Thursday, 26 November 2015

Poking a gift horse

You can read a few of my thoughts on the Spending review announcements over on a-n news, should you wish. Exec summary: really well done and thank you Arts Council and others, but let's treat Osborne's warm words with caution and not forget the impact of other parts of the budget. I don't explicitly say it, but I think it's probably impossible to have a genuinely healthy arts and cultural sector (in the broadest sense of that word healthy) in an increasingly inequitable society, which is what the other parts of the settlement will contribute to.

Indeed, some might argue the arts element of funding contributes to that inequity, especially in light of reports confirming the way people from middle class backgrounds dominate the arts. (Lots to say on that, no time.) I know many, many of the people and organisations that will benefit from the decent 'result' work to create opportunity, far more than the cynics believe, so I'm glad about that element of Osborne's slight of hand at least.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Dialogue and Affection

There were a couple of thoughts about dialogue I had hoped to squeeze into the post introducing the Creative Case NORTH review. They are from the section in the full report talking about the CCN process as perhaps most powerful when generating dialogue. They also failed to make the cut in the Executive Summary but felt worth highlighting here. 

They discuss writers on dialogue I had not come across until looking for relevant frameworks to test CCN against. You may know all about them, of course, but given the frequency with which creating the right conditions for productive dialogue comes up as a challenge, I thought I’d share. I’ve reformatted slightly to create clearer lists, but otherwise just copied from longer report. They may be useful checklists next time you are trying to engage in productive dialogue. (They'll probably be less useful if you're just trying to assert how right you are...) 

I will just pause to suggest it would be helpful to generate more of number 5 in Burbules’ list and less of its sarcy-snarky mirror image, manifest often through such symptoms as auto-text ‘critique’, impatience, stereotyping and suspicion.

The physicist David Bohm, in his writing on dialogue, suggests its purpose is ‘to reveal the incoherence in our thought’ in order to discover or re-establish a ‘genuine and creative collective consciousness’ [Bohm, D (1997) On dialogue edited by Lee Nichol, London: Routledge]. This seems to be the aspiration many of those involved in Creative Case NORTH have tacitly agreed upon, and have attempted to create the conditions for. Creative Case NORTH certainly appears to attempt to meet Bohm’s three suggest basic conditions for genuine dialogue:
1. The suspension of traditional assumptions
2. The acknowledgement of others as peers
3. Facilitation to create safe spaces in the early stages of dialogue.

Another writer on dialogue, Burbules [Burbules, N. (1993) Dialogue in Teaching. Theory and practice, New York: Teachers College Press] suggests there are 6 things necessary to successful dialogic conversation. These are
1. Concern for others
2. Trust
3. Respect
4. Appreciation
5. Affection
6. Hope.

 These are all reflected as present in the positive comments about Creative Case NORTH and its conversations, and, to some degree, seen as missing by those commenting more negatively.

Friday, 6 November 2015

From the why to the how: show not tell

Earlier this year I was commissioned by the Creative Case NORTH consortium, led by theatre company Zendeh, to carry out a meta-evaluation/data review of material arising from 3 year’s worth of work. Having had some involvement in the first year’s sessions in the North East I was really pleased to do so. (It has proved complementary to much other work this year, such as a major report for Arts Council England on children, young people and diversity and equality I worked on with the EW Group.)

My approach to the job involved interviews with people, an online survey, and a textual analysis of the data (reports, evaluations, transcripts and even poems) generated by the work. I remember saying at the interview I was especially keen to do this last element, given the thorniness of issues around the language of diversity. Half-way through about 180,000 words I was less sure of the wisdom of my approach, but it was worth it in the end.

 The Executive Summary can now be shared, and can be found here in the publications part of this site. The full report, which is has a lot more detail and discussion in it is well worth reading if I say so myself, is available on request from Creative Case NORTH by emailing

 CCN has begun to create change through a process in which dialogue leads to discovery through shared experiments such as residencies and projects. These can lead to new work, which when reflected upon can lead to new understandings and new ways of working. That makes it sound easy and linear, albeit perhaps a line that forms a circle. Despite the programme showing it is far from easy and linear, this approach has had some success, although for many the pace the pace needs to be quicker. Many are yet to feel the impact or the imperative.

 The report makes some recommendations for the next phase, which I understand is now being developed with support from Arts Council England. Key amongst these is making sure the language of the Creative Case is clear and powerful, and the stories of its benefits told well, so the work can reach more people and create deeper change in organisations. As John Dyer said at the recent ‘No Boundaries’ conference, it is time to move from the why of diversity to the how: to show not tell. One respondent to the survey wanted ‘bigger bolder braver!’ This means being practical as well as aspirational.

 For it is in practice as well at the level of cultural definitions or aesthetics that many are left out, not reflected in our culture, not helped to make their work, not employed, not heard or seen on an equal basis. (Susan Jones, writing for the Guardian, recently quoted a line of mine about 'even white men of a certain age' being bored with hearing from white men of a certain age, which was nice, though did make me reflect it might have sounded as if I thought my boredom was a terribly pressing problem. Just to be clear: the boredom of white men of a certain age is the not the big issue here, far from it...)

 One of the interesting things of reading transcripts from events held over a thee-year period was hearing how the conversations changed. (The full report includes ‘word clouds’ illustrating this.) It was noticeable how the events held this year, before the general election, contained huge threads of fear and anxiety about the effects of political and social change on people of all sorts. Negative political and social change appears to be ‘front of mind’ for many people working to advance the Creative Case in the North, far beyond simply the effects of cuts to arts funding.

 There may be some – those mainstream leaders described as asking ‘are we still talking about this?’ perhaps – who see this as an excuse to hunker down in the comfort zone with their core audiences, citing pressure of income targets, the difficulty of reaching different audiences or artists, and so on. I might argue that the social (and charitable in many cases) functions or positions of most funded organisations, as well as a growing body of business thinking, suggest the opposite would be a better response.