Monday, 3 May 2010
A good many of AC's subscribers have done so, so apologies to you for repetition. Please accept this video of someone playing The Fall's Repetition on a record player by way of recompense. (I do have this single, but this is not my video, honest.)
Wednesday, 7 April 2010
Here's the piece I would 'end on'. Although I've mentioned it, and linked to it, I've spared you my poems here, but this is one I wrote for my leaving do, and then forgot, in the emotion of the moment, to read. Besides we'd already had a new Shakespeare poem that night. (Tom Shakespeare, that is, my chair at ACE amongst many other things.) It was probably for the best, that night, but I shared it afterwards with the team in the North East office, and it seemed as as good a way to go quiet here as any.
The angles of the north are sharp as words
bitten in the wind, ballasted by bricks
so they can’t float over Pennines or Borders
to the uber-North as it plays its trump card,
devolution. My devotion is fast,
true as the compass of the A19,
A1 , or East Coast Main Line, the magnet’s pull
towards home or good work, twin poles that switch
and twitch like dancers in cold rehearsals.
Even restless melodies can settle
for equilibrium, and those have been mine,
home, work, twin arts of making worlds together.
But winds change, pick my dump weight up and heave.
Release is good, from on high landscapes shift,
graceful application turned to growth, sun
staccato off roofs and extractor fans,
curves and corners of new tunes and stages
rising like time-lapsed dough giddy with yeast.
There’s a toolbox down there, plenty to make
us tight with invention, rapt in creation.
There is no stopping us, no hopes gone south
now, no mothballing but of metaphors
of our doubt. We are done with all that,
have set out on fresh sweaty marathons,
mantras muttered against cynicism’s
insufficient priorities, competing
demands for fresh beats of northern hearts.
The sun sets in the west, beyond Barrow.
Yes, we are brothers and sisters from sea to sea:
our vowels as flat as the plains of class.
I have walked slowly to’t Foot Of Our Stairs,
a long march of a ten year trek but that’s
where I’m bound now, working out what I’ve done.
What we’ve done, is all I can see or say to end.
More is needed than these puzzled lines, more due
to others than this circular ‘thank you’.
But thank you will have to do.
Monday, 5 April 2010
Thursday, 4 March 2010
This made me think two things. Firstly, how the genuine the 'laugh' is when it comes, from the other MPs, and how different that is to today's yahboo behaviour in the house - although there are one or two genuine wits left, notably William Hague, perhaps surprisingly, in themain the barracking and pantomime behaviour would get MPs excluded from any decent comprehensive. Secondly, and more importantly, how relevant the story is today. As all parties try and sound both tough and magical about cuts, hearing Michael Foot's elegant scorn illuminate the real issue, I couldn't help wonder whether the second half of the trick is any better known thirty years on. If it is isn't, only those with the money to buy new watches will be laughing.
(You can hear the clip 55 minutes into the programme here for the next few days.)
Inevitably much reference has been made to that 1983 election, although his life had been a long and distinguished one even by then, and the tributes have tended to subtly state he was, well, mistaken but passionate and committed. Even at the time of the 1983 election, I thought he was treated unfairly. (I got to vote for the first time in that election, on the day of an English Literature A level exam. We played The Beat's Stand Down Margaret through the 6th Form Common Room in a vain - in all sense of the word probably - attempt to influence voters using the school. It was 14 long years before I got to vote for a candidate that actually got in.)
Thinking about that, and what (and who) Michael Foot represented, I was reminded of something Vaclav Havel said: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Checking that quote , I came across this: “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.” That seems to me what Michael Foot was about, win or lose. In that he differed from the breakaway SDP who really cost the country that election, and their spiritual progeny in all parties. Would that there were more like him still around.
(I know I'm leaving very shortly, but I suppose I should state: personal views, not Arts Council views.)
Friday, 26 February 2010
Perhaps he got the idea from Arts Council England North East's communications team, as they've just conducted a similar experiment, which is documented in the video above. The Usher family from South Shields were asked to remove all art from their lives for a week and see how it felt. (No doodling, no humming, no all singing all dancing as the mum puts it.) They were then rewarded with a week of rather special artistic activities, including workshops with Kate Fox and Beccy Owen round the kitchen table.
Perhaps we should promote a national-no-art-week, as a counter-intuitive way of helping people appreciate the arts more?
The Journal newspaper have been running a campaign 'Case for the North East', which alongside many strong cases has included some rather odd and (to my mind) parochial statements suggesting there is no such thing as the North - it's 'a convenient line drawn on a civil servant's map' and 'the truth is we relate as much to London, Scotland and Europe as we do to the rest of the north'. Economically there may be some truth in that, but culturally I couldn't disagree more. (And whoever built Hadrian's Wall, or thought up the word Northumbria - North of the Humber? - might be with me.)
Of course the North East is as different from the North West as a Geordie accent is from Scouse, and both are different from Yorkshire. But then Tyneside is different from Teesside. They do though, have things in common - industrial and class heritage most particularly. The stereotypes of 'Northernness' cut across the country - and so do the positives. I think that's an interesting thing to explore - and the understanding of our variety and diversity that results a real inspiration.
Two things are happening at the moment that explore ideas of northerness is a more exciting sense than the Journal's campaign. (And don't get me wrong, I want resources and power to reside in the region - just not for almost charitable reasons.) Firstly Northern Stage (now run by that lovely southern lady Erica Whyman, or Why-Aye-man as she's known in Newcastle) is celebrating its 40th birthday with a major project exploring Northernness in a global context. And then The Civic in Barnsley are hosting Northern Futures, a competition for northern talent. I guess one can see the dangers here though, as even I thought they could have included some North Eastern names in their examples. (Or indeed more people who still lived in the North.)
(Of course, I would say all that, wouldn't I, having spent the first 22 years of my life in the NW, 5 in Yorkshire and the last 17 in the North East. I did spend a year in London Village, but that just reinforced my northerness.)
Friday, 19 February 2010
Here's the video for you to enjoy. (Has Sunderland ever looked so lovely?)
Thursday, 11 February 2010
Anyway, very briefly, I want to point you at two really interesting papers about innovation and research, bth of which are co-written by NESTA's Hasan Bakhshi.
The first, which was published a few weeks ago is Not Rocket Science. As MMM put it The authors’ proposals challenge two entrenched prejudices, which block arts and cultural organisations from playing their full role in society and economy:
- arts and culture are largely excluded from R&D by definitions based on its Science and Technology (S&T) origins
- the arts and cultural sector relies on a conception of creativity that mystifies too much of its work, preventing it from accessing valuable public resources.
The second is an interim report on Innovation in Arts and Cultural Organisations, co-written David Throsby. This includes descriptions of two case studies with TATE and the National Theatre, exploring the use of digital technology. (In the National's case the broadcasting of a show into cinemas around the country.) This makes the link between this kind of innovation of the actual business models of the organisations.
Both well worth your time, even if you don't have the time!
Wednesday, 3 February 2010
The ironies of the piece, its location, conception and materials have only deepened since the launch, with the potential closure of Corus's steel plant just down river at Redcar. Regeneration has not got any easier, or any less important. But the imaginative impact perhaps only gains power from that. I can't wait to see it take shape over the next months - apparently the 'net' takes some time to be made taut.
Friday, 22 January 2010
Days like this I will often go home and have a little noodle around on the guitar to decompress. I like to sing songs, but nothing relaxes me quite like just playing. (It's a non-aggressive way of getting the effect a game of fiveaside has on me.) There was a great article in The Guardian about amateur music making, by Charlotte Higgins, this week which really made me want to do this with some other people too. The people just sounded as if they were having so much fun and getting so much depth out of the experience. Play is, after all, a very serious thing.
Charlotte meets a number of orchestras and groups, and also communicates her own passion for playing. I'm no classical music buff, so my music making is in another sphere, which makes it hard to avoid the '40something-guitar-dad' cliches when even thinking about playing with other people. I don't mind inflicting those on my family through the walls, but would draw the line at strangers. (I think of my staff here like family, obviously, hence our inflicting the Management Team Ukulele Orchestra on them at one party.)
One person says something I really empathise with: learning a piece is "a life's project: even if I do learn [the notes] of the D minor Partita, that's just the beginning of interpreting and understanding that piece". He adds: "I'm struggling to express this, but there is something about playing that is wholly good for myself, uncomplicatedly good, in a moral sense. When you play music you are an agent, you are doing something rather than being a consumer or a subject. For me, it's part of being a human being."
The size and significance of the amateur sector is, I think, increasingly realised. The point the article makes is that quality is there too. It sometimes just goes with the love of music rather than the presence of payment. Charlotte Higgins has followed up with a blog asking for details of amateur groups - hopefully there'll be an upsurge in numbers of people using their instrumental skills.
Perhaps there is something in the air for 2010, about 'expressive lives'. The choir my wife and daughter sing in, which I've mentioned before, have started a 'sing for your supper' session at Arc in Stockton and had 80 people there last week - families of all ages and backgrounds making music together just for pleasure. I also had a lovely letter from a user of the Take It Away scheme recently, thanking us for making it possible for him to buy a banjo - 50 years since he gave up playing. The gentleman's aim was to be able to play it by his next (76th) birthday.
There, that's reminded me of the transformative power of the arts up enough to drive home now - do read the articles.
Wednesday, 20 January 2010
I've been privileged to spend much of the last year debating how to achieve great art for everyone, so this consultation period is very exciting, and not a little nerve-wracking. I feel very attached to it, even though I am one of the people leaving the Arts Council in March and my colleagues will take our work forward. I want to highlight two areas where responses might be especially useful to them, although there are many more ideas in the consultation worthy of deep consideration.
Firstly, the need for shared purpose around a set of clear goals, delivered by collaborative effort with the whole sector and beyond, is powerfully articulated. If funders and arts organisation and partners can get behind the things that unify them and focus on making the sector more productive and resilient, we will all benefit. I welcome the goals - but they will undoubtedly be improved further with input.
By focusing on our collective impact as a sector, having a shared 'big picture' to refer to when things get fraught, we can, perhaps paradoxically, give each other more 'space', worry less about irritating detail, and generally be more forgiving and less adversarial. (Does that sound like a truism about a marriage? Perhaps that's not coincidental.)
Secondly, there are important ideas here about how funding is invested. Proposals are made such as fixed term funding for organisations and greater use of 'strategic commissioning'. This opens up an urgent conversation, which the experiences and views of 'the funded' will shape. The model of either regular or project funding, plus the fabled and rather obscure 'managed funds' is now neither flexible nor strategic enough.
I would urge colleagues to expand the suite of investment mechanisms to include loans for organisations, tools such as Own Art and Take it away that encourage individuals to spend their own money on art at full cost, and much more funding than at present invested in building arts businesses to a point where they have a range of reliable income sources. It is vital that new talent is supported, but it is equally important they do not become as dependent and over-focused on Arts Council funding as some of their elders. The sector, however, will need to grapple with a deeply ingrained instinct to look for 'support' rather than 'income' or 'investment', and the implications of changing the paradigm.
Shared purpose does not, then, mean there will be no challenges and differences. It's our diversity that makes shared purpose so productive, not adopting a single way of doing things, I believe. So share your thoughts. I hope the team who've toiled so painstakingly so far, are given an equally big task reading your consultation responses.
Tuesday, 19 January 2010
During the consultation period the website will also publish a series of think-pieces from a range of different people. I was asked to do the first of these, one of the side effects, I suspect, of my reputation as the Blogging Exec Director. (Can't help thinking of the Dancing Priest from Father Ted whenever I get called that.) You can read what I had to say here or in the post which follows this one.
This is undoubtedly a major moment for the organisation, as it prepares to shift to a new, slimmer structure. This work had been a major undertaking so far, with many furrowed brows and heated discussions as well as careful analysis. The next three months are a real opportunity for the sector to shape priorities and ways of working at a time of change. The sector also needs, I think, to consider the implications of the research and knowledge base for itself. I hope people will look at the evidence as well as the goals and think through the potential impact for themselves as well as Arts Council England in responding. But whatever you do, and whatever you say: respond.
Monday, 18 January 2010
The sessions I attended varied in their impact. The session on business models had some interesting speakers – I wanted to go and work for Coney immediately, or at least volunteer for the Society of Codenames – but reinforced the need for more people in the sector who can frame a model, or a theory about how the sector actually functions. It only takes us so far to say ‘be great at what you do’. We need replicable models if we are to convince politicians and policy makers. (And voters too, actually.)
Highlights of the day were (therefore, I might almost add) the highly contrasting Helen Marriage and Bill Ivey. Helen Marriage spoke about the work of Artichoke in transforming cities – but only on a temporary basis. She made a sound argument for ‘the power of the temporary’ and the ‘cultural value of the merely spectactular’, based not just on what she’d seen work in London, Liverpool and Durham, but on how she thought that actually happened. She put together an argument for large-scale investment in the temporary in a way I’d never quite heard before, stronger for having what I can only a methodology behind it. And she ended by reciting a poem, which I always think is a good trick, though don’t all start doing it please, it’s one of my own favourite techniques.
Bill Ivey could learn a thing or two about powerpoint from some of the other speakers, but apart from that was really impressive in applying his ‘Expressive Lives’ thinking (see here for my thoughts on that) to the idea of a cultural bill of rights. Challenging and intellectually rigorous, the tone wasn’t quite maintained throughout the debate. The questions from the floor suffered from a kind of solipsism, a framing of things only within the arts. Freedoms of expression and of movement are not being restricted for artists because those people are artists primarily, but because of broader political issues. They can’t be addressed simply as artistic issues, but need to be put in a bigger context. But then the earlier discussion around whether artists could change society suggested a deal of nervousness about getting explicitly and deliberately political… For this reason, allied to my inate triviality, I therefore had the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy running through my head for the latter part of the day. (‘You gotta fight – for your right – to PAAA-RTY’ and ‘Party for your right to fight’ respectively.)
I believe there are already plans a foot to make this an annual event – we shall see in what roles Messrs Hunt and Bradshaw might be there. That's a really healthy thing, as this kind of serious discussion needs to happen on a regular basis, and be informed by more serious research and provocation.
Friday, 15 January 2010
According to The Power Gap, a new report from Demos, people in the Guildford constituency are the most powerful in mainland Britain, whilst those in Glasgow North East have the least power to be in control of their own lives. I live in the constituency at 294 in the list of 628. Doesn't sound great, but it is the 3rd most powerful part of the North East region, which illustrates one aspect of the gap the title of the report refers to - some very big regional disparities.
The relative power or powerlessness of people is calculated using 8 indicators, including education, occupational status, income, employment, freedom from crime, health, voter turnout where you live and the marginality of your constituency. So although Stockton South and Stockton North share many socio-demographic factors, the relative marginality of the seat may help explain why Stockton North is much lower at 519 in the index.
The report is an attempt to break through essentially class and deprivation-based analyses of inequality to focus on capability. As they put it 'it is power, not more narrow approaches of income or mobility, that is the critical inequality in Britain. This is the divide that matters to our wellbeing and progress as a nation, and the challenge to which politics and leaders must rise.'
Although I think you could argue the approximate nature of the indicators and the proxies used to measure them could lead to some misleading conclusions, the map looks and feels about right to me. The value of seat marginality is interesting. It's certainly the case party machines will be ignoring people in safe seats in the next few months, and concentrating on those in marginals. This can make you even more powerful if you already have a decent job, education etc. And much less so if your area suffers from multiple deprivation but is unwinnable by anyone but one party. Logic therefore suggests people in, say, Middlesbrough, should make their seats less safe in order to have more influence. (This could, of course, be a risky strategy.)
This matters - and here I agree absolutely with the authors because feeling you have control over your life breeds confidence and virtuous circles, whilst powerlessness leads to anger, depression and spiralling disconnection.
That the arts can sometimes make someone feel more in control of their life, with great positive effects, is a familiar argument, and a thing I've seen in reality many times. I've not had chance to do a detailed comparison, but I suspect from a quick look there is some correlation with arts attendance, albeit complicated by the spread of indicators. The recent figures for national indicators of cultural participation suggest the disparities run roughly parallel, although they are reported on a local authority basis rather than constituency so it hard to compare exactly. There is something in here for someone to mine. We might then look at how building capabilities could impact on participation, and how that may relate to control over one's life, and where the arts can usefully join up with other players. (I'm reminded of the lack of power some people said they felt in relation to the arts in the Arts Debate.)
So, it's worth a look, even just to see how their view of where you live compares to how powerful you feel. There is a nifty little 2 minute video version, too, which you can see above, or here.
Monday, 11 January 2010
Next time someone tells you that there's less need for a focus on diversity because even the people who don't really get it at least now know 'the rules', or that diversity is 'an add on' to their real arts work and just a burdensome Arts Council box to tick - I'm not making this up for effect, people do say this stuff! - remind them of Lynda La Plante's recent and widely-reported comments. (Overseas readers: she wrote a half decent tv series once, Prime Suspect, and has been banging out crooks with heart and police dramas with diminishing returns ever since.) As reported here by the BBC and here by the Telegraph, she feels excluded by the politically correct BBC and that commissioners would 'rather read a little Muslim boy's script' than one by her. “If my name were Usafi Iqbadal and I was 19, then they’d probably bring me in and talk,” said La Plante, apparently.
Well, that made me give three cheers for the BBC - or it would if it were absolutely true. Or if these comments were the last we ever heard of La Plante. Unfortunately I suspect neither is quite the case. Although the range of voices heard on the BBC is broader than it was, there is still a tendency to commission a relatively small set of old faithfuls. It seems very easy to use the same people over and over. (More noticeable, of course, when the person is some way from the tv norm - Griff Rhys Jones doesn't stand out in the same way as even Alan Bennett.)
The theatre has seen a number of precocious debuts of late, it must be time for some new talent, new voices on tv too. How did Griff Rhys Jones corner so many markets, for instance? Most urgently, perhaps, we need to hear the stories and imaginings of those who are most often represented by phantasms - young Muslim men, amongst them, but not exclusively.
The diversifiying of the arts workforce and of the stories the nation tells each other still has a long way to go. Have a look at the comments on some of the other coverage of La Plante's comments and you can see why. Look at the tv schedules and you can see the nonsense of La Plante's comments. If I was a commissioner at the BBC, I'd be forcing her to collaborate with Shazia Mirza, on a comedy drama.
(Hmm, maybe that's why I'm not a commissioner at the BBC...)
Monday, 4 January 2010
I might say that, coming from a poetry background, where the actual production of poems is rarely paid for - although associated products and activity might be. Some years ago I put together a books of essays on poetry readings, and there were at least two essays in there which reflected the tensions about quality and openness obvious in the Newsweek piece. They looked at the phenomenon of open readings, one, by Martin Stannard questioning the value and comparing some readings to Les Dawson's piano playing as I recall (without the book to hand), another by David Kennedy marking the personal psychological and therefore arguably social value of even bad poems, drawing on poems of mourning. I've hosted more than my share of open readings, and wouldn't necessarily go out of my way to go to one these days, but when I do see them, there's always something fascinating and heartening about them. And if there's not one really bad poem, it's not open enough for my liking. (The book, Words Out Loud, published by Stride in 2002, is no longer available except second-hand - unless you ask me nicely in which case I've a few in a cupboard...)
So let's make space in 2010 for amateurs of all qualities - the gems of brilliance that are let in will more than make up for the mediocre, I'll wager.
Oh yeah - and Happy New Year!