Thursday, 18 December 2014

2014: B Side

Despite this being the flipside of my last post, I’m going to try hard not to make it a series of negatives. Life’s not that simple, is it? Having said that, even my glass half-full tendencies have been challenged a lot this year. As with the A Side, I’m restricting myself to 5 themes. 

I know Climate Change is probably the biggest threat to humankind and the sketch we call civilization. But ask me what I feel about the UK right now, and a bigger distress is the well-documented growing inequality and its effects. Restricting comments to the cultural sphere is counter-intuitive, because the inequalities there are fed by the wider pattern, just as they feed into it. But that’s my focus, and culture is caught up in inequality like a fox in a trap. 

 In The Art of Living Dangerously we raised the issue of who gets to be an artist, and how people of all backgrounds might build sustainable livelihoods in creative work. This also underlies one of the strongest campaigns (and catchiest hashtags) of the year: a-n and air’s #payingartists. Average earnings for artists have always been low – as Hans Abbing has shown, it’s a field where many enter, and the most visible can win BIG, but most do not. This is only getting worse. 

 The pressures on organisations are leading to more use of volunteers in previously paid roles, but oddly enough not at the CEO level. The argument is sometimes that these are ‘entry level’. This has some, small, truth – but wouldn’t the idea of ‘exit level’ voluntary roles (not trusteeships) - be equally compelling for those retiring with a pension? These are equality issues as they narrow the social mix in the workforce even more than ever. 

 Similarly, we can see the ongoing issue of ‘rebalancing’ the distribution of funding across the country as an equality issue, given the widening social and economic divide in the UK geographically as well as hierarchically. Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose is not a quotation, it appears, but core government policy. The effects of this being the de facto policy in the cultural sector would be disastrous. Sadly, in 2014, we have seen no significant progress in ‘rebalancing’, despite further cogent evidence and argument from Messrs Stark, Powell and Gordon in The PLACE Report. ACE’s new NPO represented consolidation more than rebalancing and a number of developments – some not through what others would call transparent process - tended to reinforce the idea that if you’re big and know people who can talk to people you will do better than if you have no assets and no networks. (Not to say those are bad developments as such, just they are unequal developments.) 

To flip it around a little, and thinking of the £78M going to Manchester for the Manchester Factory as an example, I think 2015 will see the continuation of a theme from this year and previous. Long-term ambition will drive major investments against the run of play in times of shrunken state spending. That may be into capital like The Factory or festivals or artist spaces – ambition of scale and depth ideally, rather than of grandiosity. I’ve my doubts whether another big thing in Manchester is the best use of £74M, and don’t think I want a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ to be so centred on any one place. But it is a recognition of the long-term commitment to culture in Manchester – from the Anthony Wilson days of course, but also of the City Council leaders, and the people working in culture in the city – at all levels, and the quality of the work done. They have developed and maintained a narrative for a long-time – not simply from MIF to MIF. That gets them invited to tables to talk. That has been a collective effort – or so it seems from my visits – but the same is true at individual organisation level.  

I’m pleased to see a Case for Culture being developed again in North East England, and hope it will galvanise the kind of collaboration and investment the Northern Arts-led Case for Capital did in the 1990s. It has the advantage of being informed by all the learning from those capital developments, so can learn all the available lessons about cost, involvement of local audiences and so on. (This talk of ‘ambition’ might sound dangerously ‘entrepreneurial’. I see no reason ambition cant be collective and socially constructive – we don’t all have to be ambitious for just what George Osbourne wants.)

If there’s an NPO that’s not been encouraged to work with a university partner I’ll be very surprised. Many are of course already doing so, some brilliantly, and this is A Good Thing. As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve spent a lot of time and effort this year helping move a local authority gallery into a university and I wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t think it was the best thing to do. There are many great partnerships between Universities and cultural organisations, focused around research, archives, collections, community engagement, artist development and more. (HEIs have a lot in them.) 

What working with HEIs is not, however, is a Get Out of Jail Free Card if your local authority cuts its funding. HEIs are – in my experience – peculiar organisms. (That is not a spellcheck mistake for organisations. I mean organisms.) They have deep reservoirs of expertise and knowledge. They play a key role in cultural life of many people, not least students. They have the potential to be huge drivers of social and civic change – and to assist with social mobility and inequality. 

 They are also hierarchical and complex to navigate, and as it has been suggested to me, by someone in an HEI, driven to own everything they come into contact with. They are also alleged to be reluctant to get their big cheque books out and a bit on the fickle side. So as the local authority leg of the arts funding stool finds itself being sawn down by this Coalition government, and the philanthropists in some places are mysteriously absent with the folded up napkin/telephone books to fill the gap, no one should see HEIs as a panacea. Partnerships need to be appropriate, well-worked through and developed slowly over time. 

 Also: no offence, like, but I’m probably sticking to autodidactism until I’m the only cultural worker left without a PhD. 

One of the effects of inequality in the arts has been a lack of diversity, an inability to make the whole of our cultural activity look and feel like the whole of our society. There have been many attempts to tackle this, of course. But few have made the kind of paradigm shift desired. The issues of class, gender, ethnicity, disability et al remain hard to resolve for a sector that ought to be leading the way at a time when the likes of UKIP are promoting values counter to a diverse, creative society. 

 So I welcome ACE’s recent renewal of its approach to diversity, which I see as combining attention to numbers and proportions with the ‘creative case’ in a potentially powerful way. I’ve grown weary of interjecting in meetings to point out that too many of us are broadly the same type of white male when it comes to our notions of ‘culture’. It’s not easy broadening that out, mind, given the quality of the people there, and the need to avoid simply slipping from one set of usual suspects to another. But the result of not making a shift, no matter how awkward, is likely to be a kind of status quo, even staleness, not to mention the moral or inequality dimensions. 

 So whilst I’ll continue to think it’s a missed opportunity that the North East Cultural Partnership board is 24 good people who just happen to all be white, and I’ll argue for diversification of organisations I’m involved in, we should also expect ACE to diversify or rebalance its own staff, board and grant-giving. Looking at the National and Area Councils, none seem as reflective of they could be of the diversity of the population. 2015 should see some SMART targets being adopted by ACE about grant-giving looked at via geography, gender, disability and ethnicity as well as workforce and types of work. (They are keen for everyone else to have SMART targets, after all….)

 The Mysterious Case for/of Cultural Value 
There are lots of overlapping attempts at coming up with a defining statement of ‘cultural value’ that might feel true and convincing to government (national and local), artists, the cultural sector, academia, partners such as public health and economic development, and even, potentially, that mythical beast, ‘the taxpayer’. The search for understanding, definitions, evidence and arguments is involved in different ways in the AHRC’s Cultural Value Project, projects such as Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Artsworks, and, of course, the research and advocacy work of ACE. 

 Some attempts, such as ACE’s ‘journal’ CREATE, based on their ‘holistic case’, have felt overly-defensive, whilst also avoiding the issues of distribution of funding. Sometimes the more that’s said, the more debatable it all seems, the vaguer it gets, and the harder it gets to actually evidence in ways which convince those multiple audiences. (I, for instance, get prickly when lectured about creative education by a public school head teacher. I am not interested in creative education because it gives state schools kids elements of public school education. I’d rather see creative education helping public schools produce more rounded politicians and bankers than we see, and state schools produce brilliant people of all kinds, putting the A in STEAM.) 

 For me, the strongest thinking I’ve seen recently in this direction was the paper ‘Raising our quality of life: The importance of investment in arts and culture’ by Dr Abigail Gilmore, of CLASS, the Centre for Labour and Social Studies and the Everyday Participation project. This combines an approach that emphasises ‘the importance of arts to the quality of everyday life’ whilst also arguing for a cultural policy based on local responsiveness, equitable distribution, democratised and publically planned involvement in culture. Gilmore also argues for policies and funding behaviour that develops resources for ‘everyday participation’ and greater ability at community level for people to develop culture, especially opportunities to participate. I see many connections to the kind of ideas in the MMM/nef/Exchange paper with which 2014 began for me, The Art of Living Dangerously.

 Those were just a few things I see looking back on 2014. I could have written about other things, from the Select Committee into ACE to the prog-rock tendencies of street arts, but these last two blags are a 10-track album in my head, not blooming ‘Sandanista!’ 

 Of course, 2015 is the year when we get the chance to change all of this again. I am talking about the government, of course, but I’m also talking about us. See you there.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

2014: A side

It’s been a while. My time as Interim Director at mima was a hectic one, as I also maintained my Thinking Practice clients, took on some more, and got involved in events such as Artworks North East’s conference on participatory arts. Hell, I even said no to a few things.

 Often I blog more the busier I am – just I have more ideas for creative work– but not this time. I’ve reflected since a post-mima holiday on whether blogging still has a function. (I sometimes hear blogging referred to as something akin to having a myspace page...) I think it may do – for me at least – as a space to reflect, gather, remember, put thinking for future use, let people know about things.

 I have, though, rather got out of the rhythm of it due to concentrating energies elsewhere. I thought I’d do a couple in the run up to Xmas and see how it goes. I’ll also be listening out. If all I hear is the void talking back I'll be very mindful of that. I have been encouraged to get back to it by bumping into a couple of subscribers who told me they’d missed my emails. They may just have been being kind, but if you’d like to join them, do sign up to the email version.

 So, before Xmas I thought I'd reflect on a few themes of 2014. I start through a personal lens. (The B-side of this blog, tomorrow, will consider broader themes of culture in 2014. It’s not all about me.)

It would be wrong not to start with that 7 month-stint as Interim Director at mima. Someone recently told me the interim role involved ‘holding a mop in one hand and a machete in the other’. This was not quite my experience at mima, although I did find myself washing windows and putting up acetate as we readied the new jewellery gallery for opening. Despite a big change process as mima transferred from the council to Teesside University, neither was it time for the machete. The Swiss Army Knife perhaps, but not the machete.

 I won’t rerun the experience now, or all my learning from it. I will say, though, that the mima team reinforced for me the absolute importance for adaptive resilience of shared purpose, cherished by the people upon whom the today and tomorrow of an organisation rely. When other things fray or change – revenue funding, networks, staffing, ownership of assets etc – this is the difference between future and fracture. But we should never underestimate the effort and stress required.

 I worried that an Interim Director role might leave me wanting to get back to ‘a proper big job’ after almost 5 years of Thinking Practice. I’m glad to say it didn’t, and that neither did it make me think I’ve developed so many weird habits, or lost so many skills, I was now unfit for such a position. (That’s not a pitch, by the way.)

One of my favourite Thinking Practices is interviewing people – in relation to research, evaluations and so on. I also enjoy getting involved in recruitment interviews; something I’d done mainly via my board memberships in recent years. But 2014 has brought several fascinating recruitment assignments. These ranged from assisting in selections to helping design job descriptions, target candidates and interview at mima to managing the whole process of finding a successor for Susan Jones at the head of a-n.

I was pleased to help get outstanding people in place in those roles. There are lots of generic recruiters around, of course, with more ‘substance’ than Thinking Practice in recruitment. But I can draw on expertise and work with you to design processes that help get the best person. So I’d be very happy to do more of this kind of work in 2015. (That was a bit of a pitch, fair cop.)

 Critical Friendship
The ‘Creative People & Places’ schemes across England (CPPs for short) were encouraged, maybe even obliged, to find people to be their ‘Critical Friends’. Critical Friends draw on the skills of coaching and mentoring, but also share frameworks and expertise. I’ve had a really good time the last 18 months or so being the Critical Friend for Bait, the CPP for South East Northumberland. It’s been a good way of developing the coaching approach I’ve trained in and use throughout my work. The folk involved – the staff team and the consortium board – are good people and the work they do is complex and important. I’ve learnt a lot myself, trying to be useful in thinking through what the ambitions of the programme and how it could evidence change.

 What’s been helpful is that this is a long-term relationship, working with leadership, team and board over a period of years, just 2-3 days per quarter. It provides external challenge and facilitation, but with less of the jerky-stop-start some consulting relationships can have. (For all parties.) We can build a continuity of conversation over a period of time, moving from individual to team work in a coherent process.

 I have a hunch this model, maybe at 3 or 4 days a year, could usefully be adapted to other organisational situations: capital development, change processes or artistic development. If any organisations in the UK were interested in developing a Critical Friend relationship in 2015 I’d be keen to trial some different packages. (Ok, that’s the last pitch, honest.)

2014 was a good year for my creative writing. New Writing North selected How I Learned to Sing for their Read Regional library promotion, which meant gigs in libraries across Yorkshire and the North East. After one, I was asked to accompany a member of the audience to the cashpoint so urgently did they want to buy the book. To the passer-by it probably looked more like a drug deal than literary culture, but hey ho. At another, in Hull, I met a subscriber to Scratch, the poetry magazine I edited in the 90s, who had brought his copies. Reviews also continued to trickle in. One phrase – ‘one of the finest contemporary love poems’ – is now regularly quoted in our house. You can read more over here, should you be interested.

 Also on the poetry side of things, I was happy to help out a bit on the committee that put together the first T-Junction Teesside International Poetry Festival. It brought writers from all over the world to Middlesbrough in October. It was great, even if we sadly had to Skype John Berger in. I was also commissioned a couple of times. I wrote a poem that will be used on Stockton High Street next year. I mixed poetry and prose for the Tyneside Cinema, after being their ‘conference poet’ at an event about young people and specialized film. The resulting book – ‘6 Degrees of Connection: Towards the Absolute Alrightness of the Kids’ – contained poetry and practical tips on engaging and enabling young people. It also had pages designed like intertitles that gave me a possibly disproportionate pleasure.

 2014 also contained a lot of writing/publishing of other sorts. There were co-written papers, evaluation reports, business plans and some long articles such as The F Word for Native, the journal of the Digital R&D Fund. Have a look at the publications page on the website for more details. Lord help me, but I even found myself writing an Grants for the arts interim report for the Swallows Foundation UK (which I chair), when there was no one else available to do it. I enjoy research – talking to super-engaged artists or leaders, librarians or curators – but I also love finding and ordering the words. And then, maybe most of all, I enjoy editing them. A useful find this year that helps with this has been the Hemingway app. I recommend it. (This blog was much longer to start with, believe it or not.)

 Beyond ‘the arts’
2014 has seen a surge of attention from the museums sector to my writing on adaptive resilience. It’s been interesting thinking about how the characteristics of organisations that tend to be adaptive and resilient might vary in the museums sector. The nature of the assets and networks, for instance, is very different. Often small ‘organisations’ have major archives and collection material or a heritage site to care for – and use. The networks of volunteers and supporters also seem to be a different kind of resource than in most arts organisations. Whether size is asset or liability also feels a different question than it often is for arts organisations.

 I’ve enjoyed invitations to think about these issues in seminars with museums leaders and at a recent Museums Association conference. I’m interested that museums seem to be putting more emphasis on the personal resilience of leaders than the arts did, at least at first. This connection is one I've thought about more and more and something I want to explore more in 2015. (Not least for my own resilience.)

 I've also been pleased to get back to some work with libraries, including evaluating the Digital War Memorial project. I was never convinced 'the arts' benefited from being separate from other bits of culture, or heritage from arts, and have argued that case for many years.

 So much more I could have said, but that’s (more than) enough. Thanks to all the clients and collaborators who’ve given me these experiences. Thanks to the fantastic people in the organisations I'm a trustee of, where I'm also always learning. (Swallows Foundation UK, AV Festival and Seven Stories.) It’s really been a great year, which I guess is why it feels as if it’s lasted approximately 12 minutes. Not always easy, full of challenges and frustrations and some anger at the society some are intent on creating/maintaining, but a year full of opportunities to work against the narrow, the bitter, the selfish, the unfair and for a more shared and equal culture.

Editing this, I'm struck how often I’ve used the word enjoyed. This may not be the case in the next set of things I write about. For that I feel both lucky and grateful.