Tuesday, 29 November 2011


Yesterday I did one of those tweeting-instead-of-crying tweets after seeing Michael Gove's Head Prefect face on the telly at the gym. (Good news: I couldn't hear him lie. Bad news: I couldn't get away.) Above is a FREE THINKING PRACTICE DAY OF ACTION GIVEAWAY, inspired by a twitter-thought by @cdialliance. It's a Strike Day Soduku for words. (It works too, in case you're wondering. Solution to follow on Thursday.)

If you want to be a belated follower of the French literary movement OULIPO you can then also use to make into short texts by inserting short joining words and cunning extensions - as few as possible. (Eg Howl! Banker Gove's face's wrong. Strike, unite, stop pension cuts.)

Tomorrow is a big day of protest in the UK, to protect public sector pensions. There are lots of myths about these, put about largely by politicians with much better pensions, and family wealth. Here are some facts:

Across the public sector the mean average pension is £7,800 per year. The media is £5,600 per year, but under £4,000 for women. The average pension for a civil servant is £5,023, for a teacher £10,275, for someone reiring from the NHS £4,087 and from Local Government £3,048. The changes to which way of calculating inflation is used means the value of pensions will be reduced by an average of 15%.

Now, pensions and and artists don't go together fantasically, so there may be some feeling that the bureacrats and comfy public-sector types have it coming. (You can see some stats and some sound advice in this a-n article.) I could not disagree more. I did put something into a now frankly ridiculous private pension early in my career, but it was only when I worked in first a university and then an NDPB with its own pension scheme (ie not backed by government) that I was able to put into a realistic, though by no means 'gold-plated', scheme. Those gold-plated myths are so wrong. Although some people do end up with very good pensions, what is often not mentioned is this basic fact: they pay for them, quite large chunks of salary, just as much as I did for the worthless tat that is my 'private pension'. They are not simply given.

One difference is these schemes are also backed by the employers, not out of the kindness of their hearts, but at levels agreed through collective negotiations with trade unions. I'm still a member of Unite, who were very helpful to me in the past. You never know when you'll need the kind of services and conditions a union provides.

In conclusion, before anyone still reading gets onto the soduku:
  • Any artists inclined to pour scorn on public sector workers should do what they did, many years ago: get organised and join the most appropriate union you can find.
  • Any venue or organisation managers wailing over the difficulties of union negotiations: get over it, they can be a pain, but they are necessary.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Shelagh take a bow

There have been lots of obituaries of Shelagh Delaney this week, quite rightly so. Her career is evidence that one great work at the right time can make you historically significant whatever happens afterwards. One thing which struck me was how all seemed to mention that A Taste of Honey was written in a fit of defiance after seeing a Terence Rattigan play and thinking she could do better. What is the role of scorn in the urge to make art, I wonder?

You only have to watch an episode of Top of the Pops 1976, which BBC are re-running at the moment, to understand why young people in the 70s were ready for punk, and wanted to stick two fingers up to those on stage, or those on the 'rock' stage at the time. I remember starting a poetry magazine very much because the ones I started to get published in were, with some notable exceptions, pretty rubbish to my mind. (Looking back, that's probably why I was able to get in them....) There are numerous other examples. 

I don't mean the relatively simple generational renewal issue, but one of difference of substance, motivation and values. Sometimes our rhetoric of 'support the arts' can gloss over this. To be honest there is some art I simply don't want saved, I want it to go away except as a spur to creating something I think does work. (If it's a poem, anyway. In other artforms I just want changes to the power structures so I don't have to see another Hockney or hear another Motion.) The voice on my other shoulder does of course remind me it doesn't do for us all to be the same... 

How much of our current product is building up some creative resentment in a 21st Shelagh Delaney, I wonder?

(If you're quick you can hear a good radio obit about Shelagh Delaney as part of a very special Last Word which also includes the great poet Peter Reading and part of apartheid's downfall Basil D'Oliveira. This is the kind of thing that makes me stick with Radio 4 despite the ever-growing amount of their output which makes me want to set up a radio station  from my spare room...)

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Movingpictures 18: Tiny Desks in The Space?

I doubt the idea of people playing music around a desk in an office is really what the BBC and Arts Council England are looking for to put in The Space. But npr's Tiny Desk Concerts are amongst my favourite things in the world right now - and have introduced me to some great new music. (I also recommend their All Songs Considered podcasts.) The simplicity and direct connection is absolutely digital - unfortunately we don't work at npr in Washington so would otherwise miss this - but it's also absolutely human. I hope The Space is filled with such joyous art, and also some things that make you go hmmm and press close, as these do occasionally.

(Please can we have as little 'celebrity curation and critique' as as possible though, that sounds horrible, especially if the list is as narrow as the BBC's lists usually are? Ian Hislop, Stephen Fry, Lenny Henry et al are all fine in their way, I suppose, but I'd like to hear some new voices please.)

The video above is a sampler of a fantastic collaboration, including Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Chris Duncan and the superb mandolin player Chris Thile. For me, it deserves that underused, and sometimes scorned adjective, lovely. I imagine some might find it a bit folk-fusion but it seems a genuine coming together to me.

I can't mention the Tiny Desk Concerts without also sharing my favourite one below - Chris Thile again with Michael Davies playing the absolute hell out of some classic bluegrass tunes. If this doesn't make you smile, even if you think bluegrass is cheesy, which it isn't, check your pulse as you may be dead...

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Young Million update: bad news, good news, questions

The bad news: today's generally grim unemployment figures show the number of unemployed or under-employed young people breaking through the 1 million mark.

The good news: I wrote in April about Common Purpose's Young Million programme. This has now run several programmes across the country including some in the North East, and is having a positive effect. These got quite a lot of media coverage last month, including this article by Hugh Pym, the BBC's Chief Economics Correspondent. (His brother William used to be on Arts Council England's NE Regional Council, trivia fans.) You can see a short video which focuses on one of the young people here, and more on the Young Million website. It's good to see, even if it does, today,  feel slightly like scratching at the surface. In Hartlepool, just up the road from here, 1 in 5 young people is unemployed. I'll say that out loud: 1 in 5.

The questions: What has this got to do with the arts? Well, if the central thing about the arts is we are a values-based sector, as John Tusa argues on the Guardian Culture Professionals site today (what a good innovation that site is, by the way) what is our response to this growing crisis? How do our values suggest we respond? 

It may be two things. Firstly, my gut is feeling a need for a creative and cultural response, with artists finding fresh ways to explore the subject. Let us not ignore it, or put responses into the cliche box automatically. But also a sectoral one with imaginative ways of turning the crisis into an opportunity. Are there 21st century ways to reinvent the placements in which many people began their working careers in the arts in the 80s and 90s, perhaps thereby also undercutting the damaging culture of internships? And also create other jobs in our arts businesses too?Could investment into 'participation' help?

Answers on a postcard, please.

Movingpictures17: Just wind in sails

It's been a while since I just shared a music video. Here's one which goes some way to explaining the title of the previous post, for anyone who didn't get it. It comes from the great lost days of art pop. If this was made now it'd be more likely to be shown in a gallery than on tv. Still find it unaccountably exciting somehow, though hadn't listened to it for years till just now.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

We Are re.vo: ok, let's go.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with Mission Models Money for some years now, in a number of ways –most recently as an associate. Their thinking has been instrumental in leading me to the considerations of cultural and broader ecologies that are reflected in my writing about adaptive resilience. Founder Clare Cooper is one of the most optimistic collapsitarians  you are ever likely to meet, with energy to match her urgency.

So when I was asked to draw out the learning from the MMM pilot programme  ‘re-evolver’, and then to work on designing a peer learning network which could, ultimately, reconfigure the ways the sector meets its organisation development needs, I was pleased to get involved. It was absolutely what I’m up for: intellectually and politically challenging, as well as a stretching and stimulating creative task working with a great team of people,  - and with the potential for large-scale impact on the long-standing issues I felt I was grappling with as a funder. How best to support people to be sustainable and culturally thrilling? How best to intervene? What’s best left to the sector itself?

The pilot programme brought 8 leaders together and worked through many creases in the idea of a network of leaders which would work on individual, organisational and sectoral issues through a spirit of mutuality – peers giving and getting. On one hand, it’s very simple, on the other, complex and rich but also deceptively hard to deliver.

The more we worked on it, the more I became convinced that re.volution, as it became known, has the power of a simple idea to tie together a number of MMM’s previous strands, including The People Theme and Capital Matters. The network has been designed to help people solve the problems of trying to do too much, with too little, too often on their own. It might, by doing that, just have the system wide effect we need.

Here’s our ‘theory of change’ in summary:

‘A peer learning network of leaders in the arts and cultural sector can develop the confidence, competencies, qualities and attributes needed to renew mission, reconfigure business model and revise approaches to money. They can provide, with appropriate experts from beyond the network, the insight to tackle urgent and long-term challenges, through learning opportunities including mentoring, peer support, on-line learning and face to face events. This will gradually build into a critical mass of leaders who will affect their own and other organisations and the sector as a whole, leading to measurable impact on reducing overextension and undercapitalisation across the sector and a radical, sustainable, reconfiguration of how business support and organisational development can be offered.’

Like all theories of change, it’s debatable and time (a long time for many aspects!) will tell how close reality sticks to it. Two bold funders have backed this vision so far, in the shape of Creative Scotland and Arts Council England. Not only have they invested in re.volution, they have been involved along the way in its co-design, given the importance of funder-behaviour to many of the aspects of the current and future ecology, so many thanks to them.

Each Peer will commit to offering up to three days of their time in any twelve month period to help fellow Peers renew mission, reconfigure business model and revise approach to money. The idea is each effort is a mutual learning experience, but also that other peers will do the same for you. (Yes, this happens now, of course – but in a way which is often down to luck or pre-existing connections. Re.volution should make it easier to find and give the help you need, and then to learn from the process.)

There is also a new and extensive re.source library offering a range of tools and approaches relevant to the three M's. This is in the spirit of making widely available what is ‘out there’, and also what is ‘in here’, in terms of expertise and people. It builds on an ethos of open sourcing know-how in the sector, whilst also protecting the need to create income. 

This is an experiment – as I say, time will tell to what extent it works, and we will of course adapt as we learn along the way. But we do need new ways of going at the wicked problems of over-extension and under-capitalisation in the cultural sector, so why not start with the people? It will be exciting finding out: as one peer in the pilot said  ‘It’s quite refreshing to do something that’s quite hard.’

If you think you could get involved look at the site and give joining the re.volution some thought.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

What segment are you?

If you have a few minutes to spare and want to amuse yourself by finding what segment of Arts Council England's arts audiences segments you might fit into, have a look at 'What Segment Am I?', an on-line quiz. It feels like a rather unscientific way in to some good research - why does the participation question not ask about making music or writing, for instance, given how common both are? - but so long as you don't take it too seriously, you might find it fun. 

Segments are always tricky, of course, especially when you read that people with your profile typically enjoy Come Dine With Me. But there's enough accuracy there to give most people something to think about. I come out as an Urban Arts Eclectic. These people are typically
'Highly qualified, affluent, and in the early stages of their career, Urban arts eclectic are dynamic, and believe in seizing life’s opportunities. You seek new experiences through travel and food, and have an interest in other cultures. You describe yourself as optimistic, creative and open-minded.'

Whilst not all those adjectives apply, it does fit, and it's reassuring to remember I am in the early stages of my career. (My twitter stream seemed to reveal quite a lot of highly engaged Traditional Culture Vultures who hadn't realized they were quite so old...)  If nothing else I was reminded that my own arts habits are unusual - only 3% of the population engage in this way. I suspect many people who work in the arts are similar - if anything I am always thinking of the things I miss.This perhaps makes it harder for us to understand the majority who aren't so bothered, and can lead to a kind of blindness to other views. Maybe we need to find the Quiet Pint with the Match people within us, or within our staff? (Mine's not too far below the surface.)

You can see the full report here

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Movingpictures 16: Strong Trustees Week?

The video above is part of the promotional activities of Trustees Week - a week promoting the idea of being a trustee of a charity. Now, just because Cameron and his cronies are intent on replacing many of our cherished public services with Big Society conscripts of one sort or another, doesn't mean that getting involved in charities isn't a great idea. You are not subconsciously helping the Tories. You can see lots of the reasons why set out on the Trustees Week site. (This video is particularly promoting the value of/to young trustees.)

Funnily enough, I spent a large part of yesterday doing some of my own trustee work, interviewing some potential new board members for AudioVisual Arts North East, the organisation behind the AV Festival, and talking to someone else about potential board members for their organisation. I am involved with a number of arts organisations - AV, Seven Stories and Swallows Foundation UK. That's one more than ideal, perhaps, but they are all great causes, and very different, and I get something different from them all, so am happy to do it. (Don't think I'm just a boy who cain't say no, by the way. I can and have done, and am definitely not taking on any more.)

What do I get, you ask? All my trusteeships give me as much as I give them. I am exposed to different types of challenges,  debates and ways of thinking than my work. I am kept in touch with different sorts of art and cultural practice. Exercising leadership within a very diverse group of people at a non-executive level is a fascinating and stimulating process. My fellow trustees become part of my networks, but also teach by their example. I can see how some people I might never otherwise have met think and work through strategic issues. I am also kept in touch with the detailed issues of running complex organisations, from an oversight position rather than hands-on. In short, it's a form of 'continuous professional development' that's well worth the time I put in. 

Without wanting to sound pious it's also a way of 'putting something back'. I was very aware when I worked for Arts Council how reliant we were on the unpaid volunteers who formed the boards of RFOs. I'm not sure we were always able to properly reflect this, or that we paid them sufficient due, and when I became 'free' to do it again, I was keen to do so. I'd urge anyone to give it some thought, and advise any business that they're likely to see a good return on time flexibly 'allowed' to staff to be on boards. If next year's training budget has been, ahem, 'trimmed', a few hours a month to allow someone to be a trustee could be good way of continuing to invest in developing staff. 

I also think that good governance - at individual and sectoral level - is partly the responsibility of those of us whose lives are in culture, as well as those who want to support arts organisations. (I don't think we should let 'other people' take all the responsibility for that, anyway, let's put it like that.) The direction and purpose of our culture is, after all, far too precious to be be left to 'the great and the good' and the retired. I would also say that standards of governance need to be as constantly improving as any other area of the arts and culture.

I'll conclude, therefore, with two 'classic questions'. If not you, who? If not now, when?