What is a conference? “A formal meeting of people with a shared interest, typically one that takes place over several days.” (Oxford Dictionary)

Recently, through the Clore Fellowship, I have been lucky enough to attend conferences in London, New York, Wolverhampton, Porto and Manchester. They have generally focused on themes of arts in society, socially engaged practice, arts and tech, and the future of the arts – how the arts can be a catalyst for change, can shape and empower communities and are integral to our lives. From these (and previous conferences), my experience is that:

  • The ‘expert’, or ‘experts’, talk down at you from a stage, often with a Chair/Moderator with a lot to say who becomes an additional panel member
  • You generally bump into the same people, with limited opportunities for ‘meeting’ new people

There is a lack of diversity (across disability, gender, race, age, class), from the speakers to the audience and they are often inaccessible (e.g. physically, financially).

To me, this doesn’t demonstrate a ‘meeting of people’ to explore, and maybe even develop, our ‘shared interest’ in the power of the arts and cultural sector. Rather, this is a structure that is fundamentally boring, hierarchical and inherently uncreative.

As the ‘creative’ sector, is this conference structure we use not the antithesis of the conversations we are trying to have and the industry in which we exist? If so, then why do we have them? Do they represent the laziness of our sector at its absolute best?

My hope is that by shifting the way we ‘meet’ and talk about our ‘shared interests’ we can reinvigorate not only the way conferences are run, but also our sector. We have a wealth of expertise and opportunity to break down these structures and reimagine them, together.

Click here to find out how Lucy critiques and reimagines conferences around diversity of participants, diversity of opinion, financial access, physical and psychological access.  

Let’s get back to basics then… what inspires us to go to conferences?

  1. The opportunity to learn from others

It is only through learning from each other and connecting across our sector, and beyond, that we can shape and demonstrate what the role of arts can be in our society. There is the opportunity to learn from our failures, as well as our successes. Without this learning, we can’t move forward.

  1. The opportunity to network/meet new people?

At the heart of our sector lies collaboration. It is, or should be, in our DNA – the want to exchange, and to work together to build something that’s more than the sum of its parts. Meeting new people should inspire creativity and diversity of thought. Or as Tim Smit from the Eden Project put it, the opportunity to “meet the people you didn’t know you needed” (REMIX, London, 2018).

For me, the role of conferences should be to:

  • Make new connections
  • Inspire new ways of thinking
  • Facilitate collaboration
  • Create plans for action

For those attending conferences, I would suggest we all interrogate our reasons for attending and ensure we have a:

  • Reason for going in the first place;
  • Genuine curiosity and willingness to listen;
  • Desire to collaborate and advance the sector.

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Lucy lives in London and is currently a consultant for University College London on its Theatre Programme. Until recently, Lucy was Executive Director of The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick. As its first Executive Director, joining the organisation in 2013, Lucy was at the forefront of the organisation’s growth, including leading on acquiring management of local community centre, Hub67, expanding The Yard’s local profile and reach. Previously freelance, Lucy has worked at organisations including the Bush Theatre, Headlong Theatre and Ambassador Theatre Group. She has also held Trustee/Director positions for the Women’s Resource Centre and the Hackney Wick and Fish Island Community Development Trust.