Thursday, 20 March 2014

5 questions about our power

There’s little I can usefully add to the mountain of words written about Tony Benn. Alongside Michael Foot he was the most powerful orator I’ve ever seen. (It was a cold day in Liverpool, a march to the Pier Head then speeches by the Mersey. The Miners were on strike and Militant in the Town Hall. Hopeful days, odd as that may seem to some from here.) It’s been a bad month for aged heroes, what with Sir Tom Finney passing away as well last month. (I wrote about that on my poetry blog here.) Benn embodied many of the virtues as well as paradoxes of a certain kind of socialist. 

Tony Benn quotes were in heavy rotation for a few days. These included his 5 ‘democratic questions’ to ask people in positions of power. They are good questions. But they are also questions I think should be adapted and adopted by leaders, including ‘cultural leaders’. Those who lead, manage or take decisions on behalf of others should ask them of ourselves as much as of other people. Actually, given that we all have some power in some situations, even if the ultimate ability to withdraw ourselves, or even ‘just’ in the home, we should all consider them. (I should be clear, I’m not using the word power here simply in its hierarchical sense, but in the broader sense of ‘ability to influence the behaviour of others’.) 

I find myself in many different situations, with different types and degrees of ‘power’. The responsibilities of being Interim Director at mima for 6 months are different from facilitating a board away day, but both involve exerting influence. Chairing the Bridge North East advisory group or writing an evaluation report, that power varies. Sometimes I have more control and 'say' than others. Sometimes I feel more or less powerful. Sometimes I am given the ability to make decisions. Sometimes I take or assume it. Often, I give it away or share it. 

Whatever the situation I’m going to make sure I regularly ask myself the following adaptation of Benn’s five questions. That way I can check I’m acting in the way I think best to build the kind of culture I believe in. After all, how can I hold others to account if I don’t hold myself to account first?

Here are my five questions then: 

What power have I got? 
Where did I get it from? 
In whose interests do I exercise it? 
To whom am I accountable? 
 And in what circumstances should I leave/stop doing what I’m doing?

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Update: mima Interim Director news

I’ve had lots of congratulations on the news that I’m to be Interim Director at mima in Middlesbrough for six months from April. My wife says this is because it looks like a proper job people can understand, and she may not be wrong. This blog is to mark that news, and partly to point out it’s not quite a Proper Job… 

It is a really exciting opportunity to help mima as it moves from Middlesbrough Council, whose vision brought the gallery to fruition, into Teesside University. The University is a huge driving force in Middlesbrough. I did some work with the Council and University testing the idea last year that convinced me it was the right way forward for mima and its work. The chance to help move this forward, after Director Kate Brindley leaves to run Arnolfini in Bristol, was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I spoke at the opening of the gallery in 2007, it’s my local international gallery, I go there often and as a Teesside resident I want it to work fantastically. I'm sure I'll learn masses from the chance, too. Finally, I didn’t want to think I was the kind of consultant who runs a mile when asked to work on implementing a plan they helped create. 

I will be continuing to work beyond mima in the next 6 months, as this is an Interim role to help through a change process and to assist with the recruitment of a permanent Director. Thinking Practice has exciting work on with Bait in South East Northumberland and Northern Stage. I’m part of the crack team CidaCo have put together for a big resilience project commissioned by Arts Council England, to launch in Birmingham and London next month. Tyneside Cinema will soon publish a text combining a conference-poem and top tips for getting young people into specialised cinemas. And I’m loving doing events for How I Learned to Sing in libraries across Yorkshire and the North East as part of Read Regional. So busy, exciting times, but very much still open to other offers and invites for the future. Do not file me away under Got Proper Job. 

 (The image above is a clip from the latest mima ‘What’s On’ brochure. Look closely you’ll see me in the crowd, looking seriously unimpressed by something or other. It's one of those 'my face just looks like this, sorry' photos. I’m near to Alison Clark-Jenkins of Arts Council fame and the artist Simon McKeown, so it can’t have been anything either of them had said, obviously. Anyway, it put a smile on my face when I spotted it.)

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

In favour of… Dialogue

 I met 10 people at the bus-stop the other day, a football team whose goalkeeper/minibus-driver had left without them. They needed some money to get to their game. I only had £10 on me, but I decided to give £4 to two of them, the striker who scored all the goals, and the creative playmaker who set them all up. I didn’t want the most valuable and productive players tiring themselves out walking. (In fact, they ended up taking a taxi.) I gave the remaining £6 to the other 8. This group was vociferously up in arms at this. I pointed out that the distribution was actually 60/40 in their favour, as the other group only got £4, less than their £6. It wasn’t anything unfair or inadequate, certainly not, the very thought. To avoid further insult I made my excuses and left, as they smiled benignly in my direction. Well, I think they were smiling… 

Liz Hill of Arts Professional has done us all a favour by digging into the statistics in Arts Council England’s response to ‘the significant debate on regional funding that has been taking place in the sector over the past month’. She shows them to be, in the main, highly selective, if not downright misleading at times. (If not as inaccurate as mine above.) I suggest you read her analysis, which is excellent. 

I’d have only one or two slight quibbles. I don’t think we can fairly blame ACE for the notion of Core Cities, for instance. They do add Gateshead to Newcastle, which the Core Cities group doesn’t. But I guess one can understand why. She is right to point out that the strategy of investing in clusters is not actually mentioned in Great Art and Culture for Everyone, but I’d generously see that as welcome clarification rather than anything else. 

My opening fable was inspired by some of the language in a rather too-well-written document, which was what I wanted to talk about here. To describe the split of both Lottery and Grant-in-aid funding as ‘in favour’ of regions outside London, done twice, probably brought a smile to the face of whoever wrote it, thinking it was a canny piece of linguistic programming. It made me snort, and not in a good way. It’s overly defensive, doesn’t engage in the debate in a helpful way. The word smartarse did cross my lips, I admit it. It serves to make me think someone thinks people ought to shut up. That critics can’t add up, don’t know the relative size of London and the rest of England. It serves to put those with reasonable questions about distribution and decision-making in our place. Can that be what was intended? I can’t believe so. 

I felt similarly about some of the other introductory statements, which have an implicit ‘only provincial dinosaurs are still worrying about this stuff we’re all in together’ tone. One passage which leapt out at me was ‘former causes of historical dispute, of London versus the regions, so called ‘elite’ art versus community art, rural versus urban, education work versus ‘the real work’. This idea that these and other disputes are part of history, done and dusted, and have no causes still inherent seems bizarre to me, especially at a time of growing inequality in all aspects of British culture. How London and the regions form a coherent nation, if you want to put it like that, is likely to be a key question in the next election. It’s not a historical issue, it’s a live one, even in the most successful cities outside London. And it’s cultural as well as economic. 

The tension between versions of the arts – no ‘so-called’ for community art, by the way, did you notice that, very neat, eh? - is being played out in all sorts of ways, new and old. Close examination of ACE’s own Creative People & Places would show this, as we speak. That’s not a bad thing. If we were able to take power and class out of the equation – which we can’t – it might be tempting to see these things as not struggles, but what you might call diversities. By choice, luck or unfinished debate, we’d have, to borrow a term, a multicultural sector of diverse opinions, not one where all notions of culture and aesthetics have been mixed up into a coleslaw of consensus. (With the odd caper thrown in to demonstrate risk-taking.) 

That would be awkward for ACE when arguing with government for investment, where they want united fronts and 100% good news. But to pretend ‘everyone’s happy nowadays’ has two effects. 

Firstly, it serves to dampen the efforts that build exactly the kind of increased capacity ACE say they want. Those wanting to build up fantastic art from local communities, with fresh input from artists of whatever source, as opposed to touring in ‘provision’ from companies with no relationship with the venue beyond the programmer, are made out to be arguing against ‘Excellence’. (This applies in London too of course, where the inequalities are perhaps even harsher.) They aren’t, they are part of the potential evolution of the sector. 

Secondly, it serves to close down informed and constructive dialogue – that shared, productive process that emerges from debate. Dialogue could lead to improvements and greater understanding of the multiple, contradictory pressures on ACE. This is something Alan Davey successfully helped ACE do when he came into post. He needs to renew that effort now. Better to grapple forwards through dialogue than to publish more and more reports trying to bat criticism away. (I notice that a new position statement on ACE and rural communities has been published just today.) 

This England (lord, but I don’t like that title, by the way, redolent as it is of ‘the patriotic magazine for all who love our green and pleasant land’ and the like) would have been better off focusing on contributing to dialogue not argument. Something it does rather well at points is rearticulating ACE’s strategic intent and the main ways they see the ecology developing and needing intervention. This has strengths, weaknesses and areas for debate, of course, but is what I would expect. The sector then would also need to take our example from Messrs Gordon, Powell and Stark, up our game and avoid the easy choices of either simplistic sniping or quietism. 

So in short: enough tactical but annoying case-making, enough debate, more dialogue please.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

February already

February already, eh?

 It was a busy January for arts and cultural policy/politics – from the opening of the portal for potential ACE NPOs, to creative industry economic figures showing huge growth, albeit largely in fields in some ways adjacent to ‘what we talk about when we talk the arts’, IT, digital and publishing, via another Maria Miller speech really saying not-much-new-at-all and the Select Committee announcing a swift enquiry into the work of Arts Council England, their scope, scale and remit, funding criteria and balance of funding across the country, as appetite amongst regional politicians for a rebalancing grew

Of course, most arts people I met in January were too busy working on NPO essays and business plans to give this kind of ephemera the attention it deserves. (There are some who believe folk are also just keeping their heads down.) In ways rather reminiscent of my daughter, currently in the final months of her degree, they are forming study groups - sorry, consortiums and partnerships - compiling notes frantically and spending long nights at the laptop whilst also doing the day/evening job. Apparently it is decreed that whenever two or more are gathered they shall compare notes on the difficulty of the task at hand, the contradictory advice received, or the absolute lack of it, the effects of what you might call Portal Dread, and the most irritatingly besides the point feedback on a draft received from a member of their board.

I’ve been neck deep in both of those last paragraphs, alongside much else, often swapping hats - I was going to say 'frantically', but let's edit that to 'with aplomb', shall we, and see what happens? But I have also found time to write something for The Bookseller about New Writing North’s Read Regional promotion for which my book of poems, How I Learned to Sing, was selected, alongside 10 other titles. The tour, as I like to call it, starts next week in Darlington. You can read more here if you are interested in this aspect of my thinking practice. I’ve recently added some reviews, the dates of readings on the Read Regional tour, and others, and an introduction to the book.

 If you are one of the more poetically inclined readers here, even one of that select band to have purchased my book, you can also now download the reading guide for How I Learned to Sing, which comes with an introduction, a further reading list and some questions for discussion. I have yet to develop any prompts for my assessment of any answers, but if you do come up with some enlightening answers, be they positive, negative, sarcastic or anything else, do let me know.

If you’re near any of the places I’m heading over the next 3 months, it would also be great to see you there.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

10 questions (and a correction)

 Here are the 10 questions I mentioned at the end of my previous post. I've also spotted an important error which has slipped in in the process of making the diagrams nicer. What currently reads 'physical income' should be 'psychic income' - that well-known and sporadically adequate compensation artists get for their work. I've alerted MMM to this. Anyway, without more ado, here are the questions… 

How can everyone working with arts and culture: 

1 Develop a more holistic view of the impacts of arts and culture, exploring the diversity of values and views so that people benefit from the full spectrum of impacts arts and culture can have, leading to improved quality of life for individuals and communities? 
2 Take risks in what they do, and how they do it so that everyone involved continues to learn, innovate and influence society as a whole? 

What will incentivise public and private funders and all those involved in making and influencing policy to: 

3 Create a greater diversity of financing mechanisms, including ones which help artists and creative practitioners plan for and develop sustainable livelihoods so that society benefits from increased levels of and diversity of artistic and creative practice and enhances its innovative capacity? 
4 Root their work in the principals of sustainable development not simply production and consumption of cultural products so that arts and culture supports artists and creative practitioners and local communities’ wellbeing, ultimately leading to healthier, more resilient people and places? 
5 Ensure infrastructure, policies and decisions contribute to artists’ sustainable livelihoods so that artists can develop their lives and practice in more effective ways, leading to better work with more impact? 
6 Require all organisations that work with arts and culture to develop strategies that contribute to sustainable livelihoods for the professional artists they work with so that equal collaborations can replace unbalanced power relationships, leading to more creative and powerful work? 

 How can more artists, creative practitioners and arts and cultural organisations: 

7 Actively plan to develop sustainable livelihoods and income streams as well as their artistic practice so that they can make positive choices and not compromise life for art or art for the bills? 
8 Spend time together reflecting on both their livelihoods and their practice and share conclusions so that they can learn from diverse experiences and ideas and ultimately make better work with greater impact on where they live and work? 
 9 Collaborate to make sure all available physical spaces and digital platforms are used well so that they become exemplars in sustainable use of resources to be widely copied? 
10 Work with their artistic communities and audiences to develop plans for improving the sustainability of artists and creative practitioners so that all involved can contribute to well-being on an equitable footing, benefitting from genuinely diverse ways of thinking and doing?

Monday, 13 January 2014

The Art of Living Dangerously

Back in summer 2012 I did some research into different ways of thinking about the value created by culture, and about the role of artists in that, as part of an ambitious project started by Exchange, a group of performing arts organisations in Tyneside. They had connected to Mission Models Money (where I’m an Associate) and New Economics Foundation to think about three inter-linked issues: the role of arts and culture within sustainable economic development; how artists and other creative practitioners can contribute to sustainable development and finally how to ensure artists and creative practitioners are able to achieve sustainable livelihoods throughout their life-cycles, especially as emergent independent artists. 

At least that’s how we’re describing it in the paper finally published last week: The Art of Living Dangerously. The final document, whose authors were Shelagh Wright, Natalie Querol, Sarah Colston and myself, had a rather protracted gestation, with a number of shifts of focus, and included research, drafting, a ‘theory of change’ workshop with some North East-based practitioners, and sharing of drafts with academic and others. It urges all those working with arts and culture to rethink their contribution to a vision of sustainable development that benefits the whole of society. 

It was an interesting and challenging collaboration of style and languages, of cultural policy, (new) economics and artistic thinking. For me the issues came to be less about particular definitions of cultural value within a vision of not simply culture or a economy but society, and more about how the drivers of the cultural ecology, artists (and the creative people who work with them), can develop sustainable livelihoods that mean their contribution to resilient communities and places can be maintained over time. 

A couple of quotes to give a flavour: 

‘Artists and creative practitioners can invigorate communities both through the work they make but also their presence in local life. Artists and creative practitioners are, Exchange argues, ‘key workers’ and entrepreneurs in the development of healthy and sustainable communities, modelling ways of living that exemplify adaptability, resilience and innovation and contributing to local economies in ways that enhance rather than diminish wellbeing.’

‘We do not express or advocate for the art of surviving in a broken system - an approach that would suggest unsustainable boot-strapping for artists within a system that does not know how to value them - but rather, The Art of Living Dangerously describes the transition to a different model of development. A way to make the lives of emerging artists more visible and viable as well as the policy making logic of the towns and cities of which they are a part.’ 

Our conclusion admits this paper is an incomplete picture, the start of telling a new
 story and one we hope will be discussed, contested, critiqued and added to. Reading the nicely designed version I can see signs of it being ‘a work of many hands’, some roads not taken, some juxtaposition where integration proved too difficult, but that may all be no bad thing. 

The paper does still feel timely and relevant, as the need to root debates about cultural value in the lives and livelihoods of cultural practitioners becomes ever more important. (This is not to neglect the role of ‘audiences’ and others in cultural value, of course.) Applying ideas of sustainable livelihood development to artists, building on some work in Canada by Judi Piggott, feels to me like a potentially very useful framework for collaborative efforts. (The designers have also made much nicer diagrams than I did!) 

The paper sets out some ends by identifying three vital ‘practices’ that can only be achieved by collaboration between artists, institutions and an intelligent funding ecology that creates mutual support: 

- Practising Livelihoods: Artists coming together with other creative practitioners and the support of funders to critically reflect on how they create and maintain livelihoods. 
- Pooling Risk: Ways for artists and creative practitioners to share the risks of new financial, operational and creative endeavours and models of working. 
- Utilising Space: Ways for artists and creative practitioners to access, animate and use unused space in towns and cities. 

Do read the paper and let us know what you think, or what you could do – I will post the 10 questions which the paper ends on separately. 

 (Hmm, may need to work on this ‘cliffhanger’ approach to my blogs…)

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Practice Thinking Merry Christmas

Well, it’s nearly Christmas, and the Thinking Practice is now closed until the New Year. Above is our seasonal image – made, with two exceptions, from the 20,000 or so words I’ve written on the blog this year. Thanks for reading this year, especially to the subscribers, and the regulars who comment or email to put me right or agree, and those who spread the word on Twitter. 

It’s been a really great year for me personally and workwise, full of book launches, big anniversaries, graduations, jobs, and plenty of really good and important work with great clients in interesting places. (It’d be wrong to pick any out, so I won’t.) I feel really very lucky indeed. There are so many fantastically committed and generous people working in the cultural sector, full of life, ideas, passion and idiosyncrasy (if anyone reading thinks I mean them, I probably do!) – let’s hope we all get the chance to live up to our potential in 2014.