Innovation has, for some time, been associated with the arts sector in the UK. This was acknowledged in the 2018 report by NESTA, entitled Experimental Culture: “UK arts and cultural organisations, and the artists and practitioners that work in and around them, have a reputation for producing bold, exciting and often highly innovative work.”
Despite this acknowledged track record in innovation and experimentation, there have been drivers for cultural institutions and artists to ‘up their game’ further, particularly around 2008 with the publication of the The McMaster Report. In 2009, things developed further when NESTA enabled the better monitoring of innovation, by creating a working definition of innovation categories: “There are four categories of innovation common to cultural institutions. These are innovation in: audience reach, art form development, value creation, and business management and governance.”
Arguably, since then the arts sector has increased innovation within all the categories defined by NESTA. The 2012 Olympics opening ceremony and the poppies installation at the Tower of London are notable examples of art form innovation. ‘Audience reach’ innovation has resulted in increased theatre and opera audiences through cinema streaming. The BFI media player is an example of innovation in the area of value creation. And across all areas of the arts, we have, in recent years, seen the emergence of the social enterprise model, bringing new ideas of business management and governance.
However I argue that there is an undervalued, new and separate category of innovative projects that has become more visible in recent years, in response to societal and funding changes. In these projects, artists and institutions break their established creative processes in order to work with under-represented voices in society to create new, often disruptive projects. I call these CASE projects, as they have four key elements. CASE projects are always:
Co-created with under-represented people,
Socially impactful and
Recent examples of projects and initiatives that I would fit under the category of CASE include the worldwide Science Gallery network, the Idea Stores in Tower Hamlets, Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences, and the Galway Hospital project The Magician and the Swallow’s Tale. Additionally, recent Arts Council England (ACE) funded projects Change Makers and Creative People and Places enabled the creation of many of these societally focused projects around the UK.
Do we need this new name for innovation? What is distinctive about CASE projects?
It could be argued that we have always had this kind of creative project. Is this just another way of saying ‘Art which has social impact’?
The difference is that CASE projects have a more rigid definition. For example, it is possible to create social impact arts projects without the creative involvement of under-represented people, but CASE projects must have this creative involvement at their very heart. Similarly, social impact projects need not be experimental – they can be about tried-and-tested delivery – whereas CASE projects are always experimental and disruptive by definition. All CASE projects are social impact projects, but not all social impact projects are CASE projects.
Highlighting a key difference, I would argue that CASE projects have a great and unique power of innovation because they have under-represented voices at their creative heart – that is their innovative strength. This can be illustrated with two examples.
Firstly, in 2016, Birmingham Museums used funding from ACE’s Change Makers fund to support a placement for curator Sara Wajid. Wajid invited co-curators from under-represented, ethnic minority backgrounds to re-write and create some of the museum’s key interpretations, which they did, tackling issues of colonialism within the museum collection head-on. Not only did this result in creative disruption at the heart of Birmingham Museum’s creative process, it also engaged new audiences. Importantly, this project has led to the creation of an active ‘Decolonising the Museum’ movement.
A second example is the Little Inventors initiative in Sunderland. Artist Dominic Wilcox was asked by Cultural Spring, a creative organisation in Sunderland, to engage with children who were underprivileged in terms of access to creative learning. Funded by Creative People and Places, a scheme was devised where children created their own inventions, and these were then fabricated by local ‘makers’ and displayed in an exhibition. Although Wilcox is himself an inventor, in this project he was simply an enabler for the children's own creativity. The initiative was widely publicised by the global media and as a result, schoolchildren in South Korea have started uploading their own creations to the website, driven by their own initiative.
It’s interesting to note that for both these projects to happen, it was necessary for a totally new commissioning process to be created. CASE projects have a tendency to be disruptive, which is key to their power to create innovation.