Wild Conference: How Slung Low Rewrote The Rules

Over 400 people attended Slung Low’s game-changing Wild Conference at Temple Newsam, Leeds last week. The two day event was billed as ‘a new kind of national arts conference’ and was commissioned by Arts Council England.

Delegates were promised ‘a free-thinking, mind-shifting couple of days. A chance to step out of the regular rhythm of their lives and see things from a fresh perspective.’

It was that indeed.

Photo Credit: Malcolm Johnson

Wild Conference was, in short, the most perfectly fascinating and inspiring conference that I have ever attended. It starts with the fact that Slung Low put authentic diversity at the heart of their thinking and ethos; everything was rooted in proper and equal relationships, not just transactions. A dialogue. True equality.

Delegates decided how much to pay for a ticket and only after they had received further information about speakers and a schedule were people required to commit to making a payment. Interestingly, average admission was somewhere between £60-65 a person. (This included those that paid £0, guests and young people).

To a degree, this was reflected in who was present and represented on the day – in contrast, when I go to a conference I am often surrounded by a cohort of the usual suspects: white, able-bodied, middle class, middle of the road men and women – not here. This was also a result of the assorted speakers with a vast range of disciplines – from sport to farming and academia to activism. Contributors were invited to stimulate discussion and empower delegates to be the changemakers in their own areas of the industry and respective organisations.

 Nicky Miles and Daryl Beeton

Nicky Miles and Daryl Beeton Photo Credit: Malcolm Johnson

This was a wonderful, bonkers, occasionally life-affirming example of the necessity to rebalance the damning contrast between funding for London and the rest of the country. Many of the earnest discussions centred around access, continuing political uncertainty and representation as major concerns, with many artists and practitioners beleaguered by years of cuts to subsidy, and in recent years, brexhaustion. But there was hope in the humanity of proceedings.

All events could be heard anywhere across the site via multi-channel headphones; discussions were recorded and will be available online as an archive.

On day one, theatremakers Nicky Miles and Daryl Beeton both spoke candidly about life beyond Paralympics 2012. We are seeing real progress in the number of non-white artistic directors. For many disabled artists, that kind of shifting landscape moment and the smashing of the UK’s cultural glass ceiling still seems a long way off. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

Miles and Beeton raised concerns that those with disabilities still face extreme prejudice and marginalisation, with many finding it difficult to participate in cultural activities and opportunities.

One of the telling moments of the conference was the debate on day two, RSC Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman warned of the “frightening” decline of access to cultural education in state schools and highlighted the class crisis facing those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. “There is a deep possibly largely unconscious bias in our society that is to do with class which is still a difficult subject for us to talk about,” she said.

Erica Whyman

Erica Whyman Photo Credit: Malcolm Johnson

Whyman went further into the industry structures, probing the madness of May’s Britain and eventually proposing that we tax the independent schools to provide an arts education for young people.

A discussion around the site’s central camp fire followed and many voiced opinions – those who felt unheard, unrepresented and have little or no access to cultural opportunities. It was clear to me that both arts education and disability require a conference of their own.

Interestingly, Arts Council England published a draft 10-year strategy for 2020-2030 last week. Outlining the context for the new strategy, the draft states: “As we look towards 2030, the external shifts and challenges facing not only artists and cultural organisations but the wider world, are daunting.”

Photo Credit: Malcolm Johnson

A greater emphasis on ‘relevance’ in its many forms is reflected in ACE’s draft strategy its National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) from 2020 to 2030.

Darren Henley, Chief Executive of Arts Council England was impressed with “The great bunch of people present – with all sorts of experiences and all sorts of journeys,” he said.

“What is fantastic about what Alan and the Slung Low team have done is that they have created something incredibly simple but very, very effective,” Henley said.

“It just works very well – they have clearly thought very hard about curating the speakers with lots of different insights but then also just the physical layout of the site and the way it brings people together and encourages a conversation.”

How does Wild Conference register in terms of ‘relevance’, though?  “We are an Arts Council for the whole of England and an Arts Council for everybody from every background; so, the people we work with and for. One of the smart things Slung Low have done and one of the things that’s truly exciting here, is asking the question: whose story? whose narrative? whose culture? And it has to be for everybody – whoever they are and wherever they are from.”

Photo Credit: Malcolm Johnson

Slung Low artistic director Alan Lane was satisfied with the way things went. “I think the most satisfying thing is we delivered on the promise of the thing- it looked like we envisaged, David Farley’s design did the business, it ran as smoothly as we would want it too (always nice to have a bit of grit),” Lane said.

“The interesting question now for ACE and the wider industry is if that is how they want to have they collective moments. I was incredibly proud of how hard the team worked, Slung Low gave away as much authority as we could whilst still taking responsibility for the event and the quality that our collaborators brought to the event, especially the curators, was really brilliant to see.”

Alan Lane

Alan Lane Photo Credit: James Phillips

In fact, Slung Low are leading the pack in the subsidised theatre sector by daily interrogating their community and wider civic role as seen at their working men’s club base and Cultural Community College that has taught residents in a deprived area of inner-city Leeds, how to make everything from curries to furniture to administering CPR.

Lane’s impulsive and gleeful leadership and tireless team has helped cement them as the quintessential modern cultural entity.

They are theatre’s present and future and long may they rewrite the rules.