Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Storifying the creative case

Last week, for one day, I had a job title again. I quite like avoiding having a job title whenever possible, only adopting one when forms require it, but last Tuesday I was Official Tweeter at the Creative Case NORTH national event at Leeds City Museum, having failed till it was too late to demand to be referred to as Executive Tweeter or Vice President of Tweetology or Humphrey Jennings Memorial Documentary Tweet Director. I was part of the documentation team, alongside another poet, a photographer and a visual notetaker. It was actually much harder work than I'd anticipated, listening, writing and editing in as close to real time as possible. I'd like to do it again, can see how I might be able to become more creative with it with more practice. So if you'd like some informed and creative reflection on your event or conference, get in touch. 

 After the event, I pulled together a 'storify' version of the online activity around what was a really positive day. I did a meta-evaluation of the first three years of Creative Case NORTH activity last year, and it was interesting to feel a greater focus on action in the discussions - and there were some great case studies shared during the day, which I think will be shared online. (You can read about the most recent Creative Case NORTH activity here.) The storify does give a flavour of the feeling. (I was mainly tweeting from the Zendeh account, except when I forgot, hence the relative lack of @thinkinpractice tweets.) 

 Whilst I'm sharing online sources, I also recently wrote a short blog for Tees Valley Arts, who have been archiving old projects and found the Poem for the Millennium I helped start in 1997. (I worked there as Literature Development Worker and the Director between 1993 and 1999, when it was known as Cleveland Arts.) Start but not finish, sadly... hence the theme of my blog, 'the big one that got away'. The idea was a kind of chain poem, but it ran out of steam - though not before being passed round some very fine poets around the English-speaking world, some of whom, such as Claudia Rankine, are much better known now than at the time.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Not bold, not new, but workable

I was tempted to head this blog ''Minister, you're no Jennie Lee', but I decided that would be a bit unfair. Ed Vaizey is obviously passionate about his brief, and is scrupulous in his run through the 50 years between the first White Paper on the arts, overseen by Jennie Lee, and his own, published recently. He gives due credit to his predecessors, regardless of party. But although there are clear continuities in some areas of attention, such as access and education, it is in the discontinuities and disconnections that the real story is told, and where the new White Paper falls down against not just Lee’s vision, but, more importantly, in relation to what’s needed now. 

 Vaizey has claimed the White Paper represents a ‘bold, new vision’, but there is really very little new here - and what one might at a push consider bold, such as putting culture at the heart of communities, is definitely not new. The paper starts with this statement ‘Everyone should enjoy the opportunities culture offers, no matter where they start in life.’ We would hardly expect anyone to say otherwise, would we, and after that things go pretty much as one might expect. The diversity of the sector needs to improve. Children should have access to the arts as part of their education. Cultural is important to place, regeneration, health and well-being. Culture helps Britain’s ‘soft power’. We need more corporate giving and diverse income streams. 

 This is all unsurprising, and although these may or may not be my or your priorities, they don’t require any greater distortion of effort than is currently being undertaken, which sadly comes as something of a relief. That these things are unsurprising does not make them wrong, of course. On the ‘first do no harm’ principle of strategy/policy, the rhetoric of the paper is, well, alright. (Can you tell I’ve been ‘managing my expectations’ for quite some time now?) 

 In many ways, the tell-tale sentence in the Minister’s introduction is this ‘Our relationship with Shakespeare exemplifies the intentions of this white paper.’ (The cover image is equally bullish in its fashion, being of an ethnically diverse set of young people playing violins.) He goes on to signal how the manifold uses of Shakespeare and his work are relevant to young people, place, Britain’s soft power, fundraising and so on. He misses the negative effect of compulsory Shakespeare in schools for some young people, and the way in which Shakespeare can represent a particular type of canonical culture. 

If Shakespeare exemplifies the approach, the current mixed outcomes of brilliance, life-changing discovery, engagement, boredom and disenfranchisement are likely to persist unless that relationship shifts. Jennie Lee was not without something of the same spirit, of course, and I am not for a second suggesting Shakespeare doesn’t still have the potential to be a live and vital part of our culture. (Ditto violins.) But without moving beyond such ‘great’ (or is it ‘GREAT’?) thinking, much of the paper feels like a restatement of business as usual. 

 Amongst the new(er) proposals, there is a mix of commonsense to be worked with despite broader government policy (place-based partnerships, for instance), bare-faced cheek to be responded to through gritted teeth (education) and some ideas which are questionable if not daft. I am more than sceptical of the merits of a Commercial Academy for Culture, for instance, given all the work being done within the sector already. If Ed Vaizey really believed in the power of culture, shouldn’t this at least be accompanied by a parallel proposal for a Cultural Academy for Commerce, where the cultural sector can properly pass on its skills, for appropriate return? 

 The ‘tailored reviews’ of ACE and HLF may make sense in the light of the place-based ambitions, though I would then question why review separately, especially as the Select Committee looked at ACE less than two years ago. (The stubborn bulldog Rebalancing does not bark in this White Paper, by the way: there is only the sound of scratching in the backyard from its mongrel pup Devolution.) 

The museums review is a necessary response to the growing crisis emerging due to local government cuts, and the very different nature of many museums: its not really a strategy, though. if it leads to one, it may be helpful, but at a time when ACE is likely to bring museums and libraries onto a level playing field for funding, however, careful coordination of thinking will be needed. 

 The already announced tax breaks for museums and galleries will no doubt have benefits for some. I cannot put arguments against them in theatre better than Alan Lane did in The Stage a while back, so won’t try. Ed Vaizey may not be ‘an ideological ninja’, as Alan described George Osborne, but he knows a man who is. For me, tax breaks are not investment in culture. We should not accept them as such. 

This brings me to the most important fault line in the paper: the lack of join up with the rest of government, which Vaizey has often bemoaned, but seemingly been unable to do much about, beyond a few isolated, relatively disconnected examples and some quotes from relevant Ministers. (The one from Nicky Morgan takes the biscuit, and wins her, already, my Brass Neck Award for 2016. If she means the words social justice, they may have been rendered meaningless.)

 If there was a big opportunity for this paper, this might have been it, to describe the describe the strategy by which Vaizey’s sincere and honestly held ambitions for culture can be progressed in the context of this government’s fiscal and legislative approach, by those of us working in and for the sector, for artists, for our fellow citizens, for whatever vision culture we believe in. But on the questions of how culture develops in a land of combined authorities and local government weakened by starvation rations and legislative change, where even the NHS see charging become normalized if not universal, how young people will discover a passion in culture under a regime of academies and Ebaccs, or how a more diverse workforce can be developed amidst growing inequality, the paper is unconvincing, to put it generously. 

 The key distinction between 2016 and 1965’s White Papers is that now we lack the clarity and sense of strategic urgency around potential investment priorities provided by Jennie Lee’s ‘Housing the Arts’ chapter. The paucity of the ideas in the section on ‘Cultural investment, resilience and reform’ is telling. We may not need a new round of capital building to house the arts, but this section lacks a contemporary equivalent to Lee’s challenge. (If you want to compare the documents, Jennie Lee's Policy for the Arts has been made available by US arts blogger Michael Rushton here.) Without shifting the gearstick from Evolution to Revolution, the thinking here could have been much more interesting, around things like mergers connected to place-based or sector development for instance. 

 My first conclusion was the paper was well-meant, rather bland, unsurprisingly likely to benefit them that’s got rather than them that’s not, but essentially workable. The silences clear on closer examination don’t really change that. It’s a paper from a Conservative government, so was always going to talk about access rather than redistribution. The Chancellor who more or less protected dedicated cultural budgets believes more in control and tactics than strategy, so the need for ‘big ideas for George’ alongside proper strategic fit locally remains. 

 I wanted to conclude with a ‘so what?’ Thinking about what the sector should start/stop/carry on doing in response, I kept coming back to one thought. To work on a better spread of culture and inclusion, everyone, whatever their position, should start holding themselves accountable for what they share and who with, and on what terms - whether it’s beliefs or goals, expertise, jobs, facilities or work, panel chairs or payments, taxes or tax reliefs, collections or calculators. (I too often hear people say things that hold government or funders or universities accountable for things like diversity of workforce, programme or audience, for instance.) 

 I’m currently working on sharing (free) something I hope will be useful that has been developed as a side-effect of my work on adaptive resilience – watch this space next month for news. (Start doing/saying things like that, by the way, that make you accountable, I find it helps…)


 Well, it’s been very quiet on the blog this year, hasn’t it. This has been to leave you time to digest some significant developments in UK arts policy thinking – including ACE investment proposals, AHRC Cultural Value Project final report, DCMS Culture White Paper, just to mention three.

 It’s also been because I’ve been deep in one of those periods where every time I thought of blogging, I was occupied on other important work or recovering from important work with the family. I’ve been working on some significant projects, which I hope to catch you up on here over the next few weeks.

They included:
 • Finishing writing 20 case studies for the AMA about organizational business models – many up already on CultureHive with more to follow
• Working with Bait on plans for the next three years of Creative People and Places in South East Northumberland
• Working with a great team from EWG on two projects for ACE – one considering how best to increase numbers and experience of disabled people in the cultural workforce, and one working on practical guidance on workforce diversification. (Thank you if you filled in the survey.)
• Starting a collaboration with Consillium on a thematic study of approaches to ‘excellence’ across Creative People and Places projects
• A lot of other facilitation and organizational development work, often in response to changing structures at local level

 I want to get back to some regular blogging, as it is part of my own reflective practice. I've been reflecting, but not writing, but I always notice something extra when I write – and this blog works on the basis that might be useful to others too. (No need to tell me if not…)

 I thought a once in every 50 years Culture White Paper probably deserved a blog – so that follows shortly.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

A slice of future

Thinking Practice is shutting down for Xmas and New Year. It's been another really good year professionally, although the world continues to go mad, and the Circle of Life has been very much spinning at home, bringing both pleasure and pain. Looking back at the work I've done, I've done what I set out to: work exclusively on projects that mattered, and make a difference. Thanks to the clients that have made that possible. 

I've even been a bit more active on the blog, and have had satisfying evidence that people read it. Not hundreds of thousands, but enough. So special thanks to those who subscribe, those who RT, those who press reply to let me know what they think and those who listen.

The photos above show the commissioned poem I wrote about in January, in its Xmas guise. Not many poets can brag of having illuminated reindeers sitting on their poem. I'm not sure that's a huge competitive advantage over many other consultancies, but I'll take it!

Here's to a good 2016. 

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Five things people forget about resilience

Engage have just published an edition of their International Journal of Visual Art and Gallery Education themed around resilience, with a wide range of articles looking at various applications of that word, in an equally wide range of contexts and settings, including internationally. It's a good read. The foreword by editor Barbara Dougan here sets it out, and is accessible to anyone, but you have to subscribe to read the whole thing. You can also watch out for the print version in good gallery bookshops near you, of course. 

 I contributed a piece entitled 'Five things people forget about resilience'. I thought it might be useful to tackle some of the things I sometimes need to make my position clear on, especially to say something about why I feel that although there are valid critiques of the use of the R word to shift responsibility to, for instance, the poor, the weak and - in arts and culture - the undercapitalised and underfunded, I ultimately think it can be a more helpful framework than vulnerable dependence. 

 My 'five things' are: 

1. Resilience is a dynamic, not a state of being 
2. No one escape the adaptive cycle 
3. Size doesn't matter 
4. Redundancy is resilience's ally 
5. Resilience is for you (us), not them 

 If you want to know what I meant by each those, you can download the whole article here in handy pdf form, as it's a bit long for a blog. 

 It's always interesting reading something you wrote a while ago as it comes into print. (It happens less often now many things are online within minutes.) One sentence jumped out at me, nearly a year after writing it, as perhaps the most important in the article: 'The ongoing work of change as well as of stability should be given greater prominence in discussing organisational or sectoral resilience.' 

I'm not going to explicate further, I'm just going to quote - and hopefully thereby encourage you to read the whole thing.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Poking a gift horse

You can read a few of my thoughts on the Spending review announcements over on a-n news, should you wish. Exec summary: really well done and thank you Arts Council and others, but let's treat Osborne's warm words with caution and not forget the impact of other parts of the budget. I don't explicitly say it, but I think it's probably impossible to have a genuinely healthy arts and cultural sector (in the broadest sense of that word healthy) in an increasingly inequitable society, which is what the other parts of the settlement will contribute to.

Indeed, some might argue the arts element of funding contributes to that inequity, especially in light of reports confirming the way people from middle class backgrounds dominate the arts. (Lots to say on that, no time.) I know many, many of the people and organisations that will benefit from the decent 'result' work to create opportunity, far more than the cynics believe, so I'm glad about that element of Osborne's slight of hand at least.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Dialogue and Affection

There were a couple of thoughts about dialogue I had hoped to squeeze into the post introducing the Creative Case NORTH review. They are from the section in the full report talking about the CCN process as perhaps most powerful when generating dialogue. They also failed to make the cut in the Executive Summary but felt worth highlighting here. 

They discuss writers on dialogue I had not come across until looking for relevant frameworks to test CCN against. You may know all about them, of course, but given the frequency with which creating the right conditions for productive dialogue comes up as a challenge, I thought I’d share. I’ve reformatted slightly to create clearer lists, but otherwise just copied from longer report. They may be useful checklists next time you are trying to engage in productive dialogue. (They'll probably be less useful if you're just trying to assert how right you are...) 

I will just pause to suggest it would be helpful to generate more of number 5 in Burbules’ list and less of its sarcy-snarky mirror image, manifest often through such symptoms as auto-text ‘critique’, impatience, stereotyping and suspicion.

The physicist David Bohm, in his writing on dialogue, suggests its purpose is ‘to reveal the incoherence in our thought’ in order to discover or re-establish a ‘genuine and creative collective consciousness’ [Bohm, D (1997) On dialogue edited by Lee Nichol, London: Routledge]. This seems to be the aspiration many of those involved in Creative Case NORTH have tacitly agreed upon, and have attempted to create the conditions for. Creative Case NORTH certainly appears to attempt to meet Bohm’s three suggest basic conditions for genuine dialogue:
1. The suspension of traditional assumptions
2. The acknowledgement of others as peers
3. Facilitation to create safe spaces in the early stages of dialogue.

Another writer on dialogue, Burbules [Burbules, N. (1993) Dialogue in Teaching. Theory and practice, New York: Teachers College Press] suggests there are 6 things necessary to successful dialogic conversation. These are
1. Concern for others
2. Trust
3. Respect
4. Appreciation
5. Affection
6. Hope.

 These are all reflected as present in the positive comments about Creative Case NORTH and its conversations, and, to some degree, seen as missing by those commenting more negatively.