Friday, 29 February 2008

Do you believe in 'free love'?

Short thought for a Friday. The latest briefing from the trend-spotters at Trend Watching is all about the rise of free stuff, why people want it, its potential place in new business models and so on. Given that one of the most attention-grabbing recommendations of The McMaster Review was for a 'Free Art Week', it's something for us all to think about. And if you follow all their links you'll also find some free stuff for yourself....

My own favourite 'free' thing at the moment is the radio function on (One of my earlier blogs revealed a surprisingly high interest in my superficial experiences, to which I'll return, but that can do for now.)

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Are the arts prone to ‘producer capture’?

I have Matthew Taylor of the RSA and a recent blog to thank for a new phrase – ‘producer capture’. Not sure I’m going to be able to slip it into conversation very easily, but it is, I think, a useful concept: ‘the process whereby the goals of an organisation reflect the interests and prejudices of its employees (the producers) rather than those it is supposed to serve (the consumers, customers or citizens)’. (His posting is inspired by a dispute at the charity Shelter, and Ken Loach’s intervention in it.)

Minimising ‘producer capture’ has apparently driven much New Labour reform, especially in the public sector. Matthew Taylor relates it to the voluntary sector, but it might be a useful check for arts organisations – including, of course the Arts Council. Why are we doing what we do, and who for – and what shapes our work most? When we argue for funding – either to government in the Arts Council's case or to the Arts Council or local authorities for many organisations - are we really sure we’re doing it for those we serve rather than for our own protection? These are good questions for any cultural organisation to ask periodically.

In the arts sector itself - as opposed to the arts funding and development systems - the idea is of course complicated by the central importance of artists and other kinds of ‘producers’ – they are far, far more than ‘employees’. Their individual artistic vision drives things. My sense though is that organisations that avoid ‘producer capture’, no matter how strong and individual the artistic vision, have more impact than those that don’t. They are also – as I would argue our recent case to government in the Comprehensive Spending Review result shows – more likely to put forward persuasive cases to funders.

Monday, 25 February 2008

How many people are simply Not Bothered?

Involve (an organisation dedicated to increasing public participation and involvement in decision-making) have published a fascinating new report, Participation Nation. This focuses on ‘reconnecting citizens to the public realm’, which is a slightly think-tanky way of saying getting people involved in shaping and enjoying their own lives, especially where government influences them.

One chapter of Participation Nation (shame about the title, sounds like a parody of a reggae toaster from the 70’s…) looks at what people do with their spare time, and what it calls ‘The timesqueeze generation’. This describes the pressures on time and energy as much more pressing than lack of information, for instance. It argues people fall into 5 categories of engagement, from ‘Community bystanders’ (the 36% Not Bothered) through to ‘Active protestors’ (party members and writers to newspapers). Almost 70% of us are, allegedly, either ‘passive’ or ‘bystanders’.

This is not dissimilar to the pattern of arts participation, with more than half of adults attending only once or twice a year. We need to see cultural consumption in the context of people’s whole lives if we’re to genuinely affect deeply-rooted historical patterns. The DCMS Taking Part survey shows there’s plenty of scope for change, and huge correlation with participation in other areas of social life, as well as with educational attainment and class.

Involve have developed a site giving practical guidance to anyone wanting to increase public participation in their work, . This is highly adaptable for arts organisations. You can read some Arts Council publications relating to Taking Part here.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Are superficial experiences really so bad?

Another thought, inspired by the conjunction of McMaster, the cultural offer, and me spending a week away with my family, enjoying ourselves and relaxing without anything approaching a life-changing experience, arts or otherwise...

Noel Coward said it was ‘extraordinary how potent cheap music can be’. Brian McMaster (or his report at least) recommends that ‘cultural organisations stop exploiting the tendency of many audiences to accept a superficial experience and foster a relationship founded on innovative, exciting and challenging work’. He rightly says that ‘An excellent cultural experience goes to the root of living.’

But how much excellence of that sort can a person – especially an impressionable young person –bear? Is it not enough at times to be stimulated, inspired and challenged as well as entertained at a deep level? Is an hour wandering TATE modern not a ‘superficial’ experience for many, no matter how great the art? I don’t think it’s necessarily transformational, or certainly not immediately. Anyway, don't some superficial things sometimes sneak up on you and turn into life-changing experiences?

I want fulfilling arts experiences, and surprise. I want to laugh, dance, think, ponder. I don’t necessarily want my values reorganised every time I go to the theatre or read a book. I don’t think that makes me shallow. Tell me if I’m wrong.

Monday, 18 February 2008

What role does the ‘craft’ of an artist play in excellence?

Justin O’Connor’s recent literature review of the Cultural and Creative Industries for Creative Partnerships traces the history of the terms creative and cultural industries. It’s a fascinating read – from Adorno through the GLC and cultural industries to the creative industries as conceptualised in the early years of the New Labour government and the recent interest in linkages to Innovation. (Innovation is, in all industrial sectors, this year’s Black, it seems.) It’s very readable and a good example of the kinds of research and thinking Creative Partnerships has done alongside its work with young people. I think it would be a good part of any induction at Arts Council or for local authority arts officers and other development agencies.

At the end of the report O’Connor makes a very provocative statement, though. He argues: ‘But maybe creativity is the problem. As we suggested, the creativity mobilised in the new spirit of capitalism is one based on a particular modernist artistic tradition, of rule-breaking innovation, of the shock of the new. Maybe creativity has stripped out certain values associated with ‘artistic practice’ – innovation, inspiration, intuition, rule-breaking etc. – in a way that leaves a scarred landscape of discarded artistic practices, poisoning the well springs of the culture whence they sprung. The older traditions of the ‘golden mean’, the Chinese ‘middle way’, balance and harmony; the idea of a life spent in the acquisition of a difficult singular expertise, the artistic sacrifice of other routes, other skills, in order to master one; the gradual abandonment of self-expression in favour of other formal languages and meanings – all these appear archaic, irrelevant to the incessant innovation drive of creativity.’

He suggests that the emphasis on innovation, newness, risk-taking is at the expense of the tradition, apprenticeship, and craft that some other (often non-European/Western) art practices would put at their core. Reading Sir Brian MacMaster’s ‘Supporting Excellence in the Arts’, with its emphasis on innovation and risk-taking, and nary a mention of craft, I wonder if we need to do more thinking to integrate the two strands.

Does privileging ‘innovation’ lead to the emperor’s new clothes syndrome many people suspect is at play in some parts of the arts? (The Arts Debate revealed a very strong public suspicion of conceptual art, for instance.) When does 'risk-taking' become an indulgence? Do the routes artists follow to become professional give enough chance to build up craft skills as well as to experiment? How do we better integrate innovation and the development of core skills? Innovation is vital, Brian MacMaster is right. But it’s not the only thing an artist needs and we should not forget to say that.

(Not the last time I'll touch on the McMaster Report, I'm sure. Arts Council will be responding formally very soon.)

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Is the ‘cultural offer’ a good thing?

Simple answer, yes. Complicated answer, still yes. Yesterday the government announced a huge investment into ensuring young people have access to five hours of week of culture. There are a number of questions raised by this, not least how many hours of the week children are going to have left to shape for themselves after all that school and sports and culture.

But some of the reaction has reminded me how hard some people will work to find the empty bit of the glass. Philip Hensher in the Independent seems to thinks this is a plot by Gordon Brown to deny adults access to theatres. (They’re going to be full of pesky children, apparently.) John Humphreys gave Andy Burnham an unneccesarily hard time on the Today programme yesterday. I’m a bit puzzled, to be frank. (Not unusual.)

It seems fairly simple. For the sake of the arts, and the sake of our communities, we need to ensure every child has the chance to find out if the arts are what turns on the light bulb in their head. That multiplies the chances of new talent breaking through and giving us the diversity of input we need. This gives us the chance to build on several decades of work, most recently and significantly Creative Partnerships.

To make John Humphreys a bit less grumpy though, can I suggest one of the pilot schemes experiments with half an hour of compulsory listening to Radio 4, 3 or 7 according to taste? It is, after all, a ‘cultural offer’. (As Stephen Fry said, there are times Radio 4 is the best reason for living in Britain – though yesterday wasn’t one of them.)

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Is an audience participating?

In the current edition of the National Campaign for the Arts newsletter, Robin Simpson, Chief Executive of Voluntary Arts Network says this:

‘Actively participating in the arts or crafts helps us get more out of life, bringing us understanding, reflection, camaraderie and much more. But what do we mean by ‘participation’? To me participation means rolling up your sleeves and joining in. No one ever suggests that 70,000 people ‘participated’ in Manchester United’s last home game but in the arts some people still use ‘participation’ to refer to audiences. Is the audience at a performance of The Messiah participating?’

Understandably, given VAN’s consitituency, Robin wants to see a greater emphasis given to people who take part in the arts actively through making, singing, dancing and so on, in their communities, amongst their friends, and on-line, as well as professionally. As someone who started in the arts working ‘voluntarily’, editing a poetry magazine in the evenings and weekends after shifts as a head chef, I think he’s right that Britain has historically undervalued (and failed to measure) that part of our culture. (You can read my particular story alongside others in a VAN publication Making the Leap: From Labour of Love to Earning a Living.)

Where I differ is in his comments about audiences. Being in the audience is – if it’s a good event – participatory. If the audience don’t lean forward into the event, you soon know it as a performer. His comments about football crowds give it away. Ask Sir Alex Ferguson if he thinks the crowd participate – of course he does, that’s why he criticises them instead of his players. (Of course any football supporter knows that our involvement from the stands doesn’t always make a difference to the result on the pitch!) Think of the crowd participation at the recent Munich anniversary game.

I suggest we banish forever this idea that an audience is passive and think about how we make the most of their experience and open it up to more people, including those who currently prefer to make rather than watch. We should also recognise that for many people there is a continuum between the two.

You have a chance to have your say about the voluntary and amateur arts by taking part in the first nationwide survey, commissioned by DCMS and Arts Council. You can find it here and you’ve got till the end of February to take part.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Why would you work for the Arts Council?

With this site I want to stimulate thought and discussion about how the arts sector might need to react to the changing world. I hope, in doing that, to give some insight into the kinds of things I’m thinking about as I lead the North East office of Arts Council England. It ‘s not going to be ‘behind the scenes of everyday life at ACE’. (You need to come and hang out in our kitchen to get the flavour of that.) But I hope it will help to show that people who work for the Arts Council, even at the executive level, are not ‘faceless suits’, robotic bureaucrats, secret agents of the state, or philistines working in deep cover so we can put a stop to theatre.

Reading and listening to some of the reaction to our recent funding decisions, you might think that’s exactly what we are. I don’t plan to deconstruct the media coverage here, but the depiction of Arts Council staff in some comments is one reason I’ve decided to start my posting with five paragraphs on why I work for Arts Council England. Then you’ll at least know some of where I’m coming from. (And, by the way, I think they’re pretty common in our staff!)

PASSION The arts are central to my life and my enthusiasm for it, as well as my darker moments. The arts are how I think and feel my way through life. I’ve had my life changed by the arts and I want more people to have that happen to them. Although I don’t come from a background rich in the arts (few books in the house, didn’t go to the theatre until Shakespeare time at O Level, no music lessons etc – continue until parenthesis becomes the Four Yorkshiremen Sketch…) somehow good teachers and a fantastic village library helped grow a love of reading. Then punk and the exhilarating discovery that you didn’t have to practise for years to be creative with a guitar and your voice fuelled an obsession with music, which through following my curious nose led me to writing. And that led me to performing, editing, publishing, promoting and from there off into other art forms again. And I’ve always wanted to share that passion.

OPPORTUNITY I think that is too important to leave to chance and the market and want more people to try the arts and see what place they might have in their lives. That’s going to vary – from 24-7 passion, employment and life’s work to occasional pleasure and night out or emotional release at key times in life. And that’s fine. Goodness knows what good luck led me to the arts. My parents were always supportive but puzzled. (My dad worked in a carpet warehouse and my mum was a secretary most of her life.) But I know there are lots of people who could make or enjoy the arts who miss that almost random occurrence. Arts Council’s work and investment multiplies the chances for it to happen. (And no, I don’t think you can guarantee it happening by audience development or by ‘target-olatry’. It’s kind of the reverse of the fact that healthy living doesn’t guarantee you won’t get cancer, but makes your chances better.)

RESPONSIBILITY I believe in public funding of the arts. The arts play a range of vital roles in healthy societies, including economic, and that can both require and deserve government support. That means someone has to make choices – and that shouldn’t be the government. The arts are by nature always going to be in opposition to Power at times and need to be free from direct political influence. Of course there is a general influence that cannot be avoided, but that is the deal those who accept public funding accept. I was always told that if you want a job doing well you do it yourself, and eventually reached a point where I wanted to take greater responsibility for decision-making than sitting on panels. I didn’t want to whinge from the outside. I did that at times early in my career and it made nothing happen. This is at times a sacrifice (my publishing career as a poet has slowed to a crawl due to avoiding ‘conflicts of interest’, for instance – or at least I like to think that’s why!) but I get huge satisfaction from doing what I think is an important job that makes things happen for other people. I don’t want to sound noble – I am far better paid and more secure than when I was a freelance writer teacher and project manager, and am grateful for that.

CHANGE. Most of the things I’ve done in my career have started off out of enthusiasm and dissatisfaction. I started a poetry magazine because the ones I was getting published in weren’t good enough. I published books because writers I wanted to champion needed help. I devised arts projects to change the world or my corner of it… I work at the Arts Council because we improve things for artists, organisations and audiences. We are also supporting them as their needs change. In the last 10 years the face of the arts in the North East has changed dramatically. So has the Arts Council. I know both can get better yet and want to be part of that.

ROOTS I am still a writer when working at ACE but only in a way. There are lots of artists here – people who you might in other circumstances, call peers. We have to manage some process that would drive other writers and artists mad, I’m more than happy to admit that. But we do our human utmost to hold onto the roots of our passion to create opportunity and positive change for the arts. (As a member of the national executive team I also take my geographical and cultural roots, which spread across the north of England from Preston, Lancs to Preston-on-Tees, into a national context. But that’s another story!)

So, five words, to kick off. Lots more to come, not about me.