closing down that dialogue for participants. Or you could signpost to action people can take outside the show – again the arts organisation is a creative facilitator not the campaign vehicle. Think about the provocation to the audience and plan this into the project.
- Be clever and well-researched if you’re engaging with individual politicians and policies: know the action you’re trying to achieve and why. If you’re trying to affect change, what is the best way of doing that? That’s not necessarily by making political statements in the script of a show.
- Index on Censorship have some great resources for arts organisation and give clear guidance on topics where there is an existing legal framework, for example Obscene Publications, Counter Terrorism or Public Order.
- Have open discussions from the outset, look after the people involved in your project and your staff, prepare for the emotional toll and put in support mechanisms.
- The way you run your organisation and how you use your resources could in themselves be ways of affecting social change. It doesn’t always have to be about an artwork provoking change. The arts are robust when they have a civic role and they matter to people. That can be about who’s at the table, who gets a platform, challenging barriers to access, providing opportunities for creativity etc.