Monday, 30 November 2009

It may be art but is it cricket?

Sports versus the arts is a seemingly perennial – though entirely pointless – debate. Michael Vaughan, the former captain of England and Yorkshire is the latest example of the two meeting, with his new career in the visual arts threatening to give a whole new meaning to the phrase Turning Point. Apparently enjoying the galleries of Shoreditch on rainy days has led him to a new practice he calls ‘artballing’. (As dictinct to the art balls that some artists talk?) See here for a news story and here for the gallery's description.

There’s not a huge amount to say about the actual works themselves, though I think I’ve seen worse. He hits cricket balls at the canvas, with a concept behind each one. You could say it's a kind of a Yorkshire cricketing version of Niki de Saint Phalle. But you'd be pushing it. I can imagine they'll be very popular with cricket-loving executives.

It’s certainly an interesting commercial model. Perhaps there’s a market for barn doors whacked with footballs covered in paint by failed premier league strikers?

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Who do you think benefits most from the work of the Arts Council - and who should?

I said I’d return to the topic of who our stakeholders (artists, arts organisations, local authorities and other partners) thought currently benefit from the arts Council’s work, and who they thought should benefit.

If we look at who respondents feel currently benefits most it goes like this:

1. Arts Organisations – 50%
2. The public – 18%
3. The Government – 15%
4. Artists – 11%
5. Other – 4%
6. The Arts Council – 2%

Who they feel ought to be benefiting is intriguingly and significantly different:

1. The public– 49%
2. Artists – 30%
3. Arts Organisations– 18%
4. Other – 1%
5. The Government – 1%
6. The Arts Council – 0%

What this might suggest definitely requires closer scrutiny of the detailed findings. I don't know yet whether there are big differences between the responses from different categories of people, which might be important. Knowing how, say, local authority and non-arts partners views of our impact differ from those of artists and arts organisation should help colleagues grapple with how best to work with different sectors in achieving shared goals. Might a very strong feeling in one group explain some of the differences above, for instance? But since almost half the respondents were Regularly Funded Organisations, it seems unlikely the ‘should benefit’ answers are totally unrepresentative of their opinions. I’d say this suggests a really positive focus on public benefit – but defined very differently from simply serving government agendas, and acknowledging that artists and organisations that work with them are integral to that public benefit.

On the face of it, respondents feel there's scope for a sizeable shift in who benefits most. (Although I need to note the caveat that those figures capture feelings, rather than any objective analysis of the actual benefit.) This is potentially really exciting and challenging for the new leadership team, in thinking through these findings. Does the Arts Council, for instance, need more 'tools' along the lines of the interest free loans used by Own Art and Take It Away, or schemes like A Night Less Ordinary, which put power (and effectively subsidy) directly in the hands of the customer rather than the provider? Or is it more about developing sectoral understanding and impact? Or some other solutions? Or (as I'd argue) all three?

Friday, 27 November 2009

In a right steady state?

MMM and ERA21 held one of their peer-to-peer events in Newcastle this week, in the trendy new offices of Northern Film and Media in the Hoult’s Yard development. The theme was whether the sector is now ‘overbuilt’, underachieving, at ‘steady state’ or in a perilous condition. Or indeed none of the above.

The conversation demonstrated, for me, that we are at the point when innovative solutions start to pop up – ie that bit where you think you have a series of irreconcilable ‘truths’, and an intractable problem the current tools can’t fix. These clashing factors mentioned include:

- a renewed infrastructure – notably capital, but also organisational – that needs time and support to develop and have greater impact
- the sector can’t stand still and may need further infrastructure investment (capital of all sorts perhaps, including into digital technology)
- buildings and their physical assets are not always used to best effect to create cultural impact, and our business models (eg greater reliance on ‘commercial hires’ leads to less artist use of space for r&d, leading to diminished quality or quantity of new work). This suggest building in some ‘downtime’ to budgets.
- the public sector as a whole faces big cuts, whilst optimising service to the public – delayering of management, more efficient back offices. This suggests tightening of budgets
- the cultural sector is not meeting the needs of significant parts of the population
- but demand for the arts and culture is high, and thus far not significantly hit by the recession
the increased emphasis on the knowledge economy is an opportunity for the cultural sector, in helping the country out of recession
- we need to think broader than the commercial and subsidised sectors, and consider the role of amateur and voluntary activity
- non-arts agendas offer great opportunity for development but we lack compelling evidence (at least according to those judging matters)
- it’s unclear whether the base of the cultural sector pyramid (people enjoying the arts, say) is broad enough to give us enough people at the top of the pyramid (highly skilled, knowledge-based earners)
- there are lessons to be learned from creative industries and third sector experience
- persistence should not be mistaken for real, productive, resilience.

There were some local points, as well, but that will do as a summary for now. My own conclusion from the afternoon was that a more concerted ‘looking out’ would really help us disrupt our own patterns of thinking – from region into world, from artform into sector, from sector into economy or community or globe.

There are still a few spaces on MMM’s next series of events, if you can get to Edinburgh, London or Newcastle. Clare and Rohan have put a great panel of speakers together, including, in Newcastle, Clara Miller, President and CEO of the USA's Nonprofit Finance Fund, Ben Cameron, Arts Programme Director of the USA's Doris Duke Foundation,David Carrington, Member of the Supervisory Board of Triodos Bank, Erica Whyman, CEO and Artistic Director of Northern Stage. Oh, and me...

Sunday, 22 November 2009

A thought on writing


'But why this urge to speak things, rather than make do with observing them? Where does it come from, this compulsion writers have to turn into words everything that touches them or holds their attention? Would it not be more sensible to prune and look after those trees, before describing them? But both the one and the other are necessary. Once men thought that uttering the true name of a god conferred full power over him: the priests were accordingly careful to keep it to themselves. There was a profound truth in this belief. Whoever seizes a landscape, a moment, a light, with suitable words, cures them - provisionally, at least - of this malady where everything dissolves, disappears, escapes us. Where do they go, all these moments, these lives, and our life? A beautiful poem, a well-wrought phrase keeps them, encloses them, gives shape to what is no more than vapour and cannot be grasped. In that way a person, without being entirely mistaken, perhaps, can believe he is somewhat less alien in the world, somewhat less helpless in the face of time's brilliant stratagems.'

That's a quote from a prose-poem I was reading earlier today, by Phillipe Jaccottet, translated by Jennie Feldman and Stephen Romer. It's from a great Anvil Press anthology, Into The Deep Street, Seven Modern French Poets. My favourite phrase there is even better in French, due to the wonder of the reflexive verb, 'sans se tromper completement, peut-etre'.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

74% of Everybody's Happy Nowadays



I’ve done a presentation on the headline results of our ‘Stakeholder Focus’ survey twice this week, once to staff and then to Regional Council. It’s a kind of customer satisfaction survey, where people get the chance to say what they think of Arts Council England, their relationships with us, how we work, our impact and so on. So it’s always a bit nerve-wracking opening the document and seeing how you come out.

Fortunately, things are heading very much in the right direction, and it's certainly a far more positive feeling than last time we did it, when there a few 'difficult messages'. Obviously not everyone thinks the Arts Council’s great (1 in 10 respondents consider us ‘unfavourably’, for instance), and there is, as ever, plenty to work on – reducing bureaucracy, being even more flexible and responsive, being more open with partners, for instance - but also lots to build on – being supportive, helpful and strategic are already strengths we can use. (According to the 896 people who responded, not according to me.)

There’s lots more interesting stuff, such as that 7 out of 10 members of the public have heard of the Arts Council, but most of those know nothing about us and that North East respondents have a very low propensity for taking the ‘Don’t know’ option. This may help explain why more people than average would be critical of us whilst more people than average also think we make a positive impact difference in the region. (In fact that welcome group seems, according to my maths, to include some of those who'd criticise us when asked.) So lots of useful feedback and issues to dig deeper into over coming months so we can carry on improving. (Blimey, that sounds a bit corporate, doesn't it? Rest assured Alan Davey is not standing over me whilst I write this. I can't think of anyone in the organisation not genuinely committed to listening and improving.)

There was one figure which puzzled me, staff and Council members alike. 15% of arts organisations, artists and partners thought that the Government benefited most from Arts Council activity at present. This is more people than thought artists benefited most, and nearly as many as said the public (18%). When asked who should benefit most, only 1% of respondents said the Government. (I will return on another occasion to which categories came out top in perceptions of current benefit and ‘should benefit’.)

This feels really interesting, assuming it's not some kind of blip. One in eight people think the government benefit more than the public, or artists or arts organisations from our work. It may just be a survey poke in the ribs for us from the Intrinsic School. It may be a sign of scepticism about government full stop. But what returns is it thought the government are getting that the public aren't? How does a government benefit without the public, or the economy benefiting, anyway? Popularity-by-announcement? Given the government decide on levels of funding, what should they get in return for their money? What image do arts organisations and our partners have of government - and, of course, the Arts Council? Is that a sign of healthy scepticism or of a kind of solipsism and myopia, expecting, presumably, continued government funding with no 'return' to government? I'm not saying the Government should benefit most, I just find it very interesting.

You can read a summary of headline results here, though there will be more detail and a full response in due course. This is not part of the Arts Council response!

(By the way, those of you who get this by email subscription, and read it on your blackberry or some other mobile device, do go to the actual site and you'll find a free gift, courtesy of Manchester and YouTube that you might not see in your hand. You could even leave a comment - Arts Counselling is also committed to listening!)

Monday, 16 November 2009

Younger than that now


There’s been lots of coverage in the last couple of weeks of 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the subsequent ‘domino’ effect across Eastern Europe. Whenever I think of that November, I also remember my first na├»ve steps into 'arts development', as it’s when the first issue of Scratch, the poetry magazine I used to edit and publish, came out. I recall stuffing envelopes with fresh-smellign magazines whilst watching the news on tv.

I started the magazine with a strong interest in how poets were reflecting the 2nd decade of Thatcherism with a kind of expanded, po-mo-realism, wise-cracking and allusive but political at a deep level. Although there were some signs of hope (the Green Party got 15% of the vote in the European Elections in 1989, for instance), it could feel as if nothing was ever going to change. So why not start a poetry magazine that would show that, as I put it in the first editorial, ‘the exercise of the imagination is an act of liberation’?

As is only normal and proper there’s a lot about that first issue that now makes me cringe and smile simultaneously – the youthful self-righteousness, the slack use of Letraset. But no one can deny that within a year of me starting a poetry magazine, the Berlin Wall was paperweights across the world, repressive communist regimes had crumbled, Ceausescu was dead, Thatcher was out of power, Nelson Mandela was free and my wife gave birth to our first child – who says poetry makes nothing happen? (Of course, I can make a strong case for personal responsibility for only one of the things in that list.)

Why am I sharing this, other than to mark the occasion? Well, it’s something to do with change. In that first editorial, I also quoted Greil Marcus:

‘It was too easy to lose touch with rage, with a sense of what is good and evil, to lose touch with the idea that its worth something to make, and try to live out, such a distinction. These are the politics of the freeze-out. They turn into a culture of seamless melancholy with the wilful avoidance of anything that one suspects might produce really deep feeling. Raw emotions must be avoided when one knows they will take no shape but that of chaos.’

Change runs through a number of recent posts – perhaps because I’m personally very alive to it right now, mainly because it’s in the air. I suspect we’re not in a melancholic freeze-out, with two tribes eyeing each other guardedly, but in something both more manic and more ersatz than that. (As with the ridiculous attacks on Gordon Brown last week.) It can feel like raw emotion or personal interest is all that’s allowed. Whether we are actually shaping chaos to a greater degree feels highly debatable. We seem to know change is-a-coming, in a way few did in 1989, but are we any better prepared?

The question I keep returning to, in our culture and in our Culture, is how we bring into actual being a proper combination of emotion and analysis, imagination and intent, change and continuity. And as in 1989, I have a hunch that if the arts can’t help, we’re going to struggle.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Any appetite for a naked lunch?

I join the dots between things and look for patterns. I probably over-do it at times, but it’s how my brain works. Here’s my latest set of dots.

Firstly a phrase echoing from the IFACCA Summit, Shelagh Wrights’s diagnosis that the arts suffer from ‘dodgy advocacy’, ran through my thinking – actually more worrying – about some themes from the IPPR/RSA event about the future of the public sector in the North East I mentioned last week. Themes like the need to acknowledge the unworkability of current ways before innovation kicks in.

Then that connected up to an essay I found via Matthew Taylor blogging about ‘policy-based evidence making’ with the rather wonderful title of ‘On bullshit in cultural policy practice and research’. In it, Dr Eleonora Belfiore uses research around evidence for ‘the impact of the arts’, as a case study in bullshit, that mode of discourse which puts persuasion above accuracy, what she describes as an ‘indifference to how things really are’. (Just for the record I think she’s right in general, but rather harsh on the arts, coming across at times as the kind of academic who’d be happier just having cultural policy and no actual messy culture.)

I then wondered if the current collective mindset of the publicly-funded arts and cultural sector is open and self-critical enough often enough to imagine all possible futures. (I include in that the funders involved, including government.) Have we become too accustomed to growth? Do we still believe that someone somewhere will have a pot of money they need to use at just the right moment –? For all our needs? What might we have to give up to respond to climate change? There is strong evidence for the impact of the arts, more than Belfiore can admit for her argument I would suggest, but if we only look for the answers that are useful to us, do we make ourselves overly-reliant on those we’re making the case to? Don’t we have to strive for the moment William Burroughs called the naked lunch - 'a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork' – so we can start to move beyond it?

The final dot (never end on Burroughsian apocalyptic paranoia!) was catching up on the new series of The Thick of It, which is a lesson in the way political discourse has been perverted by language. It’s somehow missing something the first series and the specials had, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. (Maybe the loosened grip on power makes Malcolm something of an underdog, albeit one with horrible bark and bite?) It is still very funny though, especially if, like me, you think swearing can be grown up and funny.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Paradoxical times?

IPPR North’s recent publication Public Sector Paradox draws together some conclusions from the Commission on Public Sector Reform in the North East. These centre on ways out of what they believe is a paradox: public services in the region are working well but the North East is not closing the inequality gap on the rest of the country. (The same pattern could be said to pertain to the arts in the region and participation levels.) The Commission puts forward a number of striking (and pithily expressed) theories, such as that public services ‘may be hitting targets but missing the point’ and need more local definition and freedom from Whitehall centralism.

To mark the publication and to discuss what the ‘inevitable’ (it's a quote, yes, but I also think we need to emphasise the constructed quality of the inevitablity) public sector cuts will mean to the North East and how to respond, IPPR and the RSA organised a conference today at St James Park in Newcastle. (No, I didn’t see anyone putting ‘sportsdirect.com’ signs up.) Speakers included Sir George Russell, who chaired the Commission, Matthew Taylor from the RSA, John Tommany for Newcastle University and Deborah Jenkins, one of the founders of Common Purpose.

There was much talk of leadership – without it ever being defined and without who it might refer to being narrowed down much. The spectre of the Great Man model was behind a lot that was said. The idea of a more networked leadership model, which allowed for a greater diversity of voices, seems an important one to explore – though challenging to many orthodoxies.

The North East is clearly vulnerable to cuts in public sector spending, given our relative dependence on government funding. (I was reacting strongly against this word during the day, but struggle to avoid it. It suggests government funding is a kind of drug we need to be weaned off, rather than a positive investment with a particular kind of return on investment. Do people talk about dependency on financiers? I guess so.) But one possible reason for the seeming paradox was given by John Tomanny in an ironic quite: it’s the economy, stupid.

Matthew Taylor suggested a scarily believable nightmare scenario for the North East, where a retrenchment into the so-called essentials leads to the region becoming less attractive to talent and investment, leading to even less achievement and so on. You might call this the ‘It’s Grim Up North Again’ scenario. (My phrase, not Matthew’s, in case anyone wants to take offence.) He suggested turning the potential weakness into a strength by becoming a centre of excellence in public sector productivity and innovation, by adopting an Innovation Charter, clusters of new thinking and creating international links rather than regional or national ones. (And yes, Matthew, as you guessed, we are doing some of that already, but not boldly or quickly enough.)

The biggest barrier to this is probably what was described as the first pre-condition for innovation: a sense of otherwise-unavoidable-crisis-or-disastrous-problem. I was reminded of something I’d read in the Guardian this morning, where Ben Bradshaw accuses the arts sector of ‘sleepwalking’ towards a difficult future (under a different government than his own oddly enough.) Certainly in some of the cultural sector broadly there is a kind of complacency disguised as either fatalism or oppositional critique that worries me. There is not, it seems, yet what the change specialists call ‘a burning platform’. I have to think it’s the optimist in me that can smell burning, not the fatalist. (I’m optimistic we can find great new ways of working – to engage more than 1 in 10 adults on a very regular basis, for instance - but only once we realise some of our old and current ways are part of an urgent and damaging problem. I think it's about more than the next election too.)

The question I personally came away with was this: how do I use my last few months as a North East leader-with-job-title to make sure I can still play my part – in fact even build my part in some ways – in the future? I’m thinking on it, believe me, but your answers on a postcard welcome.