Monday, 31 March 2008

Would you trust a musician to be Minister of Culture?

On Saturday night I was part of a sell out 1500 strong audience at The Sage Gateshead that gave the Minister of Culture a standing ovation after a thrilling two-hour performance. We knew there was a huge political mind at work but we’d also been entertained, inspired and moved. Discussion of innovative approaches to intellectual property, including the government binning Microsoft and adopting open source software, had to wait for another time, because this was all about song.

Confused? Well, this wasn’t our Minister of Culture, Andy Burnham. It was Brazil’s, the musician Gilberto Gil, who has been Minister of Culture since 2003. It was a great concert, part of a fantastic night in the Gateshead Jazz Festival. If you don’t know Gil’s music or standing, imagine Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger becoming our Minister of Culture.

Artist who become elected politicians are rare in the UK. Although there are more cultured politicians than people give credit for I struggle to think of any in our Parliament at the moment who’ve practised at a professional level, except Glenda Jackson. There are a number of people in the Lords with substantial track records – Melvyn Bragg, for instance, and David Puttnam (who coincidently is Chair of the Trust which runs The Sage Gateshead.) But that might suggest the elected route to power is less attractive or viable. I’m not sure whether this says more about artists or our democracy. There are, also, of course, some politically active artists outside of the three party structures that lead to seats in Westminster. (Gil was first elected as a member of the Brazilian Green Party.) Perhaps this is a factor in artists, who are often unaligned by nature, not getting directly involved in electoral politics?

So the position is perhaps more complicated than the first cynics’ response of the cultural grass being greener, or more exciting, outside the UK. I’d not argue for artist Culture ministers per se, but for ministers of all sorts informed by an understanding of culture. Lord Puttnam, for instance, talks about education so powerfully because of his working history.

But maybe there are other examples, including at a local level? And which musician or artist would you trust to be Minister of Culture? Let me know!

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

What deep insights did I have while off work?

Over on Arts Professional, someone thought I might have been visited by the Great Peter Street Thought Police last week, when actually I was just on leave. I spent much of the week in a nostalgic reverie kicked off by looking at Finnegan’s Wake (see last couple of posts) and an old flyer left in its pages, from Paris in 1986. And as M. le President est arrivĂ© in London today, I thought I’d share. If it has no relevance, forgive me.

I was drawn into thinking of a year that probably changed my view of the arts in ways I didn’t understand even then. I was studying French and English Literature at Liverpool and spent a (not very) academic year at Paris VIII in Saint-Denis. (Best known for the World Cup Stadium and riots these days, but a lot less edgy than Toxteth back in 1985.) I immersed myself in what I then didn’t call the arts in a way I’ve rarely done since. Loads of gigs – David Thomas, Sonic Youth, Violent Femmes, The Pogues, Prefab Sprout, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (in his fantastically violent early period) and one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen, by Microdisney. I interviewed Del Amitri for my mate's fanzine. (Trout Fishing in Leytonstone, anoraks!) I even started on the slippery slope to really liking jazz, seeing Dave Brubeck, Sarah Vaughan and Archie Shepp. I also discovered African music from some of the friends I made in the halls, who were mainly not from France, but from Francophone Africa.

I read constantly, though on reflection I think 21 is too young to read the whole of Proust – I’d need a serious illness to repeat it now! I remember discovering Robert Desnos through a course I studied, and pretending to understand literary theory. (I missed out on the fact that Deleuze and Guattari were teaching there at the time, though I think I did once meet Jim Haynes.)

I got an annual pass for the Pompidou Centre and spent days on end there, and was inspired by the atmosphere and the connections it made, which seemed hugely different to anything I’d so far experienced at home. I did a Saturday morning course to understand modern art, which really opened doors for me. I sat through theatre I couldn’t quite understand. And I spent long afternoons catching up with the history of cinema, especially the black and white moody bits. (Although one of my fondest memories is of going to watch Absolute Beginners one sunny Spring day, thoroughly enjoying its neon gaudiness and then walking out into a bright Spring afternoon and putting my shades on… I’ve never dared watch the film again, because I just know it’s rubbish.)

I wrote loads of really awful poems and songs, and went busking on the Paris Metro. (Don’t Twice It’s Alright and Folsom Prison Blues, since you ask.) You can, should you so desire read one of the slightly better ones, archived from a 1987 edition of the magnificent The North at the Poetry Library’s magazine archive here. It was between poems by Edwin Morgan and Peter Porter which was a big deal for me at the time, and even now.)

I had ‘downloaded’ my favourite records onto about 20 or 30 C90 tapes (younger readers, ask an old person) which certainly is one argument for the benefits of the digital, personalised age. (I’ll be able to listen to a choice of 10,000 songs in my car on the way home tonight!)

What lessons did I draw from my nostalgia? The ‘cultural offer’ needs time and an absence of exams to flourish in a young person, and don’t let them think of it as culture but just exciting stuff. Great cities are brilliant and exciting, and big institutions can have a fantastically personal impact on individuals. Connections and hybrids are what make the world creative and exciting, not purity, and not boxing things off too strictly in terms of ‘culture’ seems like a good idea. And Microdisney records still sound great but ‘not-as-good-as-live’ whilst Finnegan’s Wake is still impossible to read.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Here Comes more of Everybody?

Anyone interested in finding out more about Clay Shirky’s thinking can now listen to a recording of his recent talk at the RSA. Stemming from his book it focuses on how, as he puts it, the digital realm is now ‘technologically boring enough to be socially interesting.’ He talks about Flash mobs and political protest, Facebook protest groups (though not the one called ‘The Arts Council needs a f***** slap’, strangely enough) - and how ‘organisation’ is changed, changed utterly. He’s an engaging speaker and admits to being a lapsed cyber-utopian, aware of the innocence or naivete of much of what’s said about the new networked, distributed world.

A number of reviews of HCE have linked it to Charles Leadbetter’s We Think. This seems to me much more guilty of idealistic enthusiasm, judging by the chapters I read when Charles made it available in draft. (I suspect Shirky would say he's still thinking about the technology a little too much.) Wikipedia is an interesting model of all sorts of things, but I couldn’t help muttering ‘but how do you make a living in this world?’ at a number of points. Anyway, his site has lots of interesting material - shared, for free - so have a look around.

Interestingly given my previous post, you can, for example, see Charles' notes for a talk about The Web and the Avant Garde. He doesn’t mention Joyce, but what the notes say about Guy Debord and Facebook make me think he may be a little too easily pleased. I can’t see that the fun loving Situationist would really have been busy collecting ‘friends’ and thinking it was a great advance in democratising the spectactle…

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Would James Joyce be on Facebook?

One of my harmless habits is taking a bit of management speak I hear in a meeting or at a seminar and slipping it into a poem – sometimes there is something about odd bits of language that can spark a new thought. (This kind of thing sits well with my sampling approach, too.)

Yesterday I saw a book whose title at least reverses that sampling process. Clay Shirky’s new book ‘Here Comes Everybody’ is a look at 'the power of organising without organisations' in the new networked age. It sounds interesting in itself, but I was more drawn by the way his title is just the latest echo of an avant-garde. Here Comes Everybody (henceforth HCE) is a phrase from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, a recurring phrase related to the hero of this most difficult book. I have a battered paperback of Anthony Burgess’s book on Joyce, also called HCE. It was published the year after I was born. I also have, somewhere, a tape of The Wake’s 2nd album, HCE, which came out in late 1985, around the time I was puzzling though Finnegan’s Wake as a student in Paris. (The book is an interesting ‘textural’ experience, page by page, but I’ll admit to not really thinking I’ve ‘read’ it. The Wake’s New Order homages have not aged well according to the things I found on You Tube.) There’s also a great website of ‘writers on writing’ called HCE. There are no doubt other echoes.

My point is? The avant-garde and the business section may be more connected than we think. And artists have been predicting the present for a long time.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Do you feel Olympian?

The London 2012 Cultural Olympiad moved another hop, skip and a jump closer this week with the ‘opening for business’ to artists and arts organisations. You can read about the different ways to get involved here. Obviously there’s a considerable amount of lottery funding going into the Olympics and many people have made their views clear about that. Whatever the rights and wrongs, 2012 is a-coming and is now an opportunity to do some creative and fantastic things. I see no sense in the resentful scorn I’ve heard from some people. I think we could really do something to showcase the talent of young people, for instance, that might dislodge forever (ok, a generation…) this damaging myth that young people are, somehow, Trouble about which ‘something must be done’. I think it’s also a great chance for the arts in London to demonstrate the benefits to the whole of the UK of having a global cultural capital here.

At the IFACCA World Summit on Arts and Culture, organised by Arts Council in the North East in 2006 we had a session on cultural Olympiads, with two great speakers, Craig Hassall and Beatriz Garcia. Craig’s presentation emphasised the need to involve artists, which the team are striving to do. Beatriz’s website has lots of links of interest to those interested in the legacies of such events.

Monday, 10 March 2008

What does sustainability in the arts look like?

This question underlies most of the themes I’ve touched on in the first month of this blog. Making ‘excellent’ work, building audiences and participation, creating a meaningful cultural offer, having deep meaningful experiences or even superficial ones: all of them are dependent on a level of sustainability in the sector. They also contribute to achieving it.

A new paper published in Australia by Cathy Hunt and UK-based researcher Phyllida Shaw, ‘A Sustainable Arts Sector: What will it take?’ explores this issue in revealing ways. It takes us away from a sterile debate that sees organisations look to funders to ensure their sustainability, and funders look to organisations to ‘simply’ diversify their earnings to enhance their sustainability. (Although funders and organisations are no doubt right to do both of these at times.)

Really interestingly, the paper sets out a list of characteristics for sustainable arts organisations, but also those of a sustainable sector. These are as much about vision and purpose, and a product that reflects them as they are about money, although a diverse financial base is noted as necessary. Managing risk, investing in staff and board, and the regular renewal of products though learning from consumers are central for organisations. For a sustainable sector, balance, diversity of specialism and scale, and adaptability to change are key to a healthy ecology. I am summarising clumsily and urge you to read it. There are different challenges within for funders and arts organisations, but they are things we are all dealing with. Sometimes everyone involved can slip into convenient, often mutually agreed, fictions around sustainability. This is an understandable and excusable syndrome, but one to be avoided.

It’s no surprise, of course, to put this into the bigger context of sustainability and see that the arts sector needs to develop the core principles of sustainable development, because it’s simply how the world needs to be if we’re going to survive. This is a connection Money Mission Models, another project looking at sustainability, has made at times, most notably in ‘Invitation to an Alternative Future’, which I always think of as Kahlil Gibran meets Arts Management. (For the avoidance of doubt, as the saying goes: I mean that in a good way. It sits provocatively alongside the more traditional papers they share on their site, which I also recommend.)

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Do we need a new agenda for cultural learning?

Following swiftly on the government announcements about the cultural offer and the 'Find Your Talent' pilot scheme, are a couple of timely documents from Demos. I'd recommend anyone involved in education, learning, creativity, call it what you will, to read and consider responding. Culture and Learning: Towards a New Agenda, written by John Holden, is a consultation paper which puts forward an analysis of the current state of play and makes some recommendations for change. Basically he suggests that we need a new agenda for cultural learning, based on a shared definition of cultural learning, shared standards of excellence and methods of impact assessment, driven by clear leadership and strong networks and brokerage. There are a number of challenges to the way things currently are, especially problems of profile, scale and effectiveness and the positioning of cultural learning. (This manifests itself, amongst other ways, in the relatively low earnings of education staff, compared to say fundraising or marketing.) The report is accompanied by a 'context paper' which gives an 'historical' perspective - particularly since the 1990s. I set up the first Teesside Arts in Education Agency in 1997, with a princely £8000 from Northern Arts and the same from local authorities, and it is fascinating to see how things have changed since then, and to consider the power of a well-timed report and initiative from funders.