Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Movement of artists

It’s a murky business, politics. Lots about The Manifesto Club makes me very nervous – eg their campaigns about vetting and their general libertarian bent. There is the whiff of ex-trot about the rhetoric and nothing makes me more nervous than a libertarian ex-trot. But one campaign I do support is that addressing the point-based immigration system and its impact on artists and academics. You can read about here and there are some useful pointers as to how to raise this in the context of the general election.

I’ve just become chair of the Swallows Foundation UK, which is involved in a unique international partnership between North East England and the Eastern Cape in South Africa, the Swallows Partnership. The North East has just played host to a fantastic residency by 28 South African performers, which very nearly didn’t happen because most of the artists were refused visas at first asking. And indeed second asking. It was only after much intervention, much further information and the loss of a month’s planning time and support from National Campaign for the Arts and others that most were able to come. Many were refused because as young, single, black African males they seemed to be automatically suspected of wanting to stay in the UK after the residency ended, despite many of them having visited before, and having returned quite normally. The NCA has campaigned really powerfully on this.

Does it matter if less artists are able to visit the UK? Is it a political issue? Yes, in both cases. I want to live in a country that’s open to ideas, experiences and learning from elsewhere, and can explore its own identity through comparison, debate and connection. That connects us into an understanding of our history and future in the world – whether that be our colonial and Commonwealth past, or post-colonial hybrid notions of Englishness or Britishness within a European identity. The points-based system, and the general tenor of ‘debate’ about immigration as evidenced in this election seems to me a variant of what I’ll call (referring to my last post) as England’s Dreaming. One of the parts of the ACE/RSA State of the Arts debate I found most disappointing was the part on movement of artists, where it seemed people thought this was simply a targeting of artists, when it actually stems from a broader and more pernicious fear of ‘the foreign’. It needs to be addressed as a political issue, not one of simply arts policy: it is, therefore, a very useful point to raise with your prospective MPs.

The ironic punchline to the story of the Eastern Cape Swallows is that, as they were due to return home on Sunday, none of the artists or visiting politicians from the Eastern Cape can go home as planned, due to the cancellation of flights because of the volcanic ash...

Friday, 9 April 2010

Start again, start again: RIP Malcolm McLaren

I am a product of punk and post-punk, there's no doubt about it. Not in a mohican and leather jacket way, but in a leaving the 2oth century, diy,be reasonable demand the impossible kind of way. 'There is no future in England's dreaming' still seems one of the resonant lines of poetry of my time. (And I still write things like that.) So although Malcolm McLaren has not been important to me in recent years, I was still jealous when Godfrey Worsdale from BALTIC told me of working with him when preparing the recent show and talks there last year, and I wanted to mark his early passing in some way.

There will be lots of obits to get the full story, and his most important work was with the Sex Pistols, injecting the emost intelligent kind of stupidity into a generation - or was it the most simple kind of intelligence, I don't know. But I also loved some of his Duck Rock cultural wanderings, and his restless reinventions - full of bull at times, and usually failures artistically, but somehow inspiring. Why not try and do every kind of idea? So I thought rather than God Save The Queen or Anarchy in the UK, I'd share this joyous bit of African-inspired skipping life advice. Musically you might just as well be listening to the great Mahatini and the Mahatella Queens perhaps, but McLaren does add something extra somehow - perhaps through the power of being absolutely unembarrassed at his relish?

Thursday, 8 April 2010

So what so what so what's the scenario?

Sometimes, when I say you have to deal with the world as it is, people think I mean you can’t change things. That’s not it at all – quite the opposite. But I do think you need to have an awareness of current reality to begin to sense or think your way to where you want to get to. That’s one of the reasons I like combining numerical data with qualitative information. Sometimes just following the numbers can tell you things the business plan doesn’t. (You know, I once did a ‘Which character from The Wire would you be?’ quiz and I was Lester Freamon.) It’s why I also think scenario thinking can be really helpful if applied in the right way.

Often, scenarios are created which are either visions towards which our mission will drive us, or nightmare scenarios created to push us in the opposite direction (ie where we want to go, again). In each case they are essentially things used to persuade us of something. (We’re getting plenty of these types of scenarios from all sides in the election campaign, right now.) These can be useful rallying cries, things to keep everyone pushing in the same direction, but are less useful in determining exactly what to do.

Because of course, the real world isn’t like that – it’s rarely one thing or the other, it varies and contradicts itself. So a more useful, though much more difficult kind of scenario thinking is to imagine alternative versions of the future, with some key variables and think what would be most likely to happen in them, based on what we know (as opposed to what we’d want to happen). This requires real discipline, the wishful thinking gene being a strong one. But when you can see what might happen if and then think through your best course of action for any scenario, you give yourself a better chance of coming out resilient and productive.

Scenario planning also broadens the attention from what’s happening now, or what’s happened in the past to what’s happened in the past, to the future, which is, after all, where people and organisations will be operating. So many action plans are shaped to respond to past conditions rather than future, but understanding scenarios can help resolve this – designing organisations and strategies for today and tomorrow. We are seeing less of this type of thinking in the election so far, although we can perhaps forgive politicians that a little. Whenever they acknowledge that there are different possibilities in the future which might mean different things, the media or the public seem to demand absolute certainty – we want conclusions, sureness, even if it turns out a chimera.

Shell are often cited as the example of the use of scenario planning in business, although this has been questioned. (The Wikipedia page on the subject has some useful notes of caution on the limitations of the tool.) There is useful material on Scenario Thinking site here also.

When planning Thinking Practice I have tried to practice what I preach, so did some imagining of future scenarios for the arts. The two key variables I settled on were resources and how outward-looking the sector was. I could have chosen change-orientation for the second. This was thinking about the next 5-10 years, and wanting to be useful whatever happens. I’ve included this on the Thinking Practice website, as I think it’s useful background if nothing else. I suspect elements of all four of these scenarios will co-exist, but am not sure which one is likely to dominate, or which I’d prefer. (And to reiterate: that’s not the point of the exercise.) Anyway, what do you think?

A: Frustrated Optimism (Drastically few resources, outward-looking sector)
Ingenuity and innovation vie with frustration and loss of talent. Competition and collaboration co-exist. Brokerage of partnerships becomes central. Collaborative efforts, including with 3rd, regeneration and education sectors hampered by lack of resources. Creative industries and 3rd sector blur as new forms spring up.

B: Changing the World Again (Sustained resources, outward-looking sector)
Development of new models creates new demands, requiring new skills. Audiences expand, as forms blur, events and digital blending. Venues, digital and ‘pop ups’ interrelate productively to bring new talent through. High profile partnerships emphasise excellence and social value. Some organisations left behind and close.

C: Few But Roses (Drastically few resources, self-reflective sector)
Collaborations, closures, mergers lead to improvement, efficiency, change, gains and loss. Art forms jostle for position and funding. Innovation may paradoxically focus on ’proven innovators’. ‘Undergrounds’ flourish in pro-am sector. Digital distribution and lo-fi ‘pop up’ events grow. Flagships venues/events central to development.

D: Thriving by Surviving (Sustained resources, self-reflective sector)
Excellence of product is matched by loyal audiences, though from the ‘converted’. Stability is prioritised over innovation in model by funders and sector alike. Digital grows but without urgency, except in the margins. Leadership is focused on cultural outputs rather than social or blended.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Welcome to Thinking Practice

When I decided that I had better ideas than to get another 'big job' on leaving Arts Council England, I knew I would need a name for my company other than 'Mark Robinson Associates' - both names being too common for Google to lead you to me easily. (So common I was once introduced to the tv producer one, once met another in the lunch queue at a Common Purpose national conference, and used to get emails for another in the next building. I'm not the football, rugby or cricket Mark Robinsons either. Or the American indie songwriter.) I looked on jealously as colleagues with more exotic names such as Norinne Betjemann bagged their own dotcoms. After a moment the attractions of coming up with something beginning with 'S' and being 'MRSA' wore off.

But actually it was a good thing, as working through what I could, would and wanted to do, how that would be useful and to whom, and how that was going to make me a living, also led me to a name: THINKING PRACTICE.

You can read about the business on the website here. We'll be offering classic consultancy services, facilitation and coaching, and developing a couple of 'services' later this year to increase understanding in the arts and cultural sector of policy, research and other trends, and to build the resilience of organisations. I hope it can be influential in how organisations approach their development. The targeting is based upon a simple logic: there is a need for the cultural sector to get smarter at thinking about how it operates, how that relates to the world of public policy and how that relates to broader societal and business trends and there is a gap in the market for services that combine the kind of intelligence to address this need with practical management, facilitation and coaching experience so that clients can get better at what they do, and thrive without support in the future. That logic is what I'll be testing over the next year, and I'll also explore that here, on this blog.

This blog will continue the model I created with Arts Counselling. Those of you who said I should carry on blogging, can count yourselves partly responsible, but in truth writing regularly in this way has also become part of how I work things out, part of my own thinking and practice. So it'll contain links to and short thoughts upon new research and policy initiatives, comment upon news and events, occasional longer pieces, the odd video, infrequent but fascinating trivia and the odd joke. The first few posts I intend to set out where I'm coming from and some of what the sector needs to be grappling with right now. (And I don't really mean the impending UK election - that's a crossroads perhaps but not the whole journey.) I'll also be adding links to some useful places as I get the chance. (I have my first contract so am not stuck for things to do other than this!)

I'll end this introduction here, and urge you to subscribe or visit regularly and to spread the word.