Wednesday, 29 April 2009
Anyway 'with' is today's word because of a new publication from Cornerhouse in Manchester 'The Art of With' by Charles Leadbetter, which is well worth your attention. They are interested in answers to questions such as: 'What do the advent of the web, collaborative practice and open source ways of working mean for the arts and art organisations? How do artists, audiences and other stakeholders really get involved with programming and evaluating arts venues? What does it mean for curators, programmers and traditional structures of arts organisations?'
Leadbetter's essay contrasts 'the world of to and for' with 'the art of with'. 'With' here would be defined as the quality of co-creation and collaboration, 'endless, lateral connection'. The lack of hierarchy is important to the concept. He is specifically concerned with the power of the web, rather than 'with' in 'real life'.
There is a slightly odd emphasis on his take on 'avant-garde' practices in 20th century art (seen as 'at us', based on separation and shock) and in 21st century (seen as 'with people' and focused on conversation and collaboration, though most have examples cited have named artists 'leading'.) This and the emphasis on technology means I think he underplays the role of art which places itself in the midst of life, and community cultural traditions, and the politics of that practice. I think the politics of 'with' are also underplayed - is the web really as neutral, anonymous, unhierarchical as all that, and what role do gender, class, education etc play in individuals ability to make 'with' the art world of curators and galleries?
I should give one concrete example I think bears exploration. Jeremy Deller's Orgreave reconstruction is cited as an example of both mass participation and communities opening up new ways of looking at themselves. That may be true, it's a powerful work. But perhaps even more powerful was the mass participation in community arts and creative writing workshops in mining communities during and after the Strike. What came from those examples of 'the art of with' - and how did the artworld react? (Too simplistic a notion, I know, but it will have to do for now.) If we can move beyond simply listed the graduates who get paid we really will be getting closer to 'with'.
You can also share your notes in the margin of the essay and other comments on the version here: get 'with' it.
Monday, 27 April 2009
This is a really stimulating collection of short essays, illustrations and cartoons about how the creative industries need to look after the recession – if not sooner. Contributors ranging from Charles Leadbetter to Chris Smith via Dave Moutrey, CultureLabel and many others, give short, sharp thoughts on the current situation. If there is a consensus emerging, it’s that we shouldn’t look to keep ‘business as usual’. (This is of course a challenge to anyone, like Arts Council, helping organisations meet the challenge of the crunch – how to help and support continuity whilst encouraging suitable change.)
Editors John Holden, John Kieffer, John Newbigin and Shelagh Wright draw out 12 big issues for consideration if we are to close what they call ‘the gap between today’s reality and the possibility of a creative, fulfilling, greener and more equal society.’ These include issues to do with global competition, intellectual property and open source sharing, administrative and policy coherence, data collection and analysis and metrocentrism (the need to see policy thinking flowing upwards from communities and regions to Whitehall) .Underneath those runs the threat of short-termism. Linking back to my posts about resilience: we need to act now to enhance rather than diminish long-term strength. Anyway, give ‘After The Crunch’ a read: if, like me, you get tired at times of the design speak, I'm sure you'll find the cartoons entertaining!
Thursday, 23 April 2009
Wednesday, 22 April 2009
I was recently introduced at a conference with a reference to my 'irreverent' blog. Someone else said they liked the way it went from anecdote to the policy-profound, which I think is a great neologism. I've never thought of Arts Counselling as either irreverent or profound, to be honest. What I try and do is talk in my own voice, or tone of voice, about the things that are important to me in my work, in the hope that this will assist or stimulate others. (OK, very occasionally, you might add poke, irritate -or to use a modish word, nudge - to that list.)
Because I've happily avoided a work-life which is totally separate from my life-life, and because I think cultural policy had best be rooted in ordinary lives, that means I find it hard to remain entirely theoretical, even though I like theory. I also think jokes, ironies, asides and straight-forward sarcasm form part of a serious approach. The American anarchist Esther Goldman famously said, 'If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution'. If I can't laugh, I don't want to be part of your administration. I take myself and the arts very seriously indeed, but there is no point being po-faced about it...
When I started Arts Counselling, I had a personal target relating to 'communicating powerfully and prolifically'. (Yes, I'd been on a course.) I don't know whether 100 in 14 month is prolific, but I'm pleased with it. (And no, it's not because I have nothing better to do, as some colleagues have joked, I make time because it's strategic activity!) It's clear there are lots of regular readers out there (nearly 10,000 visits by 3500 people in the last year, plus emails to around 100 subscribers) but I would really like more. Finding time to write it is one thing, publicising it another. Please point your friends and colleagues this way. (You can forward any of the posts by email if you think others will find them useful.) Add it to your favourites list now. If you subscribe and get it by email, please visit the site and comment. And let me know what you think, either by comment or email.
Tuesday, 21 April 2009
1. Diversity: A resilient world would promote and sustain diversity in all forms (biological, landscape, social and economic)
2. Ecological Variability: A resilient world would embrace and work with ecological variability (rather than attempting to control and reduce it)
3. Modularity: A resilient world would consist of modular components
4. Acknowledging Slow Variables: A resilient world would have a policy focus on ‘slow’, controlling variable associated with thresholds
5. Tight Feedbacks: A resilient world would possess tight feedbacks (but not too tight)
6. Social Capital: A resilient world would promote trust, well-developed social networks, and leadership (adaptability)
7. Innovation: A resilient world would place an emphasis on learning, experimentation, locally developed rules and embracing change.
8. Overlap in Governance: A resilient world would have institutions that have ‘redundancy’ in their governance structures and a mix of common and private property with overlapping access rights
9. Ecosystem Services: A resilient world would include all the unpriced ecosystem services in developing proposals and assessments.
You will be able to apply this to artsworld without me pointing out the obvious. It might be worth saying, though, that an ‘unpriced ecosystem service’ , might, for instance, be the ideas of individual artists that often go unpaid,or the amateur and pro-am arts.
Monday, 20 April 2009
8. Most systems… usually proceed through recurring cycles consisting of four phases: rapid growth, conservation, release and reorganisation….This understanding is also important for policy and for managing natural resources because it suggests there are times in the cycle when there is greater leverage to change things, and other times when effecting change is really difficult. The kinds of policy and management interventions appropriate in one phase don’t work in others.
Please look here for a better, briefer summary of the four phases than I can do right now . The phases of rapid growth – the phase marked by opportunism – and conservation – marked by growing specialism and consolidation - are known as the fore loop. The back loop consists of release – often chaotic, marked by disturbance and shock - and reorganisation – when the options arising from change lead to renewal and the return of order, albeit a new order. We need to respect the necessity in the cycle of both loops, although they may not be equally as fun for all of us. Deny the back loop, for instance, and you may appear Canute-like. Want to live there and you may just be a trouble-maker…
9. The dangers of the late conservation phase:
- Increases in efficiency being achieved through the removal of apparent redundancies (one size fits all solutions are increasingly the order of the day)
- Subsidies being introduced are almost always to help people not to change (rather than to change)
- A preoccupation with process (more and more rules, more time and effort devoted to sticking with procedures)
- Novelty being suppressed, with less support for experimentation
The credit crunch and recession seem to sit most clearly in the release phase. But perhaps the cultural sector is also still in experiencing the dangers described here. Not falling into these traps in responding to the early release phase will be really important.
10. A back loop is not all bad. It is a time of renewal and rejuvenation, a period of new beginnings and new possibilities – hence its description as a period of creative destruction….Those new beginnings can often grow to be ruling paradigms in the next front loop. They are critical times to achieve change and reform in a constantly moving social-ecological system.
I am a glass-half-full type of person. (And a Libran, although I don’t really believe in horoscopes.) So the idea that both loops are creative is appealing. Ensuring that the actions we take in the back loop help shape new and better, more resilient, ‘ruling paradigms’, is really important. So, to use a current example, whilst I welcome this week's government announcements about encouraging artists to keep town centres lively by occupying empty shops, I don’t want that to be the new ruling paradigm for provision of artist workspace. I want that paradigm to enable the development and resilience of sustainable, high quality spaces that properly supports a thriving sector delivering quality art. The proposals may help that, but only if delivered with appropriate sensitivity to the whole arts 'social-ecological system' to use the phrase from Resilience Thinking. If it’s simply a short term measure with simplistic measurements of success – moving from empty shops to shops with things in them – it may actually damage the resilience of the sector in the long run, let alone the town centres. (By, for instance, not having good quality art in town centres positions, and reinforcing negative or outdated perceptions in some people of what art can be or do.) Done well, though, it could be brilliant.
And finally, a self-explanatory, free-hidden-bonus-track quote for anyone who's stuck with this:
11. Anyone can do it. You don’t need a detailed appreciation of thresholds and adaptive cycles to apply it. You do need to see your enterprise as part of a broader interlinked system, be able to identify the important processes and variables that underpin your operation, and have the capacity to ask the appropriate questions. And you need the capacity to implement change.
Friday, 17 April 2009
Now let me be unequivocal: I’m not comparing arts councils, artists or RFOs to bugs. But the way Bugworld is described makes more sense of the arts ecology than a model which suggests you can turn a crank and definitely get a certain result out, and then keep doing that for ever more. Funding, for instance, should not be seen by either funder of funded as a turn of a cog that will deliver, in linear, predictable fashion, great art for everyone. We have to look very closely at the interactions of the different areas, rather than concentrate on individual subgroups. (That's why I have, for instance, always welcomed the move away from pre-defined ‘artform’ budgets in favour of a holistic approach, though I know some disagree.)
5. Social-ecological systems are complex adaptive systems. They do not change in a predictable, linear, incremental fashion. They have the potential to exist in more than one kind of regime (sometimes referred to as ‘alternate stable states’) in which their function, structure and feedbacks can drive them across a threshold into a different regime.
This builds on the last point but adds the notion of ‘threshold’ – those points where fundamental change happens. Recorded music helped push music-making and performance from one regime into another as the live communal tradition morphed. Digital downloads are pushing the music industry towards another threshold right now. Change is possible, however.
6. Knowing more hasn’t helped because the underlying expectation of the people in the region is that they want to continue doing things the way they’ve always done things. Consequently they have thus opted to fix up short-term problems rather than address the large system-wide issues.
This refers to one of the case studies, to do with an agricultural region. I think it applies to some people in the arts and cultural sector too. There are times when the short-term fix is necessary as a first step – emergency response to cuts or recession for instance – but they need to be seen in the bigger context, and not taken as a full response.
7. Though social-ecological systems are affected by many variables, they are usually driven by only a handful of key controlling (often slow-moving) variables. Along each of these variables are thresholds: if the system moves beyond a threshold it behaves in a different way, often with undesirable and unforeseen surprises. Once a threshold has been crossed it is usually difficult (in some cases) to cross back. A system’s resilience can be measured by its distance from these thresholds. The closer you are to a threshold, the less it takes to be pushed over. Sustainability is all about knowing if and where thresholds exist and having the capacity to manage the system in relation to these thresholds.
Developing a sense of what the key 'slow' variables are that might affect your resilience is key. Much of the sector has a long way to go on this. The ‘bottom line’ beloved of tough finance types is one such variable. Reviews might be another. Audiences figures and ages a third and fourth. What are the really vital ones – that might push you towards a threshold? The alleged pressure on arts organisations to be socially usefully in return for funding might be one such. At what point do you change function? The choice is up to you – it’s knowing what you’re doing that’s vital. There is a contrary thought from this quote also. Risk is key to innovation in the arts, and many organisations live healthily with it. Might an over-awareness of your thresholds lead to risk-aversion? Too great a distance from one a kind of 'safeness'? Perhaps this gives a new meaning to living on the edge?
Thursday, 16 April 2009
1. ‘Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure.’
Helpfully memorable and easily applicable to the arts or individual organisation and to the system. Disturbance might be a grant cut, a failed application, the loss of staff, change in audience or customer behaviour. It might also be a new CEO, an influx of funding, a funder wanting you to do something else, a sudden ‘hit’. How resilient are you? Can you absorb the shock and work in a way which doesn’t damage long term? Crucial at a system level – the system of organisations also needs to have resilience. (Put simply, for example, the poetry world can withstand one or two small presses stopping so long as others fill their space – in fact that is part of the system that brings new growth.)
The idea of systems is central. The easiest way to think about this is that things in a system interact in a complex and adaptive way – not in a simplistic, linear ‘crank the handle’ way. The book includes 5 case studies in the environmental field which illustrate this. But an arts organisation can demonstrate this too. There are factors to do with their quality and ‘efficiency’ that impact on them. But they also interact with how audiences are behaving and that ‘system’, with the ups and downs and changes in funders’ worlds, in the business world, in the broader economy, and in the political world. These are all arguably ‘systems’ that also interact in a larger one. It’s complex – though we do it to some extent without thinking - but you need to consciously ‘map’ all the systems to know what’s working on you.
2. ‘The Paradox of Efficiency and Optimisation:… Being efficient, in a narrow sense, leads to elimination of redundancies – keeping only those things that are directly and immediately beneficial… this kind of efficiency leads to drastic losses in resilience.’
You could relate this to how you shape your budget and programme, or to cuts in local authority funding. Worth the Chancellor bearing in mind when looking around for savings before the Budget. Simplistic efficiency today may have drastic knock-on effects when further shocks come. Systems work indirectly as well as directly so you need to look at the big picture. An obvious example of of 'simplistic efficiency' leading to less resilience is what happens when organisations choose not to build up a reserve in order to maintain or expand programmes. Reserves give not security for now but resilience for the future. They should be a measurement of health not wealth.
3. ‘There is no sustainable ‘optimal’ state of an ecosystem, a social system, or the world. It is an illusion, a product of the way we look at and model the world. It is unattainable, in fact… it is counter-productive, and yet it is a widely pursued goal.’
This is challenging to someone like me who’s talked a lot about sustainability and sustainable organisations. They go on to say that the common reaction when the model doesn’t quite work is to exert even more control, and I can see the truth in that – from government to arts funding to artistic directors. Models are not necessarily a bad thing – they can be useful if you use their simplification to explore how things might work – but you need to acknowledge they are models and not reality in all its complexity. So if there is no stable sustainable state, only an adaptive sustainability, we need to support people to adapt, to be as complex as they need to be, and to acknowledge that concentration on single aspects is likely to lead to less resilience when further change comes, as it inevitably will. Sustainability therefore comes from resilience, not vice versa, and is continually happening or not, rather than being acquired.
Wednesday, 15 April 2009
Record shops are somewhat under threat these days, and not just independent ones. Time was you could spend a happy Saturday afternoon walking round most towns of any size and visit half a dozen record shops of different sorts. Now you can struggle – and even the corporate chains have been disappearing, whilst those that remain are mainly DVD shops. But independent record shops – such as Beatdown Records or RPM in Newcastle where I can sometimes be found browsing at lunchtimes – are hotbeds of local music scenes and of diversity in music. I’m not going to get all Nick Hornbv on you, but they can be formative and transformative as well as sometimes, to be honest, off-putting and inaccessible-seeming to non-cognescenti. So very much like other arts spaces then…
I spent my first wage packet (summer job, carpet warehouse) on a Pere Ubu album I still have and a Passage lp I don’t, from the fabulous Action Records in Preston, not too long after it opened. It's still hanging in there, remains as atmospheric as ever and is taking part in Record Store Day and which you can visit here. The last thing I bought there, earlier this year, was a second-hand copy of Weary Blues by Langston Hughes and Charles Mingus, which just goes to show how record shops can grow with you. (No, I didn’t sell the Passage record in revenge for Richard Witts’ later history of Arts Council Great Britain, I rather enjoyed that, I just went off synthesizers, long before I'd ever heard of the Arts Council.)
So even if you’ve got out of the habit of visiting real record shops, forgo Amazon for a day and visit your local record shop – many have special events on.
Tuesday, 14 April 2009
This often feels like a reductive and circular discussion to get into. If we can’t talk about the value of the arts in some kind of way that allows that value to be compared to the value of other things – tanks, traffic lights, speed-bumps, care for people with Alzheimer's, doctors, nurses, education, MPs' salaries, whatever – we are forever beholden to ‘supporters of the arts’. Whether we like it or not politicians have to do that invidious job of comparing apples and oranges and bricks. We need to help them, not ask for an exemption.
Mission Money Models have just published an interesting paper by Hasan Bakhshi, Alan Freeman and Graham Hitchen, entitled, simply, Measuring Intrinsic Value. This argues for greater use of cultural economics to explore the value of the arts and help with that difficult comparison. Two metholodologies are suggested as key to this: ‘contingent value’ (roughly speaking, defining the value the public put on things they may or may not actually use themselves) and ‘willingness to pay’ (measuring how much we'd be prepared to pay for things - though I think this can often be overstated, or not align with our voting patterns.) Measuring public estimates of these, the authors argue, can free ‘the value of the arts’ from the advocacy mode instrinsic value often sits, or the reductive mode of direct economic measurement or instrumentalism, and allow a new statement of the case for the arts.
It’s a challenging and useful paper – and, being far from an economist, I may not have grasped it all and may have simplified the key concepts horribly. My main challenge to it would be this. If the problem is, as the authors argue, that the arts are damaged not by economics per se but by bad economics, what confidence can we have it’s possible to shift to good economics – given that to the untrained eye there seems to be a dearth of good economists in positions of power?
Or perhaps I’ve misunderstood the last year or so completely…
Thursday, 9 April 2009
Then when I got home, for no discernible reason, other than I’d been thinking about books as my palace would be lined with them, in alphabetical order by author, I pulled the Selected Poems of Randell Jarrell from the shelf, and flicked through it and read at random his little poem Well Water:
‘What a girl called “the dailiness of life”
(Adding an errand to your errand. Saying,
“Since you’re up…” Making you a means to
A means to a means to) is well water
Pumped from an old well at the bottom of the world.
The pump you pump the water from is rusty
And hard to move and absurd, a squirrel-wheel
A sick squirrel turns slowly, through the sunny
Inexorable hours. And yet sometimes
The wheel turns of its own weight, the rusty
Pump pumps over your sweating face the clear
Water, cold, so cold! You cup your hands
And gulp from the dailiness of life.’
Whether you’ve got a long weekend for Easter or a short one, may chance bring you find some clear cold water, the sun, and the moon. And I personally recommend a whoopee cushion too…
Saturday, 4 April 2009
We began with an Emergency Summit of writers, editors and publishers in Newcastle. (This had the longest lunch of any Emergency Summit ever as I made the mistake of taking participants to the restaurant of the then newly opened BALTIC, where the service was - later!- notoriously slow.) We then followed it up with research, publicity, events, anthlogies, stories you could get by email and so on, bringing on more and more supporters including writers such as Ian Rankin and Val McDermid. Kate and Claire put huge amounts of time into it, and one day Kate and I were able to celebrate have the mick taken out of us in the TLS. (Small measures of success, I know...)
The Campaign grew and grew and in due course we passed it onto the Book Trust and Scottish Book Trust who moved it onto another level again, introducing the BBC National Short Story Award, amongst other things. You can read all about it here.
So I was really pleased to read James Lasdun's lead article for The Guardian today about the flourishing of the short story internationally, including renewed interest from publishers, and some exciting sounding new writers. I'm not claiming much credit for the Campaign, of course, but I do look back and think we played a role in promoting the art of the story and bringing it to people's attention in a fresh and arresting way. It started with a writer (Margaret, who is a fine exponent of the craft) describing an issue, committed people putting their heads together and then identifying some concrete actions for change, supported by a strong coalition of passionate people - in the face of some saying either there was no problem, or that you couldn't change things given the way publishing had gone. Whether the blossoming of short stories is merely cyclical only time will tell, but I think the current health shows you can change what seems permanent.
Friday, 3 April 2009
Amongst other things directly relevant to voluntary arts such as my title question I was asked to say something controversial (the Bill Grundy approach) and to choose between Gordon Brown and Barack Obama. You can go straight to the interview here to see what I said, but best to go via the VAE site front door as you may see lots of other more useful information such as their very useful new briefings on sustainability and resilience of voluntary groups.