Friday, 29 April 2011

Royal Wedding Special

One the great things about art is its ability to combat mortality. (Now that's what I call an opening sentence - shall I just stop there, I wonder?) Some art works live on, of course, in fact they develop after you'd think they were dead, and certainly long after the people who made them have passed on. But art also gives us mere humans ways of experiencing death, and coping with it - and maybe even escaping it, albeit only metaphorically, sadly.

Another great thing about art is you don't need to make a lot of it to become a legend. This is, I'd suggest, as true in painting as it is in literature, and certainly true of that great art form the pop song. I was really struck this week by the reaction to the death of Poly Styrene. X-Ray Spex have not been regulars on my turntables since I was about 14 - when I had The Day Turned Dayglo on orange vinyl as my favourite single - but they capture a moment brilliantly. And having spent the last day or so listening to them again, a few songs remain timeless in their power. Poly Styrene may have only made a few classic singles before slipping off into the fringes, but that was all history asked. I find that rather comforting.

Tributes such as those by Jon Savage here and Jon Robb here draw out various thoughts about the impact of punk and the impact of this particular woman. The above video feels somewhat appropriate for today: 'Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I say ....' (Oh dear, that 14 year old is still in here somewhere.)

Friday, 15 April 2011

What the BLANKety blank?

About this time last year, the Swallows Partnership was just completing a fantastic residency by 28 South African artists in North East England, which nearly didn't happen due to difficulties obtaining visas. (I wrote about it, and the issues around movement of artists here.) This issue has not gone away.

This week I was sent a blistering piece by South African playwright Mike van Graan, which you can see here. He dubs those excluded from the UK the BLANKS: Black Artists with No Kids and who happen to be Single. If you are such a person, you are assumed to want to leave your home and stay in the UK.

It's fiery writing, and a useful exercise in perspective: this is what UK behavior looks like. Swallows received great support from National Campaign for the Arts last year. It is time, however, for the national agencies in the UK and DCMS to start to be much more vocal about this issue. 

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Helping the Young Million

Although this week's UK unemployment figures were slightly less depressing than recently, we are on course for have one million unemployed young people very soon. This is bad news in all sorts of ways. Those young people will not be earning, won't be able start that lifetime's process of working out what they want to be (I'm still working on that myself), will get frustrated and potentially resentful.Neither will they be developing the skills and talents they would if they were in work - no matter how much volunteering they do.

Leadership development organisation Common Purpose, of which I'm a graduate and supporter, has decided to address this through Young Million, a series of leadership development courses for people aged 18-25. But they need our help to do so. Each course needs people with venues to host days, people with skills to share and take part in the course, and a bit of money too if you can spare that. The first courses will take place in London and Newcastle after time and space was donated there. I pitched in to help with the Newcastle one, but also hope we can get something going in Teesside. 

Arts and cultural organisations can help in lots of ways: have you got a space you could help with? Can you spare a couple of hours? You don't have to be a Common Purpose graduate to help, but I know there are lots of them in the arts and cultural sector - it'd be great if we could make a strong contribution to this, given the importance of our sector to these young people's futures, and them to us. We often draw on the 'corporate social responsibility' of 'Business' to support the arts. Of course lots of arts work contributes to society, and many people are involved in mentoring and other schemes. But we can also add a lot to anyone, not just those 'into' the arts - and we have a responsibility to do so, or at least IMHO. Find your nearest centre here.

(The photograph above is of a March for Jobs in 1905, by the way. It serves as a reminder that unemployment is not a new tool in the owner's toolbox. )

Tuesday, 5 April 2011


It’s a year exactly today since I wrote my first Thinking Practice blog, in the first week of the company. It’s been a busy, interesting and challenging year for me, and I’m pleased to see that I’ve managed to blog 52 times in the last year – a neat once a week average. Thinking Practice has gone even better than I might have thought this time last year, with lots of interesting work and opportunities coming my way. I’ll spare you the pitch disguised as review of the year – you can see the client list here  if you’re really interested. Suffice to say I’ve enjoyed working with some great organisations, enjoyed helping people work through issues, problems and opportunities, and generally having no official position in the world whilst talking to lots of interesting people and using my brain.

Here’s a Top 10 things I’ve learnt in the last year (mainly about myself):
  •  I can get a lot more work done in a day when I’m not dealing with internal organisational issues (including people issues) much as I (kind of) enjoyed that – I suspect that’s not just me
  •  It can get lonely without anyone moaning in the kitchen for me to cheer up
  •   I don’t miss doing performance reviews and associated paperwork
  • Networks are key to all sorts of things and I’m not so self-sufficient as I used to be
  • Leading beyond – or without – authority is exciting but takes a different kind of energy and persistence to the leadership that comes with a ‘big cheese’ sounding job title
  • I have an ego, but it feeds off attention not respect and doesn’t need a job title
  • It is possible to have as much if not more influence from outside the tent as inside it
  • Lots of the wear and tear on people in organisations (or at least on me) comes from the things which are least productive and if we could strip those out we might get a whole lot more done whilst saving time and money
  • I miss some of the invites to events I used to get (many thanks to those who still invite me now I’m not important!) but not the dinners and the bowtie evenings
  •  Ars longa, vita brevis

 As regular readers will know, I’ve done lots of talking this year about resilience – in Huddersfield, Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester, Belfast, London, Lincoln, Wellingborough, Glasgow, Plymouth as well as more informally. It only struck me part way through the year that maybe my interest in adaptive resilience was psychologically as well as strategically driven. I wouldn’t want to get too deep into that, here anyway, but I have definitely drawn on my core values,  my willingness to take risks and adapt in the light of disturbance, and had to keep aware of the situation around me and try to achieve some predictability to my financial resources, just like any resilient arts organisation. I’ve looked deeply at my assets, and been prepared to reassess that reading as I’ve gone on. I’ve invested in my own skills and ability to self-sustain. I’ve been ready to change, above all. Combining that risk-taking and integrity has been as core, as it will be for anyone facing a similar or parallel situation in the next year or so, as further cuts bite, but I can say, if it suits you, it can be real fun.

So, happy birthday to Thinking Practice – which thus shares its birthday with the great great Sir Tom Finney, 89 today. (Sir Tom had his own way of drawing on key skills and assets, being famous for keeping his plumbing business going even as he was England’s main man. It’s a shame the same can’t be said about our beloved Preston North End, who've not been in the 'top flight' since he retired.) Mentioning football on Twitter seems to always cost me one or two followers, so I hope that doesn’t happen here, but sod it, it’s all culture to me – happy birthday Sir Tom! If you got to go because of that, go now.