Monday, 30 July 2012

Sports Day comes good

Much talk over the weekend about the Olympic Opening Ceremony. Danny Boyle could probably get himself elected this week, let alone talked about as a late contender for the next chair of Arts Council England. I 'tuned in' more in hope than expectation but was rather blown away by it: as someone said it was like the biggest school play you've ever seen, in a good way, with a great walk-on part for the headmistress.  

I was moved, irritated, proud, perplexed, laughed, shrugged, felt angry, thrilled, bored, entangled, sentimental, sceptical, fearful, hopeful: all the things my national identity means to me. Obviously, it couldashouldawoulda had all sorts of other things in it, but short of bringing on Sir Tom Finney or having Thatcher emerge from Voldemort I'm not sure what more they could have done for me. 

If Ed Miliband is not quietly talking to Danny Boyle about the next election campaign he wants kicking. If we in the cultural sector don't pick up the mantle of this messy triumph to argue for and live up to the potential role of art in the national conversation - as well as for arts funding - then we might too. 

Frank Cotterell Boyce, who 'wrote' the piece, said this, which is the best summary I've seen:
"Those volunteers redefined the nation for me," he said. "We're told people need to be paid great sums to get results, but those who are motivated by money cock up. People who are motivated by things like love, family, friendship and humanity are the ones who have something to offer."

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Additionality, lottery and resilience

for illustration only: not intended as a funding mark!

I've been thinking a lot about lottery funding, as a result of the recent stramash about it in Scotland and Charlotte Higgins' piece on possible implications for the rest of the UK. I had a gut feeling something was a bit mistaken about the fear of 'the creep to lottery funding', suspecting it had already happened, at least in England, where now all of Grants for the arts, and other 'strategic' funding schemes is derived from lottery income. (As opposed to the first days of G4A when individuals was funded out of grant-in-aid, say.) I've struggled to write something that didn't sap my will to live, to be honest.

So here are a few snapshot bullet paragraphs, just so I can get this topic out of my head. Apologies to anyone expecting an essay that had, you know, an argumentative arc. 

Additionality is a long-swum-away red herring, as the principle has been thoroughly eroded in practice, at least so far as lottery-funded projects being seen as additional to what government 'should' support. This would mean that government 'should' fund little more than NPOs in England and we know how daft that would be. (Especially as local government funding shrinks/disappears.) Accepting there is no 'natural' level of government funding feels dangerous and risky, admittedly, even as a thought-exercise, but maybe we should start to examine again the consensus, or lack, about what core infrastructure ought to include and how best to support it, in the warm up to the next spending review. 

The ratio of grant-in-aid to lottery is identified as key risk in ACE's latest annual review, potentially constraining their ability to deliver strategic objectives. Maintaining 'a clear distinction' in valid use is likely to exacerbate the 'them that's got shall get/winners take all' pattern which is arguably emerging from recent schemes, leaving some with positively enhanced resilience factors in the shape of predictable income and what it can enable such as reserves, others in a riskier place, and others locked out entirely as the lottery streams are increasingly used to fill holes in the infrastructure left by regular funding decisions. (My primary worry in Scotland would not be for the former FXOs, but for those who never got on that ladder.)

Interestingly, comparing the grant-in-aid: lottery ratio over a period of time, shows that we may be returning to a balance more akin to the turn of the century - before the large investments in culture by New Labour - rather than an entirely new situation. In 2001/2002, when ACE and the Regional Arts Boards were merged, 55% of ACE income came from grant-in-aid, 45% from lottery. In 2006/2007, it was 75:25, and in 2011/12 it was 65:35. (I'm no detailed crawler over accounts so those may not be 100% accurate, but won't be far off.) With the cuts to grant-in-aid happening now, if predictions of future lottery funding are about right, by 2015, it may be more like 60:40. (If things aren't so good the funding gets worse, but the ratio more weighted towards grant-in-aid.) 

Lottery funding is not bad funding. For organisations like the one I worked for at the time of the introduction of Arts For Everyone then RALP, lottery funding made a big difference, increasing the scale of investment that was possible via either national or regional funders. Put crudely, we weren't getting our hands on much treasury anyway, and that came year by year if that, and lottery was a boon. The key difficulty now comes because the shift within treasury funding has - on balance rightly, in my opinion, I should make clear - to prioritise revenue funding for organisations, and many organisations have become used to revenue funding.

The Policy Direction given by DCMS to ACE make clear that the defining factor of lottery funding, which is different from grant-in-aid, is that it should be 'to support projects which are for a specific, time-limited purpose'. The implications of this are manifold, and I think there are arguments for project-focused working as a productive and stable model in the right circumstances, but I want to concentrate on one of the problematic areas that could be possibly be tweaked: surpluses and resilience. 

One of the fears expressed in Scotland was that the shift to lottery funding would make the arts 'more commercial'. Whilst what a wordy mood would call hegemony is certainly pushing people this way, lottery funding actually makes it harder. You can't use lottery money to make a profit. Fine, many would say, but... This means it can't be used to support creative industries, without some ring fencing away from the profit-making bit. And, crucially, it makes it harder for organisations who are not revenue-funded to create reserves for future investment and working capital, which makes them less resilient, regardless of how many successful applications and projects they have. In theory, a project-funded theatre organisation could run for 20 years primarily using lottery funding, and be no better capitalised at the end of it, which seems daft to me. 

If I were grappling with that risk, or was in DCMS talking to lottery distributors, I would be looking at how, within lottery regulations, contribution to reserves could become an element of the full cost recovery model funders should be applying. People could state their policy for investing or using 'surpluses' for their future activity and resilience. I would also look at how more grants for time-limited periods which were more than a year might be managed, but with the development of resilience a key element in the project outcomes. The optimist in me is confident that's just some of what the lottery distributors are talking about as they develop the 'shared agenda' to which ACE's risk strategy refers.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Springsteen, Sunderland, SXSW

Back in May I drew your attention to musicians' reactions to Sunderland City Council (allegedly) portraying gigs at the Stadium of Light as the logical culmination of their Music City policy. Whilst this might be so for the city's hotels and restaurants, it's obviously not for the musicians of Sunderland. Well, a couple of weeks ago, I went to one of the summer gigs there - well, I say, summer, there was fog rolling off the Wear! - to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

I have long had a self-denying ordinance not to go to gigs in stadiums, which has stopped me seeing Springsteen, despite my love for his music. This is, of course, a love that has, at times, been a bit embarrassing to admit, but I know I'm amongst friends who see beyond any surface bluster or cheese. Trust me, this is seriously critically engaged work. I did have tickets in 1981 for a proper music venue, but the dates got rearranged and I had an O Level exam so had to miss it. (Today, I think I could survive with one O level fewer, but never mind.) Suffice to say, I still don't think football stadiums are meant for music, or music for football stadiums, but Springsteen can get away with it, as he was brilliant.

You can see check this for yourself by searching You Tube for Springsteen Sunderland Stadium of Light, where fans have, without any grant assistance whatsoever, created a weird kind of archive of the gig - as obviously happens at many other events. Admittedly that means a lot of shaky cameras, and some where the singing in the crowd is louder than The Boss, but this kind of folk-archive has its charms, although it's nothing to the being there in the moment. Many of the songs had a particular resonance sung in Sunderland - I can't help but hear 'Wrecking Ball' as a song that responds to the Tory coalition demolition, for instance - but 'The River', above, felt special in that place. Others, like the finale of 10th Avenue Freeze Out with a montage of Clarence Clemons on the screens, were just special period. 

I was reminded of Springsteen's keynote address to SXSW for NPR earlier this year, which I highly recommend you read and listen to here. It's at once a music education primer, illustrating the breadth of his influences - had I but time and world enough I'd make you a Spotify list of the people mentioned, from Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams to Curtis Mayfield and Public Enemy - a testimony to the power of music, and a set of recommendations to young musicians that are also useful for any artist, leader or indeed anyone: 

'Don't take yourself too seriously, and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Don't worry. Worry your ass off. Have ironclad confidence, but doubt - it keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town, and, you suck! It keeps you honest. It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well inside your heart and head at all times. If it doesn't drive you crazy, it will make you strong.'

If you have time do listen to the talk as well as scan the transcript - the humour and passion come across better in the recording, as well as the romanticism.  Seeing the lyrics to We gotta get out of this place laid out like that reminds me they were operating just as Tom Pickard was getting going and made me wonder if they ever went to Morden Tower. It also makes me nostalgic for the days young people left the North of England because of the nature of the work their parents did, rather than the lack of work. That tension between escape and the nourishing confinement of roots is classic Springsteen of course.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Back from South Africa, thinking about 'this little country'

Detail from mural by Peggy Delport at District 6 Museum

My regular reader will have noticed I've been quiet. For the last two weeks I've been in South Africa, visiting the Eastern Cape for meetings with partners in the Swallows Partnership - I chair the Swallows Foundation UK - visiting the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, and much else, from talking about adaptive resilience with a group brought together by Monica Newton, new CEO of the National Arts Council of South Africa, grappling with sustaining a sector in harsh times and with many 'wicked problems', to performing at Harry Owen's Redditts Poetry at the Festival alongside rappers and old ladies, via climbing Table Mountain and seeing baby elephants. (All work and no play, you know...)

In Port Elizabeth, it was great to see the public art trail at the Donkin Reserve finished, and to talk to the architects behind it about how it had been hugely inspired and informed by the work of Commissions North in North East England. It was also a pleasure to meet up with a group of cultural leaders and artists who had been visiting South Africa and having what is known to the Swallows as the Peter Stark Bus Experience which gives a fantastic, dazzling and at times overwhelming and confounding induction into a great country. We believe international connection such as this almost decade-long partnership, is most powerful with a proper induction, especially given our histories and imbalances, rather than on a hit visit and run basis. 

And of course any proper induction to a place involves feeling disorientated and overwhelmed at some point, which is what most people feel on their first visit. I was glad to see it was no different for this group than it had been for me when seeing, for instance, how the museum, gallery and library at Red Location rub directly up against the township at New Brighton. South Africa is a hugely exciting place, but it's not a place I find 'easy', which is exactly why I like it. Most of the folk I've met are also very welcoming to artists, generous and challenging people, and for all the difficulties it is still an optimistic country.

(Side point: I often think, though, that many people could get as invigoratingly disorientating an experience going off their beaten tracks closer to home - whether that's into prison, into a betting shop, a different pub or a community centre, a tennis club or a university. Maybe we need to be promoting into-nation-al arts work as well as international? This is a relation of my argument that 'trainee' cultural leaders should be sent to Barrow or Middlesbrough not to National institutions.)

I had intended to return to the blog with either something about Bruce Springsteen at the Stadium of Light, or additionality in funding, as those have been much on my mind. I was prompted to knock off this warm up, believe it or not, by a rather moving last paragraph in a recent blog by Matthew Taylor of the RSA, which crystallised some post-trip thoughts about the UK for me. I shall just quote that by way of urging you to read his blog - and to help me with his question.

'Sometimes as I travel round in this little country I feel this: it’s all here, the edginess, the beauty, the urban melting pot, the unchanging landscape, the family trees, the new settlers, the unceasing ambition, the sigh of contentment – a million different lives in a thousand different communities. And despite the economic crisis and the biting austerity the question is simply; why can’t we make more of it, for all of us,  for this, our one and only  life.'