Tuesday, 22 June 2010

RIP Frank Sidebottom/take your mind off the budget/the football

Well, it's budget day and the England World Cup campaign is in disarray, so we need something to make us smile other than imagining the French squad going on strike and letting Bafana Bafana thrash them tonight. Hopefully the above video of Frank Sidebottom's world cup song 'Three Shirts on my Line' will take your mind off George Osbourne. Sadly, Frank Sidebottom - or Chris Sievey as even his mum probably never called him - passed away yesterday, so this is also by way of noting his passing.

If you think this is nothing to do with art you probably never saw Frank - and Little Frank - on Tony 'Factory Records' Wilson's tea-time quiz show - the nearest thing to the dada Cabaret Voltaire I'll ever see. There are bits on youtube, but they're not as madly great (or as relevant for Budget Day) as the clip below: Frank and David 'Hutch off of Starsky & Hutch' Soul covering (more like plastering) The Fall's Hit The North.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Funding for assets or activity?

The discussion around arts funding, and alternative models, raises a fundamental question for me: what do people want or indeed need the funding for? Arts funding is not an abstract thing, and certainly not good only in the abstract. As I've said elsewhere, there is some so far useful muddle about whether 'funding' is a kind of prize, gap funding for otherwise unaffordable socially-valuable goods or innovation, quasi-purchase on behalf of certain citizens, or investment needed whilst someone builds viable businesses, or a mix of all of those. But when arguing for arts 'funding', with people who need to save money somewhere, it helps to be clearer about what the money does. (And let's be clear: that argument is not primarily with any arts council, it's with politicians.) This requires greater clarity of purpose within the user of funding - and yes, I did deliberately choose that word rather than recipient.

My sense is arts organisations currently fall into two main camps in their attitudes to public money, which leads to two dominant 'business models', regardless of actual company structure. I've written about this in a paper on adaptive resilience to be published soon by Arts Council England, and here's an extract from the draft, in the hopes it's useful right now, and because quoting it is more 'efficient' than rewriting just for you.

'Nowhere in the evaluations [of some previous Arts Council England schemes] do I find copper-bottomed alternative business models. What can be seen is arguably a consistent picture of a variety of business structures emerging where core purpose is matched to the environment. This practice finds a reliable set of people including 'funders' willing to pay for the services or activities which are delivered via a strong set of organisational skills and resources. The alternative models are more about mindsets than aiming for particular percentages of funding from different sources.

Binaries are dangerously attractive, but I would suggest arts organisations split into two basic types here. Some people see their activities, products and capital resources as assets that create income which pays for that activity and future development, and work toward predictable and reliable income streams from a variety of sources. Some people see their activity as driven by or enabled by the availability of funding and work towards make that predictable and reliable. Those seem the basic ‘viable’ alternatives. The first seems likely to encourage a number of resilient behaviours: diversity of income streams, ingenuity, resourcefulness, re-use of materials. It will inevitably have an impact on business models, and this is further enhanced by the impact of digital technologies and interaction.... The central idea is twofold: looking at what the organisation does in a different way and using the income generated to invest in further work that creates new assets.'

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Cuts and other c-words

I meant to post something about arts funding last week, to signpost you, loyal readers, to the Arts Funding ning that Marcus Romer set up. It's grown really quickly, although there's still a slight sense of waiting intently about it in general. The tone has been collaborative and what you might call solutions-orientated, though with a tangible air of what the dvd warning would probably describe as 'peril'.

On Thursday DCMS came out with their contributions to the cuts: £73M including Find Your Talent, A Night Less Ordinary, library modernisation and the BFI digital archive project and new centre on the South Bank. Then on Friday Arts Council England laid out their approach to finding the in-year savings DCMS set them. This was an across-the-board 0.5% for all RFOs barring CCE and Arts & Business, plus some other savings including the postponement of a major public engagement programme and some other audience development work. Added to this every news bulletin contains more sign that the Cutting Coalition has the smell of blood in its wealthy nostrils. From free school dinners to Free Schools seems to sum up the whole approach. Be prepared to pay. And if you can't pay (for education, health, culture, insurance), just be prepared.

So lots happening, but I found it hard to say anything useful about it, oddly enough. (As might be apparent above.) For the first time since I left a small part of me wished I was arguing around the ACE exec board table, trying to balance the budget. It's a unenviable task though, and I wish my friends good luck - what's been done seems broadly sensible. (Hears former colleagues muttering 'cheers, Mark'. Hears Messrs Collard and O'Hara of CCE saying, 'really, Mark?') As I read it, it is a strategic decision to maintain things until we have much greater clarity about quite how indiscriminately the government is going to cut back on its own role in investing in society. As Dame Liz Forgan said, some of the things not being done - the public engagement, the partnerships with local authorities and private sector - are key to long-term sustainability. It will be important not to tack the same tack next year, when more reform can be introduced, whatever the financial setting. Using the reserves to pay the annual bills - which is basically what's been done - can only be done once.

We'll know more next week about the extent of future cuts, though will still be waiting intently for the Comprehensive Spending Review in the autumn. We will know then quite how much of a fight the public sector has on its hands. Patience is going to be required, as well as cunning, collaboration and campaigning, just to mention three things beginning with c. Like Will Hutton, I am beginning to fear for the sanity of how the necessary savings will be made.

But actually, arts funding is not my only worry in that - or even my main one, putting self-interest aside. This leads me to the one thought I want to throw in right now. There needs to be the mother of all campaigns against the worst of these cuts and their disproportionate impact on the poorest and most vulnerable, one that shows Nick Clegg what most people think about the bad crowd he's got himself in with, and what proper British values are: compassion, community, creativity to use three more c-words. (We may need to get positively French about it to do so, paradoxically.)

This means putting together a proper broad coalition of interests that can campaign in imaginative and powerful ways, far beyond the usual suspects, and far beyond the SWP banners and anarcho-jugglers out for a scrap. In making the case for money that can be invested in artists, arts organisations and arts activity, the sector needs to seek common cause with other progressive groups looking to protect people from the regressive instincts of the Bullingdon Club and their new friends. I'd like to see the NCA, for instance, working with the TUC as well as with A&B. The arts also have much to contribute to that campaign of course, including examples of how the private and third sectors connect to the public sector. It would be a mistake to see cuts in arts funding as separate from cuts to education, health and social capital of all sorts, or as requiring the arts to argue against hospitals or welfare.

So while the #artsfunding hashtag is a good one to follow on Twitter, so might #cuts be. And let's collaborate, using artsfunding and whatever other spaces can be found.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Do you feel lucky?

One hopeful thing for artists looking for funding is that - so far - recessionary times have been good for lottery funding, as people are buying more lottery tickets, and we know the Coalition of the Independently Wealthy want to increase the share of lottery funds going to the arts. Unfortunately, that requires legislation so is not going to kick in for a year or so. So the search for alternative sources of income picks up pace. (Everyday I look for philanthropists on Stockton High Street, whilst out for a sandwich, but have yet to locate one.)

One group of artists, led by Ellie Harrison, have decided to take an alternative approach to lottery funding, with the Artists Lottery Syndicate. Whilst on the surface like any other lottery syndicate, this also has the hallmarks of Harrison's other online projects, mixing playfulness with seriousness: 'By utilising the element of 'luck', which plays such a central role in an artist's career, the Syndicate aims to explore the prevalent 'winner-takes-all' market of the arts, described by Hans Abbing in his book Why Are Artists Poor?'

The roots of Harrison's wit in a very serious consideration of the artist's role in a struggling world can be seen in her recent thesis Trajectories: How to Reconcile the Careerist Mentality with Our Impending Doom. This explores how artists might respond to the collapse of the careerist mentality as a result of economic and climate chaos. It's a challenging read, but puts a lot of things really clearly. Which funnily enough is a relatively rare thing for someone defining themselves,albeit perhaps reluctantly, as a visual artist. It deserves more time than I've got right now, but I will perhaps return to it.

Anyway, fingers crossed for the Syndicate - now full, by the way.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Service design cues for the arts

Recently I’ve been working with Clare Cooper and Rohan Gunatillake of Mission Models Money to design the next phase of MMM’s activity. (You will now see me listed as one of their Associates.) As well as important – because I’ve long felt they were on to something in their argument that the sector was over-extended and under-capitalised and needed to develop new, collaborative ways of being – it’s also been interesting and fun, partly because we’ve been working with Lauren Currie, a service designer whose company Snook are doing some great things. Lauren has written about it on her blog from her point of view, and you can see some of the many photos taken on the first day. This has involved lots of post-its, the odd role play, and even a bit of drawing and cutting out. So right up my street, then.

It has been very useful being challenging to think things through as a service for ‘users’, with a ‘user journey’. (The contemporary ubiquity of the journey metaphor is a subject for another day.) It did make me realise that’s what I started to do instinctively in describing Thinking Practice and some of the things I want to do with it, and is is perhaps a particular form of strategic thinking. It also made me wonder what the arts sector more broadly could learn from service design – and where it’s being applied currently, even if not under that rubric.

So here’s just three areas for any arts organisation to ponder using a service design approach:

1. How do artists experience your organisation? What’s the conversation you have with them like? What makes them feel a genuinely equal part of the organisation or project? How do they meet with people? How are they represented in your communications and other ‘imagery’? What do they actually do with you? How do you maintain the relationship change when the production or exhibition is over, if at all?

2. If your work includes participation or learning or engagement – or indeed any other way of ‘people doing things not just watching’ – how does the individual experience that? What are the key moments and how do you want them to feel? Are you designing the interaction, the spaces, the materials, to get as close to that result as you can? What would you want if you were that member of the public? What language do you use, and whose is it - yours or theirs?

3. What service do you provide to the people you call funders, and how do they experience and understand that? How do you communicate to them – where and when, and with what? Think of it from their seat – what’s their ideal experience and how close to it are you currently? How could the relationship grow? What happens to the contact when they stop funding you?