Thursday, 19 September 2013

Corporation tipping point?

The ‘usual’ shavings and savings, restructures and fluxes of local government have been replaced by a tremulous and terrified peering over the precipice of a massive, jaggedy, ‘tipping point’. On the other side, many of the services we have taken for granted for a long, long time, from the bins to the books and much else, evaporate before our eyes, replaced, if at all, by pale but shiny imitations of themselves whose bar codes we scan to pay, or by vintage-tinged volunteer versions. (The image above, from an LGA report last year illustrates this.)

We’re not there yet, and it is a far broader attack on public services than just ‘cutting the arts cos it’s easy’ but evidence of reductions in arts funding as part of the multiple whammy of cuts to ACE and their funding, uncertainty of lottery funding, competition for other grants and for earned income can all be seen in Arts Development UK’s recently published report on Local Authority Arts Investment & Partnership.

This paints a fairly gloomy picture, albeit one with some brighter patches. The report’s introduction and the article about the report on Arts Professional don’t exactly sugar the pill or hide from the key message of polarization and threat, but do try to accentuate what positives there are. These arguably include some return of capital funding, greater understanding of contribution to corporate priorities, and local authorities generally getting on better with ACE. (I suspect this last is partly because dealing with accidents and emergencies tends to bring people together powerfully more than the everyday.) The headline figures are projected service reductions in budgets of 9.66% in 2013/14, or 12.26% taking inflation into account.

A few, brief, observations:

 • The lack of arts officers – more than a third of councils have no direct arts services - is bound to have an effect on quite how well the arts can deliver against ‘corporate objectives’, as a good arts officer connects arts provision strategically across the authority. The report does not cover the effect of staff cuts at senior levels in local authorities, which can reduce the number of influential Corporate Directors Who Value The Arts, or have it importantly in their remit that might, in theory, compensate for that. (Most senior local authority staff and Cabinet members increasingly having to carry ‘diverse’, not say ‘random’, portfolios.) This all affects those who might not consider themselves at risk from local authority funding cuts, including individual artists.

 • The effects on the ecology of this micro-system could be multiple and contradictory. In some areas, ‘withdrawal’ by the council has freed up space for others previously rather sidelined, and stimulated new events. (As I mentioned the other day, Darlington might be a case study here, with strong voluntary efforts via Darlington for Culture, new ambitious festivals such as Jabberwocky Market and the Festival of Thrift, alongside a new approach from the Council via Creative Darlington. Not to say that’s better than what was before, necessarily, but to suggest cuts don’t mean no art.) In others it will mean getting on the bus to the nearest town with ‘something happening.’

 • The interaction of local authority and ACE funding is going to be particularly tricky in the upcoming NPO round. As with the various ‘merger’/share back office hints being dropped, transparency about process and strategy is going to be key to faith in the choices made. (And not just to current NPOs.)

 • Making the case via the impact on local people as well as the quality of the art is going to be ever more crucial. Our definitions are, therefore, going to have to be both flexible and rigorous. Using the £ symbol will be important, but needs to be used wisely. I am wary, for instance, of the ‘good news on leverage’ squeezed from the report. Leverage has gone up on 2012, to £4.04 per £1, though it is still down significantly on 2011, when it was over £6. For me this doesn’t necessarily suggest better work, but could be a function of the necessary fiction of most leverage figures – if the audience and other funders were going to spend the same amount, and I reduce my amount, my ‘leverage’ improves. But is that a good thing, or even a thing at all, other than a saving for me?

Anyway, it’s necessary reading, and may be useful for discussions with local politicians and officers.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Poetry update


Over my poetry-related blog How I Learned to Sing, I've added a Reviews page, to stop me bragging/complaining each time a new one comes in. (There are some good ones, and some I feel deliciously ambivalent about - 'hugely underrated' is definitely a compliment, but is it a good thing to be?) 

I've also just posted with news of two upcoming readings. The first is on Sunday October 6th at the Voodoo Cafe in Darlington as part of the exciting sounding Jabberwocky Market festival. (Darlo is standing up for itself these days artistically, with the Festival of Thrift this weekend on the very arts-supportive (office/industrial) estate of Lingfield Point.) The second is in Durham on Sunday 20th October at 12.30 with my fellow Read Regional 2013/14 poets Cara Brennan and Tara Bergin As ever, if you happen to be in striking distance, it'd be good to see you there. 

The picture above is a little Twitter discussion Oliver Mantell did on one of the poems in How I Learned to Sing, something he does to (with?) a poem some evenings. As a special 'freegiveaway' here's the poem he was tweeting about: 

 If I said I was reading 

The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan 
whilst watching The X Factor
having cooked tofu, broccoli and garlic noodles, 
with the sake I brought back from Japan, 
the morning spent recycling cardboard 
and the afternoon at the gym to watch 
the football results happen on Sky Sports, 
North End throwing away an early lead, 
and that I was somehow caught in the bosom 
of my family in the warmth of the evening, 
would you raise a glass in quiet praise 
or reach for my mum’s favourite question 
to enquire in the most neutral of tones 
whether I was bragging or complaining? 

If that, or the blog should you stray there, makes you want to buy a copy of How I Learned to Sing, you can do so direct from Smokestack or via Inpress, or indeed email me and I'll send you a signed copy in return for a cheque.

Monday, 9 September 2013

The creative space of risk and vulnerability

I've had some interesting responses to my blog about vulnerability and Brené Brown, and then saw this interesting article by Ivan Wadeson of the Audience Agency, which gives some clear examples of how risk can be embraced to good effect. I thought it was worth sharing as a kind of addendum to my previous post. (I'm docking whoever wrote the sub-headline a point for 'difficult economic times', though.*)

The relationship between stability - of leadership and vision particularly, but also some funding - and change - in programme terms as well as in the funding/economic context - is really interesting. It's both a practical challenge and a leadership dilemma, hence, perhaps, the two-speed approach Ivan describes. The key point, however, being that putting yourself in what David Jubb calls the 'more creative space' of risk, or vulnerability is both brave and encourages others to be bold.

* Why do I do this? Well, certainly not to deny the reality of the economy for many. But, very briefly, because whilst obviously post-2008 has been very different than the years immediately before it, to implicitly suggest the economy was working for everyone in the UK is misleading, if not a lie coming from some people. In my lifetime at least, it has always been 'difficult economic times' for many people in many places and the 'difficult economic times' rhetoric ignores the political choices currently being made. After all, is it not also 'fantastic economic times' right now for some people?

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Daring Greatly

I was recently discussing ‘managing vulnerabilities’ with a client, the range of things that phrase (taken from my ‘8 characteristics of adaptive resilience’) might mean, and whether they were all things that should be avoided if possible. Some vulnerabilities you insure against, some you mitigate, some you embrace as necessary and use as stimulus, we concluded. I’ve also talked with people before about how the inevitable individual or personal vulnerabilities we may feel also need to be addressed, through mutual support and a supportive, positive, no blame culture.

I was interested then to come across the work of BrenĂ© Brown on ‘the power of vulnerability’, in a talk she gave at the RSA earlier this year.  Here, and in her book Daring Greatly, she makes a number of points that make me suspect it would more helpful for cultural organisations and those working in them to think about ‘engaging with vulnerability’, even ‘embracing’ them, rather than ‘managing’ them. (I originally wrote ‘simply managing’ but we know it’s is far from simple.)

Brown’s book reads, as Tim Lott commented, ‘a bit American self-helpy… but in a good sense, as it is wise and thoughtful’. Her distinction between Shame and Guilt needs more debate than I can give it, but the notion that the culturally engrained way to combat feeling somehow unworthy and unsure is by ‘armoring up and artificially manufacturing certainty (by making ourselves over-busy and ‘indispensible’, filling up the diary with back-to-back meetings, or avoiding certain ‘risks’, for instance) resonates for me. I think of how I have behaved at times, whether from a kind of timidness, especially when younger, or the managerialist aspect of leadership sometimes felt necessary later on. How both arts funded and funders have reacted to reductions in public funds also demonstrates aspects of this I think. Is this, perhaps, one reason boards have allegedly become increasingly risk-averse?

One of the things I liked about Brown’s ideas was the insight that our fear of vulnerability stems from a scarcity culture that encourages shame, which in turn undermines personal bravery, ultimately undermining both innovation and human connection. By scarcity she means an all-pervading sense that we are ‘not enough’ or ‘not [insert allegedly positive attribute] enough’, a sense late capitalism (my term, not hers) is arguably built upon. As she says ‘Scarcity doesn’t take hold in a culture overnight. But the feeling of scarcity does thrive in shame-prone cultures that are deeply steeped in comparison and fractured by disengagement.’ To say you’ve got enough, no matter how much others may have, can feel a very counter-hegemonic thing to say. (As Gareth Bale’s mates commented just the other day, I believe.)

Brown’s opposite to scarcity is ‘enough’ – which she calls Wholeheartedness, a term I can’t wholly pin down. This fear of not being extra-ordinary – of being ordinary - lives deep in contemporary culture, unless I’m the only one, but we need to move through and beyond it. We might say ‘of course most ordinary people are extraordinary when you look closely’, but how often do we act as if we really believe that? I realized reading Daring Greatly that I have done that in many ways – where and how I’ve lived, for instance, sloughing off all pressures to ‘trade up’ when I could have done – but not in other ways, and that has caused me times of unease, stress and embarrassment.

Brown’s conclusions include references to the work of Sir Ken Robinson which is much more familiar in the cultural sector:

‘The greatest casualties of a scarcity culture are our willingness to own our vulnerabilities and our ability to engage with the world from a place of worthiness. To reignite creativity, innovation, and learning, leaders must rehumanize education and work. This means understanding how scarcity is affecting the way we lead and work, learning how to engage with vulnerability, and recognizing and combating shame. Make no mistake: honest conversations about vulnerability and shame are disruptive. The reason that we’re not having these conversations is that they shine light in dark corners. Once there is language, awareness, and understanding, turning back is almost impossible and carries with it severe consequences. We all want to dare greatly. If you give us a glimpse into that possibility, we’ll hold onto it as our vision.'

What might this mean practically, for artists and cultural organisations? Well, maybe embracing some vulnerabilities in our budgets and programmes as opportunities to really achieve our vision, rather than things to worry about financially, or even worse, things to avoid at all costs. Why don’t theatres tell us how much earned income in necessary from each show, for instance? Maybe that would encourage waverers to get off the sofa.

Being brave enough to share with colleagues when our work leaves us feeling nervous or exposed, but embracing that as bravery not daftness or weakness. Not freaking out when a leader talks honestly about their uncertainties.

Planning not for failure but for success, with the risks in mind. Not beating ourselves up if something doesn’t work out. Rewarding ourselves when it does. (No more grants as quasi-guarantees against loss, more keeping of surplus-grants when things go brilliantly?)

Engaging with the dangers that making art must generate if it’s genuine – that it might flop, fail artistically, be not-so-secretly mediocre, not sell as well as your friend’s thing did, succeed artistically but be hated by some people, that people will just ignore it, or not ignore it but remain enigmatically silent or think you’re a fool for writing it, or be irritated by your neediness for attention. (Just to mention a few of the fears I’ve had since my book came out.)

Writing something you’re a bit nervous of, like that last sentence, but not deleting it. Pressing ‘publish’ and then waiting for the Vulnerability Hangover

(Image from the fantastic This CharmingCharlie coming together of Smiths’ lyrics and Charlie Brown)