Policy Briefing: The Poverty of Resilience in the Arts

Policy Briefing: The Poverty of Resilience in the Arts

Jack Newsinger (University of Leicester)

Definition: resilience [ri-zil-ee-uh ns] Noun
1. the power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc., after being bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity;
2. the ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like; buoyancy.

Ecological systems need resilience, school kids need to be resilient, communities need to be more resilient, people with mental health difficulties require resilience, companies should be resilient and graduates need resilience. ‘Resilience’ is a key austerity theme across a range of social and economic policy discourses, including arts and cultural policy. The resilience of arts organisations is being pushed to the max by myriad of funding cuts. Those that fold clearly are not resilient enough. A more resilient arts sector will emerge, phoenix-like from the ashes. And so on and so forth. Obviously, resilience is a good thing.

The arts sector is all over resilience at the moment, it being the subject of a number of policy papers and a major funding theme for Arts Council England. But what might a more resilient arts sector be like? And what are the costs of approaching funding cuts in this way?

A key text in resilience thinking in the arts is Mark Robinson’s influential 2010 report Making Adaptive Resilience Real (written before the major cuts and restructuring had taken place, it is worth noting). The document says many sensible things and is relatively measured in tone – Robinson urges caution around resilience becoming “another Arts Council agenda”, for example, and argues that efficiency drives can reduce an organisation’s capacity for resilience by diminishing flexibility.

Robinson’s definition of resilience is “the capacity to remain productive and true to core purpose and identity whilst absorbing disturbance and adapting with integrity in response to changing circumstances.” It is revealing, however, that it is the adaptability aspect of the formula – particularly financial adaptability – that has been most taken up as a policy theme, at the expense of the more slippery notions of core purpose and integrity. For example, for Arts Council England, resilience is part of Goal 3 of its five-point strategic framework. It defines resilience as:

  • arts organisations, museums and libraries can demonstrate an ability to adapt to their external environment
  • arts organisations and museums have increased the share of their income that comes from a wider range of contributed or earned income sources
  • local authorities and other partners value the Arts Council’s development role in supporting arts organisations, museums and libraries to be more resilient
  • the cultural sector embraces environmental sustainability and has reduced its carbon footprint

In 2014 we interviewed people from twenty five arts organisations across the East Midlands of England as part of research that explores the way funding cuts were affecting arts access for disabled children and young people. We found adapting to uncertain financial prospects to be quite natural territory for small arts organisations. As one person told us:

I could be really cavalier and honest and say it’s not changed, because we’re always under threat of cutting. I can’t remember a time when there’s not been somebody saying “I can’t do that because of cuts, I can’t do this, I can’t do that”. And I don’t know if it’s me just being a grumpy old (person) and saying “look fight!” We’ve stopped at the point of saying “well this is going to be difficult, we’ve got cuts”. We’d have gone home years ago!

However, while organisations are adept at diversifying funding streams and making savings in order to survive, we found the main pressures exerted upon areas of activity that related to more progressive and inclusive practices, particularly those that catered for more diverse needs and abilities. These pressures include:

  • Loss of staffing: through redundancies; people leaving and not being replaced; cutting back on freelance hours.
  • Reducing costs: artists told us stories of paying for resources out of their own pockets, of reusing and recycling; pressure to cut back on specialist resources (one example was of a braille collection of children’s books); not having enough money for specialist transport.
  • Reduced training opportunities, for example on inclusive arts practices.

All these things combine to place significant barriers to equal participation by disabled children and young people. So while organisations demonstrate considerable adaptive resilience, the landscape of cultural participation, particularly for those with more specialised needs, looks much bleaker, with the core values of inclusivity and equality threatened. This was articulated by one of our interviewees:

It’s more that the funding allowed us the breathing space to do some interesting things with it and perhaps provide us with more resource to put on a (art form), bring in the specialised help, or specialised speakers, or it might provide some money for that group to interact with (specialist disability group) more, for example, to come and do the master class on creating theatre with and for disabled (people).

Experience in working with disabled children, building confidence and relationships, is vital to developing inclusive arts practices. As one of our interviewees told us, it is vital that artists are able to “see past those barriers” and have the confidence “to ask the questions and not be scared to say, ‘I’ve never worked with somebody that has William’s disease, what does that mean for me to work with you? How can I help you to be in this session?’” The cutting back of freelance hours, and reductions in opportunities for training and professional development, demonstrates the flexibility of arts organisations to adapt at the same time as wasting years of experience and risking the future of inclusive arts practice, which in turn threatens to hamstring any progress made in disabled arts for children and young people.

Part of the problem with resilience thinking is its role in the de-politicisation of funding cuts, perhaps due to its origin in ecological science. The burden of adapting to the new environment is placed onto organisations themselves, with the ones that emerge relatively unscathed providing retrospective justification for the whole process in a sort of cultural policy version of neoliberal eugenics (as more or less explicitly articulated by right wing commentators such as this one). But austerity is not a natural phenomenon; it is a political process that is consciously reshaping society in a myriad of ways to the detriment of those at the bottom, particularly the young and the disabled. So while resilience might be a ‘good thing’ for individuals and organisations, it does not provide much of a platform from which to question the normative dimensions of austerity, or argue for a more inclusive, progressive arts agenda. Down with resilience!


Jack Newsinger is lecturer in media and communication at the University of Leicester. His research focusses on the cultural and creative industries, particularly issues around cultural policy and cultural work. This article draws upon research funded by The Mighty Creatives, the Arts Council England Bridge Organisation for the East Midlands region. The full research report, co-authored by Dr Jack Newsinger and William Green, can be accessed here.

Image: Miz_Ginevra Flickr CC BY 2.0