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.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Not so easy philanthropy



There’s a kind of irony that this week has seen the publication of the first evaluation report on ACE’s Catalyst programme and the announcement of the closure of Ideas Tap, an organisation supporting young creative talent, backed by philanthropist Peter De Haan.

Ideas Tap was the brainchild of De Haan, with funding coming from his own foundation. It was an example of philanthropy in action – with Ideas Tap seemingly able to move swiftly to points of need. (His brother, Roger de Haan, similar invested his foundation’s money into Folkestone Triennial. The money came mainly from the sell off the family business, Saga, by the way.) However, it seems from De Haan’s note on the end of Ideas Tap, other funding did not follow – the diverse income streams some are striving to build by adding in philanthropy are not necessarily easier to achieve if you start with endowment income. (I do wonder how that 200,000 membership could have been drawn on as financial backers, but I’m sure that will have been looked at.) Having one main source of income leaves you vulnerable to it drying up – or being used up as seems to be the case here. It’s a shame, but also maybe cautionary about the limitations of even very committed philanthropists.

 Catalyst is, of course, ACE’s main funding initiative to give the arts sector skills, experience and some ‘bottles to the party’ for the drive toward private philanthropy. ACE has just published BOP Consulting’s evaluation of Year One. The headlines are predictable, but no less worth noting - not least because ACE is planning more rounds of Catalyst. It’d be useful for any applicants to understand the themes here, and how they’ll use the learning of people involved in early cohorts.

A key message - one ACE is understandably stressing - is that fundraising is proving hard but possible. As in most things in life, bravery and practice make a big differences. It was obvious from day 1 that Catalyst needs to better acknowledge the time it takes to develop skills, practice them and build up the case. (Exactly the same point has been and will continue to be found/made in relation to Creative People and Places.) But the timelines policy has to work to - absurdly - mitigated against that. This is a point which bears constant repetition.

Some of the rules ACE insisted on – perhaps to help with the lottery additionality question, I suspect, to be fair to them – need to be applied more flexible. Separating private and business giving makes little practical sense – you draw on the same skills and mechanisms for both, and the same mindset of giving as an exchange in which you have agency, as opposed to begging or alms. Insisting raised money was spent on artistic activity also seemed counter-intuitive, and BOP recommend focusing on organisational resilience. This can, of course, include or equate to artistic activity, which is the start point for any arts fundraising, and a more significant tool than often thought. (I’ve recently been in on some training with the DeVos Institute, over from the USA, and was heartened to hear their emphasis on this.) Peer to learning is also recommended, and an emphasis on board members’ roles is identified.

There is little prospect of philanthropy being less important to arts funding and policy the other side of the general election, whatever happens, so this will stay important to ACE. Giving is a potentially important part of the mix for many organisations – especially if we think of giving in the broadest sense. Developing a set of ‘family and friends’ for your work is, I think, an absolutely ‘scaleable’ concept – be you a poet or a royal opera house.

Talking of which, here’s a very practical tip, courtesy of my fellow trustee of Swallows Foundation UK, Brian Debnam. If your charity is registered on Easyfundraising your supporters can buy things on many popular (and concurrently unpopular in some cases, the world being what it is) sites – from books, to hotel rooms, flights, train tickets to, well, most things – and a donation is made to the charity if you get to the site via Easyfundraising.

It’s small sums, but simple to do and can add up, and I will admit to a small – very small – pleasure when a donation 4% of a recent hotel booking went to SFUK. Northern readers who travel to London a lot might note Virgin Trains is one of the participants, so your favourite charity can get a small consolation for that mourning feeling for East Coast you get when you book. (There may be other similar sites – do let me know if so.)

[Video above is Give It Away by Andrew Bird. Seemed appropriate somehow. Click here for link if for some reason not visible.)

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

#artsreportsforall



The last 10 days has seen a plethora of noteworthy reports and policy announcements (ie > 1). Just as I prepared to sit down to blog about one, along would come another. I want to discuss two here with some reference to two others, as they all connect. 

First up was a ‘closing statement’ from GPS Culture – the troika of Christopher Gordon, David Powell and Peter Stark. A New Destination for the Arts. Between a RoCC and a Hard Place restates, in brief, the arguments from their earlier papers about the geographical distribution of culture funding, especially lottery funds, the need to make London authorities pay their fair share, the case for relooking at ACE’s use of lottery funds to put additionality back in its rightful place, and the need for radical change in how ACE deliver its Royal Charter. 

GPS have done what very few achieve – they have changed the conversation and introduced a new shorthand into policy conversations: ‘rebalancing’. Sometimes this is said passionately, sometimes disparagingly, sometimes anxiously. But the Select Committee report backs the thrust of the case, and no matter what government we have in the summer, the winds of change are blowing. The imperative to make a start – ‘just do it’ - is put well and forcefully. 

 GPS remain intent on being tough on ACE, tough on the causes of ACE as they see it - prime amongst those being a combination of weak government arts policy and vested interests. GPS also remain disappointed in the timidity of the sector: ‘they appeared to have lost their independence and their voices… unprecedented levels of uncertainty – even fear – [in] the client/funder relationship. What was said in private was often at odds with public utterance – where there was any.’ This is interestingly, and paradoxically, contrary to many comments when Alan Davey left ACE left year, which suggested relationships were much improved from the supposed nadir of the RFO hoohah of 2008. That something is a paradox does not mean it’s untrue, mind. 

 Next to get people hurrahing or tutting on social media was the report of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth. I could spend a while deconstructing just that title and what it suggests about the intended audience and the worldview of the commission, but I want to respond to some more specifics about its recommended ‘goals’. It’s clear this will be an important report, so the full ramifications may only emerge over time, as different bodies and people pick it up, or not. The report suggests 5 goals. I’ll put these into my own summary. 

1. Invest in the whole ecosystem of creative and cultural industries. ‘The ecosystem’ is a defining theme of the Commission’s conclusions. Some sections could be subtitled ‘it’s the ecosystem, stupid!’ This ecosystem is both acknowledged as a metaphor and talked about in very concrete terms. (The metaphor does get a bit mangled and mixed at times – the ecosystem is a supercharger of creative talent and ideas apparently...) This leads to recommendations for plans, investment plans and investment mechanisms for the whole ecosystem – from arts to creative industries. 

 I have two main issues with this section. Firstly there is an underlying argument for ‘one plan, one voice’ that I find problematic given the diversity of values and ways of being/seeing in the sector, and at odds with the dynamic system implied by ecosystem thinking. Put simply, tension seems to be required in a cultural ecosystem as well as accord. This impulse also leads to slightly odd suggestions such as merging two independent sector skills councils that deal with very different cultures and, no pun intended, skill sets. ‘A joined-up approach to culture, heritage and creativity across BIS, DCMS, DfE, DCLG and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)’ maybe shouldn’t be too much to ask, but it sounds it right now. 

 Secondly, although there clearly are pathways between the commercial creative industries and the subsidized arts, and the non-subsidised and voluntary arts, there is an over emphasis on (undefined) commercial skills. This may be symptomatic of a somewhat ‘conclusions from the top table’ feeling I get. (Might be my problem, of course.) What I couldn’t see, nor is it clear in the RSA draft contract I mention below, much sense of the responsibilities owed by commercial (profit making) creative industries to other parts of the ecosystem. 

 They could currently be portrayed as a) benefitting from public investment in talent and ideas without much return to the places and organisations that happens (how many film companies put money into new writing or publishing, for instance?) and b) benefitting from the work and sweat equity of artists and unsubsidized arts organisations, again without investing in that flow. Oh and c) being probably the worst offenders in creating an exploitative internship/low-pay-high-hours culture. 

2. Diversify to enrich the ecosystem. The report rightly puts a big emphasis on the growing inequality within the sector, within both the workforce and audiences for publicly funded work. This is an issue with roots long predating our current small state government, but it is becoming ever more serious, and will have ramifications long into the future if not addressed. There are, however, at least two strands to the root causes where I think the Commission could have gone further. 

 One, which the report addresses to some extent, is the choices the cultural sector itself makes. (To recruit in its own image, to not diversify its leadership, to demand ever higher/more specific entry qualifications etc.) The other is arguably more important and not tackled here, and relates to non-arts policies that encourage exclusion. This includes changes to education and – crucially – welfare systems. Changes to the Independent Living Fund, Disabled Living Allowance and Access to Work schemes for disabled people, for instance, are not cultural policy but have excluded many people from the cultural workforce. One could say the same about the punitive regimes for jobseekers, especially young ones.

3. Education, education, education. One of the strongest arguments within the report is about the growing evidence of the decline in arts education, especially in schools. It is not surprising when you read the statistics quoted that the Bridge organisations and their progenitor ACE, have struggled to make impact in schools as a whole. (Stats such as 11% fewer arts teachers and 8% fewer drama teachers since 2010, and Drama and Performing Arts down by 23% in schools where a subject has been withdrawn.) Add to that the academisation and disintegration of local education (given little prominence here) and it is a dispiriting picture, but a necessary one to begin to tackle. The report has already given Ed Miliband ammunition for his policy ideas, as set out this week, with clear reference back to the report. The RSA contract also asks NPOs, NPMs et al to ‘combine forces to offer high-quality, relevant and affordable arts and cultural experiences to schools.’ The slight downside of this approach is that there are simply too many schools and too few cultural organisations of that type – far greater reach could be achieved, but the definitions of and doors on the cultural offer to young people need to be much wider than NPOs and NPMs. 

4. Digital – let’s make a new portal! Digital is important. It’s disrupting everything from music to taxis. We know this. But the idea of a Digital Public Space – DiPS for short – is a clunker to my mind, I’m afraid. It whiffs of ‘we’re different and special in culture’, runs counter to much else here that is suggesting a more commercial approach and wouldn’t so much create a commons as a reservation. It appears to learn little from the writers and musicians exploiting the existing platforms for creativity and, yes, commerce. In short, it feels a little like a recommendation to move to Wales to live on a commune because the local High Street gets a Starbucks. (No offence to commune dwellers in Wales, some of my best friends etc etc…) 

 Better, I would suggest to find ways to manage IP and share content on whatever platforms might create a commons and enable earning. (I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, more soon.) The RSA ‘draft contract’ picks up on this recommendation, using 4 words that make my blood run cold: ‘new digital cultural offer’. 1000s, maybe, said sceptically. One? Nein danke. 

5. Make the local matter by joining up and planning together. This section feels a little dutiful and wishy washy, once we move beyond the perfectly sensible recommendations on the role of culture in place making. The comments about regional equity read as if someone said, ‘’O lord, we have to say something about Rebalancing, I suppose?’ It recommends ‘a portfolio approach rather than allowing a narrow focus on postcodes’, which sounds to me like diplomat speak for status quo plus. And it slips into a really dangerous position, I think, with a fudgy recommendation for ‘an agreed methodology … for the measurement of the value of public spending per audience member, which is assessed on excellence, equity and regional distribution and allows for the different costs 
of various art forms.’ 
Analysing funding per audience member does not sit easily with a portfolio approach, and could be distorting if not disastrous. 

 I am being deliberately picky here. There is much to commend and it seems likely to prove a significant and influential document that combines a clarity of case and a depth of evidence with a broadly sensible strategy. This is no small achievement. Ed Miliband’s references to it suggest it is already being seen as this. The ecosystem is something that has long required further exploration and this will lead to more. Connecting the supply side ecosystem (mixed metaphor alert!) to the audience issues may also prove helpful in future. 

There are some interesting paragraphs here on film and music as artforms where participation does not suffer from the exclusion that other artforms do. In keeping with cultural policy in general, and certainly recent ACE policy, it seems to undervalue the huge popularity of reading, despite the importance of books and writers to the film industry, say. This is perhaps symptomatic of the continuing difficulty of describing that ecosystem. 

 A third document – well, one side of A4 –published this week that follows up explicitly on the Warwick report is the RSA ‘draft contract’, as mentioned earlier. This is up for debate and proper launch soon, so more then –this blog is getting LONG, I know – but do check it out. You can read Matthew Taylor’s blog on it here

 And finally, Ed Miliband’s speech on the arts, promising to put them at the heart of a future Labour government, although with few specifics yet, beyond reintroducing the cultural entitlement for young people the last Labour government was working on. I want to see it there alongside social justice, myself, but it’s a significant speech. (Joined up arts funding and policy will be little consolation if the barbarism of sanctioning, enforced homelessness and punishment of those that need help continue, for instance.) 

The proof will be in the pudding of course. So, happy reading, may all tutting fade, and a luta continua…

Thursday, 12 February 2015

7 year twitch


I’ve been writing something today about the things people forget when they use the word ‘resilience’ – be that approvingly, disapprovingly, disdainfully or simply exhaustedly. I wanted to know when I first used the word in my blogging, so was searching the old Arts Counselling site, where I wrote when I worked for ACE.

 It turns out Resilience was Wednesday Word of the Week a little under 6 years ago – 25th February 2009 to be exact. But that’s not my point here. (You’ll have to read the engage Journal ‘resilience special’ later in the year to see to what use I put that fact.)

 I also noticed that it is exactly 7 years ago today since I started the Arts Counselling blog. It was born out of several things: a desire to use my writing skills more than I was, a need to communicate more often about the arts and what I was doing in my job, and a need to remind people that ACE was not full of faceless bureaucrats. Maybe it was also to prove that to myself.

 The first blog was about 5 words that drove my work at ACE. (I bottled titling it 5 words in a nod to a favourite song, as the Go-betweens' 5 words are 'Bury them don't keep them', not quite the right message!) Those words were: passion, opportunity, responsibility, change and roots. Re-reading that first post and looking through the site was a useful refresher for me.

 Firstly, I made a ‘note-to-self’ not to slip into the slack thinking that people at ACE might be more faceless bureaucrats now than they used to be. Although the diversity policy continues, I believe, to require a few faceless bureaucrats are employed, I doubt that’s really true. There are fewer people there full stop, and they may sometimes feel more ‘boxed in’ at times than I generally did, but the folk I come across still seem driven by a passion for the arts (and now museums and libraries of course). Even when frustrated or worse with funders, as one will at times be, it’s worth remembering that.

 Secondly, I was reassured I was still living by those 5 words in different ways in the things I do via Thinking Practice, through my writing and through my board memberships. I think if you have a ‘career’ in the arts, you will want to step in and out of the circle if you have the chance, so you never get too comfortable. (Sometimes you need to step in and make a bit of trouble, of course.)

 It’s also nearly 5 years since I founded Thinking Practice out of a desire to carry on making change, exercising my passion and responsibility in very different ways. It feels like new chapters of that larger systems change may need to open in the coming months, as the general election slouches towards us, a very rough beast indeed. Those chapters will be written in many voices and styles I suspect. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to work with people making change, encouraging greater equality in culture, greater ingenuity. We need those ever more urgently. (And yes, greater adaptive resilience too.)

 Anyway, I also noticed the Arts Counselling blogs were shorter than my Thinking Practice ones so I’ll just stop there, I think!

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Infinite Town


I mentioned in my end of the year round up that I had been commissioned by Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council to write a poem for use on Stockton High Street. A couple of days later I went into town and happened across it, already in situ, albeit behind a security fence. As you can see below, it also had rather a large bow on top of it - for the holiday season, not as part of the permanent structure! Above is a photograph of a poem . It is inscribed in a large plinth on the High Street, part of a huge redevelopment of the town centre. From the summer, an automata in the shape of a train will arise from the point (once a day, in Trumpton-style).




The poem was one of a number of texts I wrote in response to the commission, and was chosen by the panel overseeing the redevelopment. The poem had to do a number of things (some for the commission, some for me):
  • Be memorable but not simplistic - some people will see this a lot and I wanted it to strike them differently over time
  • Have local relevance and reference, but not be backwards looking or too 'representational' in tis references
  • Form part of a the 'new' High Street, being optimistic without simply cheerleading, but whilst having a 'civic' tone to balance the eventual playful automata
  • Have a kind of density to its language suitable to the setting
If you know Stockton you may pick up references to the Infinity bridge, which you can just about see from the plinth, the Tees which is nearby, and the town's firework tradition. (Starting with the invention of the safety match and through to today's festival finales.) It was also, of course, part of the birth of railways.

This is a very different kind of cultural intervention than most of what I write about here, but Thinking Practice is not called that for nothing! And this is definitely one text with my name on that cannot be put away on a shelf in a cupboard somewhere!