Wednesday, 24 December 2008

And so this is Christmas?

Ok, I'm out of here for the Christmas period - normal service will be resumed in 2009.

I think I've had more electronic Christmas cards than 'hard copy' ones this year - signs of the digital takeover of the world? Here's a link to the Arts Council's e-card, commissioned from artist Suky Best. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Are making music and cooking connected?

I mentioned in passing earlier this month that I’d attended a seminar on commissioning opera. This was to mark the creation of Skellig the opera – with libretto by novelist David Almond and music by composer Tod Machover. One of the things I didn’t know before that day was that Tod Machover was also involved in the technology used in Guitar Hero, in his role at MIT. The new RSA Journal has an article by Tod about the creation of ‘personal instruments’ for opening up genuine musical creation (as opposed to Guitar Hero’s game-based application of the technology) for those without musical training. It’s particularly interesting to learn how it has been used to enable musical creation by people with physical impediments that mean traditional instruments are impractical. He also talks about the role of the youth chorus in Skellig and his aspirations for ‘a new model for the interrelationship between experts and amateurs in musical listening, performance and creation’.

He goes on to make an analogy with food and cooking which I think reveals more of a challenge than he suggests. He claims we ‘all’ have a food culture or ecology in which appreciating the achievements of experts – the Michelin-starred chefs and so on – sits happily alongside our own participation in both daily, improvised cooking expressing our personality and special occasion meals. Whilst there is evidence of that in some parts, there is also plenty of evidence that actually the distant relationship many have with the arts is mirrored in an even more dislocated relationship to food and cooking, with many people simply not eating well at all, losing the traditional skills and rituals associated with food – and the family and social capital that goes with it. I can’t imagine my life without either music or cooking – I get frustrated if I go too long without playing or listening to music or being able to cook - but there are many people who can. (And after all I did work as a chef for 6 years before working in the arts...) To create that healthy ecology in the arts we have to address some very big issues. (See Jamie Oliver’s ‘Ministry of Food’ work for just one take on this.)

The new RSA Journal, coincidentally, has another article that might give some clues as to why this is the case, Crossing the class divide by Lynsey Hanley. It’s worth a look.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Adrian Mitchell

I was really saddened to hear today that Adrian Mitchell had passed away. You can read a short biog and see him performing, including the poem he will always be remembered for, To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam), on Bloodaxe's news page.

Adrian was one of the poets that inspired me to become serious about writing, and helped shaped the way I was serious about it. When I was a 6th former, the village library acquired a copy of For Beauty Douglas, his collected poems up to 1979, and it probably spent more time in my bedroom than it did in the library. It helped confirm in me that writing, performance, and art more broadly - it is full of reference to other artforms, as well as a love of life in general - could connect to people and try and change things. This was poetry that was funny, angry, political, sexy, loving, anarchic, committed and not content to sit in the corner being admired.

When I started a poetry magazine I sent the first issue to Adrian. He wrote back with advice, encouragement, a drawing of an elephant which was almost part of his signature, and a poem for me to publish. (We also began exchanging quotes from Kenneth Patchen, a joint passion.) When Yorkshire Arts turned me down for a grant because the literature panel weren't convinced of the quality, I sent them a snotty letter saying if it was good enough for Adrian Mitchell it should be good enough for them! I met him a number of times, at readings, and he was a lovely, kind and gentle man. It did always feel to me like meeting a hero. I was also proud to be included in the anthology of British socialist poetry he co-edited with Andy Croft, Red Sky at Night. His work continued to develop and his Blakean socialism and his distress at the mess some humans make of the world ran through some fine books of what we will now have to call 'late poems'. But he remained essentially an optimist. We're all the poorer for his departure.

Friday, 19 December 2008

How was 2008 for you?

Well, the only invitation to share my books of the year in a newspaper round up came from The Morning Star, courtesy of my friend and five-aside team-mate Andy Croft, so I thought I’d do a little round up here of ’things of the year’ – some personal, some serious, some less so.

Word of 2008: Excellence
New record of 2008: Fleet Foxes by Fleet Foxes
Old record/songs of 2008: Tell Tale Signs by Bob Dylan
Play of 2008: Pitman Painters by Lee Hall
Cultural Policy Document of 2008: Pitman Painters by Lee Hall
Poetry anthology of 2008: In Person – book and dvd of poets reading – edited by Neil Astley and Pamela Robertson-Pearce
Novel of the 2008: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
Exhibition of 2008: Unpopular Culture: Grayson Perry selects from the Arts Council Collection
Poetry collection of 2008: The Invisible Kings by David Morley (pedants: yes, came out late 2007 but I only read it this year!)
Mis-casting of 2008: Equity putting Peter Hewitt in the role of pantomime villain
Oddly exhilarating team-building experience of 2008: Arts Council England North East Management Team Ukulele Orchestra performance at the staff summer party. Oh yes, we walk the walk.
9 hour multi-lingual experience of 2008: TSF/Lepage’s Lipsynch at the Barbican
If They Could See Me Now That Little Gang of Mine Moment of 2008: Feargal Sharkey admiring my long-arm stapler story when I chaired VAN’s Our Creative Talent conference (see photo above from VAN's Flickr site of photos - this one by Paul Caplan.)
I love this job moment of 2008: lots to choose from, including some of the above, but probably all the 'backstage access' I enjoy was topped by a day in February spent with the Premier of the Eastern Cape in South Africa, and the signing of an MOU between the Eastern Cape Government and the Association of North East Councils, in Gateshead's Council Chamber. Sounds dry perhaps but it comes out of a deep relationship between artists and politicians and arts funders/developers in the two regions, mainly embodied through the Swallows Partnership. I read something I'd written when visiting the Eastern Cape in 2006. Our visiting colleagues, Premier included, responded by singing a fantastic Xhosa song, bringing their political and artistic tradition to the Council chamber. The moment caught the way the arts can work in a deeply political world. I definitely walked out of the room reminded of the worth and pleasure of my job.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Obama - the North East arts connection

Whilst the UK waits with baited breath to see who will be crowned the next poet laureate (well, waits with a slightly bemused amusement, anyway: see here for just one example), Barack Obama has revived the practice of having an Inaugural Poet, in the shape of Elizabeth Alexander. What's more she's published - in the UK - by Northumberland-based international poetry phenomenon Bloodaxe Books, whose 30th birthday I wrote about in October. Elizabeth Alexander is one of a number of fine American poets published by Bloodaxe. You can read about her role in Obama's inauguration here. I just knew there had to be a connection between the new President and Arts Council England's RFOs...

It's good to see the new President including poetry in what is bound to be an emotional occasion. Perhaps the new laureate - whoever she or he is - could pop up in Parliament from time to time?

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Wednesday Word of the Week: Policy

Few words excite such apathy as ‘policy’. The word feels like it should be preceded by something to do with small print like ‘insurance’, or followed by ‘wonk’, neither of which sounds exactly sexy. It can feel like a slower, more bureaucratic version of 'strategy', and indeed the words often seem to be used fairly interchangeably, though for different effect. (‘I’m sorry but it doesn’t fit with our new policy’ being much more final than ‘It doesn’t seem strategic.’)

The dictionary definitions suggest why, both referring to a plan of action. Strategy, however, seems to be more related to specific goals (hence common uses of the word ‘strategic’) rather than general principles and standards. Policy should be enabling – a set of principals and ways of behaving that embody and deliver our values or aspirations in a particular area, be that customer care, employment or how we think about artforms. There is implicit in policy a setting down of the standards, codes and modes by which we will operate and can be held to account. As such, I think many people shy away from it, but I don’t think we need fear its 'rules' aspect. And it’s nearly always helpful in the long run to surface unwritten policies, so everyone knows what the score is – be that organisational or artistic. (I don’t think policy need be a bureaucrat’s word.)

It’s not a word I find myself using very often, if I’m honest. But my preferred usage is a set of statements that provide clarity about how I need to act to make the world how my organisation or I want it to become. Something that doesn’t let me be vague, or float off into the abstract - avoiding talking without saying something being one of my general policies.

(I was sparked to think about this by Andrew Taylor’s recent posting about the silence created by the word at a recent conference.)

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Are you experiencing pixelation?

Over the last few years Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle’s much-loved and fantastically recently-refurbed ‘arthouse cinema’ has been steadily reinventing itself as 21st century facility for makers and audiences alike. It now combines its heritage as a 30’s ‘news cinema’ with state of the art digital tools. Most importantly it has a state of the art vision of how those two combine.

The Tyneside Cinema have recently launched a project called The Pixel Palace which aims to explore this new territory. There is of course a website and a blog, to which they asked me to contribute. (Arts Council are supporting the project, alongside other partners including Northern Film & Media.) You can see some brief thoughts about the pixelation of the arts - including classical music as exemplified by recent developments by the Avison Ensemble - here.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Wednesday Word of the Week: Capacity

Not long after I began working for the Arts Council, a friend of mine said to me, menacingly, that she would be checking how often I used the word capacity. It is a bit of a jargon bingo classic.

It is often used to mean:
1. Ability (organisational or individual) to do the ‘right’ or necessary things
2. Training or support provided so people learn how to do things more effectively
3. The number of staff an organisation has (more people = more capacity)
4. The number of good people an artform or other ‘subject area’ has working in it
5. A mix of the above that can be created by investment of money, or staff time.

It is often used in the negative: eg this organisation/sector lacks capacity, or needs to build capacity. It can therefore be a kind of code for brilliance, failure, lack of willingness to do the right thing or 'correcting' a lack of funding for an organisation or sector.

Interesting dictionary definitions include : innate potential for growth, development, or accomplishment and the quality of being suitable for or receptive to specified treatment alongside definitions clearly relating to the above.

My preferred meaning is a mixture of skills and ability; understanding and willingness; stamina and strength. Being a metaphor kind of guy I think of organisational capacity as being like lung capacity for an athlete: you need to learn how to breath, build up stamina and technique and know how to use it at the best time.

The importance being that building capacity that lasts requires investment, practice over time and real motivation. (If I think of my own ‘capacity’, it’s mainly come from the most testing situations, usually lasting some time, where I could ‘put learning into practice’.)

If you’re interested in capacity building in the arts you could have a look at Annabel Jackson’s work in this area as a starting point.

(I should say that none of these comments, or on other words, should be taken as ironic or critical. I won’t bother with words that don’t have their uses. I just think it’s helpful from time to time to observe and think about the words we use, and the linguistic conventions that build up around them.)

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Why have I been so quiet?

It was of course foolhardy and poor planning to introduce Wednesday Word of the Week just before going on leave, and locking myself away in a friend's flat in Whitby to do some writing and editing. I had a week away from family, work, email, tv and only turned on the blackberry to check the football scores on Tuesday night. I'm slightly relieved to say I don't have to delete that bit to the left of here that says I am also a poet, or change the tense of the verb, as I managed to do a lot of writing.

Whether any of it sees the light of day, especially in book form, remains to be seen, of course. I've felt my Arts Council role has ruled me out of going back to fine publishers of my books such as Flambard, who we fund regularly in the North East. Given my national responsibilities now that probably also applies to RFOs elsewhere in the country. And I've never managed to nab a non-subsidised poetry publisher - of which there are precious few, of course. (Insert your own ironic aside about people who had funding withdrawn here: .) This has led to new work appearing mainly in anthologies such as this and this, and emerging from projects such as the ongoing North East-Bulgaria link which led to A Balkan Exchange last year. Clearly this has been a bigger sacrifice for me than it has for the world of poetry, and I don't lose any sleep over it - I've been getting my buzz in other ways. At least it gives me at least one thing in common with the great Irish poet Michael Longley, who went twelve years without publishing before retiring from the Arts Council of Ireland and beginning an amazing - and happily long - 'late period'.

The best thing about last week, as I think about it now, a day and a half back into work, was being able to engage with language without having to talk or listen to other people, to shape it to my own ends, or the ends of my imagination. When my kids were smaller and asked what I did at work I used to say I talked and listened and thought. (They added 'Have meetings and do emails.') I once listed all the decisions, large and small I was asked to make in a day - as part of trying to get better at both delegating and deciding - and found it was literally dozens. That takes up a lot of energy, and can make the useful space in your head shrink. (I decompressed from my retreat at an international seminar on commissioning opera, at The Sage Gateshead at the weekend. No easy way back for me!)

Anyway, I really meant to explain the silence here last week, and to recommend occasional silence to you. The really good news for you is I've decided to spare you any of the poems I wrote last week.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Wednesday Word of the Week: 'Strategic'

In a new, hopefully-regular-but-we’ll-see feature, at the suggestion of a member of the Arts Council North East team, I bring you the inaugural Arts Counselling Wednesday Word of the Week.

‘Strategic’ - often used to mean:
1. Really, really big and expensive
2. Really, really, really important and absolutely not to be rejected under any circumstances
3. A way of stopping doing things you've changed your mind about
4. Bound up with the organisation’s or your own sense of self
5. Not something that should be expected to lead to actual action in the real world because it’s more a kind of thinking and mindset
6. The kind of work you do when you get too exhausted or senior to do practical work, leading to others doing all the practical work and wishing they too could be strategic.

My preferred dictionary meaning: Important or essential in relation to a plan of action.

Thing to note: essential in relation to a plan of action. Test questions before you use the word include:
Have I got a plan I can describe in real terms?
Does it involve action I can point to?
Is the thing I'm talking about really essential to it?

Click here for a reminder in cartoon format from Savage Chicken's Excellence in Management on-line training course.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Fancy a brew?

Here's a suggestion for a little artistic down time, to follow yesterday's rather lengthy posting.

Since 1 January 2006, artist Ellie Harrison has been maintaining the web-based project Tea Blog. Every time she drinks a cup of tea or another hot drink she notes down a snippet of what she is thinking about and uploads it to the blog. There are now well over 1,500 thoughts archived online, which chronicle the last three years of the artist's life via her tea-drinking habits. Tea Blog is now entering its final two months and is due to end at midnight on 31 December 2008. It makes me smile and think and imagine someone else's life - all of which I think are Recommended Activities.

I found this project whilst browsing around a-n's marvellously refurbed new website, which really is an example of what can be done to open up dialogue and practice using the web. To be honest I found it rather overwhelming, in fact - there is just so much on it, so many artists, so many projects, so many aspiring students, so much good advice... I was a little paralysed by choice.

But I'll get over it. I just need to put the kettle on and have a think...

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Is it time for a 'new flow'?

I’ve a lot of time for the work of Mission Models Money. Their basis thesis – as I understand it – that the arts sector needs to evolve and work differently to be sustainable and achieve its potential, and stop being undercapitalised and overstretched is a compelling argument, and they’ve done some important action research.

They’ve just published a thought-provoking publication called New Flow, by Tim Joss, the Director of the Rayne Foundation. His article in Arts Professional to ‘launch’ it focused on the weakest parts: the suggestions for change to what he calls the state funding system’. That’s a shame as the rest of the publication has many sensible things to say about, for instance, the changing ecology. He has four key arguments I want to respond to.

1. ‘See the arts as they are’: ‘abandon the state arts’ bodies’ narrow definitions of the arts’, for reasons including ‘equitability, consistency and unity of purpose’. There is some argument that culture needs to speak to certain people like RDAs and local government with ‘one voice’. And I agree we need to widen our definitions of the arts. Firstly I would say that is happening. Secondly I would say that to argue that small publishers, big galleries and film producers have the same purpose and need the same support feels simplistic. It also omits – as does his argument in general – the perspectives of other supporters and providers of the arts such as local authorities and those whose interest in the arts is as much to do with place as cultural ‘product’.

2. Creation of ARDA the Arts Research and Development Agency to ‘pick up where formal education leaves off’. Joss’s ARDA would support pressure free research and somehow ensure ‘only works which justify the investment would be put into production’. It would ‘create safe contexts in which artists and other artistic decision-makers could critique each other’s work’. A slightly grass-is-greener comparison with scientific research is made. It seems insular and self-referential in its conception of the arts and artists. It also seriously under-estimates the impact Arts Council support has had on the development of artists through Grants for the arts. Like much of his argument it seems shaped by a metropolitan perspective and a centralising urge.

3. Creation of COPEA, the Commission for Public Engagement with the Arts. (Yes, both his new bodies do sound like something created during the Second World War, I’m not sure why.) Again, thinking seems to be a little muddled, as this would not just promote engagement, it would improve the quality of businesses working in the arts. It’s left unclear whether it would provide regular funding to those businesses. I think there is more to do to help organisations expand sustainably, but we do not need a new organisation to do that. The partnership working which the Arts Council is involved in, right across the country, again does not seem to be recognised. Here too I find Joss’s arguments metrocentric.

4. Finally, he argues we should give up the arm’s length principle for a seat at the top table. It makes me smile that Joss uses the phrase ‘core script’ here: something Peter Hewitt devoted much of his 10 years to, and where he made significant progress. Local Area Agreements can seem a ‘bureaucratic bog’, as he puts it, but they are where the core script is written. We either get our hands (and feet!) dirty or we don’t. The place in the core script locally, regionally and nationally is not universal or 100% secure, but it is stronger now than for many years. The implicit retreat into the beautifully designed artists’ box that runs through New Flow, contradicting many of his own observations, would put that at risk. Where, I wonder, has Joss’s attention been for the last few years?

The sarcy devil on my left shoulder suspects he’s been sat around the North London dinner table he refers to, amongst people who use the word ‘cull’ for a set of funding decisions designed to meet the very challenges they’ve identified, and who are actually a little uncomfortable that the cultural world is starting to include a wider variety of planets, moons and orbits than simply The Centre and the Rest of the World. But the angel on my right shoulder knows that suspicion is a bit harsh and unfair. (Have I ever mentioned I’m a Libran?)

The book contains a lot of good thinking: at times it suggests we both live in the same devolving, complex civil society where the arts are hybridising, arguing and evolving. But it is undermined by an emphasis on structural change when what’s needed is more of a cultural change, by a centralising tendency that feels there is a group of peers who know best, and by muddled and politically naïve conclusions. Improvements in the funding system need to take into account the new and potential cultural reality of Britain, and the devolved nature of both talent and demand. There is much to respond to in New Flow, such as the argument that funders' and organisations' mutual fictions have led to under-resourced organisations veering off-mission in the search for funding, a cycle which need to be broken. I do think it is a necessary read.

The Arts Professional piece summarising the arguments for change is headed ‘Who should lead the arts?’ I meet some people in my work who clearly think the standard of arts funding leaders has declined since the Good Old Days when the Arts Council of Great Britain was undeniably in charge and not run by people based in the provinces – I’m sure Tim Joss is not one of those, and I know MMM isn’t. But I can’t help thinking an artist or a foundation director living in Doncaster or Hull would have a different analysis.

But then as a Northern apparatchik of the state arts funding system I would say that, wouldn’t I? Go make your own mind up.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Are we now post-black or just post-election?

Continuing the Obama theme just till the weekend...

Novelist Diran Adebayo is a member of the Arts Council's National Council. Every now and again I get to spend time with National Council and, whilst marvelling at how Diran looks cool in a pinstripe suit while I look like an 'Executive', I always find he's got a stimulating take on things. He 'spotted' Barack Obama early on, and has now written a great piece on his website about why he likes him so much, and the highly debatable concept of 'post-black'. I am going to think whether I can become 'post-white' - although if I get many more grey hairs I will certainly eventually achieve 'post-ginger'.

Further proof, if it were needed, that novelists can do more than make stuff up comes from academics at the LSE and Manchester Universities, as reported in the Telegraph. Apparently novels like The Kite Runner are better at informing the public about development issues than reports. Who'd have thought?

(Andrew Taylor, the Artful Manager, also talks about Obama's arts policies - didn't you just know he had some - and good taste in advisors, with Michael Chabon amongst others on the committee.)

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Say it loud...

Ok, very quickly, to mark this momentous day…

I don’t think I believe in heaven, though I wouldn’t write that doubt on the side of a bus. In recent times though – since my mum died I suppose – I've found it comforting to think that something hangs around. Certainly the books and recordings of Studs Terkel, the great Chicago-an oral historian, writer and broadcaster will live on for me as recording and exploring the kind of America I can believe in. He died last week. I hope he voted early, and I hope was hanging around Grants Park last night.

If you’re feeling emotional and optimistic for once, listen to this: Sam Cooke singing A change is gonna come.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Are shared standards compulsory?

‘Essays on integration and participation’ is perhaps not the snappiest title Demos have ever come up with for one of their publications. But this new collection does what it says on the tin in a fascinating and challenging way.

There are a couple of essays that refer specifically to the role arts and culture can play. One is by a former colleague at Arts Council, Gus Casely-Hayford. His piece calls into question the urge to control that has entered the debates around both integration and participation, largely driven by government. As he puts it:

‘Britain, led by our government, is developing a taste for trying to control and build super-cultural narratives; we are starting to talk about excellence, cultural standards, The Arts, Britishness as though it was possible to curate or control value or content in national culture. That might have been conceivable in the 1950s, but the relationship between culture and nationhood has changed. The British cultural sector of the twenty-first century will have to work with communities, with its population to earn their participation.

Individuals may choose to participate in debate at their own level of negotiation; permission to engage, or rules of engagement can no longer be meaningfully mediated by the state or a narrow channel of organisations. There is a larger and more complex framework of engagement that no single agency can control. We cannot curate or legislate participation, as nations once did.’

That such a taste for control exists is apparent in Minister Liam Byrne’s essay on the need for ‘shared standards’ for citizens, which has, like most government pronouncements on this subject, an edge of menace for me. If those ‘shared standards’ include locking people up for 42 days without charge and letting refused asylum seekers who can’t go home beg or starve, count me out. Which is easy for me to say, because I don’t actually have to prove my allegiance to them as I had the good fortune to be born in Lancashire.

Anyway, this obviously has implications for people who make art and culture, and for policy makers, especially given the debates on both identity and participation I’ve talked about so regularly. The most interesting thing about the BBC’s Brand/Ross controversy may ultimately be a debate about ‘shared standards’ and the difficulty of agreeing and abiding by them without over or under-policing them. How we ‘integrate’ the many (mainly) young people who don’t see the bullying but laugh at the boundary crossing and defend ‘creativity’– in a way which strikes me as not that different from the supporters of happy-slapping – with people who don’t want any reference to s*x on the radio, with the many people somewhere in the middle is a parallel question to those raised by these essays.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Credit without the crunch?

One of the things I do for the Arts Council is chair the board of ArtCo, the trading company which runs both the Take It Away and Own Art interest free credit schemes. I never thought I'd find myself having meetings with credit providers but there you go: great art for everyone, by any means necessary. (Not that credit provision really counts as sticking it to The Man!) Although some purists have baulked, especially in the visual arts, where putting the subsidy into the customer rather than the curator/gallerist/artist has raised eyebrows, both schemes have made a real difference to many people.

Last month Take It Away combined with Oasis and NME to promote that scheme, and learning to play an instrument. Now Own Art has recently given you the opportunity to creating your own art collection on line. It's a fun diversion - it's a Sims-style design game - and you can also found out more about the scheme. As I say, this may not please purists.

You can find my own art collection on there somewhere. My real house is actually decorated mainly with books and records and the shelves to keep them on. The rest is largely maps, both literal and metaphorical.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Bloodaxe and the helping hand

The day after National Poetry Day I spoke at the 30th birthday celebrations of Bloodaxe Books. Bloodaxe is, for me, absolutely classic example of the difference one or two stubborn, gifted, passionate and dedicated people can make in the arts. Neil Astley – the editorial vision of Bloodaxe since 1978 – and Simon Thirsk – who could be stereotyped as the marketing or business man but is also as passionate about poetry as Neil - have changed the face of contemporary poetry. They’ve published literally dozens of great writers. They’ve challenged many orthodoxies in the poetry worlds of both ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ or ‘experimental’ publishing and poetries. They’ve been criticised for cheapening poetry by putting together anthologies like Staying Alive that have sold tens of thousands of copies – anthologies full of ‘real poems for unreal times’. They have transformed the marketing and promotion of poetry. They continue to be at the forefront of publishing of international poetry in translation, and broke new ground early on with their impressive lists of women, black and Asian poets when that was unusual. (It was fitting that the event last week also marked the publication of the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets.) You’d have to be Neil to enjoy everyone of them, but that’s life.

And I'm glad to say they’ve done it all with consistent Arts Council and before that Northern Arts support. That’s allowed them to take chances, and to keep things in print that otherwise would have disappeared. Looking through my bookshelves the night before the event, to see what the oldest Bloodaxe book I had was (10 North Eastern Poets, 1980, available second-hand for anything between £4.46 and £103 according to Amazon!) I came across a poem by the great Czech poet Miroslav Holub that had a new relevance for me, it becoming some kind of - possibly ambiguous? - description of Arts Council activity…

A Helping Hand

We gave a helping hand to grass –
and it turned into corn.
We gave a helping hand to fire –
and it turned into a rocket.
we give a helping hand
to people,
to some people…

Thursday, 9 October 2008

How are you celebrating National Poetry Day?

It's National Poetry Day today, and the theme is work. So here's a poem about different kinds of work. It's from A Balkan Exchange, which came out last year from Arc - the result of a collaboration between North East poets and Bulgarian poets which began in 2003. It's not typical of my work - it has a middle eight, for one thing - but was influenced by a week listening to W.N. Herbert read aloud, and memories of Adrian Mitchell.

Re-entry Blues
(on returning to work at the Arts Council after a week of performances in Sofia, October 2003)

When I woke up this morning I was feeling no pain.
But I drove me to Darlo and got on the train.
I headed for London and as I drew near
I thought ‘bout the time that I’d had in Sofia.

Got the walking talking
corporate bend blues

I don’t know what I’m doing but I do what I gotta,
Just like in rehearsals way up Mount Vitosha
Where Bluba Lu jammed and we poets studied rhyme
And something came out under pressure of time

But now I got the walking talking
suited booted
corporate bend blues

I’m a profit agnostic and don’t give a damn
But half the North East thinks that I am The Man
Who makes arts decisions and dishes out dough,
Though deep in the Balkans they know it’s not so.

I got the walking talking
Suited booted
Corporate bend blues

Now this is a really exceptional meeting,
to iambs and pulses my head is still beating.
The train speeding there rattles Sofia away
And gives me three hours to think what to say

I got the walking talking
Suited booted
Arts transforming
Corporate bend blues

I could be sticking words to beats somewhere near Boyana
Instead I’m playing jargon bingo eating a banana,
All I needs a mention of building my capacity
And someone here will get to taste my vigourous tenacity
For making words jump and dance around the table
Seven days of Bulgar blues tell me that I’m able
To pull it out the bag and fill the air with lines
But while meetings are a drag they also feel like mine

So I take the damned tube all the way back to Kings Cross
kidding myself bout the gain and the loss
A small step forward, not one great leap.
By Newark North Gate I am sound asleep.

I got the walking talking
Suited booted
Arts transforming
Double meaning
Plain English speaking
Corporate bend blues

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Are novelists more important than MPs?

Do artists carry more weight than people who spend their time directly involving in politics, either as MPs, or campaigners? I ask the question because I was interested to see that the New Statesman, in promoting their 'No Place for Children' campaign ask us to join Monica Ali, Philip Pullman and Nick Hornby in signing a petition, rather than, say, Diane Abbott or Dame Mary Marsh. Whether it's fair or not, I don't know, but it does suggest that certain artists and writers are perceived as seeing things more clearly and speaking with a particular type of authority.

In this case, the writers involved are definitely showing more wisdom and humanity than government policy and practice. The petition calls on the government to stop locking children up in detention centres for immigration reasons. The government has only recently committed to implementing the UN Convention on the rights of the child in full. Now they need to actually stop detaining children, often for long periods in inadequate conditions. It shouldn't take the imagination of a novelist to work that out. You can read articles by a number of writers and actors who have visited detention centres on the New Statesman site, just in case you need some help working out whether innocent children should be locked up or not.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Does art help keep you mentally healthy?

What do you do to help keep your head straight, to avoid or wash away life’s stresses and strains? Mindapples wants to know what the mental health equivalent of 5 fruit and veg-a-day might be. Many of those who took part in the Arts Debate suggested the arts were useful in this respect. ‘Art makes me feel less alone’, for instance – a phrase so good we use it twice in the graphics of the Arts Council plan. Drop in and tell them what you do.

What do I do after a hard day at the executive coalface to keep myself more or less healthy, I hear you ask? Listen to music as I drive home – although simply buying records can help! Read a book over breakfast. Play fiveaside or go to the gym. Have a meal at the kitchen table with my family. Noodle around on the guitar. Sing some old songs.

I don’t write poetry for my health, by the way – in fact I take it so seriously it can have the reverse effect on my mood. (Some years ago, whilst masquerading briefly as an academic, I published some research that suggested writing even bad poetry could be therapeutic, and there was some evidence that craft helped, but insisting on trying to be really good – let alone ‘great’ – and feeling you’d failed could be bad for the nerves.)

Right, I’m off to see a play now, but as it promises ‘seduction, perversion and love’ and warns of ‘full male and female nudity and scenes of a violent and sexual nature’, I’m not sure what it will do for my mental health!

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

No more rock and roll for you - is documentation really evil?

I’ve been reading Bill Drummond’s book 17, about his choir The 17 and his battle against the superfluity and subsequent creative redundancy of recorded music, which he believes has run its course. I became a life member of The 17 by taking part in its performance at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle on 17 May 2006. You can read an account by one of my fellow choir members that very night here. It was a very intense experience. I find some of his ‘scores’ for the choir moving as well as provoking.

Drummond’s work arguably challenges one of the key thrusts of the new Arts Council plan, the ‘digital opportunity’. Is there a responsibility to preserve ‘live’ experiences? Are the performing arts blessed or cursed by the way in which so many shows happen live and you were either there, or you weren’t, and only memories remain? At the end of each performance by The 17, you get to hear the sound of the recording being deleted – how digital a live experience is that? But is the art theory that recording is dead simply that, a kind of art/anti-art gesture in line with many in Drummond’s rather brilliant past?

I’m torn on this. Digital technology opens up new ways of preserving and interpreting past live experiences – it can enrich the participation, as indeed Drummond’s use of multiple websites does for his argumentative art practice. Online distribution could perform the functions village libraries did historically, opening doors to the otherwise distanced.

But then, he’s also right that the very availability takes away the magic. I found a recording of a New Order concert – Blackpool, August 30 1982 to be precise – which I had remembered as one of the best concerts I’d ever seen: that memory was rather complicated, shall we say, by what I actually heard on the recording.

Anyway, I recommend 17 – and indeed his earlier book 45 - to anyone interested in art, music, technology or Bill Drummond: he’s full of ideas worth thinking about. But I’m not getting rid of my records for anyone.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

An Arts Counselling timeline

If you're new to Arts Counselling, there's now an easier way to see what's been covered previously. Simply visit this timeline of the posts and see what interests you:

Had I world and time enough I guess I could add the publication dates of government reports, Arts Council strategies and so on, so you can see how these kickstart certain themes and over time I'm sure that would reveal all sorts of hidden patterns. But I don't, sorry. It will automatically update with each post here though, so it will form a more visually pleasing archive than trawling through 'Older Posts'.

I came across Dipity for the first time recently - I think it could be useful, though I'm not exactly sure for what. It seems early days yet. Search on culture and you find timelines for, amonst other things, Liverpool European Capital of Culture and a brief biography of Peter Jenkinson who used to run Creative Partnerships. (Though I'm sure there's more to his life than 5 events...)

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Mission impossible?

The Arts Council plan for 2008-2011 is newly published, with a snappy new mission: Great art for everyone. It’s certainly a lot catchier than the previous 'mission', about putting the arts at the heart of national life, and people at the heart of the arts. That was also particularly hard to say if you have my now mishapen-Lancastrian vowel sounds.

I know a lot of debate and heartache went into settling on those four words. It’ll be interesting to see how people react – with enthusiasm, sarcasm or indifference. Although there are elements of the old mission statement I rather miss, I think it’s a much clearer statement of our fundamental purpose. It does, of course, beg some debate. The first reflection I’ve seen is from an Irish choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir who spoke recently at an Arts Council event in Yorkshire and wrote about it on his blog Bodies and Buildings. It brings out some of the nuances of that clear-seeming mission. I especially agree that, as he puts it, ‘art needs to attend to the uncomfortable as well and that people can gather in that discomfort as much as in the balm of celebration.’

There are some other provocations on this topic, all arising from the same day, available on the Arts Council’s website here, including one by the publisher of the fantastic Ian Clayton book I recommended here. I'm interested in how we bring out the nuances, without losing the simplicity - or is that really mission impossible?

Friday, 19 September 2008

Time for pensions?

I was talking to someone recently about pensions for artists. Apparently one third of people, according to some sources, are unable to save for their retirement. (Please add your own favourite black humour joke about banks now.)

Then I came across an article about a retirement home for country musicians being set up by the Country Music Association. Which got me imagining one for the contemporary poets Sean O’Brien once described as fighting like rats – or was it ferrets? – in a sceptic tank, and how entertaining that would be. And then I saw that the only such home in Britain is about to close, as reported here, and felt guilty for casting my poet friends into a bardic version of Stella Street

So thought I would point you to a genuinely informative site called Pensions for Artists, which is fairly self-explanatory. Pensions are not – contrary to what some artists argue – hard just for creative people. Lots of people have difficulty committing to a pension. (Try working in catering, for instance.) But there are some things artists can do to help themselves and this site is a good place to start if you need to think about pensions. This was just one small initiative which came out of something called Artists Insights I helped kick start across the Arts Council some years ago and it’s good to see that continues to resonate.

(Just imagine, though, a retirement village with Andrew Motion living between Carol Ann Duffy and Benjamin Zephaniah, with a house on the end full of experimental poets. Bill Herbert would, of course, name the streets as he did in West Park in Darlington.)

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Can sport inspire art?

There’s a lot of talk, and indeed a lot of clench-teethed muttering, about how the London 2012 will be a ‘cultural olympiad’. Opening and closing ceremonies have come under particular scrutiny.

The Great North Run Cultural Programme is a great example of how you can make meaningful connections between sport and the arts, and over the last few years has done both commissions of the first order (eg Wilson Twins, Michael Nyman) and mass participation arts ‘events’. I think it’s an exemplar for 2012. There is a natural connection as the driver behind it has been former world-record holder Brendan Foster, whose company runs (pun intended) the Great North Run. Brendan has been a real champion of involving artists in this phenomenon. He has a refreshing directness that many in the arts don’t have, too. It’s worth looking through what the Cultural Programme has been up to in recent years – it is a real achievement.

(One of this year’s moving image commissions - Run for Me by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, currently to be seen at BALTIC in Gateshead - features a member of our Communications team, Kathryn Goodfellow, and her dad. Kathryn's doing the run for the first time in October. Personally, I think you can take art and culture links too far and will stick to fiveaside … Like many people Kathryn’s being sponsored: join in here. Ali Simanwe from our Finance team is also running it and you can sponsor him here. Go on.)

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Knives out for the imagination?

I was nervous the first time I met Carol Ann Duffy, when she performed at a literature festival I used to organise in Middlesbrough, in the mid 90s. It was because she was a big name on the circuit even then and had been a little demanding when we were arranging the reading. It wasn’t because I’d read poems such as ‘Education for Leisure’ and thought she might get out a bread knife and stab me.

Which is clearly what the people at exam board AQA think might happen with the fortunate young people who have to sit their exams. They received three complaints about the poem – which is a monologue by a young person who decides to carry a knife – and want all copies of it destroyed.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this idiocy. It misreads the poem entirely, though I guess you could say the poem makes the ‘mistake’ of inspiring if not sympathy with the carrier, at least insight into what might make someone carry a knife. It is not uncritical of its speaker though. Anyway, it’s the kind of poem that would be rich for exploration with young people. But they will have to get their exploration of knife crime from Romeo and Juliet instead. The power of the imagination is obviously still something to suspect.

Although this has had lots of baffled media coverage, and some comments from other writers, I have not seen any calls for other writers to pull their poems from AQA anthologies, or boycott the roadshows many pupils now attend. I know there may be both copyright and income implications but shouldn’t writers be responding to this direct and worrying censorship? They may be only three letters away from the shredder themselves. Perhaps others should join one of my heroes Adrian Mitchell in not allowing the use of his work in exams? Failing that, can I suggest schools who’ll be destroying books at least have some John Latham-style book burnings or chewing students can take part in?

(The only time I had a poem used in a GCSE-related book, the poor kids had to ‘compare and contrast’ a poem of mine called ‘Buttocks’ with ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost. I kid you not…)

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

How can the Arts Council help with your electricity bills?

Regardless of how much attention you pay, in an organisation as multifarious as the Arts Council, every now and again you come across something and think ‘I either forgot or didn’t know we were doing that. But what a good project.’ Here’s today’s example...

The Arts Energy website gives access to a toolkit which will help organisations manage their energy use – cutting down on costs and reducing their carbon footprint. The benefits to both the business plan and the planet should be obvious. I know from examples in the North East what a difference a proactive approach to this can make to the bottom line and productivity. The toolkit consists of a number of modules to both assess current energy management practices and to develop a plan for improvement. It has been piloted and you can now register for it at

Friday, 29 August 2008

Hit the North?

I grew up in a village near Preston that contained several disused cotton mills, where generations of my ancestors had worked. I went to University in Liverpool but left to go to London for work the day after the 1987 general election. (The sun was shining on a triumphant Jeffrey Archer in London whist it poured with rain as we packed the removal van.) I live now in Stockton-on-Tees, work in Newcastle and can give you an impassioned and illustrated talk on the role of culture-led regeneration in North East England at thirty seconds notice.

So I really ought to have no sympathy at all with the authors of Policy Exchange’s recent ‘Cities Unlimited’ report. This was widely reported as saying (amongst other things) that cities and towns such as Stockton, Liverpool and Sunderland are beyond regeneration, let alone redemption, historical hangovers, and people unfortunate enough to be born or live there should accept that, and move down south. The south of England, meanwhile, had to accept that places like Oxford should double in size. (The only direct reference to the arts is to Baltic in Gateshead, but the point being made is that golf courses might be better for attracting high earners. The boys at Policy Exchange are obviously unaware that both Baltic and our council golf courses attract people from all backgrounds and earning potential.)

To quote Mark E. Smith’s apposite ‘NWRA’, ‘I was mad, and laughed at the same time.’ But, reading the report rather than the reports of it, it isn’t quite as mad, bad or dangerous to read as it might be. The report is sufficiently poorly researched and argued even I can pick holes in it. Their version of ‘economic geography’ seems simplistic, for instance, let alone their version of Sunderland. It obviously makes no sense in a place as small as Britain to write off large chunks of the country as ‘beyond their sell by date’. David Cameron called the report ‘insane’ apparently, which seems a bit strong. Suffice to say I’ve not put my house on the market.

But despite being easy to dismiss, the report raises some interesting questions for those of us who do believe in both the bits of this island that happen not to be London or the South East and in regeneration of all sorts, but especially culture-led:
· Isn't it true we can’t expect to have the same effect everywhere, and we don’t often make this plain?
· To what extent do the economic effects of culture-led regeneration rely on the density you can achieve it cities and large towns – and how might we need to act differently in smaller places?
· To what extent can we achieve an equity of cultural provision across the country without kidding ourselves that what will work or is necessary in Gateshead will work in Grimethorpe and Godalming?
· What would a ‘cultural geography’ reading tell us about Britain, and the places that have been, are and could be culturally ‘productive’?

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

More to life than books you know but not much more?

A couple of people thought I was actually reading Clement Greenberg and Frieze whilst on my holidays. As a family catchphrase has it: I might be daft - but I’m not stupid…

I will wind up gently, after two days of email threshing and thrashing, by sharing the books I did actually read on holiday, for no other reason than some people suggested it.

Bringing It All Back Home by Ian Daley. Fantastic book about music, life, class, identity and place – in particular Featherstone, West Yorkshire. Funny, poignant, stimulating, the last chapter made me weep and the rest made me go delving through my mp3 player. If you’ve ever liked music, or people, you should read this book, so that’s hopefully all of you - but I'm told it might help if you're male and the far side of 40.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon. Parallel future noir, set in an an Alaskan Jewish-homeland. Prose snappier than a fedora, proper thriller and emotional content too – very satisfying.

Then We Came To an End by Joshua Ferris. Had meant to get away from odd office behaviour on holiday, but this is all about people and their odd behaviour in the office as cutbacks loom and the pointlessness of their jobs dawns on them. (Obviously didn’t ring any bells at all with me…) Starts off funny and a little glib but builds. By the end I was describing it as Joseph Heller’s Something Happened for the web 2.0 age – and I love that book. Fittingly, there are some entertaining web promos. Start here.

The Rain before It Falls by Jonathan Coe. Slight detour from Coe’s usual style – wierdly enough reminded me of Maggie Farrell’s The Vanishing Trick of Esmee Lennox which I read on last year’s holiday. Bit over-written at times but eventually very engaging tale of love, daughters and mothers.

Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre. Functional ‘quirky’ thriller I borrowed off my son as I’d run out of other books.

Ok, now it’s back to Westminster and Whitehall Weekly and normal service.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Sing a holiday hymn...

By the power of 'post options' this is delivered while I'm on holiday, just to keep you interested...

Here's two quotes I'll be pondering before going back to work:

"... if you have to choose between life and happiness or art, remember always to choose life and happiness.'' Clement Greenberg

‘Expecting love and understanding in return for work is probably the chief source of misery for creative people. So honour your friends, lovers and family, for only they can give you the recognition you need, and don’t look for it in art.’ Jan Verwoert, Frieze May 2008

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Do you believe in magic?

According to this news story, Barack Obama and David Cameron talked about lack of time to think when they met recently. I know my own days can get horribly crowded, no matter how hard you try to protect some bit of the day. The BBC story suggests a number of ways to carve out time, such as making sure you don’t eat at your desk but go for a walk (something I am not bad at, actually.) Writing things down really helps – which is why the reflective time put into posting here has been beneficial for me, I think.

However, taking a break is also recommended - which is what I’ll be doing over the next couple of weeks, so it will go a bit quiet here. If you want to think summery thoughts about the value of art, identity and aesthetics and so on I suggest you spend 2 minutes and 15 seconds watching this video of The Lovin’ Spoonful doing Do You Believe in Magic?

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Does counting still count?

Sticking with Sustained Theatre, it's been very interesting seeing the different reactions to it, especially how its relationship to Arts Council has been perceived - is it a report by ACE, for ACE or about ACE etc? The ever-entertaining Article 19 is puzzled and can't see how artists have been given the lead role. It may be they just don't trust what's said about the artists steering group. It may be the artists are saying the 'wrong' thing. They see the site as a sop to avoid real change - though I'm not sure they agree change is needed.

On the other hand, Arts Industry and others are running it as 'ACE told to stop using BME', which is not quite my reading of the report as a whole, although there are certainly some saying that, but wanting another term, not no account taken of patterns relating to background. AI concludes we no longer need to gather data on race, gender ,sexuality and 'to an extent' (whatever that means) age, and disability. That definitely isn't my reading of the Sustained Theatre work. It seems a complacent conclusion. (Which also fails to give any acknowledgement that this is ACE and the artists involved grappling with long-standing, still-debated issues.)

It may be crude, it may feel awkward at times, and there is undoubtedly a long way to go still, but counting has definitely helped make a difference to equality of opportunity. We shouldn't rule it out because it will make some of us feel more at ease that 'great art does not tick boxes'. The time taken to still not achieve equal pay for women, despite legislation, suggests that it's easy to overestimate the natural fairness of the world, left to its own devices.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Can blue men sing the whites?

I’d been thinking about aesthetics and identity a lot since my last post. Then on Friday I saw a trio of fantastic performances by black musicians in the shape of Allen Toussaint, the Neville Brothers (time off injured last season has improved Gary’s keyboard playing no end, I swear, though he looked a bit different…), topped off by Abram Wilson’s fantastic jazz band reinventing New Orleans jazz whilst covering the Arctic Monkeys, Michael Jackson and James Brown and it felt very much ‘mine’ and very much ‘other’ at the same fun, exhilarating time. Then on Sunday night I watched the wedding reception episode of Gavin And Stacy series one. (Yeah, I know, late catching up – I’m always out at ‘art’, you know.) Which was one of the most pitch perfect bits of writing I’d seen in a long time, and very like the wedding reception I went to in Preston a couple of weeks ago.

So I thought I’d also throw out a Nick Hornby-style ‘Five things that Aren’t Saturday Night Sunday Morning but what is’ list, just for fun…

· The poetry of Jim Burns (a Preston poet to his bones despite moving to Cheshire some years ago, and being the world’s expert on the Beats). Start by looking at a few of his poems on the fantastic Poetry Magazines archive.
· The work of the Side Gallery – treat yourself to a few minutes browsing their website.
· Control by Anton Corbijn – not the whole rock star suicide thing, obviously. But the depiction of bookish grammar school boys and life in Macclesfield has the tang of truth about it. (Looks great too.)
· David Eldridge’s Market Boy. This play definitely rang true from my (mercifully brief) time in London in the 80s, but had a joie de vivre and zest that made me think there is life beyond Northernness… (Would it be fair to call Eldridge Lee Hall’s Essex cousin?)
· The Royle Family can be a bit crude at times but I spent what I think of as literally years sitting on the sofa and brewing up like the Ralph Little character, though I was reading a book too. My mum even looked a bit like Sue Johnson, and although we would never have gone in for the belching, farting, banjo-playing thing, my granddad did have a neat Xmas party trick that involved whipping out his dentures…

Which makes me think that one man's box is another man's identity is another man's cliche, which would take me on to Peter Kay, so it's time to stop.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Identity and aesthetics = chicken and egg?

The Sustained Theatre project, which has launched a website and a number of provocative documents, is a rich example of what can happen when a funder – in this case Arts Council England – opens up projects to leadership by artists. The Whose Theatre report into black theatre led to Sustained Theatre which led to a number of papers, including the one by Professor Gus John and Doctor Samina Zahir, Speaking Truth to Power, which aims to shake up the national debate on ethnicity, identity and the arts.

The paper, which is the first epistolary strategic report I’ve ever seen, demonstrates, perhaps inadvertently, how bloody hard our job is, at times. How do we change the way the arts reflect society, and ensure proper openness for people who are not white and middle class, without putting people in boxes, limiting identity and aesthetics and encouraging those in power to simply tick boxes? I’ve never been keen on the term ‘the sector’ which the artist steering group wished to use for the black theatre sector – to avoid the ethnic determinant – and it is clear that neither are many artists, some of whom prefer the term ‘black theatre movement’.

John and Zahir don’t agree with each other on this, or indeed, on much at all – or so it sometimes seems. Their debates are reflective of genuine difficulties, and the paper opens up a debate about aesthetics and identity I find really interesting. I think my aesthetics have played a large part in shaping - changing - my own identity, for instance, in that it was books and literature, not 'background', that led me into education and then employment in the arts. I rarely see my own background reflected well on stage or in galleries, and will swing for the next person who equates the white working class with Shameless-style fecklessness. (Okay, I won’t literally swing for them, as I’m now part of the middle class diaspora of my original ‘ethnic’ group, but they’ll feel the full force of a well-made point, don’t you worry. Then I'll go home to watch A Kind of Loving.)

I also put a tick against this quote: ‘We really must stop fashioning the world on the basis of the peculiarities of London.’ But that’s a whole other post…

Monday, 21 July 2008

How many aberrant apostrophes will you see today?

Sometimes you hear something and you just think: ‘Damn, inconvenient as it is, that’s right, that is. Now how do I change?’ I had such a moment the other day at a talk at Cleveland College of Art & Design by Lord David Puttnam, who despite being a Lord and Chair of umpteen great things, and an Oscar winner, is both a fantastically modest man and a wise man. Asked what was the one thing art colleges such as CCAD should teach their students, he said ‘standards that lead to the very best working practices’. He told a story about his early days in advertising and suggested we (he included himself, though he was just being modest) no longer had the skills or tendency to accept nothing but the best. Management styles and critical cultures were too ready to praise, too ready to accept 'good enough', and too reluctant to genuinely enforce a ‘nothing but the best is good enough’ approach. I think he’s got a point. I think it also has a relevance to how funders work with clients, as there is, to be frank, a resistance (far from universal but also far from rare) to direct feedback on the quality of applications or work, no matter how much people say they want it, which can lead to difficulties in providing it, no matter how much funders say they want to.

Lord Puttnam’s point was that rigour is the best way to learn to be genuinely excellent. There’s a thought for a Monday morning. I’m sure we’d all agree: but how will we live up to it this week?

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Anyone for a poetry reading instead of going shopping?

Matthew Taylor of the RSA predicts a rise in ‘post-consumerism’, given the economic downturn and general doom and gloom. He suggests a few trends that might catch hold as a result such as sustainable design and make do and mend. (He also predicts the rise of the vegetarian super chef, which is what I was doing 20 years ago – it never happened, at least not for me, alas…)

I like this idea. Here’s a few more arts-related suggestions for post-consumerist trends:

· People will buy musical instruments (perhaps using the Arts Council’s Take It Away scheme) and spend evenings playing music alone or together
· Music blogs and other digital downloads will make paying for music even more of a fetishistic hangover than it is now
· The older your tour t-shirt the more you’ll be respected
· Dancing will become the new gym membership
· Gallery going will become even more popular as a first date
· The live experience of theatre and music – perhaps the ultimate consumer item as once it’s over, you are (traditionally) left with nothing but memories, the experience having been consumed – will come to always include a free recording, either on cd/dvd as you leave or on-line.
· The women I know in book groups will stop buying books and just go straight to the wine.
· Freecycle will be as big as EBay (Ok, not strictly arts-related though you can probably get the odd instrument and good for props.)

On the other hand: I don’t think this means I have to stop buying cds and old records, does it...

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

How could funders build social capital in the arts sector?

The easiest way to write about how Arts Council England can create more ‘social capital’ seems to be to take a leaf from the New Hampshire Community Foundation’s book and make a list of possibly-simple actions. Some of these we do or have done already (at least in the North East) but could do more or more often, and this will remind me to do that amongst all the other stuff there is to do. Some we’ve not tried yet and I want to worry some people including myself by writing them down. Some might also be relevant to others such as local authority arts teams or trusts and foundations.

1. Make ourselves known whenever at events, openings etc. Because it’s not enough to see, we need to be seen to see, and then maybe even have a conversation.
2. Invite artists and arts workers who’ve moved into the region from elsewhere in for a chat and a drink and introduce them to people
3. When setting up working groups or project teams as have someone from outside the organisation involved even if there isn’t an external ‘steering group’.
4. Do more, smaller, cheaper ‘conversation’ events.
5. Send staff out on secondment to arts organisations and take staff in on secondment from arts organisations.
6. Open up some training sessions to artists or arts organisations.
7. Get even more artists or producers onto Regional Councils and governing bodies.
8. Have an Open Day, including the chance to observe decision-making meetings.
9. Improve our website to give people the chance to discuss the things we’ve funded – not as funding decisions (unless they really want) but as art.
10. Explore how we can employ people whilst they stay engaged in their own practice, arts development or board memberships, rather than having to give all that up to work for us.
11. Have a open ‘works outing for the arts sector’ on a beach or in a park in the summer
12. Drop in on some of the artist workspaces we’ve helped build and see what people are up to
13. Open up work place Blood Service sessions to artists so they can share our pain and see for themselves if we really are blood-sucking parasites
14. Wear our Arts Council England lapel badges at all times so people know who we work for and make it a condition of funding that all funded artists do likewise so people know who they are too and can talk to them about it.
15. Make sure all staff read two recent Demos publications. States of Trust: How to build better relationships between councils and the public, though focused on local authorities has some very relevant points for Arts Councils. Making the most of collaboration by Peter Bradwell looks at ‘co-design’ – essentially the involvement of users in designing public services – and is equally stimulating. We already do some of what’s suggested, but there’s more to think on.

Ok, not all easy or maybe even practical, and I didn't mention peer review or panels once, and at least one of those was a joke...

(I have actually got someone looking into the Blood Service idea, so not that one...)

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Is Tees Valley really the Land of Giants?

Back in May I wrote about a seminar on the 10th birthday of Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North. I mentioned some other big public art projects. This morning I was at the launch of another, even bigger, which I couldn’t mention at the time. Tees Valley Giants is a five piece, five site, 10 year work by Anish Kapoor with Cecil Balmond, and today the first, Temenos, was unveiled in Middlesbrough. It is the world’s biggest public art initiative. (Until we hear different.) You can read local coverage of it here. Hopefully it’s the beginning of a productive debate: if everyone likes it straight away, it may not have the ‘transforming’ effect necessary.

For me this is not primarily a story of ‘culture-led regeneration’ – though it is that, in spades. Nor is it a story of partnership – though it is that too, with five local authorities, a regional development agency, the Arts Council, a regional foundation, and even the local premiership football club on board (Middlesbrough FC contributing cold hard cash to set an example of civic leadership to some other clubs) under the leadership of Tees Valley Regeneration. It is a story about art (and engineering) and excellence. Get a world class artist into the right place and the unimaginable can happen. You can link the past and future and you can bring people together behind a vision. Take a virtual tour here. And next year, all being well, come to Middlesbrough and see the real thing.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

How did I end up on stage with an Undertone?

It must be conference season. After the one on social capital I wrote about recently, last week I had the pleasure of chairing ‘Our Creative Talent’, an event organised by three partners: Arts Council England, Voluntary Arts Network and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. The event marked the launch of a major piece of research into participation in the arts through voluntary and amateur groups, and through informal learning. You can download it here. There are some pretty impressive statistics about people’s involvement in the voluntary and amateur arts, although as with most ‘groundbreaking’ research, it raises as many further questions as it gives answers. (Or at least that’s what the researchers were trying to persuade me...)

Speakers ranged from Margaret Hodge to Feargal Sharkey, once an Undertone now head of British Music Rights and possibly Britain’s only strategic ex-pop star via Alan Davey and Robin Simpson (whose blogs I heartily recommend: start at Cultural Playing Field.) There were various workshops, then a panel session where I had that almost impossible task of spotting people put their hands up.

There was a really positive atmosphere throughout the day and it is clear that the voluntary arts are seen differently than was the case when I first wielded a long-arm stapler in their cause. There are lots of questions to work through though: can the sector deliver on quality consistently enough? How is the sector changing given the aging population? How do we encourage better connections with the professional and funded sectors (the right, better connections)? How do we cope with the destruction of adult education in this country? For starters.

You can read all about the conference, and listen to some of the sessions on the Voluntary Arts England site. (Follow the Flickr link there enough and you can see me on stage with Feargal Sharkey. I’m not embarrassed to say that gives me a thrill. Click here to see a seasonal Undertones classic. Or here to see him in full pre-smoking ban glory on my favourite Undertones song. )

Monday, 7 July 2008

Can you feel the force?

How my kids laughed at this… Apparently I am one of 500 of the most influential people in the North East of England. Well, at least according to a highly unscientific and undemocratic exercise in The Journal newspaper, that is, and if you want to make a sarcastic comment about the North East please do so using the normal channels!

The reason I mention it, apart from amused pride, is that I’m interested in the high number of cultural figures in the list. (To be honest, it’d be a shame if someone in my job wasn’t on that list, so I don’t put it down to my personal qualities especially.) These range from novelists such as Val McDermid and David Almond through choreographer Liv Lorent, poet Sean O’Brien, playwright Lee Hall, a good set of Chief Execs, producers and festival directors right through to giants such as Ant and Dec. The ‘Culture, media and the arts’ index is twice as long as the public sector one, for instance – surprising perhaps as the public sector is a big employer in this region. And there are more of us than there are lawyers. (They can probably outspend us in the Influence bar though.) I take that as an indication that culture here has, at least in part, and in the perception of whoever put this list together, put itself at the heart of regional life. On a good day I always think that, but it’s good to have some ‘external’ confirmation.

(Another confirmation came last week in that the announcement of the Hodge Review and the abolition of the regional cultural consortia was, somewhat surprisingly, front page news in The Journal.)

Another noticeable trend is the number of ex-Arts Council/Northern Arts people now in senior non-arts jobs in the region. Maybe that’s the kind of thing we need to really ‘mainstream’ the arts: more people prepared to dirty their hands with the process of ‘influence’ and power? Perhaps the various ‘cultural leadership’ schemes need to also think about how some people can move not just ‘up’ but ‘across’?

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Who wants to be in charge?

Here’s an interesting example of what no-one in the real world calls participatory decision-making or 'peer involvement'. Tennent’s, the lager company which sponsors a number of music events in Scotland, have created The Tennent’s Mutual. This gives control of programming, ticket prices, even format of gigs over to the public – or those music fans who want to become members of The Tennent’s Mutual. Founding members of The Mutual will select artists, debate locations for gigs and call the shots on ticket prices by interacting as a community and voting for their preferences online. Tennent’s have started it off with a fund of £150,000, and recruited a number of expert advisors to share their views but not make decisions. Any profits will be reinvested in future gigs or festivals.

Although it’s early days, the Vote and Forum and sections show how people are reacting to the chance to influence things. Even where the bank account went was voted upon by members. It will be interesting to see how the programme differs from the norm – and whether this kind of involvement guarantees big audiences.

Anyone aware of other arts organisations devoting even part of their programming budgets to this kind of public involvement? And how might this model be used by public funders of the arts – be it Arts Council or, say, local authorities? (Who are increasingly taking parallel approaches for local decisions such as street furniture, repairs and so on.)

I came across this model in Trendwatching’s latest briefing – ‘41 new business ideas to copy or be inspired by’. Well worth a look, for entertainment value if nothing else.

Monday, 30 June 2008

How many of your neighbours can you name?

I went to a fascinating conference last week. Organised by the North East Social Capital Forum, 'Healthy, wealthy and wise' gave me lots to think about, both personally and professionally. Social capital is the relationships that bind us together and lead us to trust others around us - including those not in our direct networks. The arts can play a key role in building social capital - from two people singing or playing instruments together to huge gatherings like Glastonbury via the multitude of groups, societies and communal arts activities people take part in.

A number of speakers set out the potential benefits of social capital - which has been linked to creating the conditions for safe, creative economies to develop. (It can also be used for ill: bullying, racism and homophobia, for instance, rely on a form of social capital that excludes ‘the other’.) The keynote speaker was Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor who is a leading figure in this field. It's worth looking at his ideas, which have lots of relevance to those making arguments for the arts, or thinking how to develop engagement in the arts.

It can help to think what puts people off, as well as what attracts them to the arts as personal or social activity. (And of course the new digital social networks mean you can be private and social at once far more comfortably.) You can see some of the presentations (some of which suffered from that prevalent condition relianceonpowerpointitis) on the Community Foundation website.

My personal challenges? Well, if it's true that every 10 minutes of commuting by car reduces your likelihood of taking part in community activity by 10%, how do I find more time to get involved locally? And how many of my neighbours could I name? Not as many as I could when I worked shorter hours, from home, and picked the kids up from school. Conclusion: work gets in the way of social capital. Or substitutes one network for another with different effects.

I think arts organisations could think productively about how they encourage the building of social capital. Perhaps adapt some of the ideas on this website. (Rather folksy, maybe, and more suited to America than some other countries, perhaps, but adaptable.) Why don’t arts venues host blood donor sessions, for instance, for staff and local people? (Click here if that sounds like a good idea and you’re in the UK.) Could there be more discussions after shows, or open houses where people can simply meet staff? What kind of greeting do visitors get?

And of course, the conference gave me plenty to think about how the Arts Council could produce more interaction and trust. But I’ll come back to that.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Once we had a country and we thought it fair

It’s Refugee Week in the UK. (Please open this link in another window and listen to Open Air FM’s ‘Celebrating Sanctuary’ programme whilst reading this post.) Refugee Week is a festival of arts, cultural and education activity that celebrates the contribution of refugees to British life. Why’s this anything to do with the arts? Well, many people who have to go into exile are often put in that position because of their cultural activism – their writing, their films, their art, as well as their politics. And culture becomes even more important in exile.

If you want to know why you should be bothered at all you could start by reading the novelist Mark Haddon’s recent piece about the way the Government treats asylum seekers in the UK. My wife is an ESOL teacher in Stockton-on-Tees, and I’ve met many people with astonishing stories, talented people with lots to give, some of whom end up sleeping on friends’ floors and getting by on vouchers and charity, when they could be giving something back to the country they are very grateful too, despite their troubles. I know the stories Mark Haddon tells are sadly typical. I also share the feelings of anger and shame he describes.

There are an increasing number of projects trying to ensure the skills and talents that people bring to this country don’t get lost under the brutal pressures of survival. Exiled Writers, for instance brings writers together in London and on the web. You can look on the Refugee Week site for other examples.

The North East’s best Adopted-Geordie-American-Iranian filmmaker Tina Gharavi has made an eight hour film called Asylum Carwash for the Engaging Refugees & Asylum Seekers project; a partnership project between National Museums Liverpool, Salford Museums and Art Gallery, Tyne & Wear Museums and Leicester City Museums Service. The description ends with the question I’ll end on too: How often do we think about what people are forced to endure in order to survive?

(This post definitely fits into the ‘personal opinion not necessarily reflecting the Arts Council position’ category, though I’m proud to see our logo on the Refugee Week funders and partners page. If you’re interested in another essay on art and asylum, you can still read my introduction to Geoff Broadway’s 2001 Durham Cathedral Residency exhibition on his site. The title of this post comes from W.H. Auden's Refugee Blues.)

Friday, 13 June 2008

Who do you love?

Here's a coming together of politics and culture that made me smile. An 'Early Day Motion' has been laid in the Westminster Parliament asking the House to note the passing of the fabulous rectangular-guitared gravel-voiced genius Bo Diddley, who sadly died last week. (Just in case anyone thinks I'm being ironic, I'm not, and will beat you with my very thick vinyl copy of Bo Diddley's Greatest Hits if I need to prove it.) You can read it here and see who's signed it. There's some kind of irony in the mention of the economy and debt, given Bo Diddley was, like many black musicians of his generation, understandably bitter about the deals he was forced to sign as a young man.

I stumbled across this in my weekly update from the Conservative Culture team, to whom, given some of their recent press releases, I dedicate this brilliant clip of Diddley's 'You Can't Judge A Book By Its Cover'.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Do you remember the first time?

I used to do lots of poetry readings. I’ve read to hundreds of people, and I’ve read to less people than I can fit round my kitchen table. I’ve had some great times performing and I’ve had some miserable times when reading poems out loud has felt like the most archaic thing you can do short of going to live in a cave. (I imagine my audiences’ experiences have varied similarly.)

Last week I did one of my rare readings. (Although I am still writing, it’s been a while since I’ve had anything substantial published other than in anthologies such as last year’s ‘A Balkan Exchange’, the output of a collaboration with some friends in Bulgaria and North East England.) Thanks to an invite from the kind folks at Richmond’s Georgian Theatre Royal I was the guest at their monthly reading. After my performance, there was an ‘open floor’ slot for other people there. (I was going to write ‘audience’ but the roles moved around during the evening.)

No less than three people said they were reading a poem out in public for the first time. It was clearly a big step for all of them, a brave, exposing and emotional moment, and something everyone there responded to. As the guest poet and ‘MC’ I felt nervous and responsible for the atmosphere. I was reminded of the huge commitment it takes to ‘participate’, one we who work in the arts can sometimes take for granted. That first time experience is a really crucial one: do we make it as safe as we can for people to take that risk?

Some years ago I edited Words Out Loud, a book of essays on ‘the poetry reading’ and what might be going on in one. I was reminded last week of something Keith Jafrate said in his essay: ‘All those life-changing moments can’t be sold, to ‘the audience’, to other promoters or to the arts quangos. That is to say, a faith cannot be sold.’ The book is now out of print but you can probably pick one up second-hand, and I have a few left if anyone’s especially keen.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Am I now too old to enjoy On The Road?

Here’s an interesting example of the dilemmas around how to encourage ‘participation’ – in this case, reading. Some of the major children’s publishers are suggesting adopting ‘age banding’. This means that books will display the recommended age range for readers. The theory is this guidance will make is easier for adults to buy books for children and young people, ‘signpost’ potential readers towards books they are more likely to enjoy, and thus encourage more children to read books and thereby increase our rather depressing child literacy rates. The big publishers and some writers support this approach. I imagine it might also appeal to grandparents and aunties and uncles, not to mention children used to unwrapping books they’re never going to read.

On the other hand, Phillip Pullman and many other leading children’s authors are asking for support for their protest at this. They feel the approach would be damaging to young readers, put some off books that might seem either ‘babyish’ or ‘too old’ according to their banding, and generally undermine individuality – as well as ignoring the intentions of many writers and illustrators to make their work matter to people of all ages. You can read their case, and join the protest if persuaded, at

This looks like a classic example of good intentions being undermined by clumsy intervention that goes against the grain of what actually motivates people. Think of the books you might have missed if you paid more attention to banding than to design, the first pages, the blurb, your instinct, and so on. Why not adopt the ‘if you like that, try this’ technique as refined, in different ways by Amazon and And whilst we’re at it, why not use that more widely right across the arts? I know they can get it horribly wrong, but that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?

(Mind you, I do sometimes think some of the existential Penguin Classics I read as a teenager should have had a sticker on saying ‘You might actually be too young and hopeful for this. Lighten up and come back when you’re older.' And when I read the new 'scroll' edition of Kerouac's On The Road I did indeed wonder whether I was getting too old and grumpy for it...)

Monday, 2 June 2008

Michael Standen

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the importance of adult education and mentioned some of the stalwart writer-tutor-organisers in North East England. Yesterday I heard that one of them, Michael Standen, had passed away suddenly. Michael had been one of the activists in North East literature since I was in short trousers, as an editor and writer as well as in his long-time day job at the WEA. He was also a key member of the editorial group of Other Poetry magazine, and of Colpitts Poetry, the long running reading series in Durham. He had just marked turning 70 with a fine selected poems published by Shoestring Press, who had also published a festschrift of poems by Michael's many poet friends.

Obviously my sympathies go to Michael’s family and friends, especially his wife Val. He was both exceptional in his qualities and typical of many people who keep the arts – perhaps especially literature – going in the small corners of our country. Although I never got a note from him without some implicit - or indeed explicit - exhortation to get rid of our application forms, he still treated me as a collaborator in our literary culture and always put the work first. Michael had been around long enough to remember the days things could be sorted out over a quiet chat with the literature officer. Mind you, so have I, and though we had slightly different takes on that era, we had the same ends in mind. We would also swap stories of committees, organisational frustrations and the awkwardness of having to take ‘tough decisions’. He was a patient, kind and funny man, but with the stubbornness necessary to put on poetry readings for decades. Few of you that read this will know who he was, but trust me, there are very few of his like, and he will be sadly missed.