Thursday, 18 December 2014

2014: B Side

Despite this being the flipside of my last post, I’m going to try hard not to make it a series of negatives. Life’s not that simple, is it? Having said that, even my glass half-full tendencies have been challenged a lot this year. As with the A Side, I’m restricting myself to 5 themes. 

I know Climate Change is probably the biggest threat to humankind and the sketch we call civilization. But ask me what I feel about the UK right now, and a bigger distress is the well-documented growing inequality and its effects. Restricting comments to the cultural sphere is counter-intuitive, because the inequalities there are fed by the wider pattern, just as they feed into it. But that’s my focus, and culture is caught up in inequality like a fox in a trap. 

 In The Art of Living Dangerously we raised the issue of who gets to be an artist, and how people of all backgrounds might build sustainable livelihoods in creative work. This also underlies one of the strongest campaigns (and catchiest hashtags) of the year: a-n and air’s #payingartists. Average earnings for artists have always been low – as Hans Abbing has shown, it’s a field where many enter, and the most visible can win BIG, but most do not. This is only getting worse. 

 The pressures on organisations are leading to more use of volunteers in previously paid roles, but oddly enough not at the CEO level. The argument is sometimes that these are ‘entry level’. This has some, small, truth – but wouldn’t the idea of ‘exit level’ voluntary roles (not trusteeships) - be equally compelling for those retiring with a pension? These are equality issues as they narrow the social mix in the workforce even more than ever. 

 Similarly, we can see the ongoing issue of ‘rebalancing’ the distribution of funding across the country as an equality issue, given the widening social and economic divide in the UK geographically as well as hierarchically. Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose is not a quotation, it appears, but core government policy. The effects of this being the de facto policy in the cultural sector would be disastrous. Sadly, in 2014, we have seen no significant progress in ‘rebalancing’, despite further cogent evidence and argument from Messrs Stark, Powell and Gordon in The PLACE Report. ACE’s new NPO represented consolidation more than rebalancing and a number of developments – some not through what others would call transparent process - tended to reinforce the idea that if you’re big and know people who can talk to people you will do better than if you have no assets and no networks. (Not to say those are bad developments as such, just they are unequal developments.) 

To flip it around a little, and thinking of the £78M going to Manchester for the Manchester Factory as an example, I think 2015 will see the continuation of a theme from this year and previous. Long-term ambition will drive major investments against the run of play in times of shrunken state spending. That may be into capital like The Factory or festivals or artist spaces – ambition of scale and depth ideally, rather than of grandiosity. I’ve my doubts whether another big thing in Manchester is the best use of £74M, and don’t think I want a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ to be so centred on any one place. But it is a recognition of the long-term commitment to culture in Manchester – from the Anthony Wilson days of course, but also of the City Council leaders, and the people working in culture in the city – at all levels, and the quality of the work done. They have developed and maintained a narrative for a long-time – not simply from MIF to MIF. That gets them invited to tables to talk. That has been a collective effort – or so it seems from my visits – but the same is true at individual organisation level.  

I’m pleased to see a Case for Culture being developed again in North East England, and hope it will galvanise the kind of collaboration and investment the Northern Arts-led Case for Capital did in the 1990s. It has the advantage of being informed by all the learning from those capital developments, so can learn all the available lessons about cost, involvement of local audiences and so on. (This talk of ‘ambition’ might sound dangerously ‘entrepreneurial’. I see no reason ambition cant be collective and socially constructive – we don’t all have to be ambitious for just what George Osbourne wants.)

If there’s an NPO that’s not been encouraged to work with a university partner I’ll be very surprised. Many are of course already doing so, some brilliantly, and this is A Good Thing. As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve spent a lot of time and effort this year helping move a local authority gallery into a university and I wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t think it was the best thing to do. There are many great partnerships between Universities and cultural organisations, focused around research, archives, collections, community engagement, artist development and more. (HEIs have a lot in them.) 

What working with HEIs is not, however, is a Get Out of Jail Free Card if your local authority cuts its funding. HEIs are – in my experience – peculiar organisms. (That is not a spellcheck mistake for organisations. I mean organisms.) They have deep reservoirs of expertise and knowledge. They play a key role in cultural life of many people, not least students. They have the potential to be huge drivers of social and civic change – and to assist with social mobility and inequality. 

 They are also hierarchical and complex to navigate, and as it has been suggested to me, by someone in an HEI, driven to own everything they come into contact with. They are also alleged to be reluctant to get their big cheque books out and a bit on the fickle side. So as the local authority leg of the arts funding stool finds itself being sawn down by this Coalition government, and the philanthropists in some places are mysteriously absent with the folded up napkin/telephone books to fill the gap, no one should see HEIs as a panacea. Partnerships need to be appropriate, well-worked through and developed slowly over time. 

 Also: no offence, like, but I’m probably sticking to autodidactism until I’m the only cultural worker left without a PhD. 

One of the effects of inequality in the arts has been a lack of diversity, an inability to make the whole of our cultural activity look and feel like the whole of our society. There have been many attempts to tackle this, of course. But few have made the kind of paradigm shift desired. The issues of class, gender, ethnicity, disability et al remain hard to resolve for a sector that ought to be leading the way at a time when the likes of UKIP are promoting values counter to a diverse, creative society. 

 So I welcome ACE’s recent renewal of its approach to diversity, which I see as combining attention to numbers and proportions with the ‘creative case’ in a potentially powerful way. I’ve grown weary of interjecting in meetings to point out that too many of us are broadly the same type of white male when it comes to our notions of ‘culture’. It’s not easy broadening that out, mind, given the quality of the people there, and the need to avoid simply slipping from one set of usual suspects to another. But the result of not making a shift, no matter how awkward, is likely to be a kind of status quo, even staleness, not to mention the moral or inequality dimensions. 

 So whilst I’ll continue to think it’s a missed opportunity that the North East Cultural Partnership board is 24 good people who just happen to all be white, and I’ll argue for diversification of organisations I’m involved in, we should also expect ACE to diversify or rebalance its own staff, board and grant-giving. Looking at the National and Area Councils, none seem as reflective of they could be of the diversity of the population. 2015 should see some SMART targets being adopted by ACE about grant-giving looked at via geography, gender, disability and ethnicity as well as workforce and types of work. (They are keen for everyone else to have SMART targets, after all….)

 The Mysterious Case for/of Cultural Value 
There are lots of overlapping attempts at coming up with a defining statement of ‘cultural value’ that might feel true and convincing to government (national and local), artists, the cultural sector, academia, partners such as public health and economic development, and even, potentially, that mythical beast, ‘the taxpayer’. The search for understanding, definitions, evidence and arguments is involved in different ways in the AHRC’s Cultural Value Project, projects such as Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Artsworks, and, of course, the research and advocacy work of ACE. 

 Some attempts, such as ACE’s ‘journal’ CREATE, based on their ‘holistic case’, have felt overly-defensive, whilst also avoiding the issues of distribution of funding. Sometimes the more that’s said, the more debatable it all seems, the vaguer it gets, and the harder it gets to actually evidence in ways which convince those multiple audiences. (I, for instance, get prickly when lectured about creative education by a public school head teacher. I am not interested in creative education because it gives state schools kids elements of public school education. I’d rather see creative education helping public schools produce more rounded politicians and bankers than we see, and state schools produce brilliant people of all kinds, putting the A in STEAM.) 

 For me, the strongest thinking I’ve seen recently in this direction was the paper ‘Raising our quality of life: The importance of investment in arts and culture’ by Dr Abigail Gilmore, of CLASS, the Centre for Labour and Social Studies and the Everyday Participation project. This combines an approach that emphasises ‘the importance of arts to the quality of everyday life’ whilst also arguing for a cultural policy based on local responsiveness, equitable distribution, democratised and publically planned involvement in culture. Gilmore also argues for policies and funding behaviour that develops resources for ‘everyday participation’ and greater ability at community level for people to develop culture, especially opportunities to participate. I see many connections to the kind of ideas in the MMM/nef/Exchange paper with which 2014 began for me, The Art of Living Dangerously.

 Those were just a few things I see looking back on 2014. I could have written about other things, from the Select Committee into ACE to the prog-rock tendencies of street arts, but these last two blags are a 10-track album in my head, not blooming ‘Sandanista!’ 

 Of course, 2015 is the year when we get the chance to change all of this again. I am talking about the government, of course, but I’m also talking about us. See you there.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

2014: A side

It’s been a while. My time as Interim Director at mima was a hectic one, as I also maintained my Thinking Practice clients, took on some more, and got involved in events such as Artworks North East’s conference on participatory arts. Hell, I even said no to a few things.

 Often I blog more the busier I am – just I have more ideas for creative work– but not this time. I’ve reflected since a post-mima holiday on whether blogging still has a function. (I sometimes hear blogging referred to as something akin to having a myspace page...) I think it may do – for me at least – as a space to reflect, gather, remember, put thinking for future use, let people know about things.

 I have, though, rather got out of the rhythm of it due to concentrating energies elsewhere. I thought I’d do a couple in the run up to Xmas and see how it goes. I’ll also be listening out. If all I hear is the void talking back I'll be very mindful of that. I have been encouraged to get back to it by bumping into a couple of subscribers who told me they’d missed my emails. They may just have been being kind, but if you’d like to join them, do sign up to the email version.

 So, before Xmas I thought I'd reflect on a few themes of 2014. I start through a personal lens. (The B-side of this blog, tomorrow, will consider broader themes of culture in 2014. It’s not all about me.)

It would be wrong not to start with that 7 month-stint as Interim Director at mima. Someone recently told me the interim role involved ‘holding a mop in one hand and a machete in the other’. This was not quite my experience at mima, although I did find myself washing windows and putting up acetate as we readied the new jewellery gallery for opening. Despite a big change process as mima transferred from the council to Teesside University, neither was it time for the machete. The Swiss Army Knife perhaps, but not the machete.

 I won’t rerun the experience now, or all my learning from it. I will say, though, that the mima team reinforced for me the absolute importance for adaptive resilience of shared purpose, cherished by the people upon whom the today and tomorrow of an organisation rely. When other things fray or change – revenue funding, networks, staffing, ownership of assets etc – this is the difference between future and fracture. But we should never underestimate the effort and stress required.

 I worried that an Interim Director role might leave me wanting to get back to ‘a proper big job’ after almost 5 years of Thinking Practice. I’m glad to say it didn’t, and that neither did it make me think I’ve developed so many weird habits, or lost so many skills, I was now unfit for such a position. (That’s not a pitch, by the way.)

One of my favourite Thinking Practices is interviewing people – in relation to research, evaluations and so on. I also enjoy getting involved in recruitment interviews; something I’d done mainly via my board memberships in recent years. But 2014 has brought several fascinating recruitment assignments. These ranged from assisting in selections to helping design job descriptions, target candidates and interview at mima to managing the whole process of finding a successor for Susan Jones at the head of a-n.

I was pleased to help get outstanding people in place in those roles. There are lots of generic recruiters around, of course, with more ‘substance’ than Thinking Practice in recruitment. But I can draw on expertise and work with you to design processes that help get the best person. So I’d be very happy to do more of this kind of work in 2015. (That was a bit of a pitch, fair cop.)

 Critical Friendship
The ‘Creative People & Places’ schemes across England (CPPs for short) were encouraged, maybe even obliged, to find people to be their ‘Critical Friends’. Critical Friends draw on the skills of coaching and mentoring, but also share frameworks and expertise. I’ve had a really good time the last 18 months or so being the Critical Friend for Bait, the CPP for South East Northumberland. It’s been a good way of developing the coaching approach I’ve trained in and use throughout my work. The folk involved – the staff team and the consortium board – are good people and the work they do is complex and important. I’ve learnt a lot myself, trying to be useful in thinking through what the ambitions of the programme and how it could evidence change.

 What’s been helpful is that this is a long-term relationship, working with leadership, team and board over a period of years, just 2-3 days per quarter. It provides external challenge and facilitation, but with less of the jerky-stop-start some consulting relationships can have. (For all parties.) We can build a continuity of conversation over a period of time, moving from individual to team work in a coherent process.

 I have a hunch this model, maybe at 3 or 4 days a year, could usefully be adapted to other organisational situations: capital development, change processes or artistic development. If any organisations in the UK were interested in developing a Critical Friend relationship in 2015 I’d be keen to trial some different packages. (Ok, that’s the last pitch, honest.)

2014 was a good year for my creative writing. New Writing North selected How I Learned to Sing for their Read Regional library promotion, which meant gigs in libraries across Yorkshire and the North East. After one, I was asked to accompany a member of the audience to the cashpoint so urgently did they want to buy the book. To the passer-by it probably looked more like a drug deal than literary culture, but hey ho. At another, in Hull, I met a subscriber to Scratch, the poetry magazine I edited in the 90s, who had brought his copies. Reviews also continued to trickle in. One phrase – ‘one of the finest contemporary love poems’ – is now regularly quoted in our house. You can read more over here, should you be interested.

 Also on the poetry side of things, I was happy to help out a bit on the committee that put together the first T-Junction Teesside International Poetry Festival. It brought writers from all over the world to Middlesbrough in October. It was great, even if we sadly had to Skype John Berger in. I was also commissioned a couple of times. I wrote a poem that will be used on Stockton High Street next year. I mixed poetry and prose for the Tyneside Cinema, after being their ‘conference poet’ at an event about young people and specialized film. The resulting book – ‘6 Degrees of Connection: Towards the Absolute Alrightness of the Kids’ – contained poetry and practical tips on engaging and enabling young people. It also had pages designed like intertitles that gave me a possibly disproportionate pleasure.

 2014 also contained a lot of writing/publishing of other sorts. There were co-written papers, evaluation reports, business plans and some long articles such as The F Word for Native, the journal of the Digital R&D Fund. Have a look at the publications page on the website for more details. Lord help me, but I even found myself writing an Grants for the arts interim report for the Swallows Foundation UK (which I chair), when there was no one else available to do it. I enjoy research – talking to super-engaged artists or leaders, librarians or curators – but I also love finding and ordering the words. And then, maybe most of all, I enjoy editing them. A useful find this year that helps with this has been the Hemingway app. I recommend it. (This blog was much longer to start with, believe it or not.)

 Beyond ‘the arts’
2014 has seen a surge of attention from the museums sector to my writing on adaptive resilience. It’s been interesting thinking about how the characteristics of organisations that tend to be adaptive and resilient might vary in the museums sector. The nature of the assets and networks, for instance, is very different. Often small ‘organisations’ have major archives and collection material or a heritage site to care for – and use. The networks of volunteers and supporters also seem to be a different kind of resource than in most arts organisations. Whether size is asset or liability also feels a different question than it often is for arts organisations.

 I’ve enjoyed invitations to think about these issues in seminars with museums leaders and at a recent Museums Association conference. I’m interested that museums seem to be putting more emphasis on the personal resilience of leaders than the arts did, at least at first. This connection is one I've thought about more and more and something I want to explore more in 2015. (Not least for my own resilience.)

 I've also been pleased to get back to some work with libraries, including evaluating the Digital War Memorial project. I was never convinced 'the arts' benefited from being separate from other bits of culture, or heritage from arts, and have argued that case for many years.

 So much more I could have said, but that’s (more than) enough. Thanks to all the clients and collaborators who’ve given me these experiences. Thanks to the fantastic people in the organisations I'm a trustee of, where I'm also always learning. (Swallows Foundation UK, AV Festival and Seven Stories.) It’s really been a great year, which I guess is why it feels as if it’s lasted approximately 12 minutes. Not always easy, full of challenges and frustrations and some anger at the society some are intent on creating/maintaining, but a year full of opportunities to work against the narrow, the bitter, the selfish, the unfair and for a more shared and equal culture.

Editing this, I'm struck how often I’ve used the word enjoyed. This may not be the case in the next set of things I write about. For that I feel both lucky and grateful.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The fairest creature

 A while ago I wrote something I tried to use a favourite Gramsci quote in, but the revision process made me take it out. So I tried to use it in something else, but it still wasn't the right place. I copied it onto an electronic post it, just in case it came in useful for other than reminding myself what I'm doing when I write and try and help make a culture. I thought I might use it in a blog, but never seemed the right moment… until now.

Tom Shakespeare, who was my chair when I was at Arts Council England, North East, has just made a Radio 4 'Great Lives' programme about Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist and writer who I think about as one of the best left writers on culture. You can listen to Tom not quite persuading former Tory MP Matthew Parris here. You can also read a short biog on Tom's excellent site our statures touch the skies, which features his short biographies of notable disabled people.

 Anyway, here's the quote, which when I read it made me think, yes, that's one of the closest things I've read to how I think and feel about culture.

  Culture is about ‘organisation, discipline of one’s inner self, a coming to terms with one’s own personality; it is the attainment of a higher awareness, with the aid of which one succeeds in understanding one’s own historical value, one’s own function in life, one’s own rights and obligations’.

 Maybe it's me, but 'coming to terms with one's own personality' feels far closer than some other 'intrinsic' descriptions for what reading and writing have helped me to do.

 Anyway, at least now I can take down that post-it! (The Scritti Politti song above was my first introduction to Gramsci, to whom their name was a homage, and his key idea, hegemony. Oh the days when listening to John Peel and reading the NME was an intellectual education...)

Monday, 11 August 2014

Audiences and what they value

 New in the publications part of this site is a paper I’ve been involved with writing, with Dr Joshua Edelman and Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London and Dr Maja Sorli, and with the collaboration of Natalie Querol at The Empty Space. The Value of theatre and dance for Tyneside’s audiences is based on a 6 month research project which looked at what around 1800 people thought, felt and experienced at some theatre and dance performances at various Tyneside venues in 2014. It was one of a number of projects supported by the Arts & Humanities Research Council as part of its Cultural Value Project.

 We were especially interested in whether there were differences in what people felt they experienced in subsidized, commercial and amateur performances, and to what extent some of the truisms of the ‘arts sector’ held water when viewed through audience experiences. (Such as the notion that the commercial sector feeds in innovation and excellence, or that audiences need to be ‘developed’ to move between sub-sectors.)

 The paper – the first of a number, and based on first research into the data - has 6 main initial findings, although the extended discussion of the data is also interesting and hopefully useful. These are, in summary:
• Most theatregoers get roughly the same kinds of things from their experiences, be it in the subsidized, commercial or amateur sector
• Subject matter is key in attracting audience members, alongside perceptions of quality
• There are, however, differences between ‘comforting’ performances and ‘challenging’ ones, which relate to differences between commercial and subsidized sectors, but not simplistically so
• Audiences generally attend in pairs – although amateur theatre attracts larger groups. People go on their own to subsidized theatre more often than other types.
• Value matters more than price. (One truism supported, then.)
• Audiences are open-minded and loyalty to some venues seems to translate into frequent attendance elsewhere too. (One truism challenged, and one in the eye for Bourdieu perhaps.)

 Josj, Maja and I spoke about the first findings at an Open Space event led by Natalie at Dance City last month, which then fed into the draft of this paper. The most striking thing about this event for me was the rare and energizing effect of having people active, experienced and skilled in amateur, commercial and subsidized theatre sectors together. (Acknowledging the artificiality of that construct, of course, especially as some venues, arts centres particularly, are working across or with all three. As ‘business models’ hybridize this is likely to be increasingly the case.) To add to that, we also had some of the audience members who had been part of the research there. That seemed like a really healthy thing, something I’d like to be part of more.

 The voice of the audience is heard very directly in one email we were all very fond of, from someone who had taken their husband to see Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, and then, a few days later, gone of one of last season’s more unfortunate Newcastle United games. She concludes:

‘At the end Andrew turned to me and said how for a similar amount of money we had watched a whole company of such talented dancers, as well as the inspiring visual scenery, yet that day we had watched such overpaid footballers putting in a lack of effort. He questioned why we rarely go to the theatre, yet unthinkingly go to the football every other week. Straight from the match he marched me down to the theatre to buy more tickets. We ended up joining as friends of the theatre and bought a fortunes worth of tickets for throughout the year, starting with Pygmalion the following week.’

 And with that I wish you an interesting read and a Happy New Football Season.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Work and writings

Thinking Practice work in most if not all its usual variety has continued in recent months, alongside the major commitment/opportunity of being Interim Director at mima, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. This has ranged from some great facilitation and coaching gigs, talking adaptive resilience in a museums context, helping launch CidaCo's Developing Cultural Resilience programme in Birmingham and London with two keynotes and a thousand conversations, continuing to be Critical Friend to Bait, the CPP for South East Northumberland, evaluating Northern Stage's NORTH programme (progenitor of the marvellous The Letter Room and Camisado Club) a series of really enjoyable poetry readings in libraries across the North East and Yorkshire for Read Regional. And less sleep than usual.

I've also continued to write the odd thing for people who ask nicely, so thought I'd point them out here. Middlesbrough Reading Campaign, a Literacy Trust campaign, made the writing connection when I was appointed at mima, and I wrote this blog welcoming their work. I first came to Middlesbrough to be a Literature Development Worker, so was pleased to do it.

More substantially, Native, the journal of the Digital R&D Fund has just published an article they commissioned on the subject of Failure: The F Word. I spoke to some people who are really successful at failure, and read and thought a lot more about it than I had before. I found that it can be as much a fetish as a taboo, and conclude - in the piece you should read on Native's own site, if not in the handsome hard copy journal, hence my not reproducing it here - that 'We need to be less romantic and more measured, so that we can take failure seriously.' We need to focus on the C word as well as the F word. (Change.) 

Anyway, there are some interesting perspectives from Digital R&D Fund projects and funders alike. One interesting thing I learnt was that research shows we may learn more from success - but only if we concentrate on what didn't work well within that success. 

(The piece had a good review on Twitter from Chris Unitt: 'Good lord, a piece about failure that doesn't insult your intelligence. A rare thing indeed.' That'll do me.)

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Small increments

I was asked by a-n to write a post-match summary of the NPO announcements last week. Here's what I said. I did spend most of my time looking at visual arts, given the platform, but think the analysis applies across art forms. (Thought I would add that the Literature portfolio has some particularly disjointed thinking in it, again.) It looks nicer on a-n's snazzy new website, which you should visit. 

Arts Council England’s new National Portfolio has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as the first portfolio created by open application in 2011. It is a portfolio made in the context of declining income from government funds, aimed at stability for the arts rather than major system-wide change. To keep the NPO budget almost level, ACE is using £70million of lottery funding. Whilst this might be said to erode the additionality principle, even with the argument made that lottery is supporting those working with young people and touring, it does seem to me a broadly sensible thing to do. (And certainly the clear steer from DCMS seems to have been ‘money is money, and we’ve sorted the lottery so the arts get more than under Labour, so just get on with it.’)
In shaping a relatively stable group of 670 organisations, ACE has responded to the highly pressurized situations organisations find themselves in, particularly as a result of reductions in local authority funding in many places. It could be argued that this is staving off future changes as local authority investment disappears in the future, which many predict. But a year out from a hard-to-call general election the strategy is clearly to support the infrastructure more or less as is, with some tweaks. 75% of incumbents received standstill, but it must be remembered this equates to real terms cuts in future years, essentially building in year-on-year ‘efficiencies’, savings and reductions in activity.
Adaptive resilience
That said, there are some changes, and some are as debatable as always, some highly so. It is good news to see that artist-led organisations like Castlefield Gallery, who lost regular funding in 2011, have been brought back into the fold, as well as some new organisations. This is positive for them, but also good in illustrating that the portfolio will respond to performance. There are others I am aware of who did not manage to get back in, or to get in for the first time, despite achieving much in the last three years. To say it was ever thus is not to diminish the lost opportunities.
What this suggests for the long-term is not so much a failing of Arts Council nerve, but a firming up of the purpose of the National Portfolio within ACE’s investment mechanisms. Perhaps it’s not reasonable to expect ACE to give infrastructure funding to things that by their very nature are not (yet) part of that semi-permanent infrastructure? (I am one of those who do actually think we benefit from that kind of infrastructure, in terms of long-term thinking, community use and artistic development.) In talking about adaptive resilience I increasingly ask people to what extent they see themselves as the disturbance in the system, rather than part of the stability. There are, I think, artist-led organisations of both sorts, not all of whom sit equally comfortably with NPO funding. The balance therefore needs further debate next time round, in new political circumstances.
This leads me to return to the narrowness of the range of investment mechanisms ACE uses. For all the different ‘strategic fund’ pots, and an increase in Grants for the arts, ACE has still declined to devise significant loan schemes to encourage new ways of working, or ways of investing in artist-led activity which do not lead to grant-dependence becoming a sign of success. A large new NPO in dance, New Adventures, was at one point seen as heralding new, less dependent arts business models. That it now it requires £1.3million from the NPO pot is, apparently, good news. The same point, on a smaller scale, could be made about some in the visual arts.
The continued paucity of organisations that are artist-led or -focused, or which are BME or disabled-led or focused remains problematic. There are signs that Grants for the arts can support the development of organisations like Castlefield or Side who have in some ways, and with no doubt massive personal effort from staff and boards, done great work in the last three years. Sometimes ‘disturbance’ organisations evolve into being relied on by others, and ACE need to develop clearer pathways to regular funding for this kind of organisation.
Failure to re-balance
As an aside, it appears that there is more churn in London than elsewhere, where numbers remained fairly static but with a deal of change in levels. This perhaps suggests that outside the capital there has been a stability-driven consolidation of funding into fewer organisations, reasonable, but at the cost of some diversity. The North now has 10% fewer NPOs, and just 2% more of the total funding.  Repeating the pattern of 2011, rural areas seem to be hit harder than the core cities.
There is no significant ‘rebalancing’ of the portfolio either geographically, in terms of diversity or by artform. The cut to ENO (more than compensated by the lesser-spotted ‘transitional award’) appears largely distributed to opera elsewhere, rather than to visual arts or other art forms. The geographical redistribution is modest at best given the supposed priority given to this issue by Peter Bazelgette – it is no different in percentage terms from the first NPO round, under Liz Forgan. Much of the change to the London/Regions split, it seems, can in fact be attributed to a small number of uplifts such as Opera North.
Shifts appear to be within the large scale, then, rather than towards a greater diversity of organisations of different types and scales. It is difficult to mine the stats, as comparisons are not easy using the information provided, but it is hard to see that small to medium sized organisation have benefitted much from the 2% reduction in London’s share. The debates continue, but at this rate the judgement in two years that ‘Baz’ invited in response to ‘Reblancing Our Cultural Capital’ look rather obvious already. Progress by more than small increments is needed at some point. The question now seems to be when.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Make Your Own Damn Art World

In my days at the Arts Council I would occasionally find myself in front of a conference room full of skeptical faces not so silently communicating an articulate WTF to the priorities I was passionately setting out. One such event has stuck in my head as somehow emblematic and I’ve been reminded of it in the last week.

The exact date eludes me, 2009 I suspect from evidence I’ll mention later. I was talking about the need to extend the reach of arts audiences beyond the better educated, higher earning people who are statistically more likely to attend or take part in the arts. I don’t recall using the word, but underlying the need to change this, for me, was inequality and its damaging effects, something which has got much worse in the years since then.

 For me the problem with the low levels of participation in the North East – in the arts as defined by funders it must be noted – was not one of simply efficacy. Few people were suffering from tiny audiences, although some could see future demographic challenges. Nor was it to do with the argument that public involvement leads to support for public funding of the arts, although that was important, and backed up by ACE’s public value enquiry. Primarily it was a cultural one: the narrower the audience, the narrower the people involved in making culture, the smaller the scope, imagination, range and value of that culture.

 Much of the reaction was predictable and understandable even, from a certain perspective. Did ACE want organisations with concert halls full of ticket-buyers to turn people away because they drove cars that were too nice and replace them with paid-for poor people? Wasn’t the art more important than ticking audience development boxes about ethnicity or disability? Doesn’t it all come back to quality? Why were we never satisfied? (I may have imagined that last one.)

 The moment I often think back to, and can never remember quite what I said, is when an experienced local authority officer said, exasperated. ‘Well, if there is a change of government soon at least we’ll be able to stop doing social work and get on with just doing art.’ I often wonder what he thinks of what he carelessly wished for. I've not got any less opposed to the underlying attitude.

 I was reminded of this because the debate about cultural access seems to have been revived by speeches from both Tory and Labour culture leads. Sajid Javid’s rather impressive speech should make some of the sneering at his appointment clear for what it was: an insular reaction to an outsider. I like that he is clear about what he thinks isn’t acceptable, be it the ethnic balance of funding or the regional spread. I was less keen when he felt obliged to stick up for his team mate Mr Gove, even though the kneejerkery Goves inspires is almost enough to make me want to stick up for him, but his main points were both human and real. I'll even forgive the Thatcher portrait material as I embrace diversity in all its forms.

 Similarly Harriet Harman’s speech is clear and its substance to be welcomed, I think. It’s a bit of a shame she strays into ad hominem attacks (or ad colosseum, if that weren't the wrong opera company) and doesn’t talk enough about the work many organisations are doing to change the culture of the arts. 

What struck me, particularly about Javid’s speech, was that he was grappling with nettles arts leaders need to be more vocal about. The sector’s response to Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital has, on the whole been rather timid, for instance, as were some responses to the Select Committee. I don’t mean I would have liked more aggression towards government or ACE. I mean I would have liked a braver set of responses than I’ve seen, a greater willingness to move beyond acknowledging the difficulties and emphasing quality, a greater volunteering to work through, together, what needs to be changed and redistributed. A greater reconciliation to and then creative working with the awkward facts of the maths and the public.

 This feeling has been confirmed by some of the reaction to Harman’s speech. Of course it’s true that lots of people are doing great inclusive work, working hard to open doors and keep them open. And that you can’t force people to come to an arts event, or work in the arts, if they don’t want to. And that football season tickets are expensive. And that your dad’s a binman but you still go to the opera.

 But one paradigm I particularly dislike is summarised in one response I saw on twitter: ‘Something is wrong with the public's cultural perception, not the arts orgs.’ This attitude always reminds me of Brecht’s poem ‘The Solution’. This public isn’t good enough, get me another…

 I have a fundamentally different take, as I hope has been clear here. Now the politicians have had a go, I’d like to hear more people debating these issues, from the same unequivocal starting point: the status quo is not good enough.

 The image above is a postcard by Bob & Roberta Smith I have on the side of a bookcase in my office.)