Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Good luck - everyone

Tomorrow we hear the results of Arts Council England's National Portfolio process, an important moment in the evolution of the sector. I've a number of interests - some organisations I'm involved with one way or another, some organisations I'm not but whose work I enjoy and value, a desire for a strong sector, lots of friends with applications and attendant aspirations, and lots of friends in the Arts Council who have been thinking and working and no doubt debating their bureaucratic arses off since January. 

I was involved in several portfolio reviews in 10 years at the Arts Council and this moment before announcements is always a mixed one, and I suspect it will be even more so this time given the scrutiny and attention the open process has - quite rightly - brought. Whether it's been a tight spending review or a generous one you cannot afford to do all that you want to do, and all that colleagues, often closer to emerging organisations, are urging you to do. (and we should remind ourselves that Arts Council were given a horrible settlement to work with.) But you are at this point more or less comfortable and even proud of the portfolio you've put together, in the circumstances, and the vision for the future it represents. But you know there will be some people who disagree vehemently, some individuals who'll be on the phone, some probably in tears, and they'll get more of both your and public attention than those positive steps you think you're making, at least for a while. So people within Arts Council are probably feeling a parallel if not equivalent mix of the apprehension and excitement that those 1300 applicants are. (At least, that's what I always felt, even in standstill years.)

So I thought I'd try and find a song that was appropriate for three groups of readers: people given the horrible and unenviable task (by the coalition rather than their own choice, don't forget) of managing illogical cuts to arts funding to an arbitrary timetable imposed by ministers with an active interest only in certain parts of the picture; those whose news lead to relief, planning and excitement, and those for whom the news is disappointing. After flirting with the fantastic 'Ain't no stopping us now' by Mcfadden and Whitehead, which I think should be everyone's motto tomorrow, especially the disappointed, I went for this lovely song, as I'm writing this in Belfast, Duke Special's home, and it was recorded in one of the safer bets out of those 1300 - and the message and tone feels about right for everyone, as it's hopeful but not too as celebratory. (Apart  from the Select Committee actually, they can go whistle for this week.)

So whatever the decisions, good luck - and remember -  la lutta continua.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Not minding the gap

Yesterday I was on a panel at a Westminster Media Forum seminar in Whitehall, on ‘Arts and culture – filling the funding gap’.

The panel was on was specifically looking at options to increase funding. My three key points were all related to how the relationship to funders and audience is primary, not the technicalities. (Although obviously the technicalities can help, be that specific changes to tax relief or use of Facebook/Twitter to ‘turbocharge’ customer service as suggested by other speakers.) Firstly, I suggested changing the mindset, and not thinking about ‘a gap’ but the whole. Gap suggests to me an assumption of ‘core funding’ from someone, topped up by the audience or philanthropists. Better, I’d say to consider all of your income as earned (my second point) by creating value for someone, rather than provided so you can do what you want to. (Grant income being as ‘earned’ in that sense as ticket income or profit from catering – and sometimes not earned as quickly or efficiently either.)
My third point was echoed by a number of others, which is to increase income you need to deepen your relationships and offer more, more creatively. What might happen if an organisation applied Kevin Kelly’s ‘1000 True Fans’ thinking to their work, for instance?
There were lots of interesting ideas that came up during the morning. A few of them were:
  • The importance of investing in commercial activity that may not bring an immediate return
  • The importance of stories in bringing investors on board
  • The importance of investing in marketing activity (which has remained level according to ACE statistics)
  • The need to see investment as something which can be returned and increased, not just used up (ie spent!)
  • The opportunity of crowd funding.

My old colleague Moira Sinclair did a sterling job in a tricky position, asked to talk about ACE funding, mid-NPO-process. (What I described to her beforehand as the Seamus Heaney ‘whatever you say say nothing’ challenge.) She agreed with Sandy Nairne’s point about the need to invest in training and development – though I saw later that the Cultural Leadership Programme will close at the end of March, and leadership and organisational development be rolled together within ACE. Whilst understandable from a finance and narrow efficiency point of view, this is a shame, and does further concentrate things in one (shrinking) place, and not following up some programmes and maintaining this training line in the national budget would be a real loss. 

If it wouldn’t have been downright annoying of me, I’d have asked Moira two questions:
  •          How will ACE help/require organisations to invest properly in training and development, central to resilience, when negotiating NPO funding agreements (and the budgets behind them) with the organisations they fund?
  •          What attitude will ACE take to the development of strategic reserves for investment in organisational and commercial development – will it urge/require sensible investment where budgets don’t show it, even if that means 'less art' in the short term?

Both questions, of course, relate to the tension boards and funders share in maximising cultural reach and impact whilst building adaptive resilience, torn between wanting to ‘put the money into the art’, attract audiences and demonstrate value, and ‘investing for future sustainability’.

I think I may also have challenged Jeremy Hunt to show us his will if he wants the UK to be a place where it's normal to leave 10% of your legacy to charity...