What does democratic practice look like?

This short essay addresses the theme of democracy and democratic practice in relation to Circuit and to the broader issue of the state of democracy today in the UK. It was presented at the Circuit conference, as part of the introduction.

Introduction to ‘Test, Risk, Change: Exploring Democratic Practice between Young People, Youth Organisations and Galleries’

Like many of you, in January I participated in the Women’s March in London and one of the chants I heard several times was: ‘THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!’  On that day the meaning of the term ‘democracy’ seemed pretty clear.  In the different context of today’s conference, as we think about democratic practice within the institutions of youth sectors and galleries, we might turn that assertion into a question, into the beginning of a debate: what exactly can democracy look like within an institution, and within an art gallery?  And what forms can and does democratic practice take?

‘Democracy’ as a term is contested:  to some, it is simply the voice of the majority; dissenting views must acquiesce, with national sovereignty (rather than partnerships between countries) of utmost importance.  To others, democracy is an experiment in living, a way of recognising the existence and validity of different viewpoints, and the importance of ongoing debate and discussion, while questioning ‘who speaks for the people?’  

The EU referendum offered a version of democracy which many find unsatisfactory: the opinion of 52% of the electorate was interpreted as simply the ‘will of the people’ and other voices, many of which belonged to young voters, were side-lined or ignored.  That flawed democratic practice can easily be contrasted with the ideals of Circuit:  unlike the Referendum, Circuit is built on a continual re-examining of programmes to support a multitude of diverse voices and a multitude of diverse platforms for art.

Besides striving for more diversity, inclusivity and a re-distribution of resources and access, other features of democratic practice exemplified by Circuit include:  encouraging participation and freedoms of expression and choices, with young people authoring their own cultural productions, and feeling safe and supported in what they say and do; the fostering of collaboration and partnerships, rather than striving for individualism and competition amongst institutions in the belief that together we are stronger, and, finally, transparency, accountability, and responsiveness as policies were tested and evaluated along the way, with the ‘checks and balances,’ and the questioning of power led by young evaluators.

Today we will examine how that has worked and what challenges remain.

As racism, xenophobia, hate crimes, and nationalism are on the rise, attempting to trump equality and diversity, it is of utmost importance that we act now to ensure that all young people are listened to.  May we as change-making institutions address and correct persistent forms of inequality, and subtle and not so subtle forms of exclusion and privilege in the arts and civic life.