Thursday, 29 March 2012

Moving pictures 22 and 23: The Great Going Nowhere

A bluegrass legend and a feminist lesbian poet may not seem on the surface to have much in common, but, unbeliever as I am, I like to imagine that if Adrienne Rich and Earl Scruggs, who both died yesterday in their 80s, were by some chance to meet in the queue at the pearly gates today it wouldn't be too long till they'd worked up a banjo-driven version of her poem 'Prospective Immigrants Please Note': 'Either you will go through this door or you will not go through'.

That the two would get on is not quite so far-fetched as it might at first seem. For a country gent Scruggs was left-leaning, protesting against the Vietnam War for instance, urged on by his sons, and cheesing Lester Flatt off by recording Dylan songs. (I rather like their version of Like A Rolling Stone, give it a minute and it has something.) Rich was known as a political poet and activist, but as noted in the NY Times obit, became more free-wheeling the older she got. Both were innovators in their artforms- the headlines on the obits I link to above both label them 'pioneers' - who became respected elders.

Anyway, the coincidence of their deaths - made visible in my twitter stream this morning - leads to a double issue of videos; Scruggs playing outside (in his garden I think) with The Byrds, and Rich with a 2002 poem about the US (and trees).

Rich once said that 'Art means nothing if it merely decorates the dinner table of the power that holds it hostage'. That's a thought to hold onto. As is that great artists 'ain't going nowhere' when they die, they just become more purely their work and its place in our lives.

The Byrds & Earl Scruggs -You Aint Goin Nowhere by pyromanic78

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Chairs Missing

You can picture the scene, can't you? The cabinet are relaxing after another busy day, roasting a Lib Dem on the fire, throwing a ball for Nick Clegg and laughing when he brings it back but won't let go, and then the big boys turn to Jeremy Hunt. 'I say Hunt, what have you done lately? Bugger all, you arty wimp. Gove's been busy, setting schools free and into the arms of our chums. Lansley's privatised the NHS in all but name. Bunter's abolished the regions, and we've even told the cheap northern public sector scum they're going to get paid what they're worth same as their useless neighbours. Gideon's manned up this week, and cut tax - though more next year old man, okay? - And stuck it to the workshy coffin dodgers. We're even taking on our own, running high speed trains through their back gardens. What have you been up to for the last two years, bar making James Naughtie famous for evermore?'

Hunt looks at them, hurt. 'I've abolished loads of things. And I did what you said about the money - and then rang our friends up to reassure them the Arts Council would do the right thing by them. We pretty much got away with that one.'

'It's hardly rolling back the welfare state is it, Jer? Still too many lefty artists whinging. And we're sick of pretending to like bloody Tracy Emin... We don't want to get away with things. We want the Guardianistas up in arms and the Mail slapping our backs. Get out of here and do something that shows us you're one of us.'

At which they throw their bread buns at the unfortunate Minister, who exits muttering in Japanese, whilst the rest break into a chorus of their current favourite stolen terrace chant:

'We do what we want, we do what we wa-ant, we're your natural rulers, we do what we want.'

Last week's surprise sacking of Liz Forgan as chair of Arts Council England - which is what the refusal to renew her term clearly was - shows a few things.

1. Dame Liz has not been giving DCMS an easy time about the messy end of the stick ACE were given in the spending round, and he's got a bit sick of it. The army's length principle is much misunderstood, and it is a democratically-elected minister's prerogative to choose someone a bit more 'aligned', but this shows it is far from easy.

2. When you feel you can do what you want, you don't always make logical choices. Hunt says Forgan has done an outstanding job, but still wants rid halfway through a no doubt tortuous, but absolutely vital, reorganisation to save 50% of the administrative costs at ACE. (Following one in 2010 for the last government which took out 15%.) It makes as much sense as prioritising philanthropy in your policies and then changing tax regime in a way which makes it harder to give major gifts. (Which is exactly what Osbourne did last week if you missed it. Foundations have already begun a Give It Back George campaign.)

3. Another illogicality is getting rid of one chair for another to focus on philanthropy and digital. Firstly, digital begs the question what Hunt think Forgan does as chair of the Scott Trust that governs The Guardian - surely digital comes up occasionally around that table? On philanthropy, this could suggest an even greater emphasis on private gifts in the funding mix implicit in the next spending round, and a sense that ACE needs more rich people around the table. This flows, I suspect, from a mistaken but persistent sense that 'the arts don't understand or do business' and that rich people know about philanthropy. What arts organisations need are not platitudes, or cheerleading reinventions (like much of Catalyst, I'm afraid), but clear support and guidance - and the growth of giving networks for the arts.

I am sorry to see Dame Liz Forgan have to go. She was a hardworking and powerful presence around Great Peter Street, and brought a good balance of support and challenge to both ACE staff (at least in my time, and I hear no evidence of change) and the sector and our orthodoxies. It's a shame she wasn't there in more propitious times. Who follows her will be a crucial signal of the extent to which this government seeks to impose its values on a sector which is, to a large extent, resistant. We should try and articulate what kind of chair can represent, support and challenge the sector whilst meeting the 'particular challenges, not least around the digital and philanthropy agendas', as Hunt put it in his letter

We need someone who can put those areas into proper perspective and context, and lead a much smaller organisation as well, in a way which maintains the best of the current way of working and sheds some of the less-helpful tendencies, such as the rampant schemification of funding and some worrying signs of what I've heard described several times recently as micromanagement. I've a list headed 'Heaven help us all' and a shorter one headed 'Would be good but unlikely to be picked'...Who's on yours?

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Capitalization: From the Dept of Easier Said Than Done But Nevertheless

That many arts organisations are 'over-extended and under-capitalized' has been a common refrain in recent years, stemming from Mission Models Money's early work, amongst others. Sometimes those terms confuse or annoy some people - they can feel a bit abstract. This week I received Arts Insights, a free publication from the US Arts Consulting Group. This has the best beginner's guide to capitalization I've seen. They define the benefits thus 'Capitalization is the accumulation and application of resources in support of achieving an organization’s mission and goals - over time. It means you don't live hand to mouth. It means you have a cushion against the unexpected. It means you can take a risk. It means you can think big AND deliver big.' 

They also clarify: 'The freedom to think and act strategically, to take big risks, or to make big changes depends upon the organization’s underlying financial health, not its annual operating budget, and upon its reserve funds rather than the annual fund.' 

Even this has major implications for financial and strategic planning. That one year budget you're about to agree? It could be worse than meaningless without scrutiny of plans for reserves and carry forwards, no matter how elegantly it balances appetite and income.

As well as looking at some analyses of what the financial picture 'ought' to look like, according to research, including reserves, working capital, artistic risk funds, and endowments the report suggest five steps. These are, in summary,

1. Learn to read a balance sheet, and use the skill at board level.
2. Build a 'surplus' into each annual budget.
3. Create a big picture strategic plan
4. Set out purpose and controls for your funds
5. Create a capitalization plan - how you're going to raise the money, just as you would for a building-based 'capital' programme.

Step 2 is so fundamental and challenging, and a mindshift for both funded and funders, that it bears repeating in ACG's own words:

"Develop Your Next Operating Budget With A Surplus At Year-end, Not As A Contingency Fund, But Rather As Your New Definition Of 'Balanced'."

(Capitalization mine.) A new definition of balanced: that feels like something we need.

Of course, the point for us - assuming there are few bankers reading this - is not simply to have capital, but to use it, so step 3 is also vital. What would capitalizing allow you to do, or stop doing if you're constantly managing cashflow?

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Movingpictures 21: This Machine Absorbs Carbon

As it often does, my shuffle function tuned into something in the air the other day, after Tipping Point Newcastle, and up popped a version of this song.  It is a great work about man-made environmental change, that does not go in for heavy lecturing, but has a warmth and humour about it. But pay proper attention to the words and the tone of Guthrie's voice and there is plenty of human heartbreak there too. (This video also has plenty of that in the photos.) Be sure that someone somewhere is saying goodbye to friends right now as a result of how we 'manage' the environment.

At Tipping Point, in a conversation about 'Reasons to be Cheerful', I wondered what positive, even comedic depictions of environmentalism or climate change existed, and the group collectively scratched our heads. Someone did suggest The Waltons, which I will happily admit to loving as a kid and even now. (I felt a bit alone in that, I'll admit - suffice to say I think The Waltons has a deceptive surface, and suffers from the same misunderstandings that something like 'Born in the USA' does.) There is a strong connection between Guthrie and The Waltons, not just in their general sense of social decency, and heavy artistic leanings in some characters, but specifically in Grandpa Walton. Will Geer, who played the character, worked with Guthrie touring labour camps in the 1930s, and spent the McCarthy years blacklisted as a result of his political activism and refusing to testify to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

There must, though, be more recent examples people can think of of positive depictions of balanced living?