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.'

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The cusp of something, but what?


The National Campaign for the Arts has published a sobering report, ‘Arts Index: England 2007-2014’. (Slightly confusingly also referred to as Arts Index 2015, but I’ll forgive them.) This paints a picture of an arts sector seemingly on the cusp. Whether it’s on the cusp of deformation or disaster, transformation or simply more determined, sweaty inventive hard work only time will tell.

 The Index takes 20 indicators and tracks them, where possible, between 2007 and 2014. The indicators of treasury and local authority funding are shocking, but tell us what we know: government decisions have led to drastic reductions in public funding. Other indicators show decreases in business and individual giving – at least where recent data is available. (No congratulations to whatever bright sparks thought it would be a good idea if Arts & Business stopped tracking business giving just when we need to know more than ever.) Lottery funding is higher, of course, as the government never ceases to remind us.

 Two things seem to be enabling the arts – as a whole – to keep a tenuous grip on the ‘consolidation’ phase. Firstly, earned income has tended to increase over the period, alongside numbers of people participating steady and their sense of the quality of the work improving. This is no small achievement. Secondly, trusts and foundations have stepped up to the plate and become even more important to the income mix. The indicators also suggest a trend toward greater economic contribution from the arts.

 The overall indicator has actually risen since 2007. But one must ask at what cost. It is not the Index’s role necessarily, but we need, for instance, to assess the impact on inclusion/exclusion of the sector’s successful response to the ‘business imperative’ to earn more income. Other questions around those ‘areas of success’ would include how much longer earned income and trusts and foundations can continue to increase, and what damage there will be to ‘the ecosystem’ from the loss of organisations that can’t match the overall trend, for whatever reason.

 The tone of the Index can be a bit doomy, which is understandable given its purpose. I’m not arguing for an equally advocacy-driven but ‘positive’ version – though this could be used as such. ‘Look how strong the arts are overall despite the cuts. Earning more, fundraising more, reaching more people.’ Those messages can, of course, be used from various directions. The ‘Index’ could help us look over the horizon for what might be coming. With this in mind, the most worrying indicator is the dip in reserves in recent years, after a period where they developed. This may be a sign of investment, or – more likely – of ends not quite meeting.

Friday, 13 March 2015

RSA cultural contract: straw man dons thinking head

(From @ace_national twitter stream with permission. Thanks to Alison O'Hara for pointing me out!)

 I promised more on the RSA’s draft contract between government and the arts and cultural sector after the launch debate event this week, so here we go, trying to reflect some of the conversation as I heard it, and some thoughts of my own. Get yourself a brew, it’s not as short as I’d like. (Not enough time!)

 I guess the first thing to say is that the room was divided on the approach, and few felt it was close to being right as yet. This is understandable, but we were asked by Vikki Heywood, RSA Chair and chair of the Warwick Commission, to vote on a show of hands whether we supported it, yes or no, to which the answer was, I’d guess, 35% Yes, 65% No, certainly no closer than 40:60. The trouble was this was the wrong question – like saying ‘Do you want to publish this first draft, yes or no?’ to which the answer is almost always ‘No.’

 Once we got over that surprising clumsiness, the discussion in the room seemed to reflect the scepticism of the table I was on. There is potential in the approach, seemed to be the consensus, but only with certain provisos. These actually added up to quite a list, and a contradictory one at that. The main concerns related to the following areas:

  • Definitions of the sector – there is slippage in the draft about arts and cultural sector, creative and cultural industries, leading to questions as to whether this is something for publically funded organisations alone, or the whole creative industries, and which might be better. (Arguments were made for each version.) Where artists sat in this was also raised, again with some people arguing artists were best out of it, others feeling this was a patronizing attitude. 
  • The transactional nature of ‘ask and offer’ made many very uncomfortable, given a lack of clear context for the contract. Who would sign up to it, on whose behalf and with what authority and accountability? How long is it for?
  • The short-term nature of some of the elements of both offer and ask – this seemed to betray the pragmatics that sit alongside, or maybe behind, the idea of greater clarity and maturity of relationship between government and sector. Pupil premium, for instance, is a very specific thing, which is not universal, and may prove time-limited. ‘Measureable increase in alternative income generation’ is also a current imperative but may not be in 10 or 20 years time. It’s certainly not a ‘principal of practice’ in the way that, say, ‘a mixed model of grant, earned and contributed income’ could be. (I’m not saying it should be, but it could be.) Perpetual increases are not something you can logically commit to as a principal. (It’s symptomatic of the draft that it is unclear if we are talking increase in proportion or quantum, by the way.) 
  • Who are we asking? Any government? Any DCMS? This election or next? The timeline is too tight to really generate ownership. This was enacted in the session at the RSA – when after 45 minutes of speeches – good ones, of course, especially by Jonathan Wakeham from Arts Emergency – the collective brain power in the room, which, me aside of course, was considerable – had 30 minutes to debate 3 questions on our tables and about 15 in plenary. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the right set up for the kind of thinking we were being asked to do, or the kind of support we were being asked for. If we’re to have the ‘more grown up and rigorous conversation about arts and cultural policy’ Matthew Taylor talks of it needs to be set up differently. 
  • Being careful what you wish for. There was nervousness to put it mildly at any government’s ability to craft a meaningful and helpful cross-departmental national strategy. That said, some people would have said that about Great Art (& now Culture) for Everyone, but now find it helpful as a clear reference point, even if not agreeing with all of it.  
(Image from cover of one of the best albums ever, Entertainment! by Gang of Four.)

 So, if there was a conclusion, it was that more work would be needed to make this a more precise document in order for everyone to really know what was being signed up to – on both sides, if this has two sides. Some clearly felt that would be too much work. To use an image of Ian McMillan’s on rewriting poems, this draft needs far more than its tie straightening, it may even need a new outfit and better shoes. 

 I wonder if the clues to a next draft were not in Matthew Taylor’s reference to the Compact between government and civil society organisations in his introduction, and the back and forth linguistic slippage from contract to compact in the discussion, and even Matthew’s blog introducing it. This is a now long-standing, powerful Compact cited in judicial reviews etc – so respected by its sector bodies and governments that the Coalition retained it despite their general clearing out of commitments by New Labour. (I had to laugh-to-keep-from-crying that one of the shared outcomes they thus commit themselves to is ‘an equal and fair society’, but let’s leave that for now.) 

 Contract and compact both mean agreement, but contract suggest more the legally enforceable supply of goods or services whilst compact suggests more a shared understanding of principals or behaviours – a covenant, to quote Webster’s’ definition. Generally it seemed there was more interest in this than something that routed back to exchanges around funding, as that had more limited direct relevance, although I’d share the view that having a clear, understandable statement of ‘this is what it means to take/for us to spend public money’ would be beneficial on all sides. I also saw some potential for parts of the draft to be developed as a kind of statement of ‘professional standards’ for parts of the sector but I think that might be a red herring for the case at hand. 

 The Compact is a revealing comparison. Others will be better placed to talk about any limitations, but there are a number of things it has the draft contract does not. Firstly, it is shaped around shared outcomes. Laura Sillars from Site Gallery posed the question in her speech ‘How do you negotiate with people who don’t share your passion?’ Well, my answer would start with ‘Find out what they are passionate about.’ Only when we acknowledge the priorities of government as genuine, can we work out how to find shared ground, shared outcomes. Without that you're not negotiating, you're selling. (This process of finding shared purpose is often more possible locally, I suspect, although the amount of people who talk with disdain for local government continues to bother me.) I wondered whether we also need to see expressed, and understand, the ask and offer from Government to the arts for the contract to be meaningful, but shared outcomes is a better way to do this. 

 (One of the good things about looking at shared outcomes is it forces people to ask ‘how does this commitment fit with our values and purpose?’ rather than ‘is there money available for our work?’ I don’t have shared outcomes with many areas of ‘cultural diplomacy’, for instance, so you’re unlikely to find me working with Chinese government or UAE royal families no matter how clear the ask/offer.) 

 The Compact then has a set of commitments and undertakings, which is for me much more positive language than that of ask and offer. It suggests shared purpose rather than supporter and supported. 

This brings me to the last little debate I want to mention. (There were lots of other points of course, look at #culturecontract for a flavour.) Some people may be uncomfortable with any kind of agreement with government signed by whoever on behalf of a sector as they don’t like the government of the day, or even any day, or those bodies who might sign it. Some may think thing government = state = a bad, coercive. limiting thing. Some people felt the big ‘contract’ needed to be between the sector and audiences – or the people or the public, the terms slipped around a little. This seems hard to do at sectoral level – although individuals organisations might helpfully be clearer about their ‘contract’ with their own audiences. 

 But an expression of what set of public, shared outcomes we want from a cultural sector that draws on public investment, support and legal frameworks – thus potentially encompassing the whole cultural and creative industries sector - could be possible, and would provide a set of principals and standards for any government to navigate by. It could include undertaking highly relevant to artists and microbusinesses – eg by committing to planning taking into consideration issues that affect cultural activity. (I’m thinking of debates about gentrification pushing out artists which often come down to planning decisions.) These could then be mirrored or adapted locally, as the Third Sector Compact has been. For me this would make clearer the outcomes of culture as a public good, and some of the key things needed to make that possible – from funding to intellectual property law. I’ve not included tax breaks as mentioned in the draft as I’d put a line through that – as one speaker said, ‘tax wealth not ambition’. Enough collusion with tax breaks already. 

 The draft was described as ‘a straw man’, so although I suspect some at the RSA were a bit surprised at the reaction, hopefully this kind of response is helpful. Someone may need to borrow that other straw man Worzel Gummidge’s Thinking Head for the next draft. (No link between Worzel's head and Thinking Practice by the way!) 

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Loans Sympatico?


NESTA, ACE, Esmee Fairbairn and others, including Bank of America Merrill Lynch have this week launched the Arts ImpactFund. This is a loan scheme to support arts organisations deliver social benefit. Grants of between £150,000 and £600,000 are available, and could be used for buildings, programmes, equipment or other things so long as it develops an income stream that can support paying back of the loan, This is a model which has proved successful and useful in other parts of the voluntary sector. As described at the launch by Caroline Mason from Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, which already uses loans in some circumstances, some arts organisations have also already good use of loans. Some are also using ‘prudential borrowing’ from local authorities, usually around capital projects. (Ironically, sometimes the very local authorities that are compelled by national government cuts to reduce their revenue grants, but that’s a larger conversation.)

Although this fund will not replace revenue funding, it may be a useful new tool with which some organisations can develop new income streams – thus helping their ‘resilience’ whilst enabling great art and social good, as the logic of the programme runs. Loans are not a financial mechanism the cultural sector is very comfortable with, and I can imagine some risk-averse boards being very cautious about this, but it may be time to consider it seriously. Grants are a fine tool, but not the only potential financial investment mechanism. (A point made over several years by people including Mission Models Money in Capital Matters.) As a few people suggested at the launch, a positive contribution to resilience - and the ability to adapt - is perhaps most likely to come from a combination of organisational development (to become 'investment ready' as the horrible jargon puts it), grant and loan. But time will tell.

The details of the fund can be found here. The photo above is from the launch event on Tuesday, of the inspiring Company of Elders from Sadlers Wells.