Balsall Heath Biennale

Saskia Warren Essay – Cultural Intermediation and the Balsall Heath Biennale

Cultural Intermediation and the Balsall Heath Biennale

Dr Saskia Warren

Pierre Bourdieu, the sociologist, originally conceived the term ‘cultural intermediaries’ in 1979 to describe a new kind of actor that arose in an era of expanding mass culture in 1960s France. This emergent professional class of TV producers, broadcasters, critics and journalists attempted to negotiate cultural taste and practice in new media industries. Bourdieu’s main concern was the intermediaries’ competency for mediation between high and popular cultures, as they were working in large-scale, rather than elitist, literary and artistic small-scale production. Over time, however, the range of actors framed as cultural intermediaries has significantly broadened and altered from the original meaning. For instance, cultural producers and intermediaries have been discussed together as cultural entrepreneurs (IT/Web Designers; Graphic Designers; Fashion Designers; Night-Club Promoters; Journalists) contributing to culture-led urban regeneration in post-industrial areas (Banks et. al 2000). The choices of Micro and Small Enterprises (MSEs) in Manchester are presented who engage in innovation, and economic and cultural risk-taking, in order to forge financially solvent and credible careers at the city centre fringe. The different roles performed by intermediaries in an expanded field of creativity and cultural policy are contentious e.g. arts and development project workers; cultural policy advisors; urban town planning; cultural impact evaluators; city strategic marketing. O’Connor has argued that intermediaries can be viewed as complicit within the utilisation of culture in the creative economy by actively working to help “circumscribe a set of activities which can then become the objective correlate of policy intervention and measurement” (2013: 2). In what ways intermediaries identify, stabilise, unsettle or subvert the measurement of cultural and creative activities in the messy spaces between policy and practice is an ongoing negotiation, by turns tense and playful, between policy-makers, funders, artists and participants.

As part of a wider project on the creative economy and communities, the Balsall Heath Biennale was analysed through the lens of cultural intermediation. The two-year programme – involving community consultations, events, talks, exhibitions and workshops – was of particular interest because it explored local culture and the characteristics of an urban neighbourhood, combined with reflexivity on what it means to be artists working in a diverse, multi-cultural area. An ambitious, challenging and thoughtful programme, the Balsall Heath Biennale raises some further points of consideration in light of cultural intermediation which are detailed below:

1. Neighbourhood:

Balsall Heath is one of Birmingham’s Priority Neighbourhoods, which means it has been identified as falling within the worst 5% nationally for multiple deprivations. Located 2.5 miles south of the city-centre, it has a diverse population of around 15,000 with residents recording themselves as 60% of Asian origin, 24% White and 10% Black. Challenges of worklessness are severe with 26% unemployed and 30% with a household income of less than £7,000. Which acutely brings to the fore the question of who is benefiting from cultural and creative activity in the area?

2. Community:

(i) The biennale is a community and area based project, therefore engaging a cross-section of the residential population is central to its success. Aspects of the Biennale programme also encourage a visitor economy to Balsall Heath with a nested offer of a cutting-edge art event combined with ethnic-neighbourhood tourism.  Beyond the diverse local community and visitor economy, there is an intended, artistically-literate, international community (targeted through the special edition newspaper and detailed website). In one of the talks, Public Art: How does it get made? a conversation between the artist, Ruth Claxton, and Clare Doherty, director of Situations, a public art commissioning body, the Biennale posed two connected questions which reverberate with wider debates at the local, regional and national scale: Who is public art for? Who should pay for it?

(ii) Tim Hall and Iain Robertson observe that “much public art attempts to promote consensual readings of place around which communities might come together” (2001: 13). Interrogating this model, during the Q&A of the biennale talk Localism, Narrative & Myth (a conversation between Antonia Layard, Professor of Law and Geography at University of Birmingham and professional story-teller, Martin Maudsley), a discussion thread turned fleetingly to which communities have been served by the fragile regeneration of Balsall Heath, and which have been moved on. By recording on the website the recent conflicted history of sex workers and vigilantes in Balsall Heath in the 1990s, the biennale re-opened the narrative of the area’s development, unsettling the ground by documenting, albeit quietly, the power relations, social behaviours and violence that have divided communities in the neighbourhood. Public art is not a panacea to community cohesion. Public art can be a Pandora’s Box that uncovers difficult pasts and unstable futures.

3. Public space:

The project serves a purpose to invite a re-thinking and re-imagining of shared public space, including ‘confused spaces’ (those which have fallen into neglect as redevelopment processes render unclear who is legally responsibility for maintenance). Indeed, neighbourhood regeneration is embedded into the community engagement strategies of the programme. Each of the components of the biennale are conceptualized to raise people’s pride in the local area, attend to environmental issues of littering and dumping, along with marketing Balsall Heath as a potential tourism destination. In doing so, these site-specific artistic interventions take an area approach that catalyses neighbourhood planning in new ways. As Poolman and Rowe stated, the Balsall Heath is not an art biennale like Venice, but a way of “celebrating, regenerating and drawing attention to the area.”

4. Venues:

Community and private spaces used to stage the programme include: Ort Cafe; Calthorpe Park; Cat Gallery (in the artists’ house at 58 Eastwood Road); Balsall Heath Park; The Hillac (a Somalian restaurant); The Old Printworks; Balsall Heath Church Centre and Balsall Heath Library. In August 2013, I attended the talk on Maddox, Balsall Heath & Surrealism, by Dr Stephen Forcer, Lecturer in French Studies at University of Birmingham, which was held upstairs at The Hillac. While regular clients of the restaurant sat, ate and talked downstairs, the art talk and audience took over a separate function room upstairs mostly used for wedding receptions. The question of how to create truly intercultural spaces with a mingling of communities, rather than amiable co-existence (even within the same building) was presented. Step 1: same building, different rooms; Step 2: same building, same room? Step 3: co-production and cultural exchange?

5. Methods:

Impact is interwoven throughout the components through educational aims and participatory methods. The professional expertise and artistic authority of Poolman and Rowe – central to the status of cultural intermediaries and in the effective delivery of their work – is communicated most evidently by the free Balsall Heath Art School. Artistic integrity is entwined with broader social and regeneration aims, which is partly in response to funders and the community consultation.

6. Funding streams:

The unstable funding environment is reflected in the project’s design. By creating 15 components, each with multiple levels of activities, the Balsall Heath Biennale uses a model that could be scaled down with components removed or adapted if one or more funding streams were rejected. Although, in actuality, it proved highly successful with funders, which included: Arts Council England; Birmingham City Council; Near Neighbours (DCLG); West Midlands Police Force and Community First.

7. Creative autonomy:

i) For the last three decades governments have been attempting to capture the activities of small independent businesses and third sector organisations in order to deliver on the aims of the state (Wolch 1990).  While the rhetoric has been of bringing in external expertise, in practice large sums of public money have come with strings attached, with organisations finding their own mission and operating principles being subsumed into the state agenda.

ii) The Localism Act 2011 (sections 15-20) allows ministers to devolve greater power to local authorities. The Act grants powers to increase local authority and community control over local governance and funding allocations.  Despite a policy drift signalled by national pilots on Neighbourhood Planning and the Community Budgeting pilots, Birmingham City council has not yet demonstrated their commitment to devolving creative economy governance.

8. Stimulating new ideas:

Complex issues of cultural heritage and cultural sensitivity in a diverse city were unlocked through the Decorate Your House or Garden Competition – Surreal Theme (staged as part of the Balsall Heath Biennale 2013).  A resident explained that low engagement with the competition from the Pakistani-Muslim community could be explained, in part, by the association of cash prizes with gambling. To investigate further cultural, religious, linguistic and educational barriers to engagement, and the translation of humour, additional research has been funded by the Communities and Culture Network+ on the Birmingham Surrealist Group. This research led by myself, along with Dr Stephen Forcer, builds upon the platform and networks established by the Balsall Heath Biennale.

9. Measuring success?:

Cultural engagement from the non-white population and young people in Birmingham is significantly below the UK average (-11%) (Big City Culture 2010-15, Birmingham City Council). Moreover, and even more challenging, barriers to gaining employment are indicative of Kate Oakley’s argument that claims for the democratising tendencies and pathways for the socially excluded in the creative sector have been exaggerated:

The concern of many cultural industries advocates with access for marginalised groups – ethnic minorities and women in particular… [is still] reflected in specific interventions, though the ability of those interventions to counter wider market and social forces was limited, to say the least (Oakley 2009: 403-414).

For instance, the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) produced a study in 2007 which showed that the cultural and creative sector has higher educational entry barriers than other sectors: 40% of creative workers have degrees in comparison to 25% in other sectors. Balsall Heath is one of the most educationally deprived areas in the UK (census 2011) which raises serious questions about how realistic it is for cultural programmes on project-by-project funding to deliver on entrenched skills and employment issues. Employment and training measures of success which are often quantitative and quantity driven, and required in much self-evaluation, sits uncomfortably with the skills-sets and delivery focus of most creative practitioners. These are artists. Not social scientists. Or Job-Centre advisers.

10. Is short term project funding and delivery meeting the needs of artists, communities or policy-makers?

The prospective social and cultural value of the Balsall Heath Biennale was widely recognised by funders, yet a resulting question needs to be posed on what kinds of impact was achievable in a finite programme. As Rowe acknowledged the neighbourhood is “multi-cultural not inter-cultural” and it “takes time to build bridges” (Interview with Rowe and Poolman 9/05/2013), for which a two year project is a start rather than conclusion.


Banks, M., Lovatt, A. O’ Connor, J. and Raffo, C. 2000 Risk and trust in the cultural industries, Geoforum 31, 453 – 464.

Big City Culture 2010-15, Birmingham City Council.

Bourdieu, P. Distinction (1979; trans. 1984), Oxon, Routledge.

Hall, T. and Robertson, I. (2001) Public Art and Urban Regeneration: advocacy, claims and critical debates, Landscape Research 26, 5–26.

O’ Connor, J. 2013, “Intermediaries and Imaginaries in the Cultural and Creative Industries”, Regional Studies 13, 1-14.

Oakley K (2009) “The disappearing arts – creativity and innovation after the creative industries”, The International Journal of Cultural Policy. 15, 403-414.

Wolch J. 1990, The shadow state: government and voluntary sector in transition, The Foundation Centre New York.


Dr Saskia Warren is a Cultural Geographer, who works on the intersections of social science and the arts. She has a particular interest in cultural production and consumption, with a specialism in contemporary art practices. Research Fellow at University of Birmingham, she currently works on a cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary project entitled Cultural Intermediation and the creative urban economy. She completed her PhD in Cultural Geography at Sheffield in 2012. Tailoring visual methodologies to case studies at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, her thesis investigated the value of contemporary art in different people’s lives. She graduated from University of Oxford with a BA (Hons) in English Literature and Language (2006), and completed an MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies at Leeds (2008). Before taking her present post, she has worked as a curator, arts consultant and policy-maker, and as Research Assistant, Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, Kingston University (2011-12).

Cultural Intermediation: Connecting Communities in the Creative Urban Economy

This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of its Connected Communities programme and is due to run 2012-2016. The project is cross-sectoral and multi-disciplinary in scope researching governance, community and creative practice in Birmingham and Manchester (led by Dr Phil Jones).

Cultural intermediation is a process which connects different kinds of communities into the creative economy and wider society.  It plays a critical role in raising aspirations, upskilling and building confidence, all of which are vital to allow people to engage with and benefit from one of the most dynamic sectors of the contemporary UK economy.

Individual artists, professional networks, events, festivals, commissioning bodies, creative businesses, arts and cultural organisations both large and small can all play intermediary roles.  Some of the most exciting opportunities for research in this area are occurring in the city regions.  In part this is because of their size and multiplicity of cultural resources, but also because these areas have large concentrations of communities suffering multiple deprivation who are being left behind by the post-industrial creative economy.