Democratising Creativity & Culture – Meet The Producers

Following on from the success of its Midsummer online festival in June, the West Midlands Culture Response Unit (WMCRU), have commissioned West Midlands Weekenders; a brand-new series of events to showcase the diversity and innovation of the region’s arts. The previous two Weekenders took part over late August and September and featured organisations such as Friction Arts, Ex Cathedra, Sonia Sabri Company, Motionhouse and the CBSO’s centenary celebration. 

On Saturday 26 September, the trio of events will culminate with a West Midlands Weekender which takes on the theme of Democratising Creativity and Culture. Aiming to celebrate and platform some of the region’s young creatives exploring all things arts, culture and heritage, the event is being organised by three regional young producers: Aksana Khan, Diandra McCalla, and Paige Jackson.

The team met whilst on the Beatfreeks producing programme Southside Producers and have diverse backgrounds in the arts and heritage sectors ranging from education, community outreach, contemporary dance as well producing small to large scale projects.  

“I was approached [by WMCRU],” says Paige. “As I trained with Aksana and Diandra, it was really important for me to ensure that I’m supporting fellow producers, particularly at a time when people are being furloughed or have lost work. We’ve had very different backgrounds and we’ve gone on to do in some cases, some very different things as producers but essentially, it’s our values and our ethos that tie us together. Community arts and culture, cultural expression, platforming and making sure that there’s representation of systemically marginalised individuals and communities. Whether that’s neurodiversity, sexuality, ethnicity, culture.” 

The team is keen that the event is democratic behind the scenes as well as in its content.  

Aksana says: “For me, the theme itself isn’t just about the content, it’s also about the process that we have behind it. Before we started officially working together, we did a document of what our boundaries were and what we valued as a team and I think it’s really important to start off with the right intentions and really hold that in your spirit before you get going on something. I think when you have that it really does carry you on.” 

Democratising Creativity and Culture will feature four new commissions and work from 11 individuals and five organisations and will include artforms such as spoken word, documentary films, dance, textiles, poetry, drag, stand-up, podcasts and DJ sets. A range of subjects will be explored in these creative works including Black Lives Matter, colourism, mental health, effects of COVID in relation to technology, Black British women in media and issues for young people in the arts industry. 

“I think 2020 is the year for people’s voices to really be heard in ways that they hadn’t been before and I hope that our programming reflects that and gives a platform for people that aren’t necessarily on your main stages or programmed by the status quo organisations” says Diandra. 

Aksana adds: “I would hope it’s not the usual, and that the audience won’t expect the usual things that they would have seen had it been non-COVID and if they were to go to the local arts venue or theatre. I hope that they see new faces and I hope that they will come away thinking differently about things as well.”  

To curate the Weekender content, the trio gave an open call-out to West Midlands creatives and had over 70 applicants from around the region. Representation of the West Midlands as a whole in their programming was something the team were keen to ensure.

Paige says: “I think our region amplifies the voice of Birmingham and Coventry a lot, which is positive, particularly due to the Commonwealth Games and Coventry City of Culture, but we do need to make more of an effort in normalising and platforming other cities, towns and boroughs. We’re constantly talking about how we can get the messaging out and make young creatives and artists, outside of Birmingham and Coventry feel like, ‘Yeah, I can apply – I’m in the West Midlands’.” 

To ensure all artists are paid for their time and effort during what is a difficult period for the arts industry, the team, alongside WMCRU, have created the West Midlands Young Creatives Fund. The idea is simple, the more money raised, the greater the number of opportunities available, with funds going towards artist bursaries and newly commissioned works. 

Aksana says: “In our call-out we’ve been explicit in saying ‘if youre receiving universal credit and are successful in receiving a bursary, [and feel] it would affect what you would get, please talk to us’. Even just having copy that says that is acknowledging that not every creative and artist out there is financially secure.”

As expected with such a broad subject matter the team all have their own personal thoughts on what the event’s theme means to them.  

“Democratising creativity and culture is what it says on the tin, says Paige. 

“It’s for the people by the people, it’s a shared responsibility and it’s unfiltered. It’s about making space for individual opinions, experiences and expression and removing as many institutional barriers as we can which would usually otherwise alienate people. In terms of accessibility, it’s not one thing and it’s not a quick fix.” 

Aksana adds: “It’s not just what it looks like, it’s what it feels like as well, because I think often times when you are producing an event, you are trying to create an extension of what home feels like to you, and I think for me when it comes to democratising what culture looks like, it’s really just bringing home to someone and having that feeling. 

“We need a democratic arts culture, because especially right now, times are all political, we can’t afford to be neutral, and we need to empower ourselves as creatives and also our local communities to hold the powers that be to account.  

“We need critical thinkers going forward, otherwise we wouldn’t have had the process that we have right now to be honest, because if things were alright, we wouldn’t have Black Lives Matter. We wouldn’t have had the fear that ethnic minorities were losing their lives because of COVID and I think what is great about the arts is it encourages people to think differently and to empathise and to see people as your own.” 

“For me, cultural and creative democracy are up for debate and discussion,” says Diandra. “I don’t necessarily think there is a picture in my mind of what democratic arts and culture looks like, but I think going forward for me it would be about equality and wealth distribution, because when you have that it means people from low socio-economic backgrounds are able to engage in the arts. If arts organisations reach out to them, then they have training routes and progression routes so that they can be the future artists, board members and sector leaders. For me, it’s about upending the hierarchy of the system so that the people that would be on the bottom have an equitable share in the conversations.”

Democratising Creativity and Culture – West Midlands Weekender is taking place online on Saturday 26th September – watch the event at makeitwm.com.

 Interview and header photograph by Lauren Morton.