Sunday, 2 February 2014
February already, eh?
It was a busy January for arts and cultural policy/politics – from the opening of the portal for potential ACE NPOs, to creative industry economic figures showing huge growth, albeit largely in fields in some ways adjacent to ‘what we talk about when we talk the arts’, IT, digital and publishing, via another Maria Miller speech really saying not-much-new-at-all and the Select Committee announcing a swift enquiry into the work of Arts Council England, their scope, scale and remit, funding criteria and balance of funding across the country, as appetite amongst regional politicians for a rebalancing grew.
Of course, most arts people I met in January were too busy working on NPO essays and business plans to give this kind of ephemera the attention it deserves. (There are some who believe folk are also just keeping their heads down.) In ways rather reminiscent of my daughter, currently in the final months of her degree, they are forming study groups - sorry, consortiums and partnerships - compiling notes frantically and spending long nights at the laptop whilst also doing the day/evening job. Apparently it is decreed that whenever two or more are gathered they shall compare notes on the difficulty of the task at hand, the contradictory advice received, or the absolute lack of it, the effects of what you might call Portal Dread, and the most irritatingly besides the point feedback on a draft received from a member of their board.
I’ve been neck deep in both of those last paragraphs, alongside much else, often swapping hats - I was going to say 'frantically', but let's edit that to 'with aplomb', shall we, and see what happens? But I have also found time to write something for The Bookseller about New Writing North’s Read Regional promotion for which my book of poems, How I Learned to Sing, was selected, alongside 10 other titles. The tour, as I like to call it, starts next week in Darlington. You can read more here if you are interested in this aspect of my thinking practice. I’ve recently added some reviews, the dates of readings on the Read Regional tour, and others, and an introduction to the book.
If you are one of the more poetically inclined readers here, even one of that select band to have purchased my book, you can also now download the reading guide for How I Learned to Sing, which comes with an introduction, a further reading list and some questions for discussion. I have yet to develop any prompts for my assessment of any answers, but if you do come up with some enlightening answers, be they positive, negative, sarcastic or anything else, do let me know.
If you’re near any of the places I’m heading over the next 3 months, it would also be great to see you there.
Thursday, 16 January 2014
Here are the 10 questions I mentioned at the end of my previous post. I've also spotted an important error which has slipped in in the process of making the diagrams nicer. What currently reads 'physical income' should be 'psychic income' - that well-known and sporadically adequate compensation artists get for their work. I've alerted MMM to this. Anyway, without more ado, here are the questions…
How can everyone working with arts and culture:
1 Develop a more holistic view of the impacts of arts and culture, exploring the diversity of values and views so that people benefit from the full spectrum of impacts arts and culture can have, leading to improved quality of life for individuals and communities?
2 Take risks in what they do, and how they do it so that everyone involved continues to learn, innovate and influence society as a whole?
What will incentivise public and private funders and all those involved in making and influencing policy to:
3 Create a greater diversity of financing mechanisms, including ones which help artists and creative practitioners plan for and develop sustainable livelihoods so that society benefits from increased levels of and diversity of artistic and creative practice and enhances its innovative capacity?
4 Root their work in the principals of sustainable development not simply production and consumption of cultural products so that arts and culture supports artists and creative practitioners and local communities’ wellbeing, ultimately leading to healthier, more resilient people and places?
5 Ensure infrastructure, policies and decisions contribute to artists’ sustainable livelihoods so that artists can develop their lives and practice in more effective ways, leading to better work with more impact?
6 Require all organisations that work with arts and culture to develop strategies that contribute to sustainable livelihoods for the professional artists they work with so that equal collaborations can replace unbalanced power relationships, leading to more creative and powerful work?
How can more artists, creative practitioners and arts and cultural organisations:
7 Actively plan to develop sustainable livelihoods and income streams as well as their artistic practice so that they can make positive choices and not compromise life for art or art for the bills?
8 Spend time together reflecting on both their livelihoods and their practice and share conclusions so that they can learn from diverse experiences and ideas and ultimately make better work with greater impact on where they live and work?
9 Collaborate to make sure all available physical spaces and digital platforms are used well so that they become exemplars in sustainable use of resources to be widely copied?
10 Work with their artistic communities and audiences to develop plans for improving the sustainability of artists and creative practitioners so that all involved can contribute to well-being on an equitable footing, benefitting from genuinely diverse ways of thinking and doing?
Monday, 13 January 2014
Back in summer 2012 I did some research into different ways of thinking about the value created by culture, and about the role of artists in that, as part of an ambitious project started by Exchange, a group of performing arts organisations in Tyneside. They had connected to Mission Models Money (where I’m an Associate) and New Economics Foundation to think about three inter-linked issues: the role of arts and culture within sustainable economic development; how artists and other creative practitioners can contribute to sustainable development and finally how to ensure artists and creative practitioners are able to achieve sustainable livelihoods throughout their life-cycles, especially as emergent independent artists.
At least that’s how we’re describing it in the paper finally published last week: The Art of Living Dangerously. The final document, whose authors were Shelagh Wright, Natalie Querol, Sarah Colston and myself, had a rather protracted gestation, with a number of shifts of focus, and included research, drafting, a ‘theory of change’ workshop with some North East-based practitioners, and sharing of drafts with academic and others. It urges all those working with arts and culture to rethink their contribution to a vision of sustainable development that benefits the whole of society.
It was an interesting and challenging collaboration of style and languages, of cultural policy, (new) economics and artistic thinking. For me the issues came to be less about particular definitions of cultural value within a vision of not simply culture or a economy but society, and more about how the drivers of the cultural ecology, artists (and the creative people who work with them), can develop sustainable livelihoods that mean their contribution to resilient communities and places can be maintained over time.
A couple of quotes to give a flavour:
‘Artists and creative practitioners can invigorate communities both through the work they make but also their presence in local life. Artists and creative practitioners are, Exchange argues, ‘key workers’ and entrepreneurs in the development of healthy and sustainable communities, modelling ways of living that exemplify adaptability, resilience and innovation and contributing to local economies in ways that enhance rather than diminish wellbeing.’
‘We do not express or advocate for the art of surviving in a broken system - an approach that would suggest unsustainable boot-strapping for artists within a system that does not know how to value them - but rather, The Art of Living Dangerously describes the transition to a different model of development. A way to make the lives of emerging artists more visible and viable as well as the policy making logic of the towns and cities of which they are a part.’
Our conclusion admits this paper is an incomplete picture, the start of telling a new story and one we hope will be discussed, contested, critiqued and added to. Reading the nicely designed version I can see signs of it being ‘a work of many hands’, some roads not taken, some juxtaposition where integration proved too difficult, but that may all be no bad thing.
The paper does still feel timely and relevant, as the need to root debates about cultural value in the lives and livelihoods of cultural practitioners becomes ever more important. (This is not to neglect the role of ‘audiences’ and others in cultural value, of course.) Applying ideas of sustainable livelihood development to artists, building on some work in Canada by Judi Piggott, feels to me like a potentially very useful framework for collaborative efforts. (The designers have also made much nicer diagrams than I did!)
The paper sets out some ends by identifying three vital ‘practices’ that can only be achieved by collaboration between artists, institutions and an intelligent funding ecology that creates mutual support:
- Practising Livelihoods: Artists coming together with other creative practitioners and the support of funders to critically reflect on how they create and maintain livelihoods.
- Pooling Risk: Ways for artists and creative practitioners to share the risks of new financial, operational and creative endeavours and models of working.
- Utilising Space: Ways for artists and creative practitioners to access, animate and use unused space in towns and cities.
Do read the paper and let us know what you think, or what you could do – I will post the 10 questions which the paper ends on separately.
(Hmm, may need to work on this ‘cliffhanger’ approach to my blogs…)
Sunday, 22 December 2013
Well, it’s nearly Christmas, and the Thinking Practice is now closed until the New Year. Above is our seasonal image – made, with two exceptions, from the 20,000 or so words I’ve written on the blog this year. Thanks for reading this year, especially to the subscribers, and the regulars who comment or email to put me right or agree, and those who spread the word on Twitter.
It’s been a really great year for me personally and workwise, full of book launches, big anniversaries, graduations, jobs, and plenty of really good and important work with great clients in interesting places. (It’d be wrong to pick any out, so I won’t.) I feel really very lucky indeed. There are so many fantastically committed and generous people working in the cultural sector, full of life, ideas, passion and idiosyncrasy (if anyone reading thinks I mean them, I probably do!) – let’s hope we all get the chance to live up to our potential in 2014.
Posted by Mark Robinson at 10:56
Tuesday, 3 December 2013
Governance is one of those perennial areas of life that no one ever seems quite happy with – in the cultural sector as in the larger political sphere. Open a discussion about it and it more often than not talk turns to dissatisfaction before you can say ‘any other business’. I gave a talk last week at MMM’s re.volution Wales event on governance in Cardiff. I won’t replay the whole day here but I did discuss some ideas I can easily share here.
(I’ve got tendonitis in my left hand at the moment, so blogs that aren’t already partly ‘written’ in some form for other purposes may be a bit more infrequent for a while, as I try and steer clear of the laptop when I can.) First, here are some questions I asked the attendees (leaders in the arts in Wales, from a variety of backgrounds and places):
- How many people here see themselves as cultural leaders? (All, some more confidently than others.)
- How many feel their working life would be very different if there was no board or governance oversight? (Next to none!)
- How many people have a governance role of some kind - board, school, advisory group, steering group etc? (Most.)
- How many live their governor’s lives in the way they do their work? (Answer redacted to spare blushes. I certainly admitted to not always doing this. In the past, obviously.)
Organisation displays leadership which provides clarity internally and externally, with decision making process aligned to business model. Constantly seeking improvement and future-focussed, whilst delivering current plans. Addresses key issues with appropriate levels of challenge and support. Clear roles and responsibilities are agreed, but able to flex to circumstances. Clear, challenging and supportive management and reporting systems in place.
Governance also relates very clearly to other areas of the framework such as developing a culture of shared purpose, networks and so on.
I structured my talk around a series of ‘triangles’. (A bit of a risk for me as like any good Libran consultant I naturally prefer binaries or 2x2 matrices.) This was because my central point (and triangle) referred to the central idea of an excellent book, Governance as Leadership by Richard Chait, William Ryan and Barbara Taylor.
Chait, Ryan and Taylor argue there are three modes needed for ‘governance as leadership’:
1. Fiduciary – stewardship, but generally in the form of supervision and managing of legal and other responsibilities – ‘having a grip off things’. It should also be extended to inquiry questions about the extent of delivery of ‘the right things right’.
2. Strategic – strategic direction setting in partnership with executive leaders. This involves business and strategic planning but is more than a paper exercise.
3. Generative – the wider leadership role which is more questioning, enquiring and creative rather than simply about managing processes or deciding on strategic goals.
Chait, Ryan and Taylor argue convincingly that too much non-profit governance concentrates on Types 1 and 2, leading to many of the weaknesses persistently identify in governance – what John Carver called ‘incompetent groups of competent people’. Over-concentration on those modes can lead to a tick-box, roles and responsibilities-focused approach, with standardized agendas and ritualized strategic planning rather than innovative, creative thinking, which delivers a kind of compliance with good practice but misses the point. It can also lessen the motivation of skilled and committed people, never a good thing, and blind them to key issues, through repetition and tone.
Much of the discussion, debate and training around governance has, Chait et al argue, centred on the practical level. They argue – and I would agree – that attention now needs to shift to governance as leadership. Our conversations and research about cultural governance need to as rich as the best of those about cultural leadership. (Which tend not to focus overly on job descriptions – as I said on the day, when people reach for their job descriptions it’s not generally a sign of an imminent breakthrough…)
A second triangle (forgive me if I don’t illustrate all of these, vita brevis and all that…) considered ‘what funders want from governance’. I suggested this was:
1. Connectivity – knowledge that the board is connecting staff into other networks, funds, opinions, communities and that the board helps the staff team see beyond its immediate horizons
2. Reassurance – a sense of safety, that reliable people are overseeing an organisation and that nothing (too) embarrassing is likely to happen. (Funders don’t like to be embarrassed, and out media culture can be unforgiving.)
3. Someone to talk with – some other routes into organisations, someone to talk to about the very long-term, someone who can be constructively challenging to them in a different way
(Reflecting on that, I think I may have underplayed the creativity and sense of shared purpose that can sometimes be developed found in the best conversations or relationships between funder and a board. It should be noted that not all funders work in the same way, or are able to, due to diminished resources.)
An important ‘triangle’ I set out related to the different time horizons governance needs to consider. These I described as
1. Now – plans, purpose, performance. ‘Now’ in governance terms often means ‘the last three months’, but it is important that information is as up-to-date as humanly possible.
2. Tomorrow – strategy, world, what is likely to happen around you, to you, and with you – what can you influence? This includes what in adaptive resilience terms I describe as ‘situation awareness’ – being aware of trends, change and potential. It includes reflecting on the purpose and mission of the organisation and periodically assessing its continued relevance (or otherwise).
3. Yesterday – organisational memory is an important factor in adaptive resilience, though it should inform rather than restrict organisations.
We also talked about why there is often a difference between the team sheet and the performance in governance. I talked about the importance of motivation and stretching tasks to performance, how a check lists approach can be death to active listening, and thus to creative thinking and motivation, and boards as learning environments. (For me this is often because of my own frustration at my own ‘performance’, and a need to find better ways of being a board member of chair – it’s damned hard work…)
The triangle I used talked of three things being a good board member is not about:
1. Your role description – this is a basis not a limit – boards could be places where you ask not ‘What am I doing here?’, but ‘What can I do here?’
2. Your ‘day job’ job title – except in a few cases it should be much more about your networks/various sorts of capitals (social, maybe even money), skills and the effort you'll put in, rather than your status
3. Checking things – it should be a more active and complex activity, which has the benefit of being more developmental in return for the effort put in.
My final ‘triangle’ aimed to flush out some of the peculiarities of arts and culture governance, where a kind of dance by artistic and audience or social and financial imperatives needs to be achieved:
1. Vision – artistic or cultural, often driven by an individual or group vision or expression
2. Constituency – who is the organisation for, what is its role in that constituency (eg local or artistic) and how is it doing, what might it best achieve – the richness of this conversation often dictates success
3. Situation – artistic, social, financial, market – the richness of understanding around this can be crucial, and governance has a special role in this as partly outside of the organisation. (At one point I found myself suggesting ‘Boards as borders’ was a useful image – them being both in and out.)
Clait et al sum up one of the key things that can come out of this triangle when working well:
'In Type III governance, trustees and executives consider, debate, and commit to a dominant narrative, especially at moments of confusion and ambiguity. They create an organizational saga . . . a unified set of publicly expressed beliefs about the [organization] that (a) is rooted in history, (b) claims unique accomplishment, and (c) is held with sentiment.'
The group also did a bit of a brainstorm around metaphors or images for cultural leadership and cultural governance, which came up with two quite different lists. Images for cultural leadership tended to be more individual and more positive. (‘Bright light bulb that is sometimes off, and can become its own switch.’) Those for governance often implied a group activity, and were more ambivalent if not downright negative. (‘Assault course’, ‘A hot air balloon with lead weights’.)
A central theme for me, reflecting on the day as a whole, was the extent to which the collective, social act of governance relies on personal responsibility. If if every trustee agreed to work as they do at work, or if promotion/profit/whatever hung on their board work, and to make governance a space/process where everyone could do that, how much would governance improve?
Monday, 25 November 2013
Last week I was part of a panel at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle taking on the (for me anyway) rather uncomfortable topic of Englishness, and specifically ‘Who are the English?’ This was part of IPPR and British Future’s ‘Festival of Englishness’, a series of similar discussions, and is almost certainly, probably definitely, the only time you’ll see me on a platform festooned with St George’s flags.
I had been asked to talk as a writer interested in regional identity, but with my ACE experience giving a perspective on ‘England’. I agreed because the ‘festival’ seemed to be coming from a progressive place of questioning, rather than a narrow nationalism, and precisely because I was uncomfortable with the topic and wasn’t sure what I thought. Head towards discomfort and uncertainty, I thought, that’s where things get most interesting… Then I got nervous but carried on regardless.
After much pondering, I focused my comments around three key thoughts:
• I am more likely to identify as Northern English or European than simply ‘English’. (I rarely go for `British’ either. It reminds me I’m a subject.)
• That’s because I am not comfortable with the dominant ideas of Englishness, though I am very attached to many places, people and heritages in England. But the dominant culture – of Oxbridge and London – doesn’t, really, value my England as I do. And the England of the right certainly doesn’t.
• Englishness may be better considered as something you do rather than something you are by virtue of place of birth or current address, and has certainly been invigorated by the many inputs to that activity. (Something demonstrated really well in the Discovery Museum’s new display on migration, by the way. I made reference to blow-ins from the ‘Romans’ on Hadrian’s Wall, actually from 23 countries, to people settling here now, and their role in the co-creation of Englishness.)
Stopping off in a few of my poems by way of illustration, including the whole of the one below, I concluded with this:
‘The English are the people working on Englishness at any given moment. We can choose it, co-create it, rather than simply accept it as a heritage. As Zadie Smith said ‘To live variously cannot simply be a gift, endowed by accident of birth; it has to be a continual effort, continually renewed. [...] Flexibility is a choice, always open to all of us.’
Other speakers provided interesting perspectives. Sharaz Haq talked about Tina Gharavai’s film I am Nasrine. (Tina is a Newcastle and Paris-based Iranian-American-Geordie filmmaker, though I’ve never asked her how English she feels.) Matthew Rhodes of British Future, was most in favour of reclaiming the flag from the likes of the EDL, and for celebrating English history via St George’s Day more. Baroness Joyce Quin, former Gateshead MP said she was proud to be Geordie and British but was, as I am, wary of giving the Little Englanders comfort in any discussion prompted by the national debate in Scotland.
The discussion, chaired by Anna Turley of IPPR North, was a good one, although no one from the panel or the 100 plus people there ever really threatened to actually define Englishness. Someone I think used the word ‘tolerance’: it certainly wasn’t me as I can’t be doing with that word. If anything, the audience could have put the panel on the spot more: I’d have asked which of us would fly the flag on St George’s Day. (I wouldn’t. I think that’s a very English attitude, actually.)
Questions that stuck with me included:
• Do we all get to choose our identities, or just certain privileged groups of people? Which identities are imposed upon which people?
• What are the differences between geographical, political, civic and cultural focusing on national identity, and the differences in effect?
• What is going to happen in the North East if Scotland votes for independence? There seemed a very ambivalent feeling in the room – a kind of jealousy almost, but also a kind of fear. What can we learn from the Scottish debate?
• How do we move beyond wrestling with only nice liberal ‘welcoming’ definitions of Englishness such as I might give, and grapple with the more resentful lines some would draw? • How much of Englishness is a kind of nostalgia, albeit for something some have never experienced?
Here’s the poem I read at the beginning, because of its title. (And to insert a different type of language into the debate. I think it may have puzzled some, but so it goes.) I wrote it imagining a parallel universe where the peasant breads of England would be embraced by the foody middle classes. In its way, it partly describes a desire to stop apologizing for being stereotypically English in certain ways – what I’ve referred to before as the bitten bottom lip, rather than the stiff upper lip – and the experience of living as if in some kind of cultural border land. It’s also about cooking, obviously.
On Realising I am English
‘The important thing is to adapt your dish of spaghetti to circumstances and your state of mind.’ Guiseppe Marotta
In the parallel universe where wizened Corsicans
rave over suet dumplings and rapturously murmur
improvised sonnets in praise of stotty,
barm cake, bloomer, cob, scone (to rhyme with gone)
no one would criticise me for never mentioning
the real grievance at the heart of this poem.
I’d be lauded for the tightness of my lip,
for the way you feel my teeth grit and grind,
for how I shrug off questions with a joke
about the endless spouting of emotion
I waded through to get here.
I think this as the glaze of a first pressing
spreads its lucent green over the frying pan,
ready to spit at the very suggestion of an onion.
Friday, 1 November 2013
This is a rather long post, an essay really. Some of you might find it easier to read the pdf version by clicking here. I half apologise for the length, but only half: the work of Peter Stark, Christopher Gordon and David Powell, and the emerging discussion of it, deserved a fuller response than I had the skill, or inclination, to give in 500 words.
‘Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital’ by Peter Stark, Christopher Gordon and David Powell subtitles itself as ‘A contribution to the debate on national policy for the arts and culture in England’. This indicates the essentially optimistic and constructive tone of the self-funded and initiated project. I’ve certainly wondered when such a debate would really start in England, let alone get to the good stuff. It gives a robustly and very specifically researched perspective on the disparities between funding for the arts and culture in London and the rest of England, links that back to the defining moment in cultural policy in Jennie Lee’s White Paper of 1965, and makes a modest proposal of a time-limited lottery fund for regional production as a way of beginning a rebalancing.
‘Rebalancing’, as I shall call it, is an important piece of work that deserves serious consideration and inventive responses. It’s far from a ‘regions vs. London’ argument, and it’s vital the debate rejects win/lose scenarios and arts world infighting. If it kick-starts a discussion which enables us to move on fairly quickly from the maths to how and why policy works at a systemic level it will be a huge achievement.
That London receives a numerically disproportionate amount of funding per capita compared to the rest of England is hardly ‘breaking news’. We know it, and it’s long been tacitly accepted. The report leaves us in no doubt as to how deep-seated and large the disparity is, and how different from some other countries. It runs on the same tracks as other ‘data’ on the economy and power in this country, of course, which is why it’s so deeply ‘embedded’ that lottery funding has, more or less, followed treasury funding. Though some might occasionally moan, groan or simply sigh, we rarely, fundamentally, think it can be rebalanced. But local and national government and their (our?) delegated funders should, as this report does, consider what they could control as well as what they can’t.
There’s so much to say about this paper and the discussion this blog could have been (was!) even longer, so I have concentrated my points under seven headings, each aimed to move out from the points made by the report. I’m not trying, here, to suggest specific solutions to the issue raised by the paper so will conclude with some questions.
• Centralisation of decision-making and fund-holding.
As we all know, ‘it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.’ England has decisively centralized decision-making power. ACE has over the last 10 years moved away from what Gerry Robinson described in 2002 as one of the intentions of creating a single organisation subsuming the Regional Arts Boards into ACE: ‘greater decision- making at regional level’. In this it currently reflects government policy that has abolished ‘regions’ at the same time as crippling local authorities. DCMS direct funding is absolutely centralized. (So much so, rumour has it the Secretary of State rings personally to tell you your funding is safe.)
Equal per capita spend is neither the end nor the means of arts funding, given the unequal distribution of audiences and philanthropic funders to name but two factors. It will not necessarily mean equal per capita benefit. That is not to say the current imbalance is tenable, or properly productive. Without stronger localist and regionalist voices and powers, it is hard to see the overall pattern of funding, including local authorities, shifting. (Put crudely, more money for Manchester organisations decided in Teesside is unlikely to be as well spent as if people in or near Manchester decided it.)
Slightly more even patterns of decisions should not be the endgame, but more equitable creation and devolution of funds and of decision-making powers to local and regional levels. This would also create a productive dialogue with the centre and its proper roles, powers and overview. Centralised power reduces the tensions but also the products of the creative tensions.
• Concentration of funding: money follows money
This country also suffers horribly from what you might call ‘them that’s got shall get’ syndrome, and that’s as true in the cultural sector as elsewhere. The imbalance arises from the magnetic attraction of money to money proving impossible for willing people to overcome, more than ‘bias’ per se. Arts funding has become more concentrated, with those in receipt of funds asked to play wider roles than simply be themselves. A contrasting, though potentially riskier, approach would see funding spread to a more diverse range of organisations and places. More regionally situated organisations could also be asked to play national roles. Whatever the detail, the answer lies in determined will.
This winner takes all syndrome is particularly dangerous currently because the policy to require philanthropy to play a role universally doesn’t seem to fit with the reality of where philanthropists put their money. (90% in London, where the winners are.) It is already obvious to many that sooner or later something in that policy is going to have to give, although it may be at the cost of lots of organisations outside London.
• The difficulty of rebalancing
Rebalancing in anything other than a crudely mathematical way without engaging with those other systems is a devil of a thing to do, and has proved beyond the cultural sector’s means except, from time to time, in certain localities. Given the constraints of both Westminster and London Arts Village politics, the need for a national overview of artforms, the current concentration of artists and organisations in London (including not just the ‘nationals’, but smaller organisations and local infrastructure too) and a reluctance on the part of many artists/companies to run the perceived risk of basing themselves elsewhere.
It has, at times, been a deliberate policy of Arts Council to gradually shift the balance of its treasury investment to create a better balance between organisations based in London and other regions, but it has proved impossible. That was one of the drivers, for instance, around the attempts in 2007/2008 to rebalance the RFO portfolio, identifying ‘priority places’ outside of London, which ended with some shifts made, but a whole lot of egg on perhaps overly-determined ACE faces. (Including, I should note, my own as a member of the Executive Board at that time.) It will be interesting to see how the desire expressed yesterday to see some shift is, pun intended, balanced with the other imperatives of the upcoming NPO process.
(Is inertia, the ‘a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force’, more the issue here than ‘bias? I recall, as a naïve Director of Arts in the North East, suggesting, during a national discussion of the introduction of a minimum grant threshold for RFOs, that a maximum of, say £10 or £15M should be introduced to help shift resources out of London. The national office artform directors present appeared to be on the verge of having me sectioned…)
This report is at pains to neither blame nor exonerate past or current governments or ACE leaderships. These are deep seated cultural issues in the broadest sense, far beyond the arts, and common sense dictates there will always be a major gaps when looked at £ per capita, or if considered by, say, density of artists and funded infrastructure. But whilst lack of progress has not been for the want of trying, the gap shown here is simply too large to be shrugged off unless we accept the underlying notion of London as a City State with the rest of England as almost literally ‘another country’.
• A City State + The Provinces or a Country of City Regions?
England, to visitors and to those who live here, is defined by its capital, to a far greater degree than many other countries. Our economy is seen to revolve around the City of London, and to a very large extent does. Despite the BBC’s determination to shift some things to Salford, our media, and much of their concerns, are London-centric. House prices in London exist in a insane microclimate of their own. What happens in regional economies is considered peripheral. We all allegedly benefit from the trickle down.
I find the lack of attention to place in the Arts Council’s ‘refreshed’ 10 year strategy disappointing, some good initiatives not withstanding. n keeping with the overarching ‘political economy’, England is now essentially seen as one space, with one centre, not many. The development of what Tony Butler described on Twitter yesterday as ‘local self sufficient ecologies’ seems a long way off. It would be a little unkind to sum the approach up as ‘let them eat touring with digital dessert’, but maybe only a little.
Matthew Arnold, and his descendants, suggested the provinces lacked a sufficiently ‘trained’ relationship to what he called ‘the natural centres of mental improvement and sources of lucidity’. He would, perhaps, have used the word ‘capacity’ today, as indeed did the chair and the statement of Arts Council in response to 'Rebalancing'. It suggests the mental frame, common across England, that work outside London should be informed by the capital’s advanced skills, seen in relation to it, even delivered from it, and that places which are ‘under-resourced’ are so due to their own deficiencies, their own lack of capacity, not due to the difficulty in moving long-standing pillars of decision-making and other powers.
Thinking about the complex interactions between cities, towns and rural areas right across England may be one way forward. If you examine most ACE regional grant giving patterns, you’d see concentrations in the ‘core cities’ such as Newcastle in the North East, which some might feel unfair in a parallel way to the London/Rest of England picture. Again from experience, I know these patterns can be hard to shift.
The most promising way to redress the regional balance of lottery and grant funding to something more equitable on the numbers, whilst also building key infrastructure for arts participation and making might be to focus on the Core Cities, which cover most parts of the country, and are generally supportive of culture. Although this might create other, more local inequities that could have knock on effects, on balance I’d say this was worth further attention, in the context of an imagined England of city regions.
• Protecting and Using Assets
It is vital this paper is not used to inadvertently or deliberately underplay the capacity in the regions that has been created by capital funding, and deliberate strategic development of funded organisations over several decades. (The kind of ‘regeneration reverse beauty competition’ some places could be said to favour.) This might mean a vital part of the logic of rebalancing investment is missed out – there are great, nationally important things to support right across England, that could be doing even more if protected from current and present danger and helped to flourish.
I believe the paper to be driven by a desire to make the most of assets and potential assets across the country: we need to make more of this in the discussion. Both the paper and the Arts Council response run the risk of suggesting things in London can be ‘national’ in a way which things based elsewhere are not. (Some of the first responses argued that things in London are not just for Londoners – absolutely true, but also true of many organisations based right across the country – people based in Newcastle, say, but working internationally.)
Isn’t the more interesting question for artists and audiences in, say, Northern England, what role Live Theatre or West Yorkshire Playhouse or Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse play and could play beyond their localities, right across the country? What could happen if we really treated every local asset as a national asset, not just those in London?
• Opportunity matters more than geography or £ per capita
I would say that funding per capita geographically is only one way of thinking about inequality. Putting more money into regional production would address some of that, but not necessarily get a better spread across class or ethnic background. Giving Yorkshire more money wouldn’t necessarily equal more money for brass bands to look at it another way. This kind of 'uneven distribution within the arts' needs to be fed into the discussion, I think.
Similarly, the most significant inequality in our country, I would suggest, is between the richest and the poorest, not some set of averages. This gap is arguably at its most extreme in London – although it is clear that the disparity in funding is not as a result of trying to address that issue.
In the end, therefore, I find – with no disrespect to Messrs.’ Stark, Gordon and Powell whose sterling efforts should be welcomed and applauded, and who might, I hope, agree – the most powerful words in this report those of Jennie Lee, quoted as saying
'If a sane balance of population between north and south, east and west, is to be achieved, this kind of development [regional and local facilities] is just as essential as any movement of industry or provision of public utility service. If the eager and gifted, to whom we must look for leadership in every field, are to feel as much at home in the north and west as in and near London, each region will require highpoints of artistic excellence.’
The question then becomes not one of funding per capita, or of subsidy per attendance as rather disappointingly suggested by ACE in their response. (That way lies a winner takes all bums on seats never mind the excellence or experience competition, please let’s not go there.) The key question becomes how do we best invest in the current and future artists, organisations and audience right across the country, in a way that can bee seen to be fair and equitable. That must, surely, involve neither simply ‘strengthening capacity outside London’ nor ‘weakening investment in the capital’ to use the false polarities that end ACE’s response.
• Concluding questions:
I started what has turned out to be an unavoidably long piece by hoping this would be the beginning of a debate about arts policy. Actually what I hope is it swiftly moves through the debate phase of correcting stats and perspectives, through this initial discussion, to questioning of underlying frameworks and assumptions and then to productive dialogue, where we all start to find – together, right across England, funders, funded, audiences/the public, artists, Uncle Tom Cobley and all – possible solutions for some essential issues. I’ll end with some questions; answers can wait for other times.
• How do we rebalance the economy and the politics with (or possibly within) which the culture economy lives, without damaging what we have got, right across England?
• How do we start to change the culture within Culture that consciously or unconsciously sometimes equates London with the best, and allows more people to think they can base themselves outside the M25 without maiming their careers and/or creativity? How do we start to change a culture that can patronise the local at the same as occasionally fetishising it?
• What funding mechanisms alongside lottery grants, with all their limitations, to build resilient and ‘excellent’ regional cultural ecosystems or economies? (Eg start up grants, creative industries-style investment schemes, ring-fenced regional capital schemes, core cities cultural grants, investment in audience development etc.) And how do we design them devolved, not centralised? (Underlying this is my sense that it will take more than the fund suggested in ‘Rebalancing…’, more money and more ingenuity.)
• How do we use funding to support a great London cultural centre and fantastic cities across the rest of England and arts in rural areas and everywhere and nowhere but the digital realm in a way that makes every tax payer and lottery ticket buyer proud of arts funding, without damaging the best of what we have now? (I suggest acknowledging that it’s motherhood and apple pie to say you can magic up extra money purely for the regions without any disagreements with folk based in London. Even if totally new money comes ring-fenced, wouldn’t some people in London make the case they need their share, work outside the capital, etc?)
• Should we concentrate on building a patchwork of Core Cultural Cities and connecting partners right across England, including London, each playing to their strengths locally, regionally and nationally?