Tuesday, 31 May 2011

On networks and filling gaps

I gave a talk on leadership to a group of teachers last week, members of a Creative Teachers Network supported by the University of Sunderland’s Centre for Creativity and Learning. I need to find time to write properly about some conclusions I’m starting to draw about my own framework for leadership, so won’t expand on that right now. But there was one really interesting thought I gained from listening to the discussion of the other ‘leadership case study’, which was given by Susan M. Coles.

Susan talked through her role in the development of the North East Art Teachers Educator Network (NEATEN, which is, well, neat.) One of the slightly older members of the group commented that in many ways such networks were filling the gap – in terms of support, advice and development activity – created by the gradual extinction of specialist advisors within education authorities.

It struck me that this was a great example of how the voluntary activity of a sector was replacing fixed infrastructures, and of the risks and opportunities inherent in that shift. NEATEN is clearly a vibrant, member-led, non-hierarchical, asset-based way of drawing on the resources of its members and the broader system. (They meet regularly at BALTIC, for instance, supported by the learning team there. They share their specialism and resources in schools.) It seems to work really well for art teachers – and therefore, one would hope, for students. 

It also draws hugely on unpaid expertise and goodwill. Susan, who appeared to be chief ‘network weaver’, is a former Advanced Skills Teacher amongst other things. Like me, she is now a consultant. So what we see is arguably a mix of privatisation and shifting into the voluntary sector of a kind of support and expertise formerly provided by the infrastructure. (Another way of putting it would be that the members of the network are now ‘crowdsourcing’ support and expertise, rather than having that provided from one central source, although that does rather over-simplify the old advisory system.)

My point is not really to debate the rights and wrongs of this. It’s too long and broad a shift to blame on any one political party. The old ‘provision and supervision’ model certainly had weaknesses. The insight struck me particularly because I have been working, with others, on some work for Mission Models Money on how best to bring together peers to work on organisational and sectoral challenges, building on a pilot scheme supported by Cultural Leadership Programme – one of the bits of cultural sector capacity given up recently. I have been investigating best practice in network building, and had made a connection to the reduction in capacity within the system, but not seen it as a broader pattern. (The Creative Teachers Network itself is another example, as it follows in the wake of much great Creative Partnerships work.)

A move to more collaborative models is being very much ‘encouraged’ in the arts and cultural sector, rightly so on the whole. We do, however, need to consider in exactly what ways a search for savings and ‘efficiency’ in one area, and ‘empowerment’ and ‘responsibility’ in another, can be made genuinely more productive.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Movingpictures 4: Happy Birthday Dylan, well over 30

Bob Dylan is 70 today. If I had to be left with just one person's music, it would be his. This is him in playful mood, illustrating a few things about artists. I love the question 'do you prefer songs with a subtle or obvious message?' I couldn't choose a song to share here - just too difficult. (I decided to spare you listing 20 different titles to show how inventive I am in my devotion - see here for an example of that genre.)

By the way: more filmed mass press conferences please. Imagine if Tracy Emin had done something like this to promote her Hayward show?

Sunday, 22 May 2011

'Not all kinds of resilience are equally useful'

Sinking & Swimming: Understanding Britain’s Unmet Needs is a report by the Young Foundation, which looks at the 'new needs' of those who are drowning not waving in our country. It argues the welfare state and others need to place a much greater emphasis on the psychological needs of people, alongside the material needs, to enable people to cope with shocks and setbacks. (Put simply, you might say you need both financial and psychological 'resources' to bounce back from or cope with sudden illness or unemployment, for instance.)

This paragraph struck me, as having some application to the cultural sector, echoing points I've made a lot this last year:

'Not all kinds of resilience are equally useful. Some communities are proving very resilient to economic shocks – particularly the old working class communities that have now experienced several decades of high unemployment. They are good at providing mutual support, and good at absorbing setbacks. But this kind of passive or survival resilience does not necessarily help people to adapt and prosper – people survive the fall but fail to get up and maximise their potential. Passive resilience can stifle innovation and cut people off from opportunities. In these communities, what is most needed is a more active or adaptive resilience, that is less comfortable with getting by and more willing to seek out help and build stronger networks outside the community as well as within it.'

Passive is perhaps not the best word here: it actually takes a lot of effort to provide that mutual support, to survive. But this is something that artists and many arts organisations have become very good at, in the ways some communities have. The challenge is though to resist simply getting by and keeping building - it may take a different sort of energy, it certainly needs a different kind of support and encouragement.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Movingpictures 3: David Lynch on fish (and ideas)

I recently did a foolish and terrifying thing, and looked at the Twitter comments made whilst I was speaking at a conference. There was nothing too horrible, or too horribly true, but one person did say I was 'a bit metaphor-tastic'. Which is probably fair comment, really.

I generally hold by the power of metaphor for reinforcing and potentially revealing things, not just in poetry but in work and leadership generally. Some people like to think of themselves as entirely rational, but I'm afraid I don't quite see life like that - and one of the most powerful 'un-rational' tools we've developed is language and metaphor. (That word, tool - that's a metaphor.) Obviously this can be abused, of course, and one can also mistake a good metaphor for something that's true or workable. (There's an interesting introduction to this by Jacky Lumby and Fenwick W. English in a chapter from a fantastically-titled book Leadership as Lunacy here.)

The above video shows David Lynch getting very metaphor-tastic about ideas. He talks about ideas as fish, some deep down, big and abstract, some nearer the surface, 'putrified.. funny', and then says 'I'm looking for a certain kind of fish that are catchable for cinema'. Just listening to David Lynch for a couple of minutes brightens my day so hopefully it'll do the same for you. If like me you're a Lynch fan you may get distracted by what appears to be a mini-school of Lynch parodies: If David Lynch directed Dirty Dancing, for instance, a Sesame Street tribute to Twin Beaks, or my favourite, a Lego-version called Twin Bricks. And a funny series from a man who is Not David Lynch. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Applicant time: what price service from the arts ecosystem?

I've pondered what, if anything, to say here about Arts Council England's national portfolio decisions, now that some time has passed for reflection. I don't really want to do a full dissection of what the more I look at it feels like a paradoxically conservative portfolio. (By that I mean that for all the former RFOs who lost their funding, and for all the new and exciting organisations brought in, the essential aim of the overall strategy seems to be conserving the key infrastructure/'front line'/status quo - depending on how you look at it - for achieving great art for everyone. It is by no means a wrong-headed strategy given the financial and political context, but it is not quite what may have been in mind originally.)

Many things strike me as very positive, even brave. Some things strike me as unfortunate and worrying for the future but understandable given the numbers (bumping the the audience development agencies en masse seems like a 'bugger, the budget still doesn't balance' moment kind of decision - I can only sympathise with people having to make out it's strategic and logical to not have those agencies in a portfolio that contains Faber & Faber). Some individual decisions are disappointing, a small number just odd. (I include in that one or two of the decisions to put organisations in, by the way.) I think individual artists' interests - in  literature, digital and visual arts particularly - have been hit disproportionately. But that's the nature of making a portfolio - you can't please all the people. In not taking on the theatre lobby that stuck it to ACE so effectively last time, and in the general communications, it has been much better handled in PR and relationship terms than last time.

I do, however, want to pose a question I've not heard put in this way yet, and which I think ACE need to consider. In the After Action Review that will inevitably be carried out at Great Peter Street, the assessment process which placed such a burden on relationship managers will no doubt be considered. But the burden - and benefit - of the application process for applicants also needs to be looked at. This is the first time those who wanted to be regularly funded had the chance to put their case properly, having thought through themselves what they wanted to do. I favour some kind of application process, and I also know the reflection most organisations went through is likely to have been a useful process whether they were funded or not.

However, there is a cost to this. At a time of restricted funding, and intense need to work hard on businesses, what was the cost of the NPO process to the arts sector as represented by the 1333 applicants? And what was the benefit - did it produce demonstrably better results for either ACE or the sector than previous processes, for instance? (It certainly didn't produce any great shift of resources from one region to another.) The back of the envelope on my desk says that if 1333 applicants spent 20 days staff time on this, at an average salary of £25,000 a year, the process cost applicants (or the sector) more than £2.5M. I suspect this is a highly conservative estimate, especially given the money spent on research, publications and consultants.

This investment by applicants - almost half of whom were unsuccessful - could be described as what the social -ecologists call an 'unpriced ecosystem service’. At least it's unpriced for ACE. I suggest they look carefully at this cost, what value it brings, and what impact it has on the resilience of the sector.  

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Movingpictures 2: Steven Johnson on ideas

This week's video is a very brief introduction to Steven Johnson's thinking on where good ideas come from. Chance favours the connected mind apparently. He also talks about how an idea might be seen as the offspring of two hunches, which has set me thinking about how often - or seldom - we bring people with hunches together, and how I might do that. Watch this space. (But first watch this video.)

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Movingpictures 1: Richard Ford

This is the first in a new regular feature on the Thinking Practice blog, short videos shared from YouTube, or elsewhere, which have some ideas about art or the arts that I find stimulating or, sometimes, just entertaining, and which may set you off on your own discoveries. If you subscribe they should pop in your inbox on a Wednesday morning as a little mid-week pick-me-up. I promise that they won't all be old songs, in fact few of them will be, but can't guarantee none of them will be!

The first is one of my favourite novelists, Richard Ford on language. Amongst other things he quotes Denis Donoghue: 'language is where we find value most compellingly in action'. That's a powerful thing to remember. he also describes how for the creative writer, that might often means finding the right word with the right number of syllables and aspirants.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Does my budget look big in this?

image from flickr dcjohn, under creative commons

Sarah Thelwall's MyCake now offers a really useful looking Cultural Benchmarking service which is doing, for subscribing organisations, something Arts Council England arguably ought to be doing for the sector with all the data they receive from RFOs and now NPOs. The service allows an organisation to provide its financial information to help create a picture of the sector - which is interesting. But what's really useful as well as interesting (who can afford just 'interesting' these days?) is that the organisation can then benchmark its figures against the averages. Is that increased figure for ticket income really all that great, or just a bit less bad than last year? Are you spending a bigger proportion of your income on rent than other similar organisations? What returns might an organisation of your type and scale expect from intangible assets?

Significantly, the Cultural Benchmarking is increasingly able to distinguish between the very different models of arts organisations, so you can do more meaningful comparisons. (The overall averages mask big differences, of course - the costs of a small touring theatre company will look very different from a a large gallery-based visual arts organisation, say.) The most recent Cultural Benchmark bulletin looks at what's happening in various areas of expenditure. It suggests that those budget lines which are likely to help an organisation when growth comes are, and indeed to increase their chances of getting to that point, are diminishing, whilst those which bring least 'resilience return' as I might put it, are going up.

The latter group include rent, professional fees and utilities, and the message is clear: squeeze them as hard as you can. The data from the benchmarking organisations shows that spend on rent as a percentage of turnover has increased from 10.4% in 2009 to 26.1% in 2010. Go cheap, go empty, go share might be a useful mantra. And don't sign anything that ties you up for too long.

The areas which are actually being squeezed, which MyCake suggest are essential for growth, are marketing, training, and travel. I would agree that saving money here can be damaging to resilience in the medium term, although that doesn't lessen the difficulty of avoiding that. It could be argued that Arts Council England has itself fallen into the trap of reducing the marketing and training budgets by privileging the 'front line' of production at the expense of Creative Partnerships, Cultural Leadership Programme, the Arts Nation national engagement programme, and the audience development agencies' regular funding, to mention just a few. (The case for this is that a maintained 'supply' will be able to cope with recovery, the case against is that the system or ecology can increase supply more quickly than it can to build capacity, skills and assets which have been allowed to die or fall into disrepair.)  It will be interesting to see whether those organisations which maintain their training and marketing budgets - or even increase them - see a financial and organisation 'win' as a result, over those that cut in order to stay as near the current status quo in terms of activity. My every instinct tells me they will.

But - and this is why I commend MyCake and its analyses - instinct needs to be informed and challenged and improved by data, comparison and reflection. (What I refer to in Making Adaptive Resilience Real  as 'situation awareness'.) We may not all read the data in the same way, but we should be prepared to look at the evidence, not wriggle out on a flimsy 'we're unique' case, and make difficult decisions.