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.


Bill Herbert said...

Good to see this, Mark. I've linked to it from one of my ragged troupe of blogs and will spread the news.

Nicky Peacock said...

you were a punk?
that makes me smile.

Natalie Querol said...

What a great blog. Finally I have something concrete towards which to direct the tub-thumpers of the 'Arts Council are faceless philistines' school. I'm reminded of why I'm proud to call the North East home. Thanks Mark.