Monday, 21 April 2008

Is our Diversity broad enough?

Well, last week was one of those where even a half hour to post something here didn't quite happen. Let alone to satisfactorily finish the piece I've been trying to write about types of participation. One of the things I did last week though was see the new version of Lee Hall's 'The Pitman Painters' at Newcastle's Live Theatre. (I took my new boss, Alan Davey, to give him a few hints for his new job.)

The play - which transfers to the National Theatre in London Village next month - is about The Ashington Group - miners who became the toast of the art world in the 1930's. If I could reproduce the script here to talk about 'diversity', I would. The Arts Debate findings and a number of other things recently, such as research about the number of women in senior positions suggest there are still equality issues which need addressing. But I also come back to the complex backgrounds of people rather than simply their gender, ethnicity or sexuality. Put bluntly, swapping middle-class public school-educated white men for middle-class public school-educated white women or middle-class public school-educated black people is only one step forward in an arts world where the number of people from other backgrounds is very small.

(This is not just about 'equality', for me, it is about the art work - when an artform embraces creativity from all backgrounds, it becomes richer and more vital, when it becomes narrow, it can atrophy and become sterile. Examples I'd cite might be the novel and theatre before the Angry Young Men, or English poetry before the generation that came through in the 1980s.)

Like all of Lee Hall's work there's a seam of sentiment in 'The Pitman Painters', but it is finely hewn. His foreword in the programme puts the case for inclusion and diversity powerfully, and with that same risk of sentimentality. I reproduce part of it here to stimulate some thought on whether our current approaches to diversity go far enough:

'The idea that art is somehow a commodity, that culture is something one consumes rather than takes part in, is, of course, a very modern notion.... Despite the advances in education and the blossoming of the welfare state, somehow we have failed to 'democratize' the riches of culture. That The Group managed to achieve so much unaided and unabetted should remind us that dumbing down is not a prerequisite of culture being more accessible. That is a lie perpetrated by those who want to sell us shit. Culture is something we share and we are all the poorer for anyone excluded from it.'

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Is there glory in failure?

The day I posted here about the difficulties of decision-making and the way infallibility eludes us, I got home to the RSA journal in the post, and an article about The joy of failure. I'd also just heard John E. McGrath talk (at the excellent Pride of Place Festival) about the aproach of Contact Theatre in Manchester to making work. You can get a real sense of that approach, and the energy it generates, just by looking at their very fine website. He spoke about the need for uncertainty and risk.

I put this, though, alongside the risk-averse nature of large parts of our world. Take funding - lots of risk there, in all directions. Put in a conservative budget - or vision - you think funders will accept and run the risk you won't be able to do what you need. Be realistic (demanding the impossible, as the saying goes) and run the risk of getting turned down because the risks are too great. Fund something big that might struggle or even go bust and run the risk of finding yourself in front of the Public Accounts Committee or being dressed down by your trustees. Withdraw funding and run the risk of judicial review if you're a public body.

Both the political atmosphere and media are, it seems to me, increasingly unforgiving of failure. Perhaps a project celebrating some of our glorious failures is a necessary and useful thing right now, central as failure may be to excellence, learning and business growth to name but three?

Monday, 7 April 2008

What do people want from the arts?

The Arts Debate was a major public value enquiry, carried out by Arts Council England last year. It has published a number of reports and summaries of the findings, which you can access here. A new summary report has just been published, ‘What people want from the arts’. I draw a few conclusions relating to these findings, by drawing it to your attention:

People of all kinds value the arts but many feel there are barriers to them getting involved personally. These are mainly psychological, and relate (or so it seems to me) to confidence to act independently. As such they may be rooted in class, feelings of distance from power, or education systems and so on as much as specifically arts-related issues.

People get different things from the arts. The areas of value are described as relating to capacity for understanding and navigating the world, enriching our experience of life and applications to achieve wider outcomes such as learning or community cohesion. Although we might all choose different words, I think this is a useful way of looking at public value. From this flows the need to focus on quality and innovation, especially quality of experience, product and project.

This then has implications for all funders – not just the Arts Council, though particularly us – in terms of how we support people to create work that meets these aspirations in a fair and transparent way.

Some people will say this tells us what we already knew, and to a certain extent they might be right. But it tells us it in a different way, and it is a real endorsement from the public – including those not currently ‘engaged’ with the arts – of what artists and promoters and the Arts Council have been arguing for decades. As such it is powerful ammunition for use with, say, local councillors who think their constituents ‘don’t care’ about cultural provision.

One can look at these findings from a number of perspectives – which is what I hope to do over the next few posts, so this doesn’t turn into an essay (just now.) What might this mean for the sector’s response to a greater emphasis on ‘excellence’ in the arts? What does this mean for ‘participation’ – do we need better, subtler ways of defining it? Do we need to revisit our thinking on diversity and how we nurture new talent in the sector? Might there be implications for some of our basic models – of business, arts education, arts development, arts marketing?

(I’m also really keen to hear if there are examples of these issues being dealt with elsewhere in the world, where the influence of class in cultural experience might be different from Britain.)

Friday, 4 April 2008

Why can't we be infallible?

Arts Council England, North East was the main sponsor of The Journal Culture Awards 2007, which were given out at Northern Stage in Newcastle on Monday. (I missed it, for complicated reasons, but you can see our glamorous staff in some of the photos here.) This is a night to celebrate the achievements of the cultural sector in the region, and there were lots of fantastic projects on the shortlists. I’m pleased to say our staff and our support had roles in many of these projects, such as overall winner Belsay Picture House, a result of a long-standing partnership with English Heritage.

We were, though, an awkward mixture of pleased and abashed at the winner of the Arts Council Award. The Novocastrian Philosophers’ Club was universally acclaimed as a brilliantly intimate, innovative and imaginative theatrical performance. However, the organisers had been unsuccessful in applying to Grants for the arts, not once but twice, due to the high demand on the scheme. Each time we reluctantly put it the wrong side of the line that reads ‘No more money available no matter how great the next project is’. (This despite it being led by a former colleague at Northern Arts, Cinzia Hardy. Bang goes that cynics’ theory that we only fund our mates. In fact, now I think of it, I’ve turned down and withdrawn funding from some of my best friends. And we didn’t judge the awards alone, before you ask.)

Now, did we get it wrong? Was it a mistake not to have funded what clearly turned out to be a great project? Certainly it’s felt that way since. Would the work have been bigger and better if we’d backed it? Would Cinzia and the Lit & Phil Library been able to use energy put into filling the funding gap for other purposes? Might more people have got to see it? Would we have demonstrated our judgement more effectively? Perhaps.

But, we would then have had to turn down some of the applicants that did get funded at that decision-making meeting. (All very successful since.) Could we have dealt with it differently – for instance by giving more people half what they’d asked for? I really think that usually leads to no one fulfilling their potential. Would having either an artist or a member of the public there have helped us make a different decision? I doubt it, given the competition. Perhaps they would have argued for another unsuccessful applicant whose festival reached far greater numbers than the Philosopher’s Club.

No one can get decisions right 100% of the time, especially when dealing with things that are yet to happen. If we could somehow grant fund everything retrospectively on whether it was ‘excellent’ or not, or actually reached its target audience, being a funder would be a lot easier. (Not simple, though, because even hindsight doesn’t give us 20:20 Excellence-vision) Oddly, until I get a company Tardis, the practicalities of the world refuse to co-operate with that. We will reflect on what we can learn about backing great ideas, and about weighing up risk. We will use this learning to get better. (There’s a really good essay on learning from your mistakes here, which contains a handy checklist all arts professionals could have on their wall.)

The other old point this reinforces is that the best projects and artists don’t see an Arts Council grant as ‘permission to exist’. If they are unsuccessful they dust themselves down and find another way of making their work regardless. So I’ll end by congratulating the Lit & Phil and the Novocastrian Philosophers’ Club on their well-deserved success. (And thanks also for Cinzia’s permission to discuss this example here!)