Hands playing a piano

Birmingham City Council’s drastic cuts to funding for culture, necessitated by the Section 114 notice, pose a serious threat to several key cultural organisations across the city. Grants and all funding will also be cut for cultural projects and local arts development. But in the context of similarly swingeing cuts to many vital services, why should we care about culture?

This time last year, Oxana Bischin and I were celebrating the last session of the Central European Photography Club. As part of the AHRC-funded project Post-Socialist Britain, we delivered 39 workshops in West Bromwich and Hyson Green, bringing together participants from across communities with an interest in photography. Oxana instructed participants in basic photography techniques, and I encouraged them to share their stories based on the images.

We were a truly diverse group: people with personal or family histories of migration from 14 different countries, recent refugees fleeing conflict, and people who had lived in the area their entire lives, ranging in age from 18 to over 70. The images formed the basis of an exhibition, ‘Homeland, produced by the Polish artist Paulina Korobkiewicz, who worked with four of the participants to showcase their work and interviewed several others to produce a video of their testimonies.

The skills participants gained in the project gave several of them the confidence to pursue their photography professionally. But the ‘softer’ benefits were equally important: the feeling of community belonging, building of confidence, and exchange of cultures and experiences. One participant explained how emotional it had been for her to see her photographs represented, saying: “I felt really moved that someone appreciated my work and felt those photos, just like I do.”

Culture and art have value in themselves, as part of what makes us human. As the AHRC Cultural Value Project showed, culture can also help develop reflective and engaged citizens, improve health and wellbeing, support education, and generate significant economic benefit. Our project confirmed this to me tenfold.

When I asked colleagues about their experience of engaging with culture and communities, they emphasised how culture supports connection, diversity, community cohesion, belonging, and well-being, alongside tangible economic benefits.

Professor Ruth Gilligan has delivered numerous storytelling and empathy-building workshops across the city of Birmingham. These involved bringing together diverse communities and helping them to feel “empowered to tell their stories, connected to people from different backgrounds, and inspired to work for change in their community”.

Everything to Everybody, led by Professor Ewan Fernie, brought Birmingham’s multilingual Shakespeare collection back to life, involving more than 250,000 people in community events and activities across the wards of the city. “Culture matters as a place where diverse individuals and communities can come together, come to know each other better, and collaboratively build a richer, stronger, and more resilient civic life,” says Professor Fernie. 

...collaboration – with individual artists, arts organisations, community groups, NGOs, libraries, and, of course, the City Council – will be key to sustaining culture and its multiple forms of value within the city.

Professor Sara Jones, Interim Academic Director of Culture Forward

Colleagues in Art History routinely engage with museums and galleries across the city and region, which are crucial to education and wellbeing. “They are some of the few places where we can learn about and celebrate the diverse cultures and histories that make up our city,” says Dr Sophie Hatchwell, adding that the economic value of museums and galleries and their role in driving city-centre footfall should not be underestimated.

Professor Adam Ledger has worked on many community-engaged projects as co-artistic director of the theatre group, The Bone Ensemble. He notes that this work helped participants see the places that they live in a new light and that culture “makes us who we are”. Dr Zoe Bulaitis, who has expertise in academic evaluations of cultural engagement, agrees. “Culture is the things that humans make to help us understand who we are, what we do, how we do it, why, and with what consequences,” she says.

These are just a few of the many cultural projects with which University of Birmingham staff are engaged. They give a sense of the real value of culture to Birmingham. But what is its future in a time of financial crisis?

Cross-sector collaboration has been a key feature of all of these projects and is crucial to their success. And collaboration – with individual artists, arts organisations, community groups, NGOs, libraries, and, of course, the City Council – will be key to sustaining culture and its multiple forms of value within the city. It’s in this spirit that our Culture Forward initiative is working with Soul City Arts, the MIAH Foundation and several other key partners to bring the Birmingham Qur’an and Mingana Collection to life in communities across the city, as well as with the Royal Shakespeare Company and now the Birmingham Repertory Theatre on creating accessible Shakespeare resources for deaf students. We’re also bringing researchers and Birmingham arts organisations together in sandpits to focus on sustainability, prisons, culture and health.

In this way, we hope Culture Forward will be a dynamic network for the city’s cultural organisations, community partners, the City Council, businesses, and researchers that allows us to fulfil our mission as a civic university by pooling resources and supporting the continued vibrancy of a city in which culture does indeed matter.