Thursday, 4 September 2014

The fairest creature

 A while ago I wrote something I tried to use a favourite Gramsci quote in, but the revision process made me take it out. So I tried to use it in something else, but it still wasn't the right place. I copied it onto an electronic post it, just in case it came in useful for other than reminding myself what I'm doing when I write and try and help make a culture. I thought I might use it in a blog, but never seemed the right moment… until now.

Tom Shakespeare, who was my chair when I was at Arts Council England, North East, has just made a Radio 4 'Great Lives' programme about Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist and writer who I think about as one of the best left writers on culture. You can listen to Tom not quite persuading former Tory MP Matthew Parris here. You can also read a short biog on Tom's excellent site our statures touch the skies, which features his short biographies of notable disabled people.

 Anyway, here's the quote, which when I read it made me think, yes, that's one of the closest things I've read to how I think and feel about culture.

  Culture is about ‘organisation, discipline of one’s inner self, a coming to terms with one’s own personality; it is the attainment of a higher awareness, with the aid of which one succeeds in understanding one’s own historical value, one’s own function in life, one’s own rights and obligations’.

 Maybe it's me, but 'coming to terms with one's own personality' feels far closer than some other 'intrinsic' descriptions for what reading and writing have helped me to do.

 Anyway, at least now I can take down that post-it! (The Scritti Politti song above was my first introduction to Gramsci, to whom their name was a homage, and his key idea, hegemony. Oh the days when listening to John Peel and reading the NME was an intellectual education...)

Monday, 11 August 2014

Audiences and what they value

 New in the publications part of this site is a paper I’ve been involved with writing, with Dr Joshua Edelman and Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London and Dr Maja Sorli, and with the collaboration of Natalie Querol at The Empty Space. The Value of theatre and dance for Tyneside’s audiences is based on a 6 month research project which looked at what around 1800 people thought, felt and experienced at some theatre and dance performances at various Tyneside venues in 2014. It was one of a number of projects supported by the Arts & Humanities Research Council as part of its Cultural Value Project.

 We were especially interested in whether there were differences in what people felt they experienced in subsidized, commercial and amateur performances, and to what extent some of the truisms of the ‘arts sector’ held water when viewed through audience experiences. (Such as the notion that the commercial sector feeds in innovation and excellence, or that audiences need to be ‘developed’ to move between sub-sectors.)

 The paper – the first of a number, and based on first research into the data - has 6 main initial findings, although the extended discussion of the data is also interesting and hopefully useful. These are, in summary:
• Most theatregoers get roughly the same kinds of things from their experiences, be it in the subsidized, commercial or amateur sector
• Subject matter is key in attracting audience members, alongside perceptions of quality
• There are, however, differences between ‘comforting’ performances and ‘challenging’ ones, which relate to differences between commercial and subsidized sectors, but not simplistically so
• Audiences generally attend in pairs – although amateur theatre attracts larger groups. People go on their own to subsidized theatre more often than other types.
• Value matters more than price. (One truism supported, then.)
• Audiences are open-minded and loyalty to some venues seems to translate into frequent attendance elsewhere too. (One truism challenged, and one in the eye for Bourdieu perhaps.)

 Josj, Maja and I spoke about the first findings at an Open Space event led by Natalie at Dance City last month, which then fed into the draft of this paper. The most striking thing about this event for me was the rare and energizing effect of having people active, experienced and skilled in amateur, commercial and subsidized theatre sectors together. (Acknowledging the artificiality of that construct, of course, especially as some venues, arts centres particularly, are working across or with all three. As ‘business models’ hybridize this is likely to be increasingly the case.) To add to that, we also had some of the audience members who had been part of the research there. That seemed like a really healthy thing, something I’d like to be part of more.

 The voice of the audience is heard very directly in one email we were all very fond of, from someone who had taken their husband to see Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, and then, a few days later, gone of one of last season’s more unfortunate Newcastle United games. She concludes:

‘At the end Andrew turned to me and said how for a similar amount of money we had watched a whole company of such talented dancers, as well as the inspiring visual scenery, yet that day we had watched such overpaid footballers putting in a lack of effort. He questioned why we rarely go to the theatre, yet unthinkingly go to the football every other week. Straight from the match he marched me down to the theatre to buy more tickets. We ended up joining as friends of the theatre and bought a fortunes worth of tickets for throughout the year, starting with Pygmalion the following week.’

 And with that I wish you an interesting read and a Happy New Football Season.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Work and writings

Thinking Practice work in most if not all its usual variety has continued in recent months, alongside the major commitment/opportunity of being Interim Director at mima, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. This has ranged from some great facilitation and coaching gigs, talking adaptive resilience in a museums context, helping launch CidaCo's Developing Cultural Resilience programme in Birmingham and London with two keynotes and a thousand conversations, continuing to be Critical Friend to Bait, the CPP for South East Northumberland, evaluating Northern Stage's NORTH programme (progenitor of the marvellous The Letter Room and Camisado Club) a series of really enjoyable poetry readings in libraries across the North East and Yorkshire for Read Regional. And less sleep than usual.

I've also continued to write the odd thing for people who ask nicely, so thought I'd point them out here. Middlesbrough Reading Campaign, a Literacy Trust campaign, made the writing connection when I was appointed at mima, and I wrote this blog welcoming their work. I first came to Middlesbrough to be a Literature Development Worker, so was pleased to do it.

More substantially, Native, the journal of the Digital R&D Fund has just published an article they commissioned on the subject of Failure: The F Word. I spoke to some people who are really successful at failure, and read and thought a lot more about it than I had before. I found that it can be as much a fetish as a taboo, and conclude - in the piece you should read on Native's own site, if not in the handsome hard copy journal, hence my not reproducing it here - that 'We need to be less romantic and more measured, so that we can take failure seriously.' We need to focus on the C word as well as the F word. (Change.) 

Anyway, there are some interesting perspectives from Digital R&D Fund projects and funders alike. One interesting thing I learnt was that research shows we may learn more from success - but only if we concentrate on what didn't work well within that success. 

(The piece had a good review on Twitter from Chris Unitt: 'Good lord, a piece about failure that doesn't insult your intelligence. A rare thing indeed.' That'll do me.)

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Small increments

I was asked by a-n to write a post-match summary of the NPO announcements last week. Here's what I said. I did spend most of my time looking at visual arts, given the platform, but think the analysis applies across art forms. (Thought I would add that the Literature portfolio has some particularly disjointed thinking in it, again.) It looks nicer on a-n's snazzy new website, which you should visit. 

Arts Council England’s new National Portfolio has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as the first portfolio created by open application in 2011. It is a portfolio made in the context of declining income from government funds, aimed at stability for the arts rather than major system-wide change. To keep the NPO budget almost level, ACE is using £70million of lottery funding. Whilst this might be said to erode the additionality principle, even with the argument made that lottery is supporting those working with young people and touring, it does seem to me a broadly sensible thing to do. (And certainly the clear steer from DCMS seems to have been ‘money is money, and we’ve sorted the lottery so the arts get more than under Labour, so just get on with it.’)
In shaping a relatively stable group of 670 organisations, ACE has responded to the highly pressurized situations organisations find themselves in, particularly as a result of reductions in local authority funding in many places. It could be argued that this is staving off future changes as local authority investment disappears in the future, which many predict. But a year out from a hard-to-call general election the strategy is clearly to support the infrastructure more or less as is, with some tweaks. 75% of incumbents received standstill, but it must be remembered this equates to real terms cuts in future years, essentially building in year-on-year ‘efficiencies’, savings and reductions in activity.
Adaptive resilience
That said, there are some changes, and some are as debatable as always, some highly so. It is good news to see that artist-led organisations like Castlefield Gallery, who lost regular funding in 2011, have been brought back into the fold, as well as some new organisations. This is positive for them, but also good in illustrating that the portfolio will respond to performance. There are others I am aware of who did not manage to get back in, or to get in for the first time, despite achieving much in the last three years. To say it was ever thus is not to diminish the lost opportunities.
What this suggests for the long-term is not so much a failing of Arts Council nerve, but a firming up of the purpose of the National Portfolio within ACE’s investment mechanisms. Perhaps it’s not reasonable to expect ACE to give infrastructure funding to things that by their very nature are not (yet) part of that semi-permanent infrastructure? (I am one of those who do actually think we benefit from that kind of infrastructure, in terms of long-term thinking, community use and artistic development.) In talking about adaptive resilience I increasingly ask people to what extent they see themselves as the disturbance in the system, rather than part of the stability. There are, I think, artist-led organisations of both sorts, not all of whom sit equally comfortably with NPO funding. The balance therefore needs further debate next time round, in new political circumstances.
This leads me to return to the narrowness of the range of investment mechanisms ACE uses. For all the different ‘strategic fund’ pots, and an increase in Grants for the arts, ACE has still declined to devise significant loan schemes to encourage new ways of working, or ways of investing in artist-led activity which do not lead to grant-dependence becoming a sign of success. A large new NPO in dance, New Adventures, was at one point seen as heralding new, less dependent arts business models. That it now it requires £1.3million from the NPO pot is, apparently, good news. The same point, on a smaller scale, could be made about some in the visual arts.
The continued paucity of organisations that are artist-led or -focused, or which are BME or disabled-led or focused remains problematic. There are signs that Grants for the arts can support the development of organisations like Castlefield or Side who have in some ways, and with no doubt massive personal effort from staff and boards, done great work in the last three years. Sometimes ‘disturbance’ organisations evolve into being relied on by others, and ACE need to develop clearer pathways to regular funding for this kind of organisation.
Failure to re-balance
As an aside, it appears that there is more churn in London than elsewhere, where numbers remained fairly static but with a deal of change in levels. This perhaps suggests that outside the capital there has been a stability-driven consolidation of funding into fewer organisations, reasonable, but at the cost of some diversity. The North now has 10% fewer NPOs, and just 2% more of the total funding.  Repeating the pattern of 2011, rural areas seem to be hit harder than the core cities.
There is no significant ‘rebalancing’ of the portfolio either geographically, in terms of diversity or by artform. The cut to ENO (more than compensated by the lesser-spotted ‘transitional award’) appears largely distributed to opera elsewhere, rather than to visual arts or other art forms. The geographical redistribution is modest at best given the supposed priority given to this issue by Peter Bazelgette – it is no different in percentage terms from the first NPO round, under Liz Forgan. Much of the change to the London/Regions split, it seems, can in fact be attributed to a small number of uplifts such as Opera North.
Shifts appear to be within the large scale, then, rather than towards a greater diversity of organisations of different types and scales. It is difficult to mine the stats, as comparisons are not easy using the information provided, but it is hard to see that small to medium sized organisation have benefitted much from the 2% reduction in London’s share. The debates continue, but at this rate the judgement in two years that ‘Baz’ invited in response to ‘Reblancing Our Cultural Capital’ look rather obvious already. Progress by more than small increments is needed at some point. The question now seems to be when.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Make Your Own Damn Art World

In my days at the Arts Council I would occasionally find myself in front of a conference room full of skeptical faces not so silently communicating an articulate WTF to the priorities I was passionately setting out. One such event has stuck in my head as somehow emblematic and I’ve been reminded of it in the last week.

The exact date eludes me, 2009 I suspect from evidence I’ll mention later. I was talking about the need to extend the reach of arts audiences beyond the better educated, higher earning people who are statistically more likely to attend or take part in the arts. I don’t recall using the word, but underlying the need to change this, for me, was inequality and its damaging effects, something which has got much worse in the years since then.

 For me the problem with the low levels of participation in the North East – in the arts as defined by funders it must be noted – was not one of simply efficacy. Few people were suffering from tiny audiences, although some could see future demographic challenges. Nor was it to do with the argument that public involvement leads to support for public funding of the arts, although that was important, and backed up by ACE’s public value enquiry. Primarily it was a cultural one: the narrower the audience, the narrower the people involved in making culture, the smaller the scope, imagination, range and value of that culture.

 Much of the reaction was predictable and understandable even, from a certain perspective. Did ACE want organisations with concert halls full of ticket-buyers to turn people away because they drove cars that were too nice and replace them with paid-for poor people? Wasn’t the art more important than ticking audience development boxes about ethnicity or disability? Doesn’t it all come back to quality? Why were we never satisfied? (I may have imagined that last one.)

 The moment I often think back to, and can never remember quite what I said, is when an experienced local authority officer said, exasperated. ‘Well, if there is a change of government soon at least we’ll be able to stop doing social work and get on with just doing art.’ I often wonder what he thinks of what he carelessly wished for. I've not got any less opposed to the underlying attitude.

 I was reminded of this because the debate about cultural access seems to have been revived by speeches from both Tory and Labour culture leads. Sajid Javid’s rather impressive speech should make some of the sneering at his appointment clear for what it was: an insular reaction to an outsider. I like that he is clear about what he thinks isn’t acceptable, be it the ethnic balance of funding or the regional spread. I was less keen when he felt obliged to stick up for his team mate Mr Gove, even though the kneejerkery Goves inspires is almost enough to make me want to stick up for him, but his main points were both human and real. I'll even forgive the Thatcher portrait material as I embrace diversity in all its forms.

 Similarly Harriet Harman’s speech is clear and its substance to be welcomed, I think. It’s a bit of a shame she strays into ad hominem attacks (or ad colosseum, if that weren't the wrong opera company) and doesn’t talk enough about the work many organisations are doing to change the culture of the arts. 

What struck me, particularly about Javid’s speech, was that he was grappling with nettles arts leaders need to be more vocal about. The sector’s response to Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital has, on the whole been rather timid, for instance, as were some responses to the Select Committee. I don’t mean I would have liked more aggression towards government or ACE. I mean I would have liked a braver set of responses than I’ve seen, a greater willingness to move beyond acknowledging the difficulties and emphasing quality, a greater volunteering to work through, together, what needs to be changed and redistributed. A greater reconciliation to and then creative working with the awkward facts of the maths and the public.

 This feeling has been confirmed by some of the reaction to Harman’s speech. Of course it’s true that lots of people are doing great inclusive work, working hard to open doors and keep them open. And that you can’t force people to come to an arts event, or work in the arts, if they don’t want to. And that football season tickets are expensive. And that your dad’s a binman but you still go to the opera.

 But one paradigm I particularly dislike is summarised in one response I saw on twitter: ‘Something is wrong with the public's cultural perception, not the arts orgs.’ This attitude always reminds me of Brecht’s poem ‘The Solution’. This public isn’t good enough, get me another…

 I have a fundamentally different take, as I hope has been clear here. Now the politicians have had a go, I’d like to hear more people debating these issues, from the same unequivocal starting point: the status quo is not good enough.

 The image above is a postcard by Bob & Roberta Smith I have on the side of a bookcase in my office.)

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Six Degrees of Connection

At the end of last year I was commissioned by Tyneside Cinema to write and perform a poem as part of a conference about young people and engagement in specialised cinema. You can read about the event here. It was a pleasing mixture of fun and terror writing a poem based on the conference as the conference happened. 

Since then we have developed a publication which combines a revised version of the poem, alongside prose which summarises some of the learning from Tyneside Cinema's Young Tyneside programme and the evaluation of it by Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, which can also be downloaded from the Tyneside's website here. The publication, Six Degrees of Connection: Towards the Absolute Alrightness of the Kids, can be downloaded from the Tyneside's website or in the Publications section of the Thinking Practice site. 

The poem got shorter after the actual event because it takes longer to write something short than something long, as anyone who's tried to write something good knows. Video evidence of the reading of the original version exists, but I'm not telling you where. 

It probably goes without saying, but I am very up for being asked by others to do this sort of thing in interesting places and interesting situations.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Poetry cushions, anyone?

This post is copied from my poetry-related blog How I Learned to Sing. Partly because it's got some slight 'policy' reference, partly because I think it's a good story I wanted to share, with one funny line. Something more 'serious' soon, dear reader. How I Learned to Sing best bought direct from Smokestack Books, should you be tempted.

When a poem is published, it's no longer yours. The downside is you often feel it has expired somewhere just round the corner. The upside is that sometimes poems take on a life of their own. Or more precisely, readers give them life beyond their published form or the rites of performance. They pass them on. They anthologise them. They do surprising things with them. They take them into their own lives.

This has happened to me a couple of times. Once, my poem ‘Buttocks’ was used in a Longman school book, in a compare and contrast exercise with a poem by Louis Macneice and ‘The Road Not Taken.’ That was a surprise when I read it. (One question asked ‘Do you think this poem is any less serious than the other two?’) Happily, it does allow me to say teenagers have been compelled to compare my ‘Buttocks’ to Robert Frost…

I was thinking of this because I recently had an email from someone about my poem ‘Domestic Bliss’. They explained why they were getting touch:

More than 10 years ago now I read and loved 'Domestic Bliss'. I studiously copied it and ever since it's been displayed in many, many forms, from framed italics to embroidered cushions in every house (and country) I've lived in. I never took note of the writer so till now it's been anonymous and, each time it is reborn I have a quick Google in the hope of finding out who wrote it and what else they might have done (if I love this so much, what if the writer has more?)

The person had found the poem on Anthony Wilson’s Live-Saving Poems blog – where its inclusion and Anthony’s kind words had been a lovely thing in itself. You can read Anthony’s blog here.

Now, if I’d been Wendy Cope, who has written about how reciting poems should earn a royalty for the writer, I might have sent an invoice and a stroppy note.  (Goodness knows how much she’d want for something almost permanent like an embroidered cushion.) But I was delighted the poem that started life in my head 20-odd years ago had meant so much to someone without my knowledge. Becoming Anonymous but part of someone’s life seems a better aspiration for me as a poet than holding on so tightly. Maybe this just goes to show I'm not a proper poet. Maybe if it happened more often I’d feel differently, but I doubt it. (I believe in home taping too, by the way…) 

I don’t write poems to commission for nothing,  unless its for family and friends and I’d be unhappy if you photocopied the whole of How I Learned to Sing to give to someone.  (It would cost you more than the book, mind.) But if you photocopied your favourite poems to paper your loo, I’d be rather chuffed, though a little surprised. I may look into ‘Domestic Bliss’ tea towels though…

Anyway, here is the poem. As Tammy Wynette sang, there’s No Charge….

Domestic Bliss

The mess gets worse as the beautiful world
tries harder, expands on its original mistake –
something crass blurted out in a fluster –
making a mountain out of moleshit.

You and I aren’t bothered. Too busy to
beat the wolves from the doorstep, too tired
to be pissed off about anything, tonight
the blackcurrant wine is dying our tongues

the colour of our hearts. We’re saying what we mean,
for once, and it feels good, making plans
for the future as if there were no tomorrow.
Your smile leaps out from behind your teeth.

We can do whatever we want.
What we want to do now is
get sordid in front of the fire.
The world is hard but worth it.

PS: None of this should be interpreted as not supporting the right of artists to get paid properly for their work. a-n and air are doing sterling work on this at the moment, which you should read about here