Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Infinite Town


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




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

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



Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Cultural Capital


  Robert Hewison’s Cultural Capital tells a cautionary tale very well. As the blurb puts it, it describes ‘how politicians, money, and managerialism turned a golden age to lead’. The book is subtitled ‘the rise and fall of Creative Britain’ so Hewison’s conclusion is put right up front, and is presented as a classic myth of temptation, ‘success’ containing the seeds of its own ruin. 

 Hewison depicts the increased funding and political attention for culture between 1997 and 2010 as a kind of Faustian pact – with organisations swapping funding for compromised creativity as a result of targets and instrumentalism. Neither increased commerciality nor socially-targeted instrumentalism has led to great improvements in access to the arts, the argument runs. This has left the sector doubly vulnerable now the golden age has been replaced with the lead of cuts and illusory philanthropy. The villains of the piece are politicians, policy makers, interfering funders and the sinister Godfather pulling the strings, the Neoliberalism, or the Marketisation of Life. (If we had a grand for each mention of that ill-defined N word neoliberal in the early chapters, mind, we could fund a fairly substantial arts project…) 

 This is a fascinating and easy read. Hewison is a fine writer, as his previous arts histories of the post-war decades illustrate. I read the book quickly, coming to the last chapter wanting to know how it would end. For those not-that-few of us who had roles somewhere in the arts funding system in some way during the period covered – and I know there are plenty of regular readers here who did – it has a particular appeal. I’m not going to dissect or respond to the observations on the failings of ACE and others, for fear of defensiveness. But I suspect many people will find themselves going, ‘Yes, and…’, ‘No, but…’, ‘Nonsense…’, ‘Tell me about it…’, and ‘Did he never hear about….’ in fairly equal measure. 

 There is, I think, a great deal to commend Hewison’s analysis. We see clearly the recursion of the basic compromise at the heart of the New Labour project at many levels: the global economy’s demands for ‘freedom’, Blair’s analysis of what was needed to get the Tories out after 18 years in 1997, our own circumstances, and those of the sector. But there are other stories to be told from this material, some of which are only alluded to here. 

 The first relates an (I think) unintended irony in the book’s title. The book feels overly-shaped by the concerns of the metropolis, and the ‘major players’ in London Village. There is too little attention to developments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Surely the Creative Scotland ‘stramash’ was worth looking at as an example of his thesis? Might a comparison of Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff ministerial directions not have been instructive? How does the rise and fall look from Warrington instead of Westminster? How well did the cultural sector spend the huge sums of regional funds from Europe that went into both capital and business development? 

 He also underplays the way in which the centralization of decision-making and policy-making at all different levels has intensified, and contributes very directly to the most significant present danger to the cultural sector, the potentially terminal decline of local democracy’s ability to invest in culture. This exacerbates the lack of trust Hewison rightly diagnoses as the underlying cause of much dysfunction. Building trust between a sharp-elbowed capital and the rest of the country will, I suspect, take more than the efforts of What Next. To put it crudely: we need to see the chairs and CEOs of the London ‘nationals’ taking the big picture into account and not swallowing up the (sometimes unadvertised) funding opportunities through their lobbying. 

 As I mentioned, Hewison has written a number of very fine books on the history of the actual arts in the UK. So it’s something of a shame that in focusing his attention on the suits, he plays down not just the artistic responses to the New Labour years - another book perhaps – but the artistic responsibility in the ‘golden age’, and the role arts organisations might have played in any dysfunction. How does, for instance, an analysis of public art commissioning back up or contradict Hewison’s argument? To what extent is the continuing lack of diversity with the arts workforce, and hence (I would argue) many audiences, not a failure of policy making and funding but a result of the resistance of those in positions of power in arts organisations? (Hewison comments ‘Few organisations would admit to being deliberately exclusive’ which is undoubtedly true but misses the point rather.) 

 To what extent can we as artists and arts organisations pass responsibility for our choices on to funder requirements – especially when we know that funding came to them with its own requirements? (This continues, of course. Have a look at the latest DCMS ‘settlement letter’ to ACE before you criticize the priorities expressed through new international funds too much, for instance. Government wants growth, export and support for ‘Great’ Britain. So you will be interested in India in 2017, not Bulgaria…) 

 My biggest criticism of Cultural Capital would be that it does not pay enough attention to what was achieved across the country during the high years, and what could be learned from it. The fundamental modernization of arts infrastructures that ACE and their regional and European partners were able to make in many towns and cities, the artists supported and developed, the organisations and sectors grown, all form part of the picture. It feels under threat, but I simply don’t see that all has having turned to lead. 

 When I think back to Teesside in 1993, for instance, for all that our ‘arts infrastructure’ is under strain now due to the government’s shrinking of the state and public services, and our economic situation, I can’t but conclude that it is stronger and more productive as a result of the work of the last 20 years. It’s also more useful to people – at artistic and instrumental levels if you must make the distinction. As David Edgar points out in his Guardian review, there are also arts institutions based in good buildings – or tools for making art as I like to think of them – which would not have existed without the cultural policies and funding mechanisms described so witheringly here. 

 There are hints that Hewison knows this. In an interesting section on the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, he says this: ‘Boyle, Daldry and Boyce are typical products of the cultural economy this book described. They are provincial-born graduates of state-funded education; they were adolescents when Thatcher came to power in 1979, and learned to duck and dive as they made their way into the arts… All three benefited from New Labour’s creation of the Lottery-funded Film Council.’ Although he follows with counter critiques of the ceremony as essentially putting a gloss on a socially damaging – neoliberal – spectacle, this illustrates the paradox at the heart of the book. Isn't that success? Isn't that better than a culture of posh interns? Dealing with the neoliberal world we currently live in may get messy and compromising, but it is not unproductive. Neither does it mean you must adopt all of its values or stop trying to bring it to an end. 

 Hewison’s conclusion – a cliffhanger to do with the upcoming election rather than a denouement - feels a little hedged and tautological at times, but puts a healthy emphasis on the public: ‘The role of government is not to occupy or dominate the public realm… but to act as the guarantor of its integrity. This should be a place for the circulation of ideas, for creative expressing and political argument.’ He goes on: ‘To recover the value of the public realm, it is necessary first to recover the idea of the public. … Above all, the state must revive a public, as opposed to private, property right – the right freely to access the co-created culture that is held as common property in the public realm.’ 

The morals of the earlier tale – do look gift horses in the mouth, or be careful what you wish for, perhaps, or long spoons are good for supping with devils but bad for your posture – may be a start in equipping us for the challenges within that aspiration, but they are only a start.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Etchasketch policy making?


Culture at King’s have published an unusual, interesting and potentially important report on arts education policy, Step by step: arts policy and young people, written by James Doeser.

 The report is unusual because it takes a long, historical, view of a crucial area of arts policy – from 1944 to today, through Jennie Lee’s first arts policy, 50 years ago next month, to Bridges and the National Plan for Cultural Education. It is interesting because it makes use of the Arts Council archive, and the stories and insights of some individuals involved in the evolution of arts education, to describe how integrated arts education has been in national policy for several decades and why this is important for both young people and the arts. 

 And it’s potentially important because its recommendations are both sensible and have a broader application. The general recommendations to the policy makers – DfE, DCMS, ACE – and by implication I think the sector, are to pay attention to learning from what’s gone before in designing what comes next, keep records and archives so we can do that, and to design evaluation frameworks before intervening so we can judge success. (Oh, and work more with HE, surprisingly enough.) The recommendations to do with arts education specifically, based on the reading of history, are to place more emphasis on early years, look internationally and think about arts participation outside of school more. 

 What is apparent in the specific example of arts education policy is a general tendency for organisational memory to leach away, and for learning from the past to be neglected either willfully, through happenstance or because of speed, or for it to be simply too difficult to access. From Ministers to CEOs to new officers, no one wants to be seen to say, ‘actually what happened before just needs tweaking’ or ‘We got this idea from something done 15 years ago’ or ‘we’ll just go on the existing research, thanks’. (I don’t want to suggest there are not of course occasions when that would be shortsighted, or when what needs to happen is a more fundamental demolition and rebuild. But even that should be informed by history.) 

 This leads to what I’ve been known to describe as the Etchasketch approach to arts policy. Such an approach has sadly been prevalent in arts education in England in recent years, in the way Creative Partnerships has pretty much been written out of ACE thinking and history since CCE’s funding was cut. To misquote Basil Fawlty, I mentioned Creative Partnerships to someone from ACE once but I think I got away with it… More seriously, I understand there is no meaningful organisational relationship between ACE and CCE - I certainly don’t see sign of any. CCE is in demand internationally and elsewhere in the UK for its insight and expertise but not in England, which is, to put it mildly, a bit odd. 

 This has contributed to some of the difficulties ACE has had in defining roles for the Bridge organisations, to some Bridges’ own difficulties in defining success, especially early on, and to paying too little attention to the wealth of research and insight CP generated, not to mention the local partnerships. (I’m not suggesting CP was a perfect scheme, far from it, but there is a lot to be learned from the less successful elements.) This is not a pattern restricted to ACE of course, local authorities and other national policy makers suffer the same pattern, as do organisations. But the higher turnover of staff within the arts funding system has tended to make it more of an issue. (Whilst also being an opportunity for fresh thinking - damn paradox.) 

 The report is very clearly and engagingly written – and also has some fascinating pictures of archive documents if, like me, you like that kind of thing. (Xmas Gift Book idea for publishers: Extracts from the Arts Council Archives.) It misses something important by being restricted to national policy level, I think, as much of the important drivers for change came from local and regional levels. The work of Regional Arts Associations and then Boards, of local authority arts officers, and of advisors within LEAs working in partnerships with them, contributed to as well as benefitted from the national policy changes beginning in the 1980s. It would have been beneficial to have at least some of that in here. (They could have invited my old friend Shirley Campbell to tell the story of how she and Northern Arts worked with local authorities in the North one CEO and chief education officer at a time to spread arts education agencies, for example.) I’m not sure you can fully understand arts education policy without looking at local authority policy and infrastructures. 

 The other missing piece of the jigsaw is the debate around arts and young people within the arts. There is reference to tension within Arts Council on this, which certainly remained during my time in the organisation at both national and regional level, especially at investment time. But the report suggests a need to look more at the tensions within arts organisations and arts practice. This might also look at the extent to which policy was informed by actual young people and their voices. 

 That said, this is a timely and important report. I will be taking some of its questions about institutional and sectoral memory into my chairing of the final meeting of the Bridge North East advisory group meeting next month. It’s the final meeting as the group which has supported the team at Sage Gateshead to develop Bridge North East will be handing the baton onto colleagues at Tyne & Wear Museums & Archives who will – with Sage Gateshead and other partners – be delivering Bridge in the North East. ACE, though, have been very clear in discussions that the Bridge roles in future are different from the last 3 years, so maybe keep that baton metaphor under your hat…

Thursday, 18 December 2014

2014: B Side


Despite this being the flipside of my last post, I’m going to try hard not to make it a series of negatives. Life’s not that simple, is it? Having said that, even my glass half-full tendencies have been challenged a lot this year. As with the A Side, I’m restricting myself to 5 themes. 

Inequality 
I know Climate Change is probably the biggest threat to humankind and the sketch we call civilization. But ask me what I feel about the UK right now, and a bigger distress is the well-documented growing inequality and its effects. Restricting comments to the cultural sphere is counter-intuitive, because the inequalities there are fed by the wider pattern, just as they feed into it. But that’s my focus, and culture is caught up in inequality like a fox in a trap. 

 In The Art of Living Dangerously we raised the issue of who gets to be an artist, and how people of all backgrounds might build sustainable livelihoods in creative work. This also underlies one of the strongest campaigns (and catchiest hashtags) of the year: a-n and air’s #payingartists. Average earnings for artists have always been low – as Hans Abbing has shown, it’s a field where many enter, and the most visible can win BIG, but most do not. This is only getting worse. 

 The pressures on organisations are leading to more use of volunteers in previously paid roles, but oddly enough not at the CEO level. The argument is sometimes that these are ‘entry level’. This has some, small, truth – but wouldn’t the idea of ‘exit level’ voluntary roles (not trusteeships) - be equally compelling for those retiring with a pension? These are equality issues as they narrow the social mix in the workforce even more than ever. 

 Similarly, we can see the ongoing issue of ‘rebalancing’ the distribution of funding across the country as an equality issue, given the widening social and economic divide in the UK geographically as well as hierarchically. Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose is not a quotation, it appears, but core government policy. The effects of this being the de facto policy in the cultural sector would be disastrous. Sadly, in 2014, we have seen no significant progress in ‘rebalancing’, despite further cogent evidence and argument from Messrs Stark, Powell and Gordon in The PLACE Report. ACE’s new NPO represented consolidation more than rebalancing and a number of developments – some not through what others would call transparent process - tended to reinforce the idea that if you’re big and know people who can talk to people you will do better than if you have no assets and no networks. (Not to say those are bad developments as such, just they are unequal developments.) 

 Ambition 
To flip it around a little, and thinking of the £78M going to Manchester for the Manchester Factory as an example, I think 2015 will see the continuation of a theme from this year and previous. Long-term ambition will drive major investments against the run of play in times of shrunken state spending. That may be into capital like The Factory or festivals or artist spaces – ambition of scale and depth ideally, rather than of grandiosity. I’ve my doubts whether another big thing in Manchester is the best use of £74M, and don’t think I want a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ to be so centred on any one place. But it is a recognition of the long-term commitment to culture in Manchester – from the Anthony Wilson days of course, but also of the City Council leaders, and the people working in culture in the city – at all levels, and the quality of the work done. They have developed and maintained a narrative for a long-time – not simply from MIF to MIF. That gets them invited to tables to talk. That has been a collective effort – or so it seems from my visits – but the same is true at individual organisation level.  

I’m pleased to see a Case for Culture being developed again in North East England, and hope it will galvanise the kind of collaboration and investment the Northern Arts-led Case for Capital did in the 1990s. It has the advantage of being informed by all the learning from those capital developments, so can learn all the available lessons about cost, involvement of local audiences and so on. (This talk of ‘ambition’ might sound dangerously ‘entrepreneurial’. I see no reason ambition cant be collective and socially constructive – we don’t all have to be ambitious for just what George Osbourne wants.)

 HEIs 
If there’s an NPO that’s not been encouraged to work with a university partner I’ll be very surprised. Many are of course already doing so, some brilliantly, and this is A Good Thing. As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve spent a lot of time and effort this year helping move a local authority gallery into a university and I wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t think it was the best thing to do. There are many great partnerships between Universities and cultural organisations, focused around research, archives, collections, community engagement, artist development and more. (HEIs have a lot in them.) 

What working with HEIs is not, however, is a Get Out of Jail Free Card if your local authority cuts its funding. HEIs are – in my experience – peculiar organisms. (That is not a spellcheck mistake for organisations. I mean organisms.) They have deep reservoirs of expertise and knowledge. They play a key role in cultural life of many people, not least students. They have the potential to be huge drivers of social and civic change – and to assist with social mobility and inequality. 

 They are also hierarchical and complex to navigate, and as it has been suggested to me, by someone in an HEI, driven to own everything they come into contact with. They are also alleged to be reluctant to get their big cheque books out and a bit on the fickle side. So as the local authority leg of the arts funding stool finds itself being sawn down by this Coalition government, and the philanthropists in some places are mysteriously absent with the folded up napkin/telephone books to fill the gap, no one should see HEIs as a panacea. Partnerships need to be appropriate, well-worked through and developed slowly over time. 

 Also: no offence, like, but I’m probably sticking to autodidactism until I’m the only cultural worker left without a PhD. 

 Diversity 
One of the effects of inequality in the arts has been a lack of diversity, an inability to make the whole of our cultural activity look and feel like the whole of our society. There have been many attempts to tackle this, of course. But few have made the kind of paradigm shift desired. The issues of class, gender, ethnicity, disability et al remain hard to resolve for a sector that ought to be leading the way at a time when the likes of UKIP are promoting values counter to a diverse, creative society. 

 So I welcome ACE’s recent renewal of its approach to diversity, which I see as combining attention to numbers and proportions with the ‘creative case’ in a potentially powerful way. I’ve grown weary of interjecting in meetings to point out that too many of us are broadly the same type of white male when it comes to our notions of ‘culture’. It’s not easy broadening that out, mind, given the quality of the people there, and the need to avoid simply slipping from one set of usual suspects to another. But the result of not making a shift, no matter how awkward, is likely to be a kind of status quo, even staleness, not to mention the moral or inequality dimensions. 

 So whilst I’ll continue to think it’s a missed opportunity that the North East Cultural Partnership board is 24 good people who just happen to all be white, and I’ll argue for diversification of organisations I’m involved in, we should also expect ACE to diversify or rebalance its own staff, board and grant-giving. Looking at the National and Area Councils, none seem as reflective of they could be of the diversity of the population. 2015 should see some SMART targets being adopted by ACE about grant-giving looked at via geography, gender, disability and ethnicity as well as workforce and types of work. (They are keen for everyone else to have SMART targets, after all….)

 The Mysterious Case for/of Cultural Value 
There are lots of overlapping attempts at coming up with a defining statement of ‘cultural value’ that might feel true and convincing to government (national and local), artists, the cultural sector, academia, partners such as public health and economic development, and even, potentially, that mythical beast, ‘the taxpayer’. The search for understanding, definitions, evidence and arguments is involved in different ways in the AHRC’s Cultural Value Project, projects such as Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Artsworks, and, of course, the research and advocacy work of ACE. 

 Some attempts, such as ACE’s ‘journal’ CREATE, based on their ‘holistic case’, have felt overly-defensive, whilst also avoiding the issues of distribution of funding. Sometimes the more that’s said, the more debatable it all seems, the vaguer it gets, and the harder it gets to actually evidence in ways which convince those multiple audiences. (I, for instance, get prickly when lectured about creative education by a public school head teacher. I am not interested in creative education because it gives state schools kids elements of public school education. I’d rather see creative education helping public schools produce more rounded politicians and bankers than we see, and state schools produce brilliant people of all kinds, putting the A in STEAM.) 

 For me, the strongest thinking I’ve seen recently in this direction was the paper ‘Raising our quality of life: The importance of investment in arts and culture’ by Dr Abigail Gilmore, of CLASS, the Centre for Labour and Social Studies and the Everyday Participation project. This combines an approach that emphasises ‘the importance of arts to the quality of everyday life’ whilst also arguing for a cultural policy based on local responsiveness, equitable distribution, democratised and publically planned involvement in culture. Gilmore also argues for policies and funding behaviour that develops resources for ‘everyday participation’ and greater ability at community level for people to develop culture, especially opportunities to participate. I see many connections to the kind of ideas in the MMM/nef/Exchange paper with which 2014 began for me, The Art of Living Dangerously.

 Those were just a few things I see looking back on 2014. I could have written about other things, from the Select Committee into ACE to the prog-rock tendencies of street arts, but these last two blags are a 10-track album in my head, not blooming ‘Sandanista!’ 

 Of course, 2015 is the year when we get the chance to change all of this again. I am talking about the government, of course, but I’m also talking about us. See you there.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

2014: A side


It’s been a while. My time as Interim Director at mima was a hectic one, as I also maintained my Thinking Practice clients, took on some more, and got involved in events such as Artworks North East’s conference on participatory arts. Hell, I even said no to a few things.

 Often I blog more the busier I am – just I have more ideas for creative work– but not this time. I’ve reflected since a post-mima holiday on whether blogging still has a function. (I sometimes hear blogging referred to as something akin to having a myspace page...) I think it may do – for me at least – as a space to reflect, gather, remember, put thinking for future use, let people know about things.

 I have, though, rather got out of the rhythm of it due to concentrating energies elsewhere. I thought I’d do a couple in the run up to Xmas and see how it goes. I’ll also be listening out. If all I hear is the void talking back I'll be very mindful of that. I have been encouraged to get back to it by bumping into a couple of subscribers who told me they’d missed my emails. They may just have been being kind, but if you’d like to join them, do sign up to the email version.

 So, before Xmas I thought I'd reflect on a few themes of 2014. I start through a personal lens. (The B-side of this blog, tomorrow, will consider broader themes of culture in 2014. It’s not all about me.)

 Interim-ness
It would be wrong not to start with that 7 month-stint as Interim Director at mima. Someone recently told me the interim role involved ‘holding a mop in one hand and a machete in the other’. This was not quite my experience at mima, although I did find myself washing windows and putting up acetate as we readied the new jewellery gallery for opening. Despite a big change process as mima transferred from the council to Teesside University, neither was it time for the machete. The Swiss Army Knife perhaps, but not the machete.

 I won’t rerun the experience now, or all my learning from it. I will say, though, that the mima team reinforced for me the absolute importance for adaptive resilience of shared purpose, cherished by the people upon whom the today and tomorrow of an organisation rely. When other things fray or change – revenue funding, networks, staffing, ownership of assets etc – this is the difference between future and fracture. But we should never underestimate the effort and stress required.

 I worried that an Interim Director role might leave me wanting to get back to ‘a proper big job’ after almost 5 years of Thinking Practice. I’m glad to say it didn’t, and that neither did it make me think I’ve developed so many weird habits, or lost so many skills, I was now unfit for such a position. (That’s not a pitch, by the way.)

 Recruitment
One of my favourite Thinking Practices is interviewing people – in relation to research, evaluations and so on. I also enjoy getting involved in recruitment interviews; something I’d done mainly via my board memberships in recent years. But 2014 has brought several fascinating recruitment assignments. These ranged from assisting in selections to helping design job descriptions, target candidates and interview at mima to managing the whole process of finding a successor for Susan Jones at the head of a-n.

I was pleased to help get outstanding people in place in those roles. There are lots of generic recruiters around, of course, with more ‘substance’ than Thinking Practice in recruitment. But I can draw on expertise and work with you to design processes that help get the best person. So I’d be very happy to do more of this kind of work in 2015. (That was a bit of a pitch, fair cop.)

 Critical Friendship
The ‘Creative People & Places’ schemes across England (CPPs for short) were encouraged, maybe even obliged, to find people to be their ‘Critical Friends’. Critical Friends draw on the skills of coaching and mentoring, but also share frameworks and expertise. I’ve had a really good time the last 18 months or so being the Critical Friend for Bait, the CPP for South East Northumberland. It’s been a good way of developing the coaching approach I’ve trained in and use throughout my work. The folk involved – the staff team and the consortium board – are good people and the work they do is complex and important. I’ve learnt a lot myself, trying to be useful in thinking through what the ambitions of the programme and how it could evidence change.

 What’s been helpful is that this is a long-term relationship, working with leadership, team and board over a period of years, just 2-3 days per quarter. It provides external challenge and facilitation, but with less of the jerky-stop-start some consulting relationships can have. (For all parties.) We can build a continuity of conversation over a period of time, moving from individual to team work in a coherent process.

 I have a hunch this model, maybe at 3 or 4 days a year, could usefully be adapted to other organisational situations: capital development, change processes or artistic development. If any organisations in the UK were interested in developing a Critical Friend relationship in 2015 I’d be keen to trial some different packages. (Ok, that’s the last pitch, honest.)

 Writing 
2014 was a good year for my creative writing. New Writing North selected How I Learned to Sing for their Read Regional library promotion, which meant gigs in libraries across Yorkshire and the North East. After one, I was asked to accompany a member of the audience to the cashpoint so urgently did they want to buy the book. To the passer-by it probably looked more like a drug deal than literary culture, but hey ho. At another, in Hull, I met a subscriber to Scratch, the poetry magazine I edited in the 90s, who had brought his copies. Reviews also continued to trickle in. One phrase – ‘one of the finest contemporary love poems’ – is now regularly quoted in our house. You can read more over here, should you be interested.

 Also on the poetry side of things, I was happy to help out a bit on the committee that put together the first T-Junction Teesside International Poetry Festival. It brought writers from all over the world to Middlesbrough in October. It was great, even if we sadly had to Skype John Berger in. I was also commissioned a couple of times. I wrote a poem that will be used on Stockton High Street next year. I mixed poetry and prose for the Tyneside Cinema, after being their ‘conference poet’ at an event about young people and specialized film. The resulting book – ‘6 Degrees of Connection: Towards the Absolute Alrightness of the Kids’ – contained poetry and practical tips on engaging and enabling young people. It also had pages designed like intertitles that gave me a possibly disproportionate pleasure.

 2014 also contained a lot of writing/publishing of other sorts. There were co-written papers, evaluation reports, business plans and some long articles such as The F Word for Native, the journal of the Digital R&D Fund. Have a look at the publications page on the website for more details. Lord help me, but I even found myself writing an Grants for the arts interim report for the Swallows Foundation UK (which I chair), when there was no one else available to do it. I enjoy research – talking to super-engaged artists or leaders, librarians or curators – but I also love finding and ordering the words. And then, maybe most of all, I enjoy editing them. A useful find this year that helps with this has been the Hemingway app. I recommend it. (This blog was much longer to start with, believe it or not.)

 Beyond ‘the arts’
2014 has seen a surge of attention from the museums sector to my writing on adaptive resilience. It’s been interesting thinking about how the characteristics of organisations that tend to be adaptive and resilient might vary in the museums sector. The nature of the assets and networks, for instance, is very different. Often small ‘organisations’ have major archives and collection material or a heritage site to care for – and use. The networks of volunteers and supporters also seem to be a different kind of resource than in most arts organisations. Whether size is asset or liability also feels a different question than it often is for arts organisations.

 I’ve enjoyed invitations to think about these issues in seminars with museums leaders and at a recent Museums Association conference. I’m interested that museums seem to be putting more emphasis on the personal resilience of leaders than the arts did, at least at first. This connection is one I've thought about more and more and something I want to explore more in 2015. (Not least for my own resilience.)

 I've also been pleased to get back to some work with libraries, including evaluating the Digital War Memorial project. I was never convinced 'the arts' benefited from being separate from other bits of culture, or heritage from arts, and have argued that case for many years.

 So much more I could have said, but that’s (more than) enough. Thanks to all the clients and collaborators who’ve given me these experiences. Thanks to the fantastic people in the organisations I'm a trustee of, where I'm also always learning. (Swallows Foundation UK, AV Festival and Seven Stories.) It’s really been a great year, which I guess is why it feels as if it’s lasted approximately 12 minutes. Not always easy, full of challenges and frustrations and some anger at the society some are intent on creating/maintaining, but a year full of opportunities to work against the narrow, the bitter, the selfish, the unfair and for a more shared and equal culture.

Editing this, I'm struck how often I’ve used the word enjoyed. This may not be the case in the next set of things I write about. For that I feel both lucky and grateful.

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.