Monday, 27 March 2017

Five A Week 1: Some Things to Read and Think About

Image of work by Li-Hongbo, White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney 2012
This is a new, potentially regular feature where I’ll point at some interesting and provoking things to read and think about. If time and inclination align with a feeling I’ve got something useful and/or interesting to say about them, I will. It’ll be recent material, with one archive choice, often from the Thinking Practice/Arts Counselling blogs over the last 9 years. 

An interesting meditation on power relations between people running or working within institutions and people working as artists, and the need to reinvent institutions and how they work in order to end the ongoing abuse of artists’ precarity: ‘My call to the institutions today, my call to us all – because we are the institutions: institutions do not act, people act, and we are the people. My call is to pay constant attention to How we are doing what we are doing, and to get this finally aligned with the values we publicly stand for.’ 

One of the phrases that caught my eye in Agnes Quackels address was her summing the needs of artists as Time Space Money. This was the first name of a major attempted intervention I led during my time at Arts Council England, later known as Artists Insights. It led to around pensions, professional standards, and artists studios amongst other things. Some things that resulted have been and gone and come back again in the decade since, and it is probably remembered by about 8 people who work at Arts Council now, although the challenges folk are working on remain very similar. 

 This report, from the Institute of Government, is not about cultural policy but government policy in general, using FE, regional governance and industrial strategy as examples of how policy reinvents itself in a generally wasteful and ineffective manner. Like cultural policy has, and does, I would say. It does though have some relevant recommendations for improvements in four key areas: strengthening institutional memory, greater strategic direction from the centre, making organisational change harder, and strengthening policy development. 

 The government tendency to abolish and start up new organisations without proper cost benefit analysis has certainly been present in cultural policy at all levels. (Mea culpa etc etc) Create audience development agencies. Abolish or merge audience development agencies. Spend a fortune on Creative Partnerships. Pretend Creative Partnerships never existed... 

 Recommendations such as ‘all policymakers should be able to access a repository of work already undertaken in their policy area, in order to inform their own recommendations’, ‘policy announcements should be accompanied by the evidence base that underpins them’ and ‘departments should be required to acknowledge previous policy and organisational approaches in all new policy proposals – including White and Green Papers – explaining what lessons they have learned from previous reforms’ should all be taken on board by cultural policy makers of all sorts. 

I guess those previous reforms might not go all the way back to 1974 very often, but sometimes it can be revealing to look back. Francois Mattarasso’s blog A Restless Art is a regular marvel, which I’m sure you all read, but a recent blog relates to the current interest in co-creation in the context of the history of community arts and the first Arts Council report on it. This contained, so people including Owen Kelly argued, the seeds of the original movement’s own downfall in that it gave it status and funding but ignored the collective politics at the heart of much community arts practice. (Not for nothing does Francois illustrate the blog with a still from an Amber Collective film.) I'd agree with Francois it's not so simple as that. 

 4. IF NOT HERE, WHERE? – THE MUSEUM AS HOST IN A POLARISED WORLD In this blog Tony Butler discusses ideas from a recent Happy Museums event looking at the EU Referendum and motivations for voting either way. Tony argues that ‘Museums can be activist organisations and (to paraphrase Berthold Brecht) be both a mirror to society, and a hammer with which to shape it.’ That, and the work of Happy Museums feels to me like a statement of Hope rather than Optimism – ie it is how the world should be, rather than how one expects it to be or become right now – but is no less powerful for that. 

 5 THE USEFUL MUSEUM To be effective hosts for the kinds of dialogue Tony Butler (and I) want, museums, and maybe all of us, may, as Esme Ward wrote recently about mima’s efforts to become The Useful Museum, need to display considerably more boldness. Only by doing so throughout everything, including the ‘core’ will that dialogue to be apparent to visitors in the galleries as well as the conversations 

RE. ARTS: THOUGHTS FROM SARTRE - CHOICE, COLLECTIVITY, COLLABORATION AND CONTINGENCY This 2011 blog of mine has two of my favourite quotes on hope in it, as well as a few other thoughts inspired by a book in interviews with Sartre. If I quoted them here it would stop the two of you likely to click on the link from doing so, so here’s a different quote I hold onto: ‘‘There is no I without the we.’

Going on

Normalish blog service will resume shortly... 

(Not sure who created this image so can't credit them. But they are very good. All hail Samuel Beckett, Jane Bown, Graham Linehan, Arthur Matthews and Mrs Doyle though.)  

Thursday, 22 December 2016

A pause

We'll see you you in 2017, trying it again, only this time faster, but slower....

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

2016: Faster but Slower

 Well, 2016 has been a year memorable often for all the wrong reasons. I can’t be the only person wanting to slap themself for their previous complacency, can I? I’m not going to go on about the dark times that have emerged from neglected corners, I suspect ‘regular readers’ know where I stand, and others are more eloquent. Read the brilliant Zadie Smith’s piece here instead. I do, though, want to remind us that as Brecht half-said, in the dark times there will still be singing, and much work to be done. 

 The combination of much work and an ongoing sense of not wanting to add to the ‘blabber and smoke’ (to quote Captain Beefheart) has meant I’ve been quiet on the blog this year. This does not mean I’ve been quiet elsewhere. As in previous years, I’ve written tens of thousands of words in reports, evaluations and articles. 

 Two big pieces of work have been about Creative People & Places, one of the most significant initiatives Arts Council England have supported in recent years. I collaborated with Consilium Research to look at approaches to excellence (of product and of process of engaging communities) across the programme. This also included a small review of existing quality or excellence frameworks. The report ‘What it does to you’: Excellence in CPP is amongst the wealth of material shared by CPP as part of its learning.

 A recent commission was to take that material and boil the learning down to a form more people could read. This meant going from over 70 documents to 21 pages. The report ‘Faster but Slower, Slower but Faster’ captures lessons at a key point in CPP, with achievements and learning emerging but major change tantalisingly only potential. The report may be the only report to takes its underlying structure from a hybrid of the sonnet and the 3 act narrative. It’s both big and little, a fast and slow read that I hope does justicve to the learning. 

 Coincidentally, as that new report was published, something I worked on earlier in the year with EW Group, for Arts Council England, was published as part of ACE’s creative case and cultural education work. Every Child looks at the barriers to inclusion in arts and cultural activity across the protected characteristics in relation to young people, and has informed ACE’s action plan in this area. 2017 should see other projects with EW Group for ACE around disability and diversity more broadly published. 

 The other major chunk of published material finished this year was a set of 20 case studies and essays about changing business models, commissioned by AMA and shared via Culture Hive. I’ve written about these before, but it’s a substantial set of studies that are proving useful to people, or so they tell me. 

 Other online publications this year include: 
A conversation about the role of Critical Friend with Rachel Adam of bait and Eleanor Turney 
Arts professional article on the excellence research 
A ‘review’ of the DCMS White paper for a-n 
Remembering ‘the big one that got away’ for Tees Valley Art
I’ve done a bit of conference reporting this year also: you can see the ‘storifys’ here

 I’ve also actually managed to write more poems this year than for a while, and to do some performances as part of this years T-Junction International Poetry Festival, including my first school visit for about 20 years. My poem A Confession was published the day after the EU Referendum, which gave the last line a different edge. Mr Duncan-Smith Dreaming In The Sun was included in the anthology New Books and Pantisocrasies, edited by W.N. Herbert and Andy Jackson for Smokestack Books. I was also chuffed to have a poem in The Long White Thread of Words, an anthology edited by Amarjit Chandan, Gareth Evans and Yasmin Gunaratnam to mark John Berger’s 90th birthday. 

 Of course, most of my year is not spent at my desk writing things that can be hyperlinked but face to face with clients, talking at conferences, leading training, facilitating planning and away days and so on. This is the listening without which I really would have nothing to say, so thank you to all the people I’ve worked with this year. Whatever it brings 2017 is going to need all the cultural leaders it can get, at all levels, of all types, and doing all sorts of work. May it be the year of the plural and embracing rather than the singular and exclusive.

Monday, 1 August 2016

The Art of Relevance

Nina Simon, who is the Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, and a leading museums thinker, was the punchiest keynote speaker at the recent AMA conference. I came away with a copy of The Art of Relevance, her new book, the themes of which she set out in her talk. 

 Relevance has the potential to give the other R word a run for its money in the 2016 Buzzword stakes, but we should not hold that against Nina or her argument. Using the images of rooms and keys and insiders and outsiders, the book is a sharp argument for mattering more to more people, not by assertion of your own intrinsic value but by making genuine connections. It uses stories and micro-case studies to illustrate how switching the terms in an open and ongoing fashion leads to change, and to relevance. 

 Along the way there are a good number of highly quotable lines and arguments. Simon starts off by skewering two common delusions, seen weekly in the arts: firstly that what we do is relevant to everyone, and secondly that we don’t have to work on that relevance as people will find our work due to its distinctiveness. The key is that relevance is not about you: ‘It’s not about what you think people need to want or deserve. It’s about them – their values, their priorities.’ 

 She goes on to deal with that old chestnut ,‘we shouldn't be giving people what they want, our job is to give them what they need,’ in a way which made something clearer for me than it had been before: ‘In my experience, the institutionally-articulated ‘needs’ of audiences often look suspiciously like the ‘wants’ of the professionals speaking….Let’s not sell short the power of giving people what they want. Cultural experiences should be a pleasure. They can also be educational, challenging, empowering, political… but they must first be something people want.’ 

 One of the key points of the book is that if you want to be more relevant to some people you must be prepared to change what you do, and for your centre of gravity to shift so you become less relevant to others. Helping outsiders feel confident about entering your ‘room’ may unsettle the current insiders – it should certainly change the atmosphere. Many organisations talk the talk whilst attempting to console themselves and insiders that they won't lose any of their privileges. 

 I can certainly think of organisations that fit this description: ‘Many institutions take a schizophrenic middle ground on relevance. They swing between issuing press releases about change while reassuring insiders that none of the good stuff will be impacted. They pat themselves on the back in the morning and go to bed fearful at night.’ (If someone at Arts Council isn't fretting over how to make real change in the NPO portfolio without, er, making too much change in the NPO portfolio I'll be surprised.) 

 Any arts or cultural organisation not entirely satisfied with themselves will find something in The Art of Relevance. It should be compulsory reading for any ‘national’ organisation currently wondering how it gets out to the regions to engage with communities perceived as voting to leave the EU, for whom it has many useful lessons. (I say 'perceived' as people voted, not places, generally by fairly small margins, it wasn’t a series of local referenda.)

 Firstly, as Nina Simon says, ‘Now is the least useful form of relevance,’ so any ‘listening’ to be done should not focus exclusively on one Y/N question but the underlying issues it reflects. Secondly, Rufus Norris or whoever should be ready to be met on the doorstep (ok, my doorstep) by a variant of ‘Where the bloody hell have you been till now?’ and to work to get over that hurdle. 

 Thirdly, national bodies – or anyone in ACE urging ‘national’ bodies to work in places like Stockton, as appears to be happening – should make sure they start not from what they do and want but from the concerns of those they wish to engage. They need to be prepared to work radically differently, not restrict the ‘offer’ to current ways of working. 

 ‘What matters or is useful to people in places like Hartlepool, Boston, and other places with big leave majorities?’ needs to be the starting point, not ‘what can ‘we’ do to help people in those places be part of a more cohesive or creative society?’. If Nina Simon is right, and I think she is, only when people ask the first question first can they hope to make progress on the second. This does not, of course, mean putting your own values to one side – if anything it means being clearer about them, so that you can develop lasting relevance rooted in all the awkwardness of honest relationships rather than provisional, contingent ones.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Models, Missions, Visions and Hope

Well, a lot has happened since I last wrote a blog, much of it enough to make me put my head in my hands before getting back in gear. I don't have time right now to start on causes and implications of Brexit; the new headmistress, I mean Prime Minister; the adult-ed teachers room squabble to be head of department in the Labour Party; or multiple murderous madnesses around the globe. Besides, something else may have happened whilst I was writing this paragraph. I may return to this in time – one of my conclusions is rushing to immediate opinion isn’t conducive to very much at all. 

 I’ve been trying to bring my personal vital signs back to functional by working hard, relishing the small pleasures of life and turning off social media more often. Let the Horizon of Stupid stay where it is for a while. (Yes, I know this is what The Man wants.) Amongst other things, I attended the Arts Marketing Association’s conference in Edinburgh last week, giving two seminars on the uses and limitations of the Business Model Canvas. I want here to point to a few resources and things I mentioned in the seminars. 

 The case studies I wrote for the AMA that the seminars were based on can all be found here, on CultureHive, as can the overview papers. One of the adaptations I usually make the Canvas when using with people is adding a Mission box, and ensuring we discuss Values in relation to the model as a whole and Customer Relationships particularly. I was interested to see, then, that one of the people who created the Business Model Canvas, Alexander Osterwalder has recently worked with Steve Blank to make a version for Mission-driven non-profits. This replaces Customers with Beneficiaries, Customer Relationships with Buy-in & Support and, Channels with Deployment and Revenue Streams with Mission Achievement/Impact Factors. 

 Whist this helps build these ideas in, I do think the advantages are limited. For many there is a useful rigour to thinking about beneficiaries as customers alongside those people who pay for things either directly or on behalf of beneficiaries. (Eg Arts on Prescription models need to provide value both to those referred to them and the commissioning bodies providing the funding.) Losing the clarity/discipline of Revenue Streams also seems to weaken the Canvas. The mission needs to sit separately from the balancing of costs and revenue income. 

 It is though an interesting new version. I listened in on a webinar between Osterwalder and Blank recently that you can replay here. It explains why income may not have been front of mind in developing it, as it was trialled with various parts of the US government. 

 Linking to the Post-Referendum Blues, I want to end with a couple of quotes from Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant book Hope in the Dark, which I mentioned in Edinburgh I’d reread to shake myself up. (I used a line of Solnit’s about emergency containing the word emerge.) I think the quotes speak for themselves - they will certainly have to right now. Both may have relevance to those grappling with the times and with their business models and other designs for life. They certainly did for me - I can't recommend the book highly enough, or indeed any of Solnit's other books. (The Faraway Nearby being my favourite.) It's about to be reissued by Canongate, and there was an essay based on it in the Guardian last weekend

 Quote 1: 
‘But the despair was something else. Sometime before the election [George Bush’s relection in 2004] was over, I vowed to keep away from what I thought of as ‘The Conversation”, the tailspin of mutual wailing of how bad everything was, a recitation of the evidence against us – one exciting opportunity the left offers if of being your own persecutor – that just buried any hope and imagination down into a dank little foxhole of curled-up despair. Now I watch people having it, wondering what it is we get from it. The certainty of despair – is even that kind of certainty so worth pursuing? …. Hope is the story of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the risk involved in not knowing what comes next, which is more demanding than despair, and, in a way, more frightening. And immeasurably more rewarding.’ 

 Quote 2: 
‘Moths and other nocturnal insects navigate by the moon and starts. Those heavenly bodies are useful for them to find their way, even though they never get far from the surface of the earth. But light bulbs and candles send them astray, they fly into the heat or the flame and die. For these creatures, to arrive is a calamity. When activists mistake heaven for some goal at which they must arrive, rather than an idea to navigate earth by, they burn themselves out, or they set up a totalitarian utopia in which others are burned out in the flames. Don't mistake a light bulb for the moon, and don't believe that the moon us useless unless we land on it. … The moon is profound except when we land on it.’

Monday, 20 June 2016

REMAIN wary of easy answers to complex problems

Like many people I’ve found the EU referendum process a depressing and dispiriting one that illustrates, again, the brokenness of our political culture. Self-righteousness, lack of empathy and perspective, inability or unwillingness to listen or imagine, disregard for uncomfortable facts, disdain, willingness to treat opinion as fact and fact as mere opinion… Despite being absolutely and firmly in the Remain camp these have felt like they’ve been all around, some coming from all sides, albeit not equally.

The worst aspect of what has not so much been a campaign as a car park row has been the nationalism and xenophobia  behind much of the Leave rhetoric and on the ugly surface of some of it. Not everyone who wants to leave is on the right, of course, certainly not on the nationalist right, but those who are see this as their best opportunity since the 70s. (When violent fascists were a common danger on the streets or at gigs, let’s not forget.)

My reasons for being IN include lifelong Europhilia brought on by studying Modern Languages’ before I’d been anywhere more ‘foreign’ than Barry Island, and a belief that collaborative internationalism is more constructive than competitive individualism. I see – and experience – migration as a good thing, certainly more helpful than its opposites. I don't see how the EU has developed as entirely positive, but no governance format is going to be in the kind of economy/society we have. The alternatives seem at best very uncertain, or where not uncertain, hugely negative. This is definitely the case in relation to the arts and culture where I work, both practically in terms of loss of EU funds and spiritually in terms of intercultural creativity. I have even forgiven the EU for the hoops of fire endured over the years in raising money from it – as the transformative effects in the NE massively outweighed any irritation.

Given the potential losses it struck me last week that what we are in danger of seeing is a kind of law-abiding riot by referendum. People who feel unheeded, who feel their grievances  are belittled, are in a mood for some destructive release, even if it does leave their neighbourhood battered, with damaged businesses, and with a hefty bill for the clean up. I even started to write something along those lines, almost breaking a silence inspired by that feeling of depression, of not wanting to add another pointless voice to the noise.

By the time I got on a train to London on Thursday, though, the MP Jo Cox had been so tragically killed and I spent most of the trip either in a daze or thinking of the poems of Goran Simic. Goran is a Bosnian poet who was in Middlesbrough recently, as part of the hugely internationalist T-Junction Poetry Festival. (I help on the committee and mc-ed the reading Goran was part of.) His ‘New and Selected Sorrows’, published by Smokestack, who also published my last book I should (proudly) declare, is an amazing and horrifying set of poems flowing out of his experience of the siege of Sarajevo. How does a civilised country slip into horror? As I read about Jo Cox on that train, holding back tears at the mad waste, I could not hold back an irrational (irrational? please say it’s irrational) fear about England. What genie has been let out of the bottle by this unnecessary referendum? Is this John Lydon's words 'No future in England's Dreaming' given horrible form 40 years on?

Perspective, though, Mark, I tell myself. The loss of perspective is part of the problem. The us and them is part of the problem. Simplicity is part of the problem. The sad, bad, disturbed and dangerous to know have always been with us. Nuance and empathy have to be our platform. Things being several things at once, inconveniently. But until you can get that across, do not add to the noise. Several days later, I still feel that.

But I also feel that positive action has to be part of it too, though I don’t know what. Some people have suggested some new form of music or arts platform against racism and nationalism, citing the example of Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League in the 70s and early 80s. I’d be happy to put my flimsy poems towards that, though they are not what’s needed. I was heading to London for the opening party of the new TATE Modern – in some senses it felt hugely irrelevant, in others positive, and most of the conversations I had that night touched on people’s worries about the atmosphere around the referendum, as well as the outcome.

Culture has to be part of the solution, whatever happens on Thursday. I’ve had some lines of Greil Marcus in my head a lot lately, even before the killing of Jo Cox, something he wrote about the blues singer Robert Johnson: ‘“It is not the simple presence of evil that is unbearable; what is unbearable is the impossibility of reconciling the facts of evil with the beauty of the world.” Sadly what is unbearable must be borne so it can be changed, and culture has a role in that. 

I am also reminded of the end of Auden’s sadly immortal poem about the start of World War II:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

So now my voice says I shall be voting to Remain, and I hope you do too. I doubt that will change any of my reader’s views, but just in case there are more Eurosceptics out there than I suspect, and for all its tiny effect, I decided to share that here. I’ll be continuing to commit my non-Thinking Practice creative work to this area this year, whether it turns out to be or do any good or not. All ideas for other positive actions welcome.

PS: I want to say it's not so much I think anyone needs to know my thoughts on the referendum, but I needed to get these thoughts out of my head. Thank you for maybe being there.