Thursday, 20 March 2014

5 questions about our power

There’s little I can usefully add to the mountain of words written about Tony Benn. Alongside Michael Foot he was the most powerful orator I’ve ever seen. (It was a cold day in Liverpool, a march to the Pier Head then speeches by the Mersey. The Miners were on strike and Militant in the Town Hall. Hopeful days, odd as that may seem to some from here.) It’s been a bad month for aged heroes, what with Sir Tom Finney passing away as well last month. (I wrote about that on my poetry blog here.) Benn embodied many of the virtues as well as paradoxes of a certain kind of socialist. 

Tony Benn quotes were in heavy rotation for a few days. These included his 5 ‘democratic questions’ to ask people in positions of power. They are good questions. But they are also questions I think should be adapted and adopted by leaders, including ‘cultural leaders’. Those who lead, manage or take decisions on behalf of others should ask them of ourselves as much as of other people. Actually, given that we all have some power in some situations, even if the ultimate ability to withdraw ourselves, or even ‘just’ in the home, we should all consider them. (I should be clear, I’m not using the word power here simply in its hierarchical sense, but in the broader sense of ‘ability to influence the behaviour of others’.) 

I find myself in many different situations, with different types and degrees of ‘power’. The responsibilities of being Interim Director at mima for 6 months are different from facilitating a board away day, but both involve exerting influence. Chairing the Bridge North East advisory group or writing an evaluation report, that power varies. Sometimes I have more control and 'say' than others. Sometimes I feel more or less powerful. Sometimes I am given the ability to make decisions. Sometimes I take or assume it. Often, I give it away or share it. 

Whatever the situation I’m going to make sure I regularly ask myself the following adaptation of Benn’s five questions. That way I can check I’m acting in the way I think best to build the kind of culture I believe in. After all, how can I hold others to account if I don’t hold myself to account first?

Here are my five questions then: 

What power have I got? 
Where did I get it from? 
In whose interests do I exercise it? 
To whom am I accountable? 
 And in what circumstances should I leave/stop doing what I’m doing?

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Update: mima Interim Director news

I’ve had lots of congratulations on the news that I’m to be Interim Director at mima in Middlesbrough for six months from April. My wife says this is because it looks like a proper job people can understand, and she may not be wrong. This blog is to mark that news, and partly to point out it’s not quite a Proper Job… 

It is a really exciting opportunity to help mima as it moves from Middlesbrough Council, whose vision brought the gallery to fruition, into Teesside University. The University is a huge driving force in Middlesbrough. I did some work with the Council and University testing the idea last year that convinced me it was the right way forward for mima and its work. The chance to help move this forward, after Director Kate Brindley leaves to run Arnolfini in Bristol, was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I spoke at the opening of the gallery in 2007, it’s my local international gallery, I go there often and as a Teesside resident I want it to work fantastically. I'm sure I'll learn masses from the chance, too. Finally, I didn’t want to think I was the kind of consultant who runs a mile when asked to work on implementing a plan they helped create. 

I will be continuing to work beyond mima in the next 6 months, as this is an Interim role to help through a change process and to assist with the recruitment of a permanent Director. Thinking Practice has exciting work on with Bait in South East Northumberland and Northern Stage. I’m part of the crack team CidaCo have put together for a big resilience project commissioned by Arts Council England, to launch in Birmingham and London next month. Tyneside Cinema will soon publish a text combining a conference-poem and top tips for getting young people into specialised cinemas. And I’m loving doing events for How I Learned to Sing in libraries across Yorkshire and the North East as part of Read Regional. So busy, exciting times, but very much still open to other offers and invites for the future. Do not file me away under Got Proper Job. 

 (The image above is a clip from the latest mima ‘What’s On’ brochure. Look closely you’ll see me in the crowd, looking seriously unimpressed by something or other. It's one of those 'my face just looks like this, sorry' photos. I’m near to Alison Clark-Jenkins of Arts Council fame and the artist Simon McKeown, so it can’t have been anything either of them had said, obviously. Anyway, it put a smile on my face when I spotted it.)

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

In favour of… Dialogue

 I met 10 people at the bus-stop the other day, a football team whose goalkeeper/minibus-driver had left without them. They needed some money to get to their game. I only had £10 on me, but I decided to give £4 to two of them, the striker who scored all the goals, and the creative playmaker who set them all up. I didn’t want the most valuable and productive players tiring themselves out walking. (In fact, they ended up taking a taxi.) I gave the remaining £6 to the other 8. This group was vociferously up in arms at this. I pointed out that the distribution was actually 60/40 in their favour, as the other group only got £4, less than their £6. It wasn’t anything unfair or inadequate, certainly not, the very thought. To avoid further insult I made my excuses and left, as they smiled benignly in my direction. Well, I think they were smiling… 

Liz Hill of Arts Professional has done us all a favour by digging into the statistics in Arts Council England’s response to ‘the significant debate on regional funding that has been taking place in the sector over the past month’. She shows them to be, in the main, highly selective, if not downright misleading at times. (If not as inaccurate as mine above.) I suggest you read her analysis, which is excellent. 

I’d have only one or two slight quibbles. I don’t think we can fairly blame ACE for the notion of Core Cities, for instance. They do add Gateshead to Newcastle, which the Core Cities group doesn’t. But I guess one can understand why. She is right to point out that the strategy of investing in clusters is not actually mentioned in Great Art and Culture for Everyone, but I’d generously see that as welcome clarification rather than anything else. 

My opening fable was inspired by some of the language in a rather too-well-written document, which was what I wanted to talk about here. To describe the split of both Lottery and Grant-in-aid funding as ‘in favour’ of regions outside London, done twice, probably brought a smile to the face of whoever wrote it, thinking it was a canny piece of linguistic programming. It made me snort, and not in a good way. It’s overly defensive, doesn’t engage in the debate in a helpful way. The word smartarse did cross my lips, I admit it. It serves to make me think someone thinks people ought to shut up. That critics can’t add up, don’t know the relative size of London and the rest of England. It serves to put those with reasonable questions about distribution and decision-making in our place. Can that be what was intended? I can’t believe so. 

I felt similarly about some of the other introductory statements, which have an implicit ‘only provincial dinosaurs are still worrying about this stuff we’re all in together’ tone. One passage which leapt out at me was ‘former causes of historical dispute, of London versus the regions, so called ‘elite’ art versus community art, rural versus urban, education work versus ‘the real work’. This idea that these and other disputes are part of history, done and dusted, and have no causes still inherent seems bizarre to me, especially at a time of growing inequality in all aspects of British culture. How London and the regions form a coherent nation, if you want to put it like that, is likely to be a key question in the next election. It’s not a historical issue, it’s a live one, even in the most successful cities outside London. And it’s cultural as well as economic. 

The tension between versions of the arts – no ‘so-called’ for community art, by the way, did you notice that, very neat, eh? - is being played out in all sorts of ways, new and old. Close examination of ACE’s own Creative People & Places would show this, as we speak. That’s not a bad thing. If we were able to take power and class out of the equation – which we can’t – it might be tempting to see these things as not struggles, but what you might call diversities. By choice, luck or unfinished debate, we’d have, to borrow a term, a multicultural sector of diverse opinions, not one where all notions of culture and aesthetics have been mixed up into a coleslaw of consensus. (With the odd caper thrown in to demonstrate risk-taking.) 

That would be awkward for ACE when arguing with government for investment, where they want united fronts and 100% good news. But to pretend ‘everyone’s happy nowadays’ has two effects. 

Firstly, it serves to dampen the efforts that build exactly the kind of increased capacity ACE say they want. Those wanting to build up fantastic art from local communities, with fresh input from artists of whatever source, as opposed to touring in ‘provision’ from companies with no relationship with the venue beyond the programmer, are made out to be arguing against ‘Excellence’. (This applies in London too of course, where the inequalities are perhaps even harsher.) They aren’t, they are part of the potential evolution of the sector. 

Secondly, it serves to close down informed and constructive dialogue – that shared, productive process that emerges from debate. Dialogue could lead to improvements and greater understanding of the multiple, contradictory pressures on ACE. This is something Alan Davey successfully helped ACE do when he came into post. He needs to renew that effort now. Better to grapple forwards through dialogue than to publish more and more reports trying to bat criticism away. (I notice that a new position statement on ACE and rural communities has been published just today.) 

This England (lord, but I don’t like that title, by the way, redolent as it is of ‘the patriotic magazine for all who love our green and pleasant land’ and the like) would have been better off focusing on contributing to dialogue not argument. Something it does rather well at points is rearticulating ACE’s strategic intent and the main ways they see the ecology developing and needing intervention. This has strengths, weaknesses and areas for debate, of course, but is what I would expect. The sector then would also need to take our example from Messrs Gordon, Powell and Stark, up our game and avoid the easy choices of either simplistic sniping or quietism. 

So in short: enough tactical but annoying case-making, enough debate, more dialogue please.