Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Cuts and choices

Below you will find the most eloquent bit of writing you're ever likely to see on this blog. It's not by me, it's Lee Hall's open letter to Newcastle City Council about their proposals to close a large number of libraries, as part of a suite of cuts to public services in the City. They have also proposed cutting their funding to arts and cultural organisations entirely over a three year period. So that's to the likes of Seven Stories, Northern Stage, Theatre Royal, Live Theatre, Great North Museum...real jewels in the crown not only of Newcastle but the North East, the North and, well , England and the UK. It leaves you open-mouthed, especially when you've spent the time and energy building that support up as so many people I know have. If Newcastle go this way, nowhere is safe.

Lee is obviously getting good at writing letters of protest, as this is a follow up to such hits as 'Letter to ACE about Side Gallery'. He quite rightly positions these betrayal these choices represent in the history of the Labour Party and the Labour movement as well as the government's cuts. These lead to savage reductions in Newcastle's overall budget - saving a third over three years. But Lee's letter, and the words of author Alan Gibbons at a recent meeting, did make me think the following. 

When is a Labour-led council going to do what any self-respecting banker would do and tell the government they will not deliver their cuts, and see what happens? As Alan Gibbons put it: 'a Labour council should not be acting as a conduit for the cuts made by a millionaire’s cabinet.' I worked with Alan on some training many years ago, and I seem to recall he was, as I was, more positive than 'the next man' about the influence of Liverpool Council's refusal to do the Tories' dirty work in 1984. (He's from Liverpool, I was there as a student at the time.) We should not forget, though, that successive leaders of the Labour Party have seen being 'reasonable' about this sort of thing as a sign of electability. 

It may be that the City Council are attempting scare tactics with these proposals. I suggest they do so with their own careers and future seats, rather than local people's lives and opportunities, by refusing to play the government's game. They are in an awful position, I recognise, but given the scale of this government's destruction of the North I'm not sure I see what is to be lost, even if they go down fighting? Even if choices are to be made, do they want to do this?

Anyway, click on the image above to go the Save Newcastle Libraries campaign, here's Lee Hall's far wiser letter:

Dear Nick Forbes

I am writing to urge you in the strongest possible terms to rethink the the recently announced programme of library closures. I can see the council is in an invidious pos
ition. The Coalition's programme of austerity is wrongheaded, self-defeating and vastly unfair. However, a Labour administration which would even consider closing all local libraries travesties the history of the Party and the Labour movement. For more than a century Libraries have been central to a vision that ordinary lives are blighted if they are denied access to learning and culture. The idea that a library should be at the heart of the community from the pit-head libraries of the late Victorian Age to the library van that used to arrive once a week in Walkerville when I was young was at the centre of the vision of the just and civilised society we were all trying to build.

This notion that the library was central to our lives survived two World Wars, the Great Depression, Thatcher and any number of philistine administrations. If these closures go through on your watch I believe it will be a scar on your legacy you will regret for the rest of your political life. These are difficult times but they require much more canny solutions. Although removing the libraries will take away vital support for the poor and the elderly who use them as a daily resource (inevitably putting the strain on many of the council's other budgets) few people will actually die. But you will kill generation after generation of kids who, denied access to culture, science, business, technology or art, will not become the scientists, doctors, lawyers, politicians, writers or psychiatrists who will sustain the region, protect the vulnerable, kickstart the economy and provide a civilised environment for us all regardless of how economically underprivileged we are. You consign these individuals to a life of underachievement but you condemn the people of the City to decades of economic and cultural sclerosis which will be just as real and devastating.

It is clear that since the death of heavy industry on Tyneside that the City has survived by rethinking itself. By promoting its cultural legacy it has found a pride and prosperity that seemed obscure and unthinkable only a few years ago. The rumoured cuts in the Library Service and the Arts budget seem to be stabbing yourself in the heart. The effects of Art and Culture in the City have very real and demonstrably positive economic effects but what remains unaccounted is the sense of pride, raised spirits, a culture of innovation, forward thinking, cohesion and fortitude which when removed will prove enormously costly both economically and spiritually.

Culture is not an add on, culture is not for the privileged. It is who we are collectively, it is our conscience and it is the air we breathe, it has always been seen by those on the Left, and certainly in the Labour Party, as fundamentally important as Health and Education. Indeed it is an index of how healthy we are and the guarantor of how healthy we will become. I believe you are making a catastrophic personal and political decision. If you close the door on this legacy it will never reopen.

I hope that the recent announcement is merely a political posture to shame the Coalition into facing the consequences of their ill thought through fiscal policy. You must not go through with this. Your job is to protect and provide for local people - you must find other ways to resist and protest. The irony that Amazon evades the very taxes which could support core services like libraries would appear to presage an age when culture and learning are a privatised pursuit of the few. We must not let that happen.

These are extremely difficult times and they demand much more imaginative and radical responses than acting as the Coalition's henchmen. Working men and women in the North East have fought, generation after generation, for the right to read and grow intellectually, culturally and socially. For the right to be as 'civilised' as anyone else. It is a heritage that took decades and decades to come to fruition but will be wiped out in a moment. You are not only about to make philistines of yourselves, but philistines of us all.

Yours sincerely,

Lee Hall 

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Some brain expanding questions

Photo of work by Li Hongbo at White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney
After my keynote at the Kumuwuki/Big Wave Regional Arts Australia conference in Goolwa, I did a series of talks, discussions and workshops on adaptive resilience in Brisbane (with the help of Arts Queensland and State Library Queensland), Melbourne (with the help of Arts Victoria and the City of Melbourne) and Sydney (with the help of the Australia Council). All these were promoted by Board Connect and Positive Solutions, so especial thanks from me to the people there for sorting things from travel to there actually being people there for me to talk with. You can, should you be that way inclined, listen to an audio recording of the talk and discussion in Brisbane, on the Board Connect site.)

I wanted to write about some of the questions and challenges that came up in the discussion and workshop elements of these events. All were interesting, and there were other themes I may return to here, such as whether ‘board’ and ‘staff’ are internal silos to be broken down, but these were some I found most useful or stimulating.

 1. How do you know when your community is not resilient?

 Things I would suggest you watch out for: depression and disconnectedness, lack of volunteering and social connection between people, once vibrant groups dwindling, lack of resources to make repairs, renewals and refresh the environment, short-termism. (The question was about places and communities rather than the arts per se, but I’d say much the same applies there.) You also get lots of empty shops no one wants to fill even with charity shops. (Or ‘op shops’ as I understand they’re called in Australia.)

2. Is the idea of resilience an expedient one? 
3. Do people think you are doing the devil’s work talking about adaptive resilience in this way?

 These go together as they have the same intent I think – testing whether building your resilience is actually playing into the hands of people who want to cut public investment. Whilst it may do, I do think there is some dependency or entitlement behind the thinking – perhaps a sense that funding legitimizes arts activity in a world that still sees it as not quite normal? For me adaptive resilience drives a greater degree of self-determination as well as bouncebackability. So the ubiquity of the term is timely rather than expedient. And some people have always thought I was doing the devil’s work, I think…

4. What is the role of empathy in adaptive resilience?

This is such a good question it deserves a fuller response, but I want to do a bit of looking around before that. But this is the question that has made me think most. Identifying and understanding another’s situation, feelings, and motives – one definition of empathy – does run through various definitions of resilience. It could be argued it’s there in my frameworks in the notion of shared purpose and values containing diverse viewpoints, in the emphasis on collaborative networks, on understanding audiences and funders, to name but three. You may be strong or powerful without empathy, but you are unlikely to be truly adaptive and resilient as you won’t understand the world around you sufficiently to work with others and to change over time. (If you think being powerful is the same as being resilient, think about any regime change you weren’t expecting.)

As I’ve written previously, one of the Achilles heels of the arts sector may be that we save our empathy for our creative output and use it too little in our strategy or our ‘situation awareness’. A little more empathy might have helped in the recent Creative Scotland stramash, for instance. Empathy between funded and funder helps avoid simplistic measurement frameworks, or lip service to measurement frameworks. Hell, we could even try really understanding where Michael Gove is coming from, so we can better argue with him. (Empathy and sympathy not being the same thing, of course: you can use your empathy to understand but still be fiercely opposed to someone’s ideas.)

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Art, conditions and apps

As I have few imaginative resources of my own with which to investigate the world I am highly dependent on culture when visiting places. So one of the things I've done as I've travelled round some of the cities of Australia talking adaptive resilience (more of which soon) is check out the major, and in some cases, minor galleries. I will spare you the full run down of what I saw, but I was struck by something I read yesterday, in the ebook for Rally: Contemporary Indonesian Art ­ Jompet Kuswidananto and Eko Nugroho, an exhibition at National Gallery Victoria, and thought I'd share the thought. It is something the latter said:

'If you live in Indonesia, you will understand that it is impossible to exclude politics from everyday living. Nearly 90% of the art that is made here is a response to or influenced by the socio-political conditions of our surroundings.'

I simply wonder what the percentage in Britain is, and what makes us so much 'better' at excluding politics from everyday life? It can't just be that we are the comfortable old jumper bit of the world, and Asia is the exciting, growing teenager, can it? There is clearly some exciting, argumentative art coming out though (saw two particularly exciting shows at Singapore Art Museum, as well as private gallery dedicated to work from China in Sydney, White Rabbit Gallery) which makes some of the gallery shows I've seen at home recently look at bit tame and lacking in spark, if well-executed. 

There is a further thought inspired by the e-book/app form, which seems to be much more freely used in Australia than in the UK. I got good ones from the Love Lace show at the Powerhouse in Sydney (iTunes here ) and a 'catalogue' with video and audio for the Contemporary collection at the rather marvellous Art Gallery New South Wales. (iTunes here.) Although there are some UK galleries with things on I-tunes, you tend to have to pay for them. You are, in general, also a bit hampered downloading in situ, as there doesn't seem to be as universal an acceptance that public-building=free wifi as I found. These added a lot to my experience - both in the gallery and afterwards. (When I'm looking round that kind of compendium, the names tend to shift into the background, so it's good to be able to look things up afterwards, without paying £25 for a catalogue.) 

So what's stopping us? Is it just money? Do we not like giving things away, or does the BIg Bad Business Model say No? Or is everyone doing it and I've just not been going to the right places?

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Kumuwuki Keynote

 If you click on the lovely image above - even I could take a good photograph of Graeae/La Fura del Baus' Prometheus in Stockton this summer - you should find a copy of my keynote speech to the Kumuwuki/Big Wave Regional Arts Australia conference in Goolwa on October 21st, as referred to previously. 

I've had some issues uploading to Slideshare on the move, as the file is a bit big, but it you click on the image below you should find a pdf of the slides too, if you want to see some of the visual things referred to in the text. (At the event I used a couple more pictures kindly provided by Northern Stage but had to take them out to get the file size down for uploading. It is still quite a large file though, be warned. I will add a Slideshare link when I'm able to put it up there.)