Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Infinite Town

I mentioned in my end of the year round up that I had been commissioned by Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council to write a poem for use on Stockton High Street. A couple of days later I went into town and happened across it, already in situ, albeit behind a security fence. As you can see below, it also had rather a large bow on top of it - for the holiday season, not as part of the permanent structure! Above is a photograph of a poem . It is inscribed in a large plinth on the High Street, part of a huge redevelopment of the town centre. From the summer, an automata in the shape of a train will arise from the point (once a day, in Trumpton-style).

The poem was one of a number of texts I wrote in response to the commission, and was chosen by the panel overseeing the redevelopment. The poem had to do a number of things (some for the commission, some for me):
  • Be memorable but not simplistic - some people will see this a lot and I wanted it to strike them differently over time
  • Have local relevance and reference, but not be backwards looking or too 'representational' in tis references
  • Form part of a the 'new' High Street, being optimistic without simply cheerleading, but whilst having a 'civic' tone to balance the eventual playful automata
  • Have a kind of density to its language suitable to the setting
If you know Stockton you may pick up references to the Infinity bridge, which you can just about see from the plinth, the Tees which is nearby, and the town's firework tradition. (Starting with the invention of the safety match and through to today's festival finales.) It was also, of course, part of the birth of railways.

This is a very different kind of cultural intervention than most of what I write about here, but Thinking Practice is not called that for nothing! And this is definitely one text with my name on that cannot be put away on a shelf in a cupboard somewhere!

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Cultural Capital

  Robert Hewison’s Cultural Capital tells a cautionary tale very well. As the blurb puts it, it describes ‘how politicians, money, and managerialism turned a golden age to lead’. The book is subtitled ‘the rise and fall of Creative Britain’ so Hewison’s conclusion is put right up front, and is presented as a classic myth of temptation, ‘success’ containing the seeds of its own ruin. 

 Hewison depicts the increased funding and political attention for culture between 1997 and 2010 as a kind of Faustian pact – with organisations swapping funding for compromised creativity as a result of targets and instrumentalism. Neither increased commerciality nor socially-targeted instrumentalism has led to great improvements in access to the arts, the argument runs. This has left the sector doubly vulnerable now the golden age has been replaced with the lead of cuts and illusory philanthropy. The villains of the piece are politicians, policy makers, interfering funders and the sinister Godfather pulling the strings, the Neoliberalism, or the Marketisation of Life. (If we had a grand for each mention of that ill-defined N word neoliberal in the early chapters, mind, we could fund a fairly substantial arts project…) 

 This is a fascinating and easy read. Hewison is a fine writer, as his previous arts histories of the post-war decades illustrate. I read the book quickly, coming to the last chapter wanting to know how it would end. For those not-that-few of us who had roles somewhere in the arts funding system in some way during the period covered – and I know there are plenty of regular readers here who did – it has a particular appeal. I’m not going to dissect or respond to the observations on the failings of ACE and others, for fear of defensiveness. But I suspect many people will find themselves going, ‘Yes, and…’, ‘No, but…’, ‘Nonsense…’, ‘Tell me about it…’, and ‘Did he never hear about….’ in fairly equal measure. 

 There is, I think, a great deal to commend Hewison’s analysis. We see clearly the recursion of the basic compromise at the heart of the New Labour project at many levels: the global economy’s demands for ‘freedom’, Blair’s analysis of what was needed to get the Tories out after 18 years in 1997, our own circumstances, and those of the sector. But there are other stories to be told from this material, some of which are only alluded to here. 

 The first relates an (I think) unintended irony in the book’s title. The book feels overly-shaped by the concerns of the metropolis, and the ‘major players’ in London Village. There is too little attention to developments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Surely the Creative Scotland ‘stramash’ was worth looking at as an example of his thesis? Might a comparison of Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff ministerial directions not have been instructive? How does the rise and fall look from Warrington instead of Westminster? How well did the cultural sector spend the huge sums of regional funds from Europe that went into both capital and business development? 

 He also underplays the way in which the centralization of decision-making and policy-making at all different levels has intensified, and contributes very directly to the most significant present danger to the cultural sector, the potentially terminal decline of local democracy’s ability to invest in culture. This exacerbates the lack of trust Hewison rightly diagnoses as the underlying cause of much dysfunction. Building trust between a sharp-elbowed capital and the rest of the country will, I suspect, take more than the efforts of What Next. To put it crudely: we need to see the chairs and CEOs of the London ‘nationals’ taking the big picture into account and not swallowing up the (sometimes unadvertised) funding opportunities through their lobbying. 

 As I mentioned, Hewison has written a number of very fine books on the history of the actual arts in the UK. So it’s something of a shame that in focusing his attention on the suits, he plays down not just the artistic responses to the New Labour years - another book perhaps – but the artistic responsibility in the ‘golden age’, and the role arts organisations might have played in any dysfunction. How does, for instance, an analysis of public art commissioning back up or contradict Hewison’s argument? To what extent is the continuing lack of diversity with the arts workforce, and hence (I would argue) many audiences, not a failure of policy making and funding but a result of the resistance of those in positions of power in arts organisations? (Hewison comments ‘Few organisations would admit to being deliberately exclusive’ which is undoubtedly true but misses the point rather.) 

 To what extent can we as artists and arts organisations pass responsibility for our choices on to funder requirements – especially when we know that funding came to them with its own requirements? (This continues, of course. Have a look at the latest DCMS ‘settlement letter’ to ACE before you criticize the priorities expressed through new international funds too much, for instance. Government wants growth, export and support for ‘Great’ Britain. So you will be interested in India in 2017, not Bulgaria…) 

 My biggest criticism of Cultural Capital would be that it does not pay enough attention to what was achieved across the country during the high years, and what could be learned from it. The fundamental modernization of arts infrastructures that ACE and their regional and European partners were able to make in many towns and cities, the artists supported and developed, the organisations and sectors grown, all form part of the picture. It feels under threat, but I simply don’t see that all has having turned to lead. 

 When I think back to Teesside in 1993, for instance, for all that our ‘arts infrastructure’ is under strain now due to the government’s shrinking of the state and public services, and our economic situation, I can’t but conclude that it is stronger and more productive as a result of the work of the last 20 years. It’s also more useful to people – at artistic and instrumental levels if you must make the distinction. As David Edgar points out in his Guardian review, there are also arts institutions based in good buildings – or tools for making art as I like to think of them – which would not have existed without the cultural policies and funding mechanisms described so witheringly here. 

 There are hints that Hewison knows this. In an interesting section on the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, he says this: ‘Boyle, Daldry and Boyce are typical products of the cultural economy this book described. They are provincial-born graduates of state-funded education; they were adolescents when Thatcher came to power in 1979, and learned to duck and dive as they made their way into the arts… All three benefited from New Labour’s creation of the Lottery-funded Film Council.’ Although he follows with counter critiques of the ceremony as essentially putting a gloss on a socially damaging – neoliberal – spectacle, this illustrates the paradox at the heart of the book. Isn't that success? Isn't that better than a culture of posh interns? Dealing with the neoliberal world we currently live in may get messy and compromising, but it is not unproductive. Neither does it mean you must adopt all of its values or stop trying to bring it to an end. 

 Hewison’s conclusion – a cliffhanger to do with the upcoming election rather than a denouement - feels a little hedged and tautological at times, but puts a healthy emphasis on the public: ‘The role of government is not to occupy or dominate the public realm… but to act as the guarantor of its integrity. This should be a place for the circulation of ideas, for creative expressing and political argument.’ He goes on: ‘To recover the value of the public realm, it is necessary first to recover the idea of the public. … Above all, the state must revive a public, as opposed to private, property right – the right freely to access the co-created culture that is held as common property in the public realm.’ 

The morals of the earlier tale – do look gift horses in the mouth, or be careful what you wish for, perhaps, or long spoons are good for supping with devils but bad for your posture – may be a start in equipping us for the challenges within that aspiration, but they are only a start.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Etchasketch policy making?

Culture at King’s have published an unusual, interesting and potentially important report on arts education policy, Step by step: arts policy and young people, written by James Doeser.

 The report is unusual because it takes a long, historical, view of a crucial area of arts policy – from 1944 to today, through Jennie Lee’s first arts policy, 50 years ago next month, to Bridges and the National Plan for Cultural Education. It is interesting because it makes use of the Arts Council archive, and the stories and insights of some individuals involved in the evolution of arts education, to describe how integrated arts education has been in national policy for several decades and why this is important for both young people and the arts. 

 And it’s potentially important because its recommendations are both sensible and have a broader application. The general recommendations to the policy makers – DfE, DCMS, ACE – and by implication I think the sector, are to pay attention to learning from what’s gone before in designing what comes next, keep records and archives so we can do that, and to design evaluation frameworks before intervening so we can judge success. (Oh, and work more with HE, surprisingly enough.) The recommendations to do with arts education specifically, based on the reading of history, are to place more emphasis on early years, look internationally and think about arts participation outside of school more. 

 What is apparent in the specific example of arts education policy is a general tendency for organisational memory to leach away, and for learning from the past to be neglected either willfully, through happenstance or because of speed, or for it to be simply too difficult to access. From Ministers to CEOs to new officers, no one wants to be seen to say, ‘actually what happened before just needs tweaking’ or ‘We got this idea from something done 15 years ago’ or ‘we’ll just go on the existing research, thanks’. (I don’t want to suggest there are not of course occasions when that would be shortsighted, or when what needs to happen is a more fundamental demolition and rebuild. But even that should be informed by history.) 

 This leads to what I’ve been known to describe as the Etchasketch approach to arts policy. Such an approach has sadly been prevalent in arts education in England in recent years, in the way Creative Partnerships has pretty much been written out of ACE thinking and history since CCE’s funding was cut. To misquote Basil Fawlty, I mentioned Creative Partnerships to someone from ACE once but I think I got away with it… More seriously, I understand there is no meaningful organisational relationship between ACE and CCE - I certainly don’t see sign of any. CCE is in demand internationally and elsewhere in the UK for its insight and expertise but not in England, which is, to put it mildly, a bit odd. 

 This has contributed to some of the difficulties ACE has had in defining roles for the Bridge organisations, to some Bridges’ own difficulties in defining success, especially early on, and to paying too little attention to the wealth of research and insight CP generated, not to mention the local partnerships. (I’m not suggesting CP was a perfect scheme, far from it, but there is a lot to be learned from the less successful elements.) This is not a pattern restricted to ACE of course, local authorities and other national policy makers suffer the same pattern, as do organisations. But the higher turnover of staff within the arts funding system has tended to make it more of an issue. (Whilst also being an opportunity for fresh thinking - damn paradox.) 

 The report is very clearly and engagingly written – and also has some fascinating pictures of archive documents if, like me, you like that kind of thing. (Xmas Gift Book idea for publishers: Extracts from the Arts Council Archives.) It misses something important by being restricted to national policy level, I think, as much of the important drivers for change came from local and regional levels. The work of Regional Arts Associations and then Boards, of local authority arts officers, and of advisors within LEAs working in partnerships with them, contributed to as well as benefitted from the national policy changes beginning in the 1980s. It would have been beneficial to have at least some of that in here. (They could have invited my old friend Shirley Campbell to tell the story of how she and Northern Arts worked with local authorities in the North one CEO and chief education officer at a time to spread arts education agencies, for example.) I’m not sure you can fully understand arts education policy without looking at local authority policy and infrastructures. 

 The other missing piece of the jigsaw is the debate around arts and young people within the arts. There is reference to tension within Arts Council on this, which certainly remained during my time in the organisation at both national and regional level, especially at investment time. But the report suggests a need to look more at the tensions within arts organisations and arts practice. This might also look at the extent to which policy was informed by actual young people and their voices. 

 That said, this is a timely and important report. I will be taking some of its questions about institutional and sectoral memory into my chairing of the final meeting of the Bridge North East advisory group meeting next month. It’s the final meeting as the group which has supported the team at Sage Gateshead to develop Bridge North East will be handing the baton onto colleagues at Tyne & Wear Museums & Archives who will – with Sage Gateshead and other partners – be delivering Bridge in the North East. ACE, though, have been very clear in discussions that the Bridge roles in future are different from the last 3 years, so maybe keep that baton metaphor under your hat…