Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The Art of Doubt

 The other day, taking a brief break from the exciting projects I’m currently working on, I pulled BRECHT POEMS PART TWO from the poetry shelves that watch me work. These are mainly ‘poems of the Crisis Years’, perhaps it was that which made me pick this book, rather than the adjacent Kamau Brathwaite, Joseph Brodsky or indeed BRECHT POEMS PART THREE. 

 I was drawn into a poem called ‘The Doubter’, which struck me as eminently useful for all consultants, researchers, artists, managers, leaders, campaigners, directors, producers, strategists, management teams, politicians, voters, representatives, writers and makers of arguments and positions of any other description. It has resonance with Beckett’s famous and useful ‘Fail again. Fail better.’ But it seems to resist the glamour that sometimes attaches to that, in a way I like. 

 The questions are specific and pointed, and people I facilitate or coach may well hear some of them in the future. They also reminded me of those in Kenneth Koch’s The Art of Poetry, which are very useful for writers specifically. (And enjoyable for all readers.) 

 Brecht’s poem seemed to sum up a lot of principles I hold to in writing almost anything. The importance of being clear, but not wiping out ambiguity, subtlety, even contradiction. Sense of self and audience. Properly acknowledging what is actually happening, like it or not, before working to change it if need be. (That’s what I take from ‘Do you accept all that develops?’, rather than acquiescence.) Not being swayed by how well something is phrased. And turning to action, the ‘so what?’ as I might say in facilitator mode. 

 I share this here in case useful to others, and as BB is long gone. I would balance it with a line from Bruce Springsteen: ‘God have mercy on the man who doubts what he’s sure of’ - also worth reminding oneself of, deist or not. But next time you feel you've cracked something, pause for a moment of doubt. 


Whenever we seemed 
To have found the answer to a question 
One of us united the string of the old rolled-up 
Chinese scroll on the wall, so that it fell down and 
Revealed to us the man on the bench who 
Doubted so much. 

I, he said to us 
Am the doubter. I am doubtful whether 
The work was well done that devoured your days. 
Whether what you said would still have value for anyone if it were less well said. 
Whether you said it well but perhaps 
Were not convinced of the truth of what you said. 
Whether it is not ambiguous; each possible misunderstanding 
Is your responsibility. Or it can be unambiguous 
And take the contradictions out of things; is it too unambiguous? 
If so, what you say is useless. Your thing has no life in it. 
Are you truly in the stream of happening? Do you accept 
All that develops? Are you developing? Who are you? To whom 
Do you speak? Who finds what you say useful? And, by the way: 
Is it sobering? Can it be read in the morning? 
Is it also linked to what is already there?  Are the sentences that were 
Spoken before you made use of, or at least refuted? Is everything verifiable? 
By experience? By which one? But above all 
Always above all else: how does one act 
If one believes what you say? Above all: how does one act? 

 Reflectively, curiously, we studied the doubting 
 Blue man on the scroll, looked at each other and 
 Made a fresh start. 

(translated by Lee Baxendall)

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Northern Arts Case for Capital (Throwback Special)

North East England’s Case for Culture, which I wrote about yesterday, was at least partly inspired by the example, some might say the myth, of a 1995 document produced by Northern Arts, the Case for Capital. This set out what the North (which included Cumbria at that time) wanted to do with the lottery funds about to come on stream from the national Arts Council. It had come about from regional partnership and survey of ambition, in a similar way to the Case for Culture. It had a vision and a set of arguments, and some specific asks of arts organisations, local authorities and the national funding bodies.

 Funnily enough, when the North East Cultural Partnership steering group were first thinking about the Case for Culture, they wanted to look back at the Case for Capital, but we found it hard to get our hands on a copy. There were certainly none online to be found. So I’m sharing it here, in case it’s useful, instructive or just interesting for anyone who was curious about it when they saw it mentioned in the new Case for Culture. These are scans provided by David Powell who worked on the Case for Capital for Northern Arts – thanks to David for that.

 Northern Arts no longer exists of course so hopefully no-one will object to me putting it here as a public service. (I was a member of the Senior Management Team when Gerry Robinson merged Northern Arts into Arts Council, so I feel ok sharing it, although I should make clear I wasn’t there when this first Case for Capital was developed, so take no credit or blame at all for it.) Here are the links, with the full report split into three for reasons of file size:

The Case for Capital 1995 (summary document)
The Case for Capital 1995 (part 1)
The Case for Capital 1995 (part 2)
The Case for Capital 1995 (part 3)

 Hindsight makes The Case for Capital a fascinating read, at least for the likes of me. One could spend a long time discussing the things that happened, the things that didn’t, the things that shifted shape, the things that turned out to need, let’s say, a bit more time and support than anticipated. One could no doubt critique it in all kinds of ways, especially with the benefit of hindsight. (Some of the gaps were filled in a subsequent second Case in 2000. If anyone's got a copy of that, do let me know.)

 Narrow your eyes and you can see a slightly different region, a range of alternative futures, as if in some weird arts policy-reflecting sci-fi novel, where there’s no Sage Gateshead but a Regional Music Centre in Newcastle for instance, leaving a very different Quayside. But what strikes me is how much of the inspiration of the early 1990s have been delivered in some form.

 That, and how playing the violin must be good for you... Compare the picture of Bradley Creswick below with the one on the Chronicle website this week, one of a set of rather beautiful photographs by Andy Martin of the musicians of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, just some of the beneficiaries of the cases for culture made in the North East over many decades. Cover star Mike McGrother, now more active in Stockton than ever, hasn't aged too badly either.


Monday, 17 August 2015

North East England's Case for Culture

Culture North East (also known as the North East Cultural Partnership) recently launched ‘The North East of England’s Case for Culture’. This is a ‘statement of ambition for the next 15 years’ and has five ‘aspirations’. (Pauses to think how much he dislikes that word and its contemporary applications and insinuations. Continues…) 

 Few would take much issue with the aspirations, which I suspect both Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Kendall could include in their manifestos. The five aspirations are participation and reach, children and young people, talent and progression, economic value, and a vibrant and distinctive region with an excellent quality of life. The how has four main ideas: the partnership itself, increasing policy and funding influence, tripling overall investment over next 5 years and using the Case to encourage investment. Some symptoms of strategic tautology (a conditions I just made up) there, perhaps, and some missed opportunities but nothing fatal. For example, in relation to investment how powerful would it have been if the 12 local authorities involved in the Partnership had felt able to make their own investment commitments clear? 

 The Case for Culture has been created by a very inclusive process, with many sectors consulted via lead organisations, business and voluntary sectors, local authorities, open space meetings and other means – the appendices are impressive in their breadth. Interestingly, and healthily, the work was lead by Beamish Museum, rather than any of those smooth talking consultancy types. (I fed in when asked to by New Writing North, as a writer, although should also declare some pro-bono involvement in the early work with members of the Partnership board on what such a case might look at, and how.) 

 NECP has 24 board members – 12 local authority representatives and 12 people from the cultural, education and business sectors. It’s a unique partnership so far as I’m aware, and this is a unique strategic document. Inevitably, one must grudgingly concede, any strategy like this is going to bear testament to the smoothing-out effects of committee working and regional politicking that connect process to prose. This is apparent here in the lack of really big choices for the region. (Although I must say the actual prose is smooth and sharp and lacks the traditional visible stitching of many such documents.) 

 This is a tool for making cases, not a list of exciting priority ideas for investment (and by implication a shadow list what’s not an agreed regional priority) so this is perhaps fair enough – although I think a list of priorities ideas might have more sway with the potential funders right now. At the launch event in Durham, in warmly welcoming the Case, the advice of CEOs of both ACE and HLF boiled down to ‘be great and have great ideas’. Although I think the world needs rather more than that kind of beauty contest right now, and more than an ‘inverse-beauty contest’ of fixing blights and cold spots too, I hope funders will respond imaginatively to the collective ambition represented by the Case and how it's been made, it may have been more attention-grabbing to have also some specific proposals of a Factory-scale if not type. (Ideally without a £10M pa revenue bill though...) 

 But, although  the Case for Culture could have done with more specific examples to anchor the passion, I welcome The Case for Culture warmly and positively. The folk involved have done a good job. I hope the region can continue to work together to prioritise what needs to happen next, not just leave that to the sharpest elbows, loudest voices, most smoke-filled rooms or – even – shiniest ideas. 

One such area where the Case may be useful in the next phase precisely because of its own weakness is in diversity. The Case vastly underplays the way in which the North East has changed in recent decades, and continues to change, and the contribution a more diverse cultural offer could make across all its aspirations. It even brings up what is to me an old, old argument that ‘the North East is actually one of the least diverse regions in the UK’. (Why ‘actually’, by the way, what’s that little emphasis suggesting?) This may be true at the headline stat level in relation to certain protected characteristics, but that misses at least three vital things. Firstly even at regional level, change is rapid – with the non-White population doubling between the last two censuses. Secondly, our cities and major towns are hugely more diverse in terms of ethnicity than 20 years ago – especially amongst young people. And thirdly, we have very high proportions of people with disabilities and impairments, for whom participation in culture and the economy is important. Class remains vital, as pointed out, but it shouldn’t be used to avoid considering other aspects of diversity, and how class intersects with gender, ethnicity and disability or sexuality. 

 Demographic change in recent years is a potentially really important positive for the North East, culturally and in terms of attracting businesses to the region, given the importance placed on diversity of workforce by many businesses. (Attracting business is one reason quality of life is important to the Case.) The relative homogeneity of North East England, or a perception of it, has arguably been a disadvantage in many ways. The perception that the North East is a white bread white culture kind of place is not helped by looking at the ethnicity of the North East Cultural Partnership board, which is (so far as I can tell), all white, despite having 24 members. (That’s 2 more than Trevor Nunn’s all-white history plays cast, for which he’s getting some flack.) I’ve said it before, and I know members of the partnership are conscious of this, but that’s more than disappointing, it's not good enough. So I think diversity needs to be added to the Case for Culture in practice, and not just in terms of community identity, as it is rather painted in the longer document. 

 As the work of Creative Case NORTH has shown, in developing the Arts Council’s very welcome Creative Case for Diversity, the diversity of our cultural offer is not the responsibility of those people who happen to not be straight white able-bodied males, but of everyone in the sector. I was recently commissioned to review three years of work by the Creative Case NORTH consortium, based on surveys, interviews and meta-analysis of over 150,000 words of reports and event transcripts. This will be published shortly by the consortium, but there are themes which may be helpful to diversifying the Case for Culture. 

The heart of the Creative Case NORTH process has been dialogue, based on mutual understanding and trust – which doesn’t always happen at the same time for everyone. Creating safe spaces to generate what one person powerfully called ‘1-1 accountability’ is important. This means bringing people together, not asking for individual community or sector responses, but encouraging people to be accountable to each other for our creativity and the platforms we create for each other. This is an idea that, in some ways at least, seems entirely in tune with how the North East Cultural Partnership developed the Case for Culture, so should be easily widened to make diversity a stronger strand of exploration of how we deliver it. 

 Thinking about 1-1 accountability would, in fact, strengthen every aspiration described in the Case, as part of using it, as suggested, as ‘a springboard’. What do we owe others in terms of participation in the culture of the region? What is culture’s role within the economy, and who is it for? What are our responsibilities in terms of developing young people, talent at any age and in ensuring reach and progression? Despite my caveats, I welcome the North East’s partnership approach to working through such questions.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Cultural value, inequality and comedy timing

Sometimes the world throws out comedy timing. Sometimes it's simply funny. Sometimes, more often these days, it seems, the universe displays a black humour. And sometimes it can be just a bit embarrassing....

Today AHRC published Cultural Value and Inequality, a new critical literature review by Dave O'Brien and Kate Oakley, part of the AHRC's extensive Cultural Value Project. (So extensive even I was involved in one of the projects it funded last year.) It's a really important piece of work, and a very strong and sharp one. (It boils a lot of work down to less than 20 pages plus a bibliography that could keep one occupied a good while.)

At the heart of the report are questions of who gets to make culture, who gets to (or chooses to) consume it, and what impact inequality has on people and culture alike. O'Brien and Oakley argue that the two need to be considered in relation to each other, rather than separately. They focus particularly on race, gender and class, where, as I know from some work I've been doing with EW Group recently which I'll write more about to when I can, there is more material. They also highlight a lack of research around, for instance, disabled people as workers in culture. It's a short and stimulating read, and concludes by seeking more interdisciplinary research (as opposed to art form or area specific work) and improvements in data collection to inform analysis and understanding of how inequality works within cultural value. 

Coincidentally O'Brien and Oakley's argument that consumption and production need to be seen as two sides of the cultural value coin was also made by Sarah Brigham of Derby Theatre this week in (on?) The Guardian. She described the way in which diversifying the artists a theatre works with can help broaden the audience - and vice versa. She also tells the story of a 'cultural leader' who got their hot tips entirely from white men in London. That could be so many people it's not even worth wondering who it was, but it brings me to the embarrassing and depressing bit....

Shortly after reading the report on cultural value and inequality, I read the news that the new Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee is to be made up of 11 white males. This is the kind of national team line up not thought a good idea since Viv Anderson was a boy. (It's a football reference, yes, but important cultural history too, look it up...)

This is, as I said, both depressing and embarassing in its symbolism, even if you think the Committee is irrelevant to your work. (It isn't by the way, unless you think democracy is irrelevant.)  Diversifying the workforce is one of the most urgent challenges facing the cultural sector, and this certainly isn't going to help. Even us white men of a certain age are getting tired of listening to white men of a certain age and their views. (Last time I said that in a meeting I mysteriously dropped off the invite list for subsequent gatherings.) 

No time for deeper analysis right now, if there's one to be made. I do, though, look forward to seeing the the Select Committee appear on http://allmalepanels.tumblr.com, by the way.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Talking to the Dead

 Sometimes chinks of light are framed in black. Last weekend I was one of a number of people who read poems by our friend Gordon Hodgeon at the launch of his book, Talking to the Dead, which has just been published by Smokestack Books. We read the poems as Gordon is unable to, being almost totally paralysed. He has written these poems using a Dynavox machine, that is to say with his eyes, and with the patient help of his team of carers. This is a step further still from his last book, Still Life which was mainly written in the years after Gordon became paralysed, but whilst he could still talk with the aid of a ventilator, and therefore write using dictation software. 

 Gordon was Chief Education Adviser for Cleveland for many years, and many people he helped were at the launch event at Preston Hall Museum in Eaglescliffe. He was an example to me when I worked with him – or more accurately when his work made mine more possible, as first Literature Development Worker and then Director at Cleveland Arts - of a serious poet with a serious job not directly involved in writing, but supporting the culture necessary for poetry. We were part of a 'writing workshop’ that shared and critiqued poems in progress, toughly but over wine and food and laughter. Many of my poems would have been even more ramshackle without Gordon’s attentions.

 Gordon gave a lot of his time to others then and afterwards, through NATE, New Writing North, Cleveland Arts, Mudfog Press, and the Poetry Book Society, amongst others. We shared the experience of being Lancastrian working class grammar school boys, albeit decades apart – he demonstrated time and again how you put back into an educational culture rather than simply take out. (I’ve also adopted Gordon’s zero tolerance approach to sloppy board papers, having been on the receiving end of his rigour.) 

 His own poems were always gimlet-eyed and, some might say, a bit on the miserable side, even when he was healthy and happy, but they are exemplary in many ways: human, lyrical, full of ideas and observation. As Andy Croft, Mr Smokestack, explained, most of us at the launch of Still Life 3 years ago expected it to be Gordon’s last book, given his health and disability. But last year Gordon found a new lease of poetic life, despite the challenges. The determination necessary to make these poems beggars belief, really. 

 And they are fine poems, aptly titled. They stare death in the face, sometimes solemnly, sometimes angrily, sometimes with a joke. They talk to the dead –  father, grandfather and the poets on Gordon’s bookshelves. But they also talk of and to the living – to family and friends, and to writers and composers whose work lives on. 

‘Wild Westerly’ addresses the poets on his shelves during a storm - the sense of enclosure transferring from the house in the storm to the mind now unable to directly enjoy the books that nourished it, ending in a defiantly affirmative cry : 

‘I have a poet’s answer to this storm 
for all assembled here, 
these silent legislators. 
I can’t read their verses now 
but know their truth. 
Blake, Brecht, Marlowe, Donne, Marvell, 
Coleridge, Lawrence, Neruda, Keats, et al
Yes, we understand that you’re preoccupied 
with worms and what they’ll try, it’s natural. 
You sense our brevity, the frittering of our breath, 
we gutter out before we’ve scarce begun. 
So what I’d bellow at you if I could
would go like this: we wonder, love, cry freedom, rage. 
The living talk to the living in singing words, 
which outlive their makers. 
If you touch us, yes we will bleed. 
You know I can’t. But I implore you, 
open any page while you have breath. 
What you discover, life. Read it, devour. 

 The poems in Talking to the Dead are, for me, heartbreaking as well as heartening. The book deserves to be read widely. You can find it, and more samples, on the Smokestack website.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

The truth about fundraising: all wound up like a ball of twine?

  Twine is a consortium of theatre organisations in the North East that have been supported through Arts Council’s Catalyst programme to explore how best to raise funds for small touring theatre companies. The organisations are The Empty Space, Northumberland Theatre Company, Théâtre Sans Frontières, Theatre Hullabaloo and Unfolding Theatre. (Declaration: Thinking Practice has worked with Empty Space, Hullabaloo and Unfolding over the last few years, and I know TSF and NTC well from my time at Arts Council.) 

 It’s an interesting, and in some ways representative, consortium: 1 NPO, currently involved in a capital project as well as touring, 2 companies that have lost regular Arts Council funding in 2012 and 2015 but survive, and 2 organisations that have never had regular funding. Some organisations have long histories, and have reinvented themselves over the years, others are still going through their first evolutions. The leaders, mainly women interestingly (or not), also represent a range of ages, from Miranda Thain, who I think at one point had amongst her claims to fame being the youngest NPO Chief Exec, through to others who have notched up - in the very best sense! - slightly more tours. 

 The Catalyst programme – intended to help organisations increase the amount raised from philanthropy, sponsorship and fundraising – was a key plank of Arts Council’s attempts to ‘capacity build’ towards a new funding model, one less ‘reliant’ on public funding and drawing in more private money. There were a number of consortia supported, which begged an additional question to those raised by other grants: do people give to groups of organisations or to art forms? 

 Twine have recently published a brilliantly honest and open collection of essays called ‘The Truth About Fundraising: Or what we learned as a Catalyst Arts consortium’. It includes reflections and practical tips on individual giving, surviving when you lose regular funding, data sharing, and applying to trusts and foundations - with Natalie Querol and Annie Rigby comparing rather different results there. There’s also some nitty gritty legal and accounting advice (with usual caveats) from the North East culture-world’s favourite accountant, Pete O’Hara. (A former colleague at Northern Arts, Pete is the reason I know ‘brackets are bad.’) 

 You can boil down the conclusions to a few tips. Be realistic about the ££s. (Sample quote: ‘We’ve clearly had a great experience of individual giving. Yet it makes no sense, in terms of the time we’ve put into it, when judged only in financial terms.’) But be ambitious. Be open with your funders and audiences about what you need and why. (Funnily enough, I said this in a conference session just last week, before reading this report. If people can see what it costs to put things on, they are more prepared to help, but organisations need to be a bit more open about the reality.) Keep it simple. Keep it passionate. And keep it true to you. 

 This publication does all those things itself, so should be useful for others grappling with these issues. It doesn't quite answer my question about fundraising for common interest, but I think I picked up a few clues. To be honest, I kind of wanted a balance sheet of investment and return, but I can understand why that is not here. More of this kind of sharing, please, from other Catalyst recipients. 

 Here's the song by Lightnin' Hopkins that's referenced in my title, as my own small philanthropic act:

Friday, 12 June 2015

After the cusp: invention and wakefulness

My last blog here, in March, was headed ‘The cusp of something, but what?’ I’ve left that cliffhanger hanging a while now, for reasons of work, family and football, and we know a little bit more.

Obviously, we’ve had the election. First I was afraid. Then I was petrified. 

Then I decided this would take more than disco songs and turned my silent mind to the survival of the kind of culture I believe in, one with beauty and fairness, where we look after our fellow human beings as well as ourselves. (I do have more detailed policies too, of course. Renationalize the railways, abolish private schools, don’t starve people, that kind of thing.) Nothing I’ve seen in the political sphere has cheered me up any since then, from either the government or the Labour response to defeat. 

The scale of challenge for the cultural sector is apparent. Some people tell me they are tired of thinking about resilience, when they could be thinking of something sexier and more exciting, or simply of being sexy and exciting as artists and organisations. But if ever adaptive resilience was needed it is now. Holding onto purpose and values in as bloody-minded-but-open-and-inventive a fashion is going to be crucial. 

Call me old-fashioned, call me timid, but for all the occasional talk of ‘let some things die and invest in the new’, it feels more important for culture, right now, that most things don’t. That they persist in their creativity, ingenuity and making of meaning. We need culture in the sense of arts, museums, libraries as one of the tools for building the culture in the broader sense that will eventually wash away the brutal selfishness I sometimes – only sometimes - feel surrounded by. For understanding that we are not, actually, surrounded by selfishness and pettiness, but, that most people, however they vote, are decent, compassionate and creative. They just have some bloody funny ways of showing it.

That does not mean we simply acquiesce to the forces of neoliberalist oppression, as some might suggest I’m suggesting. We do what ‘hard-working people’ (and layabout bohemians too) have done for centuries: work as best we can to find and make truth, beauty and justice in unhelpful circumstances, and to create the conditions and mechanisms for others to do so. Holding both principals and pragmatics tightly. Recognising that takes more than individual brilliance, or 'excellence' or 'ambition'. Every true maker of culture creates opportunities, one way or another, for others to do so, I believe. That’s how culture works, as opposed to commerce. We pass it on. That's why resilience matters, and why I continue to think it important to work with individual organisations and on research probing at sectoral level to make it more rather than less likely. 

This is not quite the blog I sat down to write. I suspect I needed to clear the decks for myself, as often after a spell away. (I’ve not been lazy, I have in fact researched and written more than 30,000 words of reports in the last couple of months, but more of that anon.) Over the next couple of weeks, I plan to share a few ‘chinks of light’ here, tools and reading that can be used, adapted or even opposed, as part of the way forward. All suggestions welcome. 

Today's chink of light is a reminder that it was Roy Fisher's 85th birthday yesterday, probably England's greatest living poet. You can read about him here if you don't know his work. I think this blog may have turned out as it did because I was thinking on lines from his CITY, which I read again last night, '‘Once I wanted to prove the world was sick. Now I want to prove it healthy.' The last lines of 'The Thing About Joe Sullivan' may also be apposite: 

 'marks of invention, wakefulness; 

the rapid and perverse 
tracks that ordinary feelings 

make when they get driven 
hard enough against time.'