Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Home thoughts from the Eastern Cape

I'm in South Africa at the moment, in the Eastern Cape. I am visiting Isiseko Senkonjane, the Swallows Foundation South Africa, in two roles: as chair of the Swallows Foundation UK, the UK charity which administers one end of the Swallows Partnership, between the Eastern Cape and North East England (a partnership at a political level as well as between artists and cultural organisations, rather than 'simply' cultural) and as poet/literary type looking at the development of what they call 'word arts' around the Grahamstown Festival.

This afternoon I was introduced to a group of creative writing students as a dramaturg from Live Theatre, which I'm very much not. (I have been helping the team at Live get ready to launch, next month, a ground-breaking on-line playwriting course, developed by the new writing team from a highly successful 'real world' original,, which is where the impression came from I suspect. And I'm of course more than happy to be associated with Live Theatre - though all the real Live people are this week opening Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters in New York City.) After a moment's panic I was able to smoothly move on to talking about writer development in the North East, perceptions of British writing (Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill the newest writers the group were aware of) and the commonalities of making your way as a writer in places far from the centres of cultural and other capital, without resorting to inflicting my own poems on the poor young things. (That comes later in the week.)

I will try and capture in a few blogs towards the end of my stay here some of the experience, but have already been struck by two conversations about the similarities and dis-similarities with attitudes to artsfunding and survival as an artist.

Last night I had dinner with two young managers at Port Elizabeth Opera House, the city's main theatre. (I'd met their boss earlier in the day at the Swallows SA board meeting.) Somehow, with a grant of around £50,000 a year, the team there run a theatre with a staff of 16, doing outreach and development work as well, although not as much as they would like. How is this done, I asked? Well, it's not through philanthropy alone, but by really 'sweating the assets' - in their case primarily the building. This also opens up the Opera House to a much wider range of communities. (Last time I visited the Opera House, in 2007, it was rammed for a hiphop gig by local township youth.) That's not to say it's easy, or smooth, and there are no doubt compromises and difficult choices, but by looking at what they have and who both wants and needs it, the team there seem to be adapting something rare, despite losing funding massively some years ago, as a result not of government but general cultural politics. (As I understood it anyway.)

Then this evening I was talking to the artistic director of
Ubom, an Eastern Cape Drama Company, who described a very typical picture of survival through hard work and quality, recognisable to small companies the world over, no doubt. This included developing product for particular markets, such as schools, on particular subjects, such as climate change. But all in ways which enabled imaginative work and, crucially, paid full-time employment for the team - in itself a significant statement in a part of the country where full-time artist is not seen as an option for employment. (Every single student in the group I'd spoken to earlier saw themselves leaving Grahamstown as soon as they'd graduated, and heading for the bigger cities like Johannesburg, Cape Town or Durban.) This company did have some National Arts Council funding, of around £25,000.

Conclusions for the UK artsfunding response, then? Make a little go even further than you think. Don't think of buildings as liabilities but as real tools for making, showing, creating and earning. (I know there are strains of thought that arts buildings are 'very 20th century', but I think that is itself a luxurious and oddly purist attitude to take, even when I'm not in South Africa.) Use what you've got, because you've probably got more than you think. Don't wait for others to help you. Don't be too pure. More probably, over time.

And more from Eastern Cape as I go along, and get access to broadband. Maybe even some photos and videos, we'll see.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Out of time: things I would have blogged about recently

Here's a few things I've not had time to blog about recently:
  • The usefulness of the word 'elasticity' which came up in the google-translation of a description of my Making adaptive Resilience Real on a Croatian website Kulturpunkt - why didn't I use it in the text? What does the image suggest for people's seemingly binary approach to organisational health? (The seeming binary: funding/alive, cut/dead.)
  • Whether plethora or confusion or coalition or union is the appropriate collective noun for campaigns.
  • Related to that, why I value the arts feels to me a better starting point than Save the arts but neither hits the bull's eye, and the artsfunding 'debate' has become increasingly echo-chamberish. Why? Because it starts from audiences, albeit perhaps arts-based ones, because it suggests less the arts exist because of subsidy and will die without it. Theatre has not, for instance, died because some companies lost their RFO-funding 2 years ago, unless I've missed something. What have been the effects, though, and what does that suggest for thinking through the inevitable?
  • How I signed the petition, but find my optimism about the future of the arts in the conversation where people don't talk about cuts but about change, not the prospect of a debate in Parliament. (Actually, I'm with the doubters about whether even 100,000 signatures really would or should trigger a debate, but even if it happened, when did that last have a real impact on a controversial policy?)
  • How Brendan Barber's speech at the TUC congress felt more realistic, and more challenging, in its suggestion of 5 alternatives to coalition strategy:
    1. a realistic timetable
    2. more flexibility
    3. growth as a priority
    4. a bigger role for tax
    5. a different kind of economy

    Change 'bigger role for tax' to 'clearer role for arts funding investment' and i think that's what the sector could be asking for right now. Campaigning for status quo is not an option
  • the yesthat'srightness of John Kay's piece about economic arguments for arts funding and how naive it makes some arguments both for and against sound
  • the stimulating sessions talking about resilience I've had in Huddersfield and Leeds and will be having in Newcastle and Cambridge next month and what I've learnt. See me in a state of gurning over-stimulation at the end of one of those in this short video courtesy of &Co.

I have, however, been very busy with work and family, so have constantly run out of time, so haven't been keeping you as regularly stimulated as I'd like. As I'm going to be in South Africa working with the Swallows Foundation for the next fortnight, you will either hear next to nothing or very regular updates over the next two weeks. Be prepared for either!

(Lots of songs called 'out of time' - this could even become a regular series - was going to go with Blur but this blue eyed soul is just lovely.)

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

British Broadcasting Coalition? (Or 'when I hear the word cuts I reach for the off switch')

I suppose if I had Rupert Murdoch on my back I'd act a bit peculiar, but I had been starting to wonder if it was just me that thought the BBC was embracing the idea of cuts to other people with a little too much relish. But today I've seen two pieces that suggest I'm not alone in thinking their presentation of the cuts debate has not been very, well, rounded.

Aditya Chakrabortty,
in The Guardian, makes the point that coverage which promotes the inevitability of cuts in certain areas, and has 'in these difficult economic times' on autotext, creates an atmosphere of naturalness which is refuted by many leading economists, let alone those who'll bear the brunt of the cuts. (Poor people, women, children from deprived backgrounds, economically-useless folk like that according to even the flimsy impact assessments done so far.) Like him, I don't buy the conspiracy theories. It is more the sign of a broadcaster weakened by a series of events, going back to the Hutton Enquiry, and lacking clarity and confidence.That, and some tired, dull journalism that likes repeating itself, but that's not confined to the BBC.

Meanwhile, on Article 19, (whose Neil Nesbit is fresh from his appearance supporting some arts funding on a BBC programme in which some saloon bar 'iconoclast' argued for the withdrawal of public money from the arts) has been looking into the BBC headline that 'two-thirds of people agree with the government's stance on cutting funding to the arts'. His article
here coolly takes apart the survey, which was commissioned to promote the Threadneedle Prize, far better than I could, so I won't repeat it here. But the point remains why the BBC should take an approach that would shame a tiny local paper? As anyone following the #artsfunding hashtag on twitter will testify, that headline rippled through followers.

Now, we should not dismiss it out of hand. It's true, I'm sure, that many people prefer their visual art figurative rather than conceptual. And the issue of public support - especially when services nearer the base of
Maslow's hierarchy of needs, like hospitals and schools, are being cut too - is a crucial one which the sector's campaigns have so far not addressed sufficiently. But a sense of perspective is needed on all sides for the debate about cuts to be meaningful.

Unfortunately, we do have to admit the possibility that it is not meaningful - cannot be in the circumstances, a generous person might say - and we should turn our attention to re-imagining and redesigning and focus more of our messages on this. More on that anon. In the meantime, it is important we use all available media channels to tell the stories of the value of the arts, and hold all of them to account.