Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Stars of track and field (&river&gym&velodrome et al)



Having found myself quite predictably glued to the actual sports in the London 2012 Sports Day - if there was tiddlywinks on telly I'd be interested in who was going to win - I've noticed how often the winning British sportsmen and women thank lottery funding for its contribution to their success, enabling their teams, training and so on. Compare 1 gold medal in Atlanta, before John Major introduced the lottery, with recent results and the stats are clear: lottery funding has transformed our athletes' performance and medal prospects. 

This connects, in my mind at least, to the debate over lottery funding I talked about recently, and the ongoing controversy in Scotland. This was reignited today by Matthew Lenton of Vanishing Point fearing he will have to take his company abroad if they have to move from annual 'revenue' funding to application-based lottery funding, and Vicky Featherstone weighing in: "You can-not create a strong artistic sector project by project, and that has been proved. The development of the art form is all about the long term and it's all about trust."

The 'simple', maybe even simplistic, question in my head, then, is this: 'If sustained investment of lottery funds - within the same legal framework - has made possible the development processes necessary to support athletes to be this good, why can't it do likewise in the arts?' 

Developing sports people is for the long-term, and requires trust, and similar levels of dedication in individuals dedicating their lives to something, for uncertain returns. There are 'big winners' in both sport, yes, as in the arts, but most in either field do not make their fortunes. The attitudes to 'failure' may differ, but it is intrinsic to endeavour in both sports and the arts. (I know that whilst some people in the arts may publicly fetishise the right to fail, they too weep with frustration behind the scenes when their vision doesn't come off.)

It is not beyond the wit of a lottery-based programme and the people who run it to show commitment to talent over time, and to support growing and maturing organisations and individual artists - as well as new projects. It requires trust on all sides, efficient but human systems run by suitably skilled people with ears open to a diversity of voices, and very honest debate and discussion. The parameters shaping choice are key.

One possible advantage sport has is clear results: it is at least - I presume - a little easier to make choices about who to invest in, based on results, training stats and so on. (There's also a ruthlessness to that, of course, which we in the arts traditionally find difficult, for all the drop out rate in the industry.) 

Any funding scheme can run into difficulty when the transparent criteria become a set of marks for execution and artistic interpretation, leaving aside the broader contexts of development of artists, companies, places and the public interest, which are then applied in a mechanistic manner. This can lead to isolated decision-making processes which are not shaped , if you'll forgive the cliche, by joined up thinking that takes into account the whole set of strategies and ecologies that should influence what gets supported and what doesn't. (It can, but it ain't necessarily so, it's not a function of the type of funding.)

A diversity of voices involved in those difficult decision-making discussions based on those transparent criteria and the competing demands is, for me, probably the main thing to obtain, retain or develop - choose your verb depending on your view of the current/proposed systems. 

(I've focussed here on the 'funding for excellence'. One thing sport has generally been smarter about is combining this with support for what used to be termed 'sport for all', the community/amateur level, about which the arts have been historically conflicted. But that's another story.)

Video: Stars of Track and Field from James Davis on Vimeo.

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