Thursday, 23 December 2010

Season's greetings

I'm out of here until the New Year. Last year I managed 94 blog posts on Arts Counselling. This year's combined total is 57, though with slightly more visitors - almost 6000. The subscriber list has also quickly overtaken that of Arts Counselling.

Why has Thinking Practice been less prolific than Arts Counselling, I hear you ask? Well, it may be as simple as that I have done many fewer trips to London on the train, which is when many of my Arts Counselling blogs were knocked off - I mean carefully crafted. (You do not want to know how often regional ACE execs have to go to London.) Also I've been even busier than I expected working on with some great clients.

Anyway, I hope to keep a rhythm of about one post a week in the New Year, and will be sprucing up the blog and website soon. Whether you're one of the people who've been here more than 200 times, or one of those who just swing by occasionally - thank you. (Thanks especially to the subscribers - it's a spur to writing to know it'll be in your inbox the next day.) But now go and do something else - it's Christmas!

Monday, 20 December 2010

2010 and all that

I’ve seen at least two lists-cum-looks-back at the year which have begun ‘I don’t like lists and rounds ups of the year...’. Well, I do like lists and things which make me look back and look to see if I’ve missed something, and anyway, it’s my blog and I’ll list if I want to...

Queue I Wished I’d Joined: The queue to sit opposite Marina Abramovich at moma in New York. The same, rather selfish man was there the whole time we were in the museum, with a very patient queue waiting. Some amazing photos of that work here (Marina Abramovich Made Me Cry) - and a parody here . (Marina Abramovich Made Me High.)

Brassed Up Award for Best Use of a Tuba: Cornelia Parker’s Perpetual Canon at BALTIC. (See a picture here.)

(My Belated) Poetry Discovery of the Year: Albert Goldbarth – fantastic US poet I stocked up on when there, but discovered thanks to the Poetry Trust. See some of his shorter work here. he specialises in very long, but entertaining and resonant poems.

Basho Award for Poetic Tweeting: (@ArtsThink) Andrew Nairne. The un-Goldbarth, with a penchant for skies.

Sgt Pepper Let-me-introduce-you Award for Networking: Marcus Romer for Artsfunding et al

Best Excuse for Using the Word Proustian: Orhan Pamuk’s novel ‘The Museum of Innocence’, next to which everything else I read this year seemed timid, despite the odd (Proustian) languor.

Milking it with Panache Award for Longest Birthday Celebrations: 40 year old Northern Stage

Album of the year: 'Measure' by Field Music, which also featured the aphorism of of the year: ‘Them That Do Nothing Make No Mistakes’. (Hence the video above, featured on Arts Counselling in February, but worth repeating.)

Mark E. Smith Award for Repetition, Repetition and Repetition: the Tory-led Coalition for ‘we’re all in this together’ and ‘the deficit is nothing to do with banks, it’s that greedy public sector’

Immaculate Barndoor Award for Missing the Target: David Shrigley’s Save the Arts video

Bonus track/surprise award of the night:

Franz Kafka Memorial Award for Metamorphosis: Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Some thoughts after taking adaptive resilience on the road

If one word has echoed through 2010 for me it has been resilience. There have been days recently when I’ve heard references to resilience of railways to snow, the resilience of some leaky defence, and the resilience of bimbo-fascist Berlusconi within the same hour – or so it felt. It’s been there in conversations about cuts, about change and about growth. It's also been there in my own development of Thinking Practice as a new business, and of myself in a new environment. That's been all about adaptive behaviour, and all about resilience as one basis for creativity.

Since Arts Council England published Making Adaptive Resilience Real in July I have also been busy talking and honing my own thinking about adaptive resilience in the arts (that extra word is important, even though it adds another 3 syllables to an already clunk term). From Glasgow, where I was part of a forum to mark Market Gallery’s 10th birthday which took place above a bed/wardrobe shop in the Barras Market, to Cambridge for AMA’s Retreat, where my conference centre room had a rocking chair and the sweetie bowls had Werther’s Originals, I’ve been explaining how an understanding of the adaptive cycle can make change more manageable, and how organisations and sectors can take some control of their situation by consciously developing their leadership, culture, networks and assets alongside income from more diverse range of sources. I’ve done sessions for Audiences North East, AndCo and the Strategic Arts Network Northamptonshire via Cultivate, which shows how the ‘audience development agencies’ are developing organisations and networks as well as audiences, and how they contribute to sectoral resilience and change by their work on the frontline of arts development. I’ve also spoken in Huddersfield at the launch of the Creative Kirklees Strategy and developed workshops for use with boards, staff and networks to explore how adaptive and resilient they are. Just today I’ve had enquiries about publications or events in places as almost-identical as Adelaide and Lincoln. (Dates still available for 2011... end of plug. Forgive me, I have students to keep.)

It has been interesting – and challenging – taking something from an argument and the presentation of a number of frameworks to something more practical. Partly this is a refining of language and presentation. I would see the adaptive cycle and the 8 characteristics as frameworks, rather than prescriptive or theoretical – they have been useful to people as a way of understanding their experience, before shaping their own future, rather than because they are ‘right’. Certainly there are other ways of describing the characteristics of adaptive resilience. Susan Royce, for instance, has taken my thinking on a step or several in her excellent work on business models in the visual arts for the Turning Point Network. She suggests an organisation must be:

- attractive to a range of co-funders
- agile: able to innovate and respond to change
- able to achieve its goals.

Susan’s 3 As are certainly easier to remember than my 8 characteristics, although she does add some supplementaries: being well-led, well-managed and having an appropriate organisation culture.

The main challenges identified during all the conversations I’ve been having have been

- persuading funders and boards (and maybe even to a lesser degree staff) to invest in the creation of assets in a time of ‘austerity’ – this takes a great deal of boldness and nerve, as any long-term investment is also a wager on the future
- developing designated reserves or working capital that can be strategically invested at the right time – into building or refurbishments or moves, renewals, staffing, change projects or asset-creation – as well as simply ‘reserves for closing costs’. (This subject is also looked at in MMM’s excellent
Capital Matters report.)
- making the time to strengthen networks without getting over-committed and losing focus
- coping with the lack of predictability of public sector and charitable funds. There were different opinions about whether audiences are predictable income or not – my own view is that they ought to be, with a range of error, which is useful for planning.
- shifting from a mindset of maximum activity to one of activity which also creates assets is a real leadership task in terms of both internal and external stakeholders
- just because you're resilient and prepared to change doesn't mean you can't get blown out of the water by 'events'

In many ways, the conclusion is what MMM and others have been saying for some years: the sector is hugely resourceful, but over-extended and under-capitalised. There are some people whose view can be summed up as ‘I’m still here, so I must be resilient’, and there are many who are absolutely up for taking responsibility for a self-determined approach to their long-term health. Though funders say they want to more resilient, less dependent approaches, the proof of the pudding will be in their reading of budgets. If the ‘extra’ expenditure needed to develop reusable product, or new income streams through on-line sales or versioning, or to create a strategic reserve is stripped out, the end result will be more activity but less resilience. It will time-shift the problem, not address it.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Feedback on the Big Society application

When I worked for Arts Council England we spent many a happy hour debating how best to word feedback or rejection letters to unsuccessful applicants. (I mean we did it often, not that we did it in the pub over cheap drinks, just for the avoidance of doubt, although that might have been more efficient.) It was easier when letters were bespoke, but the introduction of grants for the arts and ever greater levels of necessary consistency, meant that things became more and more templatised. Having had more than a few rejection letters in my time, I knew there was nothing more likely to rub salt into the wounds than a badly-worded standard letter. Over time, the letters did get better - at least I thought so, I know some others would disagree. My not-so-inner pedant was ever alert to using words in ways no one else used them, for instance.

Anyway, that's just by way of introduction to
this link, which is the best feedback letter I've ever seen on the Directory of Social Change's website - personal but objective, constructive and to the point. It's also very funny, being from Civil Society to the Government over its Big Society application:

'Failure to acknowledge and reference potential competitors and include a realistic risk analysis lost you significant marks....Although an outline plan of work was included as an appendix, our assessors felt that the lack of clear objectives, and the total absence of any measurable impact or outcomes, made most of the proposals quite unsupportable. You increasingly demand such information from those organisations you wish to partner with; our assessors felt that it would therefore be quite wrong for them to accept anything less from your own proposals.'

I would have ruled the application ineligible as lacking additionality, by the way...