Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Five words (and five more words)

I was lucky enough to attend the whole of the Kumuwuki Regional Arts Australia conference in Goolwa – a small river mouth town about an hour from Adelaide, in the traditional lands of the Ngarrindjeri people. Goolwa has been the Regional Centre of Culture throughout 2012, and there was an active contingent of local volunteers around the whole time, many of whom I suspect were taking a break from yarn-bombing the town’s benches, fences and bandstands as seen in the photo above.

Alongside the traditional conference programme of high quality keynotes from across the globe – Bill Shannon, from the US, gave a great opener for instance – though I felt making his entrance on crutches and skateboard was setting the bar unfairly high for the rest of us! – there was a lot of artistic programme. This, again, was really high quality. I especially enjoyed If There Was A ColourDarker Than Black I’d Wear It, a mix of immersive theatre, dance, projection and site-specific experience in various parts of the town, connected by bus – and I Met Goolwa, a charming piece by the Australian Bureau of Worthiness, who had criss-crossed the town for a week talking to people and asking the question ‘What makes your day worth it?’. They made great use of 2 OHPs, and built a raffle into the show, which I rather liked. The locals in the audience obviously enjoyed it too. (Yes, that word charming is a dangerous one. One of the company told me they had to make ruthless use of a twee-ometer. It was good to see a piece that was positive and, well, kind in the best sense of the word. One can get sick of art that equates heartlessness with rigour.)

One of the things I was doing in my head was trying to understand the Australian conversation, a task made more complicated by the seeming common language. Regional, for instance, is mainly used in the context of outside the main cities, and cover huge distances compared to the regions we might talk about in the UK. (I had joked to a few people before I left that Australia was a long way to go to be allowed to talk about regions, given the word is pretty much verboten these days in policy terms in both arts and wider frames. The Australians I’ve spoken to find that unbelievable – and the Arts Minister who addressed the conference is also the Minister for Regions.) To save this turning into a lengthy post I thought I would give a lightly annotated list of three kinds of words, as follows.

Words (and phrases)  I heard I probably wouldn’t have at something similar at home

Community cultural development – there is a whole ‘CCD’ practice in Australia, which combines community and participative practice with what we might find in rural touring. It is widely debated and accepted as a field.
Country –the notion of ‘country’ as opposed to town and city is one I can’t claim to fully understand or articulate. It obviously stems from the physical nature of Australia, and some of its troubled history of the taking of the land from the traditional indigenous owners and their ancestors, and has a ‘rural’ connotation, but is something more than that.
Lands and waters – one of the most moving keynotes was by a Ngarrindjeri elder Tom Trevorrow, who talked of the importance of his people’s lands and waters. It made me sad it would be hard to do that at home. I did quote Sid Chaplin in my keynote as a result.
Regional – if I do hear the word regional in England, it is mainly to lament the passing of the regional agencies and ‘policy space’. In Australia it is a live and vibrant conversation, as mentioned above. (Today’s announcements give me some other thoughts on regions, but that’s another subject.)

Words I didn’t hear I’d have heard at home

Excellence – although there is apparently a debate about what excellence might mean, and a shift at Australia Council level towards greater emphasis, this was not the subject of debate in the conversations I heard.  
Great art – although the artistic programme was discussed and debated by people, there seemed less of a focus on ‘great art’ as the only suitable driver for public funded engagement in a regional setting.
Young people – there seemed to be little focus on young people as creators, or a central to the participation/engagement of regional arts organisations. Looking at some of the brochures I picked up, there certainly is interesting looking work, and one of the projects had involved local young people. But it didn’t feel as present as either burden or mission as it might be in England.

Words Seemingly in Common

Philanthropy – this is a coming policy direction for the Australian government as in UK, and there are similar fears in regions. In some parts of Australia, however, the mining boom is creating interesting dilemma for arts organisations over what to accept from whom
Cuts – some states have had changes of government recently with drastic effects on arts budgets. In conversation I’m told the government basically sees itself as guardians of the national budget. It got flack last week for reducing its predicted surplus. That’s right, surplus.
Change – both nervousness and excitement at the changes happening, probably more of the former.

(I should caveat all of the above by saying this topics may have been discussed elsewhere, in other panels and sessions, and in conversation when people weren’t being nice to the Englishman. I should also say that sometimes words not being used can be a sign of the thing being taken as read, felt as self-evident, rather than it being unimportant or even unknown.)

Monday, 29 October 2012

Riding the BIg Wave

I am currently in Australia, where I was a guest at the Kumuwuki/Big Wave Regional Arts Australia conference in the small town of Goolwa, about an hour from Adelaide in South Australia. (I’ve continued on to Brisbane and Melbourne to give talks and workshops on adaptive resilience, working with Board Connect, Arts Queensland, Arts Victoria and next onto to Sydney for a talk at the Australia Council.)

One of the main themes of the Regional Arts Australia conference was the resilience of regions, connecting to the resilience of regional arts sectors but also communities. I took part in a panel that followed up on the Community Arts Network South Australia special journal that responded to my paper Making Adaptive Resilience Real, and gave the closing keynote of the conference – in a great big tent between the cricket club and the river (one of TS Eliot’s deleted lines?).

Being the final keynote was both useful – in that it gave me a few days to tune in a bit to people’s concerns and themes and tailor my keynote to that a bit – and daunting in that I felt a responsibility to send people off full of energy and positivity, and didn’t want to repeat what others had said. Neither was it the time or place for an analytical run through the adaptive cycle or the 8 characteristics that help organisations be adaptively resilient.

So I talked about home, as many of the other speakers had, of how the best of whatever you call what’s happened in the arts in the North East of England in the last two decades has happened because of an interest in the resilience of our home – making it a good place to live and work – and making the sector strong enough to grow and develop to play our full part in that. (By making art, I mean.) The key idea was that this needs to be a collaborative effort over a long period of time, involving organisations across scales (ref. Northern Stage’s work at St Stephens), all parts of the community including business (ref. Sponsors Club, including reading a bit of poetry from the recent publication I wrote about them) and developing things – organisations and festivals - which become an environment with deep, nourishing roots for audience, art form and place development (ref. Stockton International Riverside Festival). 

I also spoke about an example from elsewhere, using one of the case studies in the work done for Arts Council England’s creative case for diversity – how Punch induct staff by sending them out to walk the local streets to get to know people. I threw in the notion, coming from the recent work with Exchange, MMM and New Economics Foundation, that the resilience of the arts ecology and local community well-being can be linked in a ‘virtuous circle’ that can really help us change the paradigms in regions where a growth-based economy is a kind of creation myth but with a malign reality, but that there is a real need to ensure sustainable livelihoods for artists and arts workers at the heart of that, and a diverse population of those.

There were also references from Patrick Kavanagh, Sid Chaplin and Deleuze and Guatarri, which is, I suspect, the first time they've ever been in the same list. I find the conjunction of Kavanagh’s ‘parochialism is universal - it deals in fundamentals’ (parochialism as in parish rather than small/narrow) with Delueze and Guatarri’s notion of ‘minor literatures’ being revolutionary because always political and always collective, a useful one. I may be the only one, mind.

I concluded that:
  •  Resilience (lasting) matters – but some arts also need to work as the disturbance in the environment – maybe be short-lived but having lasting impact by changing the terms, starting an argument, introducing a new idea.
  • Collaboration by very diverse people, including those far beyond ‘the arts box’, is what makes the contribution to regional life greater
  • If we make our approaches people-centred, asset-based and dynamic we can ignore or engage with the metropolis on an equal footing.
I will put the talk and slides up when I get the chance to make all the changes I made to what I planned to say. More on this great experience anon but huge thanks now to Steve Mayhew and Jo McDonald from the organisers Country Arts SA for bringing me over, and to the small town of Goolwa for a good time. (And bless the search gods for making my paper visible.)

Friday, 12 October 2012

Eye northwards

I remember two things about my induction into what was then referred to as ‘the arts funding system’, when I joined Northern Arts as Head of Film, Media and Literature in 2000. One was a picture of a rapturous audience of young people at an outdoor festival event, and the emphasis laid on the experiences we supported through our work, and the excitement of spreading those experiences beyond those already ‘into the arts’.

The other was that as funders we had triple responsibilities: to artists, to audiences and to the wider public who were not currently engaged in the arts. (They may have been ‘the public’, they certainly weren’t the ‘tax payer’.) We needed to remember all three in our work, and may have to stand up for the interests of one in relation to others at times. That difficult but creative balancing act remains, to my mind, one of the essential arts of the funder.

The person giving me that induction was Andrew Dixon, who has been taking a bit of flack in Scotland recently, to put it mildly. I don’t think it’s my place to get into the details of the Creative Scotland situation. It sounds like mistakes have been made, and not just ones of 'manner'. I don’t want simply to stick up for an old friend and colleague, ‘right or wrong’. But at the risk of never being able to go North again, I do feel compelled to say a couple of things I've been thinking on, inspired by that memory.

Firstly that arts funding is not there purely for artists, although artists are central to it. I say this both pragmatically – this is not a period the argument of ‘artists for arts sake’ can win enough ground – and with conviction: I believe in public funding to help artists make work, but not on any terms. (By which I don’t mean there needs to be direct public benefit via every project grant.) I also believe funding systems have historically failed to reach many artists and audiences they should have served better and that systems based purely on ‘trust’ and relationships tend to favour those ‘we’ know. To portray Creative Scotland as simply 'administrating' funds on behalf of government, and therefore not needing to ask questions about potential results and make choices between projects, artists and organisations - because you can't fund without doing that, one way or the other - is surely both inaccurate and a recipe for an inert body.

Secondly, to portray Andrew Dixon as a craven bureaucrat is to misunderstand the man. I can honestly say I have met few people who are more passionate about art, artists and the role the arts can play in places than Andrew. Yes, his vision of that role includes attracting tourists to places, includes an emphasis on ‘profile’, and being part of the broader economy in ways which some artists, many even, might not agree with. The language which one uses to talk about art can be helpful or off-putting, even damaging. But as Kenneth Roy puts it in his piece about this subject today, artists v funders on this is an odd fight: 'Will the pot ever recover from this vicious attack by the kettle?'

Andrew and I worked together for a number of years at Northern Arts and Arts Council, and then, after he left, in his role at NewcastleGateshead Initiative, and we disagreed (productively and supportively, in the main) on plenty of issues of both substance and style in that time. I also learnt a huge amount from Andrew - some things to emulate in my own way, one or two to avoid. I never doubted his commitment to the arts, and to artists and how they had to work to create great work. I also know that the North East arts world would look very difficult if it were not for his energy, passion and skills over his years at Northern Arts and ACE – and what Ian Dowie might have called his bouncebackability - and that plenty of people here have good cause to be very grateful to him.

All I would say to Scottish colleagues (if I were asked) is to make every attempt to find a positive way forward. I cannot see much strategic profit (pun intended, forgive me) in unpicking what took so long to put together. The posts by Matt Baker and Kenneth Roy (a very clear critic of Creative Scotland) are well worth a read in this respect.

(Just for the avoidance of doubt: I haven't spoken to Andrew about this post, or indeed this subject, bar a brief 'how's it going' conversation some months ago.)

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

One Nation Under A Groove?

I have had this song in my head for the last 24 hours. The video above is believed to be rehearsal footage for Ed Miliband's conference speech yesterday, before Malcolm Tucker ordered a radical rethink on the costume and staging. I especially like the beginning and rather wish he'd kept that in. 

The video below is the classic 12 inch version, one of my favourite records ever, in one of my favourite youtube genres, records on turntables. (It's not literally my record in the video, though I do have it and it is one of my favourites. 12 inch came with lp, very thick vinyl.) 

If it has been spoilt for nothing I will be very cross. If it has been spoilt temporarily for a good cause I may forgive.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

How Art Works?

The National Endowment for the Arts in the USA have just published 'How Art Works', which is essentially their research agenda for the next 5 years, based on a systems map and measurement model setting out how they think art works. The map - based upon a belief that 'the arts are a dynamic, complex system' and therefore with multiple entry (and exit) points and different perspectives according to the individual - places arts engagement at the heart of how art works, with what they call 'the raw fuel' coming from 'the human impulse to create and express'. The benefits are to individuals and to communities, and to various other fields including the economy.

Some people will find the system map and the various illustrations of how you might measure what is happening in the system too complicated. For others it will be too simplistic and lacking in nuance. I find it a good framework for thinking about not just whether art works  but how and when. This has always been an Achilles' Heel for arts advocates, replete with assertions and armed with evidence, but lacking what you might call 'theoretically plausible causality' not just correlation between arts activity and anything from regeneration to mental health. Educationalists and business leaders have created that plausibility in ways the arts have failed to. ('Studying and passing exams leads to you getting a good job' being one example.) 

All maps have limitations and elide or scale reality. (Unless you count the Boyle Family's World Series as maps, I guess.) For me the 'human impulse to create and express' needs to encompass both artists and people who don't define themselves as such, and is rather under-examined. What is its relationship to what the paper calls 'societal capacities to innovate and to express ideas' for instance? Is that human impulse as universal and eternal as we might like at times to think? Are the forms it takes? Where do power, money and class sit in this?

I also think that whilst seeing 'arts infrastructure' as an input, alongside 'education and training' - ie a something to make art work, not the end result in itself - is positive, there is something missing that also helps to enable arts participation and creation, the engine of this system. This feels as if it's to do with our broader civic or cultural training and capacities - that bit lying outside of 'art' and 'education'. (There are indeed such places, I believe.) 

Finally, I think there is more to be done to understand what is happening in the connections between individual, societal or community benefits and economic benefit. Those aspects don't seem so independent as the map suggests. (That economic framing is understandable, given the context of the NEA, but limiting.)

Anyway, regardless of imperfections and quibbles, this is an important and stimulating paper  which we should get our heads around, given the increasing convergence of US and UK thinking.