Friday, 28 October 2011

KPI ACE response

I imagine many readers will have already seen it, but there is an interesting and to some extent reassuring response from Roddy Gault of Arts Council England to the KPI debate over on Bad Culture. Amongst other things it makes it pretty clear these are as much reporting measures as performance measures, and not pass/fail measures. It's also good to see this kind of response.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Artswork in Australia reflects on adaptive resilience


I recently agreed that Community Arts Network South Australia could use an extract from Making Adaptive Resilience Real in their journal artwork. Nice to be published in Adelaide I thought, and then thought little more. Imagine my surprise and nervousness, then, when they kindly sent me some hard copies and I found the whole edition was not just themed around resilience, but was mainly made up of responses to my paper. My reaction was fairly typical: part of me was flattered and grateful for the attention, part of me was fearful I’d get taken to pieces and have my inadequacies mocked.  (What’s that, dear reader? Not typical? Just me? Oh.)


This edition of artwork is partly to mark the 30th birthday of CAN SA, because as editor Lisa Philip-Harbutt says 'to make it to 30 you have to be adaptive and resilient.' It includes essays which respond directly to Making Adaptive Resilience Real, others which take a storytelling approach to the idea of resilience, listening to community arts practitioners.

The most thought-provoking – for me anyway - challenges to my paper came in the papers by Jo Caust and Ianto Ware, relate to issues of values and power, and whether resilience is essentially a conservative or passive notion. Jo Caust suggests a greater emphasis than I intended on cutting 'dross' (not my word) and rightly points out a lack of reference to the power dynamics within choices, and the role of education and class in that. To a degree, that's fair comment. It would have taken a different paper to also investigate the power dynamics within choices. I don't accept that individual decisions are made by government appointees, in the interests of government - at least that’s not been my experience in this country. That the issue of values and power dynamics within ecological resilience bears more investigation and greater emphasis I do accept.

Bourdieu and Raymond Williams are cited as missing from my analysis. Reflecting on this, I feel I understand Williams from the inside out, as it were, with all the contradictions that come from ‘acquiring Culture’ as an almost stereotypical grammar school boy in a cheap blazer and living in one of the untutored provinces. I have been patronized and not taken as seriously as I thought was deserved, at times, and I’ve done the same to myself. I’ve felt out of place. I’ve also felt distanced from parts of my roots, comfortable as I am with them so much of the time. I’ve also felt ever so slightly exotic and special at times, as well as – most often, I should say - valued approximately correctly for what I am or was doing and well-supported. I’ve seen this happen to others as well, individuals and organisations and ideas. However, unlike, say Tony Harrison in his classic School of Eloquence, I’ve decided not to feel either guilty about it or burdened by it. I take responsibility for my own contradictions. (I wrote that down almost exactly as I realized I thought it. It sounds a bit grand now it’s in black and white, but it is also feels true, so it can stay. So it goes.)

I was certainly more interested in Making Adaptive Resilience Real to set out the adaptive cycle and characteristics organisations could build upon than exploring these issues of value and class, important as they are. I am pleased to see from the other essays that it has been useful. Nick Hughes from Restless dance describes using the 8 characteristics to look at his company, and ends by saying it’s a ‘valuable resource’. I was pleased at that, of course, but more so at why: ‘one of the best aspects of the theory is that it changes the language and the mindset used to examine a performing arts company. It encourages you to see it as a moving and interacting entity; as an organism rather than a plan or a picture.’

Taking responsibility for one's own resilience does not mean simply accepting either status quo or whatever change is thrown at you, or not protesting at, say, cuts or damaging shifts of direction. In general I take many of those problematics as read, I guess, perhaps too much so. There may be a trace of North England Stoicism in my resilience thinking, though I’d deny I have a Stiff Upper Lip. (That’s for posher people, I’m more the Bitten Bottom Lip classes.) The emphasis on maintaining core purpose and identity is the heart of my take on adaptive resilience, and allows for not ‘simply accepting change’. It is, if anything, about gathering together the power that you do have, and using it for your own purposes – as unions, protest movements and communities under fire have traditionally done, and this is very much about values and power dynamics. I have said before here that I think one aspect I underplayed in the paper was the impact organisations can have on their environment, the creative change they can bring, and I think this links to that.

The intention is for the issue to be made available on-line in due course, and I’ll share the link when available.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Movingpictures 15: poetry reading faces





Some years ago I edited a book of essays about poetry readings - or the social and cultural practice thereof if there are any academics reading. In it the late, and in many ways great Ric Caddel wrote about the poses and expressions people make at poetry readings - what he sums up as 'those chilling I'm-listening-to-a-poetry-reading rictuses'. Ric used to organise readings at Newcastle's legendary Morden tower and Durham's Colpitts, so he knew what he was talking about. (He was also a very fine poet and editor, running Pig Press for many years. His day job included setting up the Basil Bunting Centre at Durham University.)


I was reminded of this when watching Howl, a film directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman about Allen Ginsberg and the obscenity trial of his publisher. It includes a performance of the poem which actually made me think I'd never seen a poetry reading in a film before. (I don't count Robin Williams.) It resists a temptation to make the reading seem bigger - it's the typical 20-30 people, in a room where 12 would seem ok. Some of them do have that face on, despite being crazy beatnik types. But the poet is in his own head as well as the room, which is actually part of the power. More depictions of poetry readings in films, please.(The film itself is only partially successful, but if you're interested in Ginsberg and the Beats thoroughly enjoyable.)


I saw Ginsberg read in Liverpool in 83 or 84. He played the harmonium and sang Blake songs, didn't do Howl, and was over-excited (to my mind at the time, and still) to be in the home of the Beatles.(He prophesied they'd be the most over-rated band in England until the Stone Roses came along, or at least I think he did.) But still - he was Allen Ginsberg, and a great performer, you can get a taste from James Franco above, or him the man himself here.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

KPIs: one size may not fit all



It has become clear that there is one thing which all 696 of Arts Council England's National Portfolio Organisations have in common. (Apart from their excellence and their funding.) Whether ACE is a major or a minority funder, and regardless of what organisations posited in their applications (unless by some miraculous coincidence they all predicted this anyway) the proportion of income they derive from non-ACE sources is going to increase over the next three years, perhaps in each and every year.


At least that's what their only 'Standard Mandatory' Key Performance Indicator (KPI) will say. This has been the subject of much off-mic muttering and increasing discussion - see, for instance, the contributions by Dawn Langley and Jon Treadway on Bad Culture, which raise most of the key questions about clarity and realism. 


Having written about the importance of well-designed and appropriate metrics fro performance as part of 'situation awareness', and the need for close monitoring so you can 'manage vulnerabilities', I think all organisations should have a set of KPIs, and investors should help develop them - but only 'well-designed and appropriate' ones that fit them. 


Leaving aside the design issue - Jon Treadway illustrates the ambiguities well - there are two aspects to this appropriateness. Firstly is the KPI appropriate to the organisation, its work, its environment, its strategy and its business plan? Put bluntly, the chances of any single KPI making strategic sense for 696 individual organisations of all sizes, shapes and histories are low. (I appreciate the scale of increase is individualized.) Adopting this one freely would suggest we accept that a) ACE funding will be less overall in 3 years b) cuts universal c) there's other funding available to support growth. This may well be the case, but if so, we may need a wider debate about the implications. 


In general, I would agree that decreasing the proportion of ACE funding is a desirable goal for many but not all organisations in the next 3 years, but not necessarily achievable in that timeframe given the defiantly non-growth environment we find ourselves in. For some, an increased proportion of ACE investment in the next three years may be key to long-term resilience and success, and possibly even reduced reliance on ACE funds in the future. The 'Standard Mandatory' nature of this KPI suggests that strategy is out of bounds. One size cannot fit all, surely?  Doesn't that cut across the kind of creative flexibility and individual approach which was widely welcomed in the NPO application process? (That many people - not necessarily all ACE people - can inappropriately attempt to put creative organisations into un-diverse boxes can be seen and felt strongly in Alan Lane's recent blog about preparing Slung Low to join the National Portfolio.)


This KPI goes far beyond what is said about diversifying income streams and organisational sustainability in Achieving great art for everyone. It creates very significant policy through adminstrative practice. To put it another way: ACE policy is effectively that NPOs must now monitor and shape performance so that the proportion of funding from ACE will go down, year on year. (Forever?) Boards must take note when agreeing budgets. NPOs must bring in other income or, presumably, bear some consequences in the future. If this is the case, let's say it clearly and explicitly and know it and allow people to plan long-term now. (As Jon Treadway points out this KPI doesn't tally exactly with DCMS's own KPI about sponsorship and donations - although it started out being about that earlier in the summer, it is now much broader.)


But to achieve this sector-wide KPI (presumably someone can work out the collective increase when all KPIs are agreed and let us know the target?) ACE are likely to also need to adopt a genuinely flexible approach with its NPOs to enable them to be more entrepreneurial and opportunity-seizing when funding or investment opportunity comes along, and not allow permission processes (to make changes to programme and funding agreements) to act as a drag on the kind of 'catch as catch can' spirit organisations will undoubtedly need to have any chance of growing in the next few years. ACE has a strong opportunity here to build on the openness of the NPO process, which even the strongest KPI-cursers praise, and apply it to the rest of the investment relationship.


Given all the economic indicators, and the devastation now being wrought in many local authorities (see the struggles in Derby here), it is hard to avoid the conclusion that ACE, like the government, is expecting an awful lot from private sector funders and philanthropists if 696 organisations are to all, without exception, increase the proportion of funds from non-ACE sources. 

Movingpictures 14: Transtromer and the power of art




Another audio moving picture. Can you spare 9.06 minutes to listen to Tomas Transtromer, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature recently? Of course you can. 


It's bitter-sweet to hear this recording, as Tramstromer has been barely able to speak since a stroke more than 20 years ago. On the page this 'buzzard poet' can seem solemn, but the flashes of humour are clearer in his introduction, complimenting Schubert on his post-death career, the success of which was such he became a threat to Communist China.


Bloodaxe's edition of Transtromer's Selected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton, was one of the first of their books I bought, probably around 1988. A smaller selection had been published in the Penguin Modern Poets series, shared with Paavo Havikko. Bloodaxe have now a couple more 'New selected', and he's one of the rare poets where I keep buying them, and keep the old ones. His work has a mixture of stillness and vigour that I love, and he writes about music especially well, as in the poem you can hear above.


Hopefully the Prize is good news for Bloodaxe as well as Transtromer, reward for keeping him in print in English for many years.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Bottles to the party?


a-n have just published a very interesting report by Dany Louise called ‘A fair share’ which looks at the funding going direct to individual (visual) artists. It’s a thorough and interesting piece of work which compares the situation in the various parts of the UK, application and success rates and other factors. I don’t really have time to do it justice, but wanted to bring it to your attention if you’ve not seen it yet. Dany’s Louise’s conclusion is that ‘shockingly few individual artists apply for funding in their own right, and even fewer are successful. What this means is that there is little direct funding being given to artists to pursue and develop their own projects, under their own control - under 20% of available funding for the visual arts in England, 14% for Northern Ireland and around 18% for Scotland and Wales in 2009-2010.’

One thing I do find problematic is the notion of ‘fair shares’ for different art forms or artists working in different artforms. Is there a ‘natural’ proportion we should refer to, and if so based on what? Size of audiences - and do you get more or less if your potential audience is bigger? Numbers of ‘professional’ artists? Cost of production in your artform? How big the market failure is in your artform? All might produce different results for any single artform.

The key point though, which I agree with strongly, is that applying for and controlling your own funds can be hugely empowering for individual artists. In ‘adaptive resilience’ terms, it gives and artists ‘assets’ to use. My sense is that in England the application process as a whole has become less supportive of individual artists over the years since Grants for the arts was first introduced nearly a decade ago, when it was a fairly seismic shift in some regions where individual artists had had less support. When it began significant emphasis was placed on supporting artists to have their own big ideas – or to ‘bring their own bottles to the party’ as one of the main architects of Grants for the arts Andrew Dixon used to say. (And indeed still says in this very interesting Variant interview.) Certainly in the North East we funded some brave and bold individual applications, in all artforms.

This did, however, become increasingly difficult as each revision of the scheme introduced new layers of absolute consistency and greater need to create what you might call 'project-shaped projects' rather than, say, artistic investigations. One which sometimes made me scratch my head – from my seat around decision-making tables but not having to assess applications – was the increased requirement to ‘evidence demand’. Whilst not unreasonable in some circumstances, this is harder for individual artists to do – and less appropriate to many, especially when applying to support new work. It makes it harder to back the talent. Hopefully the new focus on talent development will provide some corrective to this tendency.