Thursday, 26 November 2015

Poking a gift horse

You can read a few of my thoughts on the Spending review announcements over on a-n news, should you wish. Exec summary: really well done and thank you Arts Council and others, but let's treat Osborne's warm words with caution and not forget the impact of other parts of the budget. I don't explicitly say it, but I think it's probably impossible to have a genuinely healthy arts and cultural sector (in the broadest sense of that word healthy) in an increasingly inequitable society, which is what the other parts of the settlement will contribute to.

Indeed, some might argue the arts element of funding contributes to that inequity, especially in light of reports confirming the way people from middle class backgrounds dominate the arts. (Lots to say on that, no time.) I know many, many of the people and organisations that will benefit from the decent 'result' work to create opportunity, far more than the cynics believe, so I'm glad about that element of Osborne's slight of hand at least.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Dialogue and Affection

There were a couple of thoughts about dialogue I had hoped to squeeze into the post introducing the Creative Case NORTH review. They are from the section in the full report talking about the CCN process as perhaps most powerful when generating dialogue. They also failed to make the cut in the Executive Summary but felt worth highlighting here. 

They discuss writers on dialogue I had not come across until looking for relevant frameworks to test CCN against. You may know all about them, of course, but given the frequency with which creating the right conditions for productive dialogue comes up as a challenge, I thought I’d share. I’ve reformatted slightly to create clearer lists, but otherwise just copied from longer report. They may be useful checklists next time you are trying to engage in productive dialogue. (They'll probably be less useful if you're just trying to assert how right you are...) 

I will just pause to suggest it would be helpful to generate more of number 5 in Burbules’ list and less of its sarcy-snarky mirror image, manifest often through such symptoms as auto-text ‘critique’, impatience, stereotyping and suspicion.

The physicist David Bohm, in his writing on dialogue, suggests its purpose is ‘to reveal the incoherence in our thought’ in order to discover or re-establish a ‘genuine and creative collective consciousness’ [Bohm, D (1997) On dialogue edited by Lee Nichol, London: Routledge]. This seems to be the aspiration many of those involved in Creative Case NORTH have tacitly agreed upon, and have attempted to create the conditions for. Creative Case NORTH certainly appears to attempt to meet Bohm’s three suggest basic conditions for genuine dialogue:
1. The suspension of traditional assumptions
2. The acknowledgement of others as peers
3. Facilitation to create safe spaces in the early stages of dialogue.

Another writer on dialogue, Burbules [Burbules, N. (1993) Dialogue in Teaching. Theory and practice, New York: Teachers College Press] suggests there are 6 things necessary to successful dialogic conversation. These are
1. Concern for others
2. Trust
3. Respect
4. Appreciation
5. Affection
6. Hope.

 These are all reflected as present in the positive comments about Creative Case NORTH and its conversations, and, to some degree, seen as missing by those commenting more negatively.

Friday, 6 November 2015

From the why to the how: show not tell

Earlier this year I was commissioned by the Creative Case NORTH consortium, led by theatre company Zendeh, to carry out a meta-evaluation/data review of material arising from 3 year’s worth of work. Having had some involvement in the first year’s sessions in the North East I was really pleased to do so. (It has proved complementary to much other work this year, such as a major report for Arts Council England on children, young people and diversity and equality I worked on with the EW Group.)

My approach to the job involved interviews with people, an online survey, and a textual analysis of the data (reports, evaluations, transcripts and even poems) generated by the work. I remember saying at the interview I was especially keen to do this last element, given the thorniness of issues around the language of diversity. Half-way through about 180,000 words I was less sure of the wisdom of my approach, but it was worth it in the end.

 The Executive Summary can now be shared, and can be found here in the publications part of this site. The full report, which is has a lot more detail and discussion in it is well worth reading if I say so myself, is available on request from Creative Case NORTH by emailing

 CCN has begun to create change through a process in which dialogue leads to discovery through shared experiments such as residencies and projects. These can lead to new work, which when reflected upon can lead to new understandings and new ways of working. That makes it sound easy and linear, albeit perhaps a line that forms a circle. Despite the programme showing it is far from easy and linear, this approach has had some success, although for many the pace the pace needs to be quicker. Many are yet to feel the impact or the imperative.

 The report makes some recommendations for the next phase, which I understand is now being developed with support from Arts Council England. Key amongst these is making sure the language of the Creative Case is clear and powerful, and the stories of its benefits told well, so the work can reach more people and create deeper change in organisations. As John Dyer said at the recent ‘No Boundaries’ conference, it is time to move from the why of diversity to the how: to show not tell. One respondent to the survey wanted ‘bigger bolder braver!’ This means being practical as well as aspirational.

 For it is in practice as well at the level of cultural definitions or aesthetics that many are left out, not reflected in our culture, not helped to make their work, not employed, not heard or seen on an equal basis. (Susan Jones, writing for the Guardian, recently quoted a line of mine about 'even white men of a certain age' being bored with hearing from white men of a certain age, which was nice, though did make me reflect it might have sounded as if I thought my boredom was a terribly pressing problem. Just to be clear: the boredom of white men of a certain age is the not the big issue here, far from it...)

 One of the interesting things of reading transcripts from events held over a thee-year period was hearing how the conversations changed. (The full report includes ‘word clouds’ illustrating this.) It was noticeable how the events held this year, before the general election, contained huge threads of fear and anxiety about the effects of political and social change on people of all sorts. Negative political and social change appears to be ‘front of mind’ for many people working to advance the Creative Case in the North, far beyond simply the effects of cuts to arts funding.

 There may be some – those mainstream leaders described as asking ‘are we still talking about this?’ perhaps – who see this as an excuse to hunker down in the comfort zone with their core audiences, citing pressure of income targets, the difficulty of reaching different audiences or artists, and so on. I might argue that the social (and charitable in many cases) functions or positions of most funded organisations, as well as a growing body of business thinking, suggest the opposite would be a better response.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

'Too small to succeed': continents and archipelagos

Last week a-n sent me to Manchester to write something about the No Boundaries conference. It was a really interesting couple of days and you can read my immediate thoughts over on the a-n website. As I say at the end of the a-n article, there was a lot more I could have said.

 I had to cut, for instance, the quote from the brilliant Jackie Kay, ‘Isn’t it great to be simultaneous?’, moving from the practicalities of an online, multi-venue event to a metaphor about the multiple selves of artists and young people.

 I also skipped a discussion of the implications of a stimulating presentation by John Knell, which you can read here. He argued – as he has been doing for a long time – for a whole ecology-based approach to investment, with funders working together more collaboratively and strategically, something I have also advocated. Regardless of whether one approves of the ‘ecology’ metaphor, it seems perverse for funders, especially public ones, to take decisions on an individual case by case basis, or to purport to.

 The more controversial part of John’s presentation was the suggestion that them that’s got should get even more as they have the capacity to make better use of it. He argued that even the biggest organisations were often not ‘too big to fail’, but ‘too small to succeed’. By succeed he seems to mean compete for audiences and attention in the winner takes all markets digital has created. Only by ‘aggregating’ could culture really expand beyond its super-served core audience.

 Although he didn’t use these terms, an image popped into my head to sum up John’s argument about what might be most ‘productive’: more continents, fewer archipelagos. Some people hate the natural world metaphor of ecology applied to the arts, so perhaps it’s a good job he didn’t use that image. His argument seemed to be that culture might reach more people, do more new things, if aggregated into or under the wing of larger brands more able to compete. A comparison from the commercial arts might, perhaps, be the boutique independent record label that sits within a multinational company for services including distribution.

 It would have been useful if John had been able to expand on exactly what he means by ‘platform organisation’. He – and Maria Balshaw – got a bit of stick for allegedly arguing for more big building projects but I don’t think that was quite what either was arguing for.

 There was too much blitheness around the potential side effects of aggregation, and around how government will choose about major investments, but I did not sense a tight prescription over the culture to be made. However, just because you’ve got a good, rooted idea, doesn’t mean you’re not being used for political convenience. (Nor that you necessarily are, of course.) It’s easy to call for people to not be afraid of big ideas that threaten ‘our patch’ if your patch is expanding, perhaps. (Although the now familiar cautions about ‘simplistic rebalancing’ damaging the commanding heights of culture suggest that some big ideas are less welcome on certain patches than others.) And who wants to be against ‘courage’? But even if – or perhaps it should be especially if - the overall effect has been beneficial, we should not gloss over the costs of change.

 As is pointed out in this interesting response from the intriguing 'hawks in the wings', competing on those terms is something of a fool’s game, even for the largest publically supported organisations. Exploring how ‘capacity’ can be used by more people, especially those at the smaller scale, might be more interesting. (This is something some medium-large organisations are arguably already doing.) 

The idea of ‘funding fewer, better' has some 'strategic' attraction,  especially to funders who hate being thought of as salami-slicing, but this is something ACE and others should be wary of applying simplistically. Without a diversity of organisations and audiences to connect to, of spaces and places for gathering and making culture together to link to, and ways for individual artists to develop and work with, it is hard to see how ‘aggregation’ would avoid becoming distant and controlling. That's the biggest creative challenge for the aggregation argument to respond to, rather than a simplistic economic or quasi-economic debate about return on investment.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Where Do I Go From Here?

Those regular readers who clicked through to the refugee-related blog I put over on How I Learned to Sing to protect the poeliacs* amongst you will have noticed the blog included extracts from an essay I wrote in 2001 for the publication accompany artist Geoff Broadway's piece Where Do I Go From Here? This work was based on Geoff's spell as Artist-in-Residence at Durham Cathedral, and connected interviews with people who had taken asylum in the North East to the 12th century knocker still to be found at the Cathedral. You could knock on the door and take sanctuary for 40 days, apparently, no questions asked, be it debt collectors, angry cuckolds or oligarchs who were after you.

I only included extracts I found online as I couldn't put my hand on my version of the full essay, either in digital or hard copy, and the page had fallen off Geoff's site. Anyway, I've now got a copy of the whole thing and have uploaded it here.

It was interesting and not a little depressing reading the piece after so many years, although I was pleased that I thought it was actually a good piece of work - albeit not as powerful as Geoff's own work of course. There is something a little terrifying about reading work old enough for me to have forgotten it, or exactly what I said and how. This was a better such experience than many I've had.

The depressing thing was that there were so many sentences that could have been written in the last fortnight, and all of the quotations I used in the piece could also still be dropped into certain kinds of conversations all too comfortably. It's weird that the essay includes a number of quotations from Brecht, about whom I wrote apropos of something completely different recently, although he was, of course, a refugee himself: 'I’m like the man who took a brick to show/ How beautiful his house used once to be.' 

The most challenging of the things I wrote may be these sentences, as they address anyone, including me, tempted to a virtue-signalling gesture that inadvertently suggests this 'crisis' is a temporary thing solvable simply by being kind, rather than an ongoing phenomenon that requires kindness perhaps above all, but not alone, if we are to change any government behaviour:

'It is simplistic to think asylum is simply  a matter of compassion or otherwise. It is ruled by political and economic priorities. Why else would Canada accept, for instance, 82 % of applicants from Sri Lanka as refugees according to UN definitions, whilst Britain considers only 0.2% of applicants from Sri Lanka eligible.'

Anyway, you can read the whole thing here, it has a killer quote from Zadie Smith, I'm withholding to tempt you...

*Verse-aversion or intolerance

Monday, 7 September 2015

Back to school special

It’s a new year. I’m told that these days by the sounds through my office from the nearby school playground, rather than by my kids needing new shoes, bags, pencils, PE kit, or, in the university years, help with the rent. But I suspect most of us of any age and family situation in the UK always associate the September turn in the weather with a new school year. We might grow nostalgic for that new book, new protractor, fresh start feeling, or we might rejoice not to ever have to go back into a classroom, but there’s some kind of emotional twitch in most of us at this time of year. (I envy the French the word ‘la rentrĂ©e’, which sums those mixed emotions up brilliantly somehow, and not just for those in education.) 

 Arts provision in schools is a key area of argument and activity at the moment. Bob & Roberta Smith even stood for parliament against Michael Gove to raise the issue. The changes to the curriculum are making it harder and harder for schools to support arts activity. Even changes to the History curriculum are making it harder for the many ‘industrial’ museums. Can’t have children learning about the industrial revolution, they might hear about unions or health and safety or something dangerous like that, I suppose. 

 Although the government tries its best to spin it, asserting in typical black-is-white fashion that it values the thing it is reducing, most readings of the statistics suggest fewer young people are choosing to take most arts subjects at GCSE. The excellent Cultural Learning Alliance explore the figures in very clear fashion here. As mentioned there is also evidence that this trend is worse, in some subjects at least, amongst young people from more deprived areas. It seems also to be reinforcing the long-standing gender differences in take up of arts subjects at GCSE. 

Schools trips are also getting squeezed, be it by teacher nervousness or actual budgetary or curricular pressure. I saw some evidence recently that this is especially so in special schools which is worrying. 

 One rarely sees English Literature in the list of arts subjects, although I think it should be there. The upside of it being compulsory is that young people get introduced to some ‘great’ books, some of which are actually great. The downside of it being compulsory is that compulsory things are often horrible when you’re at school - for some, unlucky, people it’s a bore and serves to put them off novels, poetry and plays for life. I know we don’t like to admit this, but that was my observation at school and is what I’ve heard from many people since.

 So I’d like to apologise to any GCSE English students about to begin the AQA GCSE English Literature syllabus using the OUP student book for the bit in the next two years when you get to my poem, 'As luck would have it', if you don’t like it. I’m sharing the pictures here not for education purposes but simply as illustration - click them for larger versions. But if any regular readers want to answer in the comments section, please feel free… 

 I’m sorry I don’t have the resolve of my hero Adrian Mitchell to ban my poems from exam-related books. It wasn’t the money, I actually let my publisher keep that as I was feeling generous and grateful and a bit guilty for not being a better-selling poet, it was the excitement that maybe someone who enjoyed Eng. Lit as much as I did might found my work through the poem. It was that ego-serving moment we almost-unknown poets get when someone responds to the message in a bottle that is a book of poems. I was pleased you have to compare and contrast it with Siegried Sassoon, not that I've read him much since I was at school. I was even more pleased to be used in this way as I don’t even know the editors in real life.

 It is rather disorientating to see the questions posed, especially about something which is a reimagining of my own birth, and to read the example first sentences to answers. I’m not saying any of them are unhelpful, of course, it's just a bit odd. It was amusing though that a footnote was needed including the comical phrase, ‘the pop group The Beatles’. Tell me even 14 year olds know the Beatles were a pop group, please? And I’ll maybe tell you one day about the time I offended creative education guru Sir Ken Robinson (no relation) by admitting I really didn’t like the Beatles at all.

 I put it all down to a good bad education

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Just being here is glorious

I had been struck mute by the news, and reactions to it. But over on my poetry blog I've been thinking about an artwork, and sharing an essay I wrote for a brochure back in 2001 that quotes some newspaper headlines such as 'ASYLUM: WE ARE BEING INVADED'. So no surprises here at headlines now.

I've also shared a poem about refuge, on of the 'Dunno Elegies' from my book How I Learned to Sing. It uses the Rilke line 'Just being here is glorious' as an epigraph, as that is often the experience asylum seekers and refugees have expressed to me about being in England.

To avoid too much poetry on this blog, you can read it over here.