Monday, 31 January 2011

Culture Change: first, change your mind

What’s needed to thrive despite the turbulent times was the theme of the ‘Culture Change’ conference at the National Theatre last week, organised by Mission Models Money with support from the Cultural Leadership Programme. There are lots of things I could write out of the day. Subjects I don’t have time to cover properly include:
  • Ed Vaizey and how to read a speech as if you’ve never read it before that very moment and could be reading a shopping list.
  • The emphasis Vaizey put on technology as a driver of innovation, including the announcement of some new funds and appointments (not his, but Arts Council’s, I think he was saving Alan Davey the trouble of including in his speech) and Shelagh Wright’s counter-challenge that it’s changing relationships that are key, not changing technology. (‘The white heat of culture’ as she put it.)
  •  Alan Davey’s observation that he has never known Whitehall so fragmented as it is now
  • The opportunity of taking another look at how the arts sit in and drive the creative industries, lost somewhat since McMaster drove out Chris Smith era arts policy
  • The way some of the younger speakers, such as Ed Wilding of WeDidThis and Cat Harrison had of cutting to the chase and whether others are simply too used to just defining our terms a bit more
  • Cat Harrison’s great talk about the power of ‘the emerging’ and the ‘slashies’ – those who are artists/producers, artists/something. I think of myself as a slashie – check the logo – so would just add that emerging is a state of being not a stage of life

I facilitated a session on reconfiguring business models. Although it was a really good discussion, we maybe did not get down to the nitty gritty of how you practically move from one state to another – or perhaps we did. After exploring collaboration and how it links to design and redesign (perhaps because it encourages reflective practice?) discussion moved on to funding and the role of subsidy and the encouragement to develop more earned income or diverse income streams. The ‘subsidy+’ business model is clearly deeply ingrained – so much so that some thought you could add any business model to subsidy, as if subsidy was not part of a business model.

I think this suggests a fundamental - but nonetheless practical - first step to reconfiguring business models which is reconfiguring or resetting mindsets and vocabulary. Only when you change your mindset from activity at almost any price, certainly over long-term resilience, can you have a serious conversation about strategic reserves, for instance. The need for reserves was stressed by several speakers. No one asked Alan Davey how ACE would address this in NPO assessment and negotiations afterwards, how much activity they’d be prepared to forgo for resilience, or how hard they’d insist on sensible reserves strategies.

Joe Ludlow, from NESTA, talked of the need for an ‘investment mindset’, which would help both funders and funded be clearer, which is very much what I’ve long argued, and d rive reconfiguration. The language issue is always tricky here: just as many people hear ‘business model’ and think of big business and the for profit modus operandi, ‘investment model’ also suggests short term returns. Ludlow stressed the need to move from focusing on ‘what we are going to do and where we get the money from to do it’ to concentrating on ‘what resources or activities we need to develop in order to deliver our mission and how we invest in those’. The latter feels more realistic and reliable to me, but does need more practical know-how to be shared.

There are plenty of people engaged in adapting or transforming their models, sharing the toolbox they are developing – which is what MMM would like to encourage through its (re)evolution This may be one way of getting down to the real nitty gritty.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Philip Pullman nails it: market fundamentalism

I'm a little late on this, as it's been going viral for a few days, and that became the story in the Guardian the other day, but better late than never I always say...

Philip Pullman's speech against library closures , which you can see in full on the False Economy site here, destroys not just the case for closing libraries, but the nonsense of the idea that volunteers will take over key services, and the implicit and pernicious competition between groups and communities this will involve. I've tried one a few occasions to describe how this coalition is bringing everything down to markets and the fetishing the choice to pay. But Pullman captures this better than I ever have (hardly surprising, really) with the phrase 'market fundamentalism'. That feels about right for what's going on: the simplistic sweeping away by ideas which refuse to accept doubt.

I need to think through how one avoids flipping away from this fundamentalism into another which simply demands public money to provide good things for good people. I'm thinking of business modelling which looks at value propositions and talks of customers, even though that word has always been an awkward fit. You should do things for or with someone, I intuit, not simply because you want to. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in Lewis Hyde's thinking in The Gift, and the notion of potlatch or gift economies. As he puts it: 'it is not when a part of the self is inhibited and restrained, but when a part of the self is given away, that community appears.' Perhaps if we move from the idea of tax as a purchase (next person to say I own a bank gets it!) to one of a gift to the community in which one gets something back in a reciprocal rather than consumer relationship, that may help.

Anyway, while I ponder that, I suggest you read Pullman's speech, and pass it on.

(Picture above is a mindmap of The Gift by Austin Kleon at

Friday, 21 January 2011

What it can't get I can't use

A little something for the weekend...

Well, if you're an English arts organisation wanting to become parts of Arts Council England's National Portfolio, you've not got long to finish honing those 3000 word descriptions of what you do and how you'll help ACE achieve their goals by doing it. I thought a little fantastic music might be a spur or just some light relief if you've just pressed submit, or mistakenly think this song is not deadly serious.

Try as I might I couldn’t find a song that said ‘Strategic partnership – that’s what I want’. (Suppose I could have gone with ‘Come together’, but I have allergy to the Beatles - and no, they didn't write this song, Berry 'Motown' Gordy and Janie Bradford did. I once won a fiver over that. Barratt Strong did the original, though there's a great version by Uncle Smokey and the Miracles too.)

As well as giving you 2.33 seconds of delight or irritation, this video might also be a reminder of a few things:

• For all talk of shared mission, money is what it is, and can mean different things to different people, but you should never forget it's there
• Clarity of what you both want is key to the funded/funder relationship

• Don’t mistake behaviour for intent

• There was a time when avant-garde musicians could combine humour and seriousness AND get in the charts and Top of the Pops. (and this in the days when you had to sell serious numbers to get in the top ten.)

But mainly it's for fun.
Do you know, each of those bullet points is a word in the word count...

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Promising news from Darlington

The post I wrote in November about the plans to close or dispose of the Civic Theatre and Arts Centre in Darlington was one of the most read last year. It also received some interesting comments (and emails) raising issues around the extent to which the institutions had been fully engaged in community and amateur activity, the status of professional and voluntary arts activity, and how best to lobby to save and develop the arts in Darlington.

There was good news from Darlington, reported in the Northern Echo here. Or at least potentially good news: both venues have been given what's described as a 'stay of execution' so that more work can be done on keeping them open or finding new operators. This is good news, although I am sure there are caveats not in the headlines (what's the impact on programming, for instance?) and lots of knotty work going on behind the scenes. Good luck - and well done so far - to everyone involved.

It is a promising sign that foolhardy intentions such as the Council's can sometimes be changed by concerted effort by a spread of people - from Arts Council to arts organisations to local people such as Darlington For Culture who've come together in classic style. Immediate crisis averted, however, there is still a need for pressure to create a long-term future for some key local assets.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Other sources

A couple of people I've worked closely with over the last few years have just started blogs - must have been a New Year thing - so I thought I'd give them a mention and also point out the new blogroll feature on the site. (Right hand side, down a bit... Email subscribers, that only works if you click through to the site, obviously) It's not comprehensive and doesn't aim to be, but will hopefully be useful to you. If you think I'm missing out on the most amazing blog or ideas site, then let me know.

The people I mentioned are Tom Shakespeare, who used to be my chair at Arts Council England, North East, and Alison Clark-Jenkins, who was one of the Directors there and is now the regional Director. Tom's site is a set of short biographies of important people with disabilities from world history, and can be found here. The site takes its name Our statures touch the skies from an Emily Dickinson poem. I can see the book already.

Alison's site is called Arts and Everyone, for obvious reasons. The credo seems to be 'let's talk about it', which is a good one. I really hope she starts a trend for blogging Arts Council staff - something I singularly failed to do when I tried.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

The first rule of fundraising....

Still on the subject of fundraising, today's Big Think newsletter is all about Edward Norton's Guide to 21st Century Fundraising. Norton is talking not because fundraising is like punching yourself in the face (we've all seen Fight Club I hope?) but because he has just launched a crowdsourcing fundraising site Crowdrise.  This is US only right now, but his advice on fundraising is good and relvant to the UK I think. Key tips in the Norton interview and listed on the Crowdrise site include:
  • it's a relationship not a cause (I'd add or a transaction based on your cause). Think about the relationship not just what you want to make happen (eg get the donor to support you the writer, not just your fabulous collection of poetry)
  • give yourself (or maybe make obvious what you're not earning in order to make your project happen?)
  • keep it simple and compelling
  • 'say thank you and make it so nice they cry'. Your mum was right - never underestimate the power of please and thank you. (I made the same point myself some time ago here.)
Interestingly, Norton links this social media-informed fundraising to the potential for democratising political processes. This is similar to the argument a soon-to-be-launched UK arts crowdsourcing site We Did This make about democratising arts funding through crowdsourcing. I'm not sure I entirely buy that, but then I am a recovering bureaucrat. It will be interesting to see how it works when up and running.

New Year News: philanthropy in the regions can be done

The one clear cultural policy idea the new government has pushed is philanthropy - stepping in as the state withdraws proportions of its funding, at both national and local levels. (The Tory-led coalition has effectively abolished regions as planning and funding units, so we don’t need to mention that formerly key level.) They have been remarkably quiet on audiences, but philanthropy is another version of the marketisation which underlies their policies in most areas: if people want or need something they will pay for it (now or later via loans) or find a voluntary way of doing it. Charitable donation via ATM would have seemed satirical once upon a time, now we have to wonder who’ll get put forward.

The idea that philanthropy should or even could plug gaps left in public funding has been met with both resistance and scepticism by the arts sector, although it could be said it builds very firmly on established traditions of barter, in kind and financial support, as well as now deeply embedded practice in sponsorship. There have been two main lines of attack, both of which seem backed up by the statistics: a) the meaningful sums go to the big organisations not the medium sized and small organisations and b) the money goes to organisations in London rather than the rest of the country (also known to some as ‘the provinces’ or ‘the regions’). B may, of course be related to A.

To these critiques I would add the unpredictability of philanthropy, the huge effort and variable return of creating endowments (seemingly the government’s simplistic preferred option), and the distraction factor which can see philanthropy preventing proper long-term investment in the creation of assets and renewable activity.

But that said, some of the arguments against the government’s case have been weak. The argument that there are no rich people in certain parts of the country to turn into arts philanthropists, for instance, strikes me as simplistic. One good thing about philanthropists is a few of them go a long way. The challenge in a place like, say, Teesside where I live, with next to no stockbrokers or bankers or national/multi-national head offices is that the few potential givers are approached by lots of people, and can soon become fully committed no matter how much money they’ve got. (Forming personal foundations is one way they can manage that, as is gifting to regional community foundations.) There are however, some people with money and a commitment to the arts, and some now departed ‘local boys and girls made good’ with a fondness for their home towns, so even in seemingly unpromising places it can be done- but only with the ‘right’ activity that makes connection to an individual. It’s therefore not a universal panacea and shouldn’t be expected of all organisations.

That it can be done in the North East, to some extent, was shown again yesterday by this story in The Journal about Seven Stories, the national home for children’s books in Britain  which is in a regeneration area in Newcastle. Set the challenge by a very generous (and not local) donor to match his potential donation of £25,000 in order to receive it, as the start of a campaign to mark 5 years of operation in their building, they have more than done so, drawing on local businesses and individuals.

Seven Stories has a very ‘backable’ offer, given the connection many people feel to children’s books and illustration and using the arts to encourage a love of reading and books – and it is a brave and risk-taking undertaking supported by reservoirs of goodwill. It has drawn on board members’ networks and expertise, and approached the task very strategically, very positively, very professionally and with the right kind of urgency. (I should say – ‘disclose’ - I’ve just joined the board of Seven Stories, but so recently I can in all honesty say I’ve had literally nothing to do with the success of this campaign.)

My point is not to say how great the team at Seven Stories are or their work is, though they are. (Don't take my word for it though - listen to the children and the 4 Children's Laureates in the video above.)  It is to start the new year with some good news, and an example of how some seemingly almost-impossible challenges set can be met. I know there are other examples, which have used similar tactics, based on similarly strong arts work. I also acknowledge the scale issues - not just of the sums for individual organisations, but when you multiply it up across the sector. But while not accepting philanthropy as the heart of investment in culture, it is important to give it its due place, and to know it can be done when you place the art at the heart of the ask and ask well.