Sunday, 23 May 2010

Keep on keeping on

For those of you who prefer your reminders in musical form, here's two different takes on the same message...

I is a long memoried (ungrumpy) man

There is understandably and rightly a lot of nervousness in the arts about what the Posh Boys Coalition will be announcing about budget cuts to the public sector. There's also a more general nervousness where I live in the North East, due to a coincidence of what you might call 'risk factors': a relatively high proportion of jobs being in or paid for by the public sector and next to no Tory or Lib-Dem MPs meaning there is little for this coalition to lose in hitting the region hard. They have some history of that, although it is also true that Mrs Thatcher had a bit of a revelation in Thornaby, on land you can see from my office window. Shall I point out that the proportion is high not simply because of any distribution of funds/jobs by the New Labour government but because of the huge losses of the traditional industries, especially during the years the last Tory government was in power? No, you remember that, I know.

But perhaps you don't. You may have the good fortune of being too young or too forgetful. I've spoken to several people in the last fortnight who are wondering what it feels like to work under a Tory administration. Not all young people either... However, one of the few advantages to being 45 is a bit of historical perspective, something which as my last post suggested I think has been a bit lacking in the comments about likely cuts to the arts. So at the risk of making myself seem old, here's a few things to remind ourselves about,whatever George Osbourne says tomorrow.

1. Government support helps the arts, and definitely helps all kinds of positive developments. But it's not a pre-requisite for making things can have impact and quality. You don't need permission. They are only the government, they're not in charge of us.

2. Retaining investment in the really developmental activities will be key - that's going to require a bigger conversation than we've grown used to, one where we really debate the relative benefits of, for instance, more/bigger arts activity, targeted arts development or building key organisations that can then sustain healthy activity.

3. Cuts will not be fatal to the arts sector, no matter what pain or damage is involved. The arts are not for any government to kill, though they can definitely limit and misshape them. We might have some impairments, but can still be productive.

4. This government's policies, like those of previous Tory administrations, will also hold opportunities for the arts. The Big Society strategy could create opportunities for new organisations, or for organisations to deliver services in new ways. A policy emphasis on localism will open up new spaces for developing engagement in the arts. Many of the best arts organisations around today have their roots in the 80s, and were supported by things like YTS, Enterprise Allowance and other schemes. The 'culture-led regeneration' in the North East that has had so much global attention may be classic new labour in many ways, but it began deep in the Tory years, and had support from all parties, albeit in different ways.

5. The arts are part of politics, not something that have politics done unto them. That can manifest itself in lots of different ways, including a rejection of 'engagement', of course. But we can use our undoubted influence, visibility and connections now in a way which was perhaps not the case in the 1980s. I would suggest the arts are in a much better position than they were then to deal with a much less malign threat. We are better spread throughout society, we are much more diverse in our roots and ways, our funding is better spread, and we are even more ingenious. And these cuts, if they come, are less ideologically driven, more simply about balancing the books.

6. My final thought is that the arts leadership now is also of a different generation than was the case in the last era of dimished funding. This will have pluses and minuses. The last of the babyboomers and the oldest Gen X-ers mix with some fantastic digital natives for whom some of the above sounds like remembrances of Keir Hardy. We have to draw on both the experience of building great things in difficult times, and the expectation built up during the credit card boom years, to create a new approach that can sustain us through whatever difficult days are to come. Those brought up on the politics-lite of the last 13 years may need to pay a different kind of attention than so far.

So, in summary - don't panic, organise.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

They would say that wouldn't they: arts, cuts and personifications

Jeremy Hunt gave his first major speech about arts and culture funding today, at the Roundhouse. Rather encouragingly, it doesn’t actually seem to contain much beyond what he and Ed Vaisey said repeatedly in recent months and during the election campaign: they love and value the arts, will put lottery funds back to something approaching their original proportions and purposes, want ‘efficiencies’, and will not allow the arts to be singled out as a soft touch for cuts, but there will be cuts. I say encouragingly, because the only news we were ever likely to get was about bigger than expected cuts. Looking at his speech it seems all one could realistically hope for – honest and straight-forward, reaching out to the sector, but not apologising for the tough decisions the government have committed themselves too, whether we like it or not.

And of course, I don’t like it, and think cutting the arts drastically would be a kind of myopia. There are lots of strong arguments for the value for money government investment in culture, economic, cultural and social, and I don’t need I hope to set them out here – you can see some on recent blogs and articles here, here, here, though I think they vary in strength. (And the comments all too often fall into the ‘with friends like these’ category.) For me the main one is the minuscule amount cuts would shave off the deficit. It’s like me expecting the savings I might make by not buying biscuits to balance the household budget now I’m no longer magnificently remunerated by the Arts Council. (Having been made redundant whilst delivering savings demanded by the previous government, as it happens.) And trust me, despite appearances, I spend very little on biscuits.

That said, I do think it worth us pausing for a second to think how the arguments for the arts budget might look from other perspectives. Compare the coverage of the speech by The Stage (‘tough times’) and by the BBC (‘more lottery funds’) and the Guardian (bit of both) for contrasting takes that illustrate typical positions. Perhaps imagining the relationship between two personifications, ‘Art Sector’ and ‘Jeremy Government’ would help us frame our conversation slightly differently, allowing for inevitable elements of stereotype and parody in what follows?

So, how does Art see Jeremy in the current situation?

‘Jeremy is out get us, though he’s talking nicely and politely and no doubt enjoys some arts stuff, probably mainly opera. He can be charming when he wants to – in fact he usually seems to be calming me down even when I’m not worked up. He’s doing the work of his government in looking for easy targets for cuts. He thinks education and hospitals and weapons are more important than the arts, and that no one will cause an outcry. But the arts are fantastic value for money for him, and he spends hardly anything on them and gets huge profile for the UK and a major part of our economy as a result. He doesn’t really listen to the evidence we give him of that, and always pokes holes in it – unless it suits him when arguing for the importance of his department. He doesn’t see that we are fantastically productive – far more so than most businesses – though I’m sure there’s some fat in the funding bodies still. He should not make any cuts at all, whatever George Osborne tells him. None. He doesn’t see how fragile things are. He’ll be on the move soon anyway, if he’s got anything about him, then he’ll forget all about us and we’ll have to work with some other upandcoming boy.’

And how might he relate to Art?

‘Art doesn’t listen to what I say, or really look at the problems we’re trying to fix. I keep telling him how important his health is, but he doesn’t believe and just argues back as if everything has to stay the same and as if the last lot were perfect. Occasionally I get the sense he thinks I might be less controlling than his previous relationship, but that doesn’t last long and he’s back to bombarding me with ever more desperate arguments and threatening to break my legs if I betray him. I sometimes think he doesn’t realise how great he actually is, and how distracting these arguments are. We’re in a tricky position and everyone has to play their part. Art doesn’t seem to realise its much worse in some other areas: we’re going to be closing schools and hospitals and cutting benefits and pensions. Osbourne’s not exactly rubbing his hands at what I can find him to put in the pot. But some of the things Art tells me just don’t bear scrutiny – he overclaims and cries wolf – but I suppose that’s the dramatic temperament. He can seem very twitchy when we meet, and I wish he’d just look me in the eye. I’d really like him to draw on his resourcefulness and drive more. I sometimes think he pays me too much attention.'

And finally what would a disinterested observer say about this relationship?

‘These two seem determined to not understand each other. Every time they seem about to agree they find something to have a heated debate about. Art wants it all his own way, and makes himself look a bit daft at times – all that hand-waving and pointing. For someone’s who supposed to be all about communication he seems to find it hard to listen – he always seems set to ‘broadcast’, and doesn’t see what the other’s giving. I can see how important this is to him, and I like that about him, but he doesn’t see the other’s point of view, and can come across a bit paranoid. He should see his message is actually being heard, but it's complicated – and he goes over the top sometimes. How can it be so fantastically brilliant and so fragile at the same time? That rubs Jeremy up the wrong way I think, though he seems to ride over it. He seems to be trying hard with Art, but getting knocked back, which must be hard, though that’s what he’s paid for. And the final decision doesn’t look like anything to do with their conversations – it’s all being done off stage, as they might say. They both seem to think they’re in charge of whether the rest of us go the theatre or whatever, and don’t really care what else has to go so they can avoid cuts. I’m not saying my state pension actually is more important, but why should either of them think they’re immune from getting by on a bit less in extraordinary times?’

That I suggest at least one possible answer to that last question above should make clear I’m not suggesting I personally agree with any of that imagining necessarily. (My other answer would be what you might characterise as the ‘arts as part of the training and development budget for the nation’ argument.) I do think that if the arts are to play their full role in what we now appear to be compelled to call ‘the national interest’ (who’ll be the first to call for ‘strong and stable arts’?) we need to be much more conscious of how things appear from other points of view when framing our arguments and our behaviour.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Arts Professional article

I don't know whether articles in Arts Professional disappear from their website when no longer current, unless you subscribe, or not. I suspect so, and fair enough. But if they do, non-subscribers should hurry now to see an article I wrote about my experience of working for Arts Council England. You can find it here.

I won't share the whole thing here right now, to encourage you to visit Arts Professional's site, and subscribe if you can. But it uses this quote from Buzz Hollings as a means of exploring some of the challenges:

“We recognise that the seeming paradox of change and stability inherent in evolving systems is the essence of sustainable futures. We now know that to counteract the current pathology we need policies that are dynamic and evolutionary. We need policies that expect results that are inherently uncertain and explicitly address that uncertainty through active probing, monitoring and response. However, we cannot successfully implement these new policies because we have not learned the politics and we ignore the public.”

As I say in the article, he wasn't talking about the arts, but he could have been.

I didn't entitle the piece 'Angels on a pinhead', by the way. It's either a) an acknowledgment of the complexity of the issues or b) a very subtle way of melding references to Gormley's North East icon and the fantastic Ramones song which goes 'D-U-M-B, everyone's accusing me - I don't wanna be a pinhead no more...' But that may be reading too much into it!

(That reminds me of the time ACE senior managers were asked at an away day to pick a song that summed up our feelings about the then new organisation, and I hurriedly and perhaps ill-advisedly wrote down 'I wanna be sedated' by the Ramones. I survived.)

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

5 Doctors, and the axe paradox

Some years ago, in a late night conference conversation in a Bulgarian night club, someone from an arts organisation asked me how come the Arts Council in the North East was so good, when their region was – well, not. (They put it rather more harshly, but drink had been taken and I'm sure they didn't really mean it, and that anyway they were mistaken.) The rather poor photo above was taken at Andrew Dixon’s leaving do recently and illustrates, in a way an answer about the North East, from which I want to draw a general lesson. (Andrew has just left Newcastle Gateshead Initiative and the North East to become the Chief Executive of Creative Scotland.)

My answer at the time was about Andrew and how he'd provided continuity of vision from his predecessors, and I only want to alter that slightly here, with the experience of having taken over from him, and then recently handed on myself. What's been achieved in the arts in the North East over the last 20 years has been achieved by consistent leadership, in which Northern Arts and then Arts Council England, North East has played a key role. (The local authorities have also been central, as have some fantastic arts organisations and indeed some private sector backers.) There has been enough consensus to have a shared mission for a prolonged period, which has given us the platform to really change the region. We have provided a confident and persistent vision, conversation and relationship for people. (Even if they didn't agree, they generally knew where we stood.)

When we've all been together in the past I've compared it to the rare Doctor Who specials where several Doctors come together. I looked at the photo above, and saw that in a new light. It had slipped my mind that what you have is a kind of chain. Working from left to right in the photo, Alison Clark-Jenkins was one of my Directors, I was one of Andrew's, he was Peter Hewitt's deputy at Northern Arts, as Peter Hewitt was to Peter Stark. To some this might suggest an insularity, a commonness of approach - and I am very aware that whilst many would praise our work, there are other views, and some hoping for big changes. I do feel, though, that it has generally been a positive thing, as we have each taken core elements of vision and added our own style and take. We are all very different as people, although reflecting now I can see some traits in common: energy, passion and a willingness to argue strongly for what we believe in, even when that's awkward, for instance.

The changes we've brought to our predecessors' vision and ways of working has been as important as the continuity though - though perhaps only because it is allied to some continuity. I am reminded of the paradox of the axe: if I change the handle on my father's axe, and my son or daughter changes the blade when I pass it on, is it the same family axe? (This comes to mind because of Gary Snyder's poem 'Axe handles', I think, though he uses the image slightly differently. Read the poem here.)

In business development terms, you might call this organisational memory. I carried out some research into the characteristics of resilient organisations recently and found that a shared purpose rooted in organisational memory was a common factor. All too often though, our managerial cultures forget that organisational memory is most deeply rooted in people, in the people that stay, and in what the people who go leave behind. That is not always a good thing, of course, so change is a necessary part of the mix to increase resilience and the ability to adapt.

This is also a view enabled by hindsight. Although there is a succession here, it could have been very different, and maybe even better people would have come in. But as succession planning becomes a much more common thing for boards to do, it is perhaps time to think through the benefits of different models.

Monday, 3 May 2010

One month in

April has not exactly been the cruellest month, all things considered. My first month of running Thinking Practice has gone by in a flash, though with slightly less blogging than I might have hoped. This has been because it's been damned busy. Here's some of what I've done since Easter:

- Interviewed 65 people about culture in County Durham during the research phase of my first big piece of work
- Presented some of my resilience research at an 'Intelligent Funding' seminar in Newcastle organised by Mission Money Model and Northern Rock Foundation
- Chaired a session at a seminar on internationalism in arts policy organised by the Swallows Partnership
- Contributed to the Redcar Cultural Forum
- Facilitated a board away day
- Done my first coaching sessions with clients

I've also managed to fit in a farewell dinner for the old ACE Executive Board, setting up my office and business, agreeing to joining the board of the organisation that runs the AV Festival, extended my membership of the Tees Common Purpose advisory group, had my first board meeting as Chair of the Swallows Foundation UK, as well as the usual family and sporting running around.So if it's not been busy on the Thinking Practice blog, I hope you'll understand why!

May will see more regular posting, so do spread the word about the new site.