Friday, 30 May 2008

Generation Why?

Suddenly everything I read seems to be talking about Generation Y. I’ve just finished reading Peter Sheahan’s entertaining, thought-provoking but also rather irritating book Flip. Put simply this challenges you to think counter-intuitively and turn things on their head to find the way forward. This leads him to conclusions such as ‘Action precedes strategy’ and ‘There is no wisdom in crowds’. Essentially it’s about coping with accelerating pressures by not carrying on acting in the old ways. (I’ll come back to suggesting a couple of flips the arts might think about.) He is also a global speaker on Generation Y – and boy, does he remind you of this - and makes a great deal of his youth.

And the papers seem to have been full of it. I’ve never bought into ‘generations’, perhaps because I was born on the cusp of two – the 110th anniversary of the birth of Arthur Rimbaud being practically the last gasp of the baby boomers apparently, or a premature arrival of Generation X – and always thought they were simply journalistic stereotypes. (And like all stereotypes, not without some truth.)

I blamed the baby boomers for Thatcherism, and Generation X for grunge. Many people in the arts have perhaps always been Generation Y – portfolio careered, striving for work/life balance, more concerned with job satisfaction than salary, not accepting historical patterns etc. Do we, though, also share the potential for being forgetful of the past and complacent about things we may soon have to learn will not always carry on – like cheap global travel, relatively plentiful employment opportunities, social cohesion, cheap credit and economic stability?

Friday, 23 May 2008

The beginning of the peer show?

Last week we held two sessions at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland, discussing emerging priorities for Arts Council England with arts organisations and partners. This follows what I believe is technically known as a shedload of work we’ve been doing on this, drawing together influences including the Arts Debate, the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, the McMaster Review, the ‘cultural offer’, 2012, and the need to save 15% on our current admin budget within the next three years. I’m not going to run through it all here right now. We had lots of interesting, challenging but overall positive discussion and I got some really good insights into how the Arts Council can better collaborate with others to achieve what I think is the mutual goal of people engaging with fantastic art.

There was a lot of talk about peer review, involvement and learning, but also a lot of disagreement about what it might be, and how best to organise it. One flip chart contained the immortal phrase ‘*ollo**s to peer review (local authorities)’, so you can tell it was a frank discussion! There was clearly a lot of nervousness that peers would be ‘the usual suspects’. (Though equal nervousness when I suggested including members of the public in peer reviews.)

Which made me think of a couple of pieces in The Guardian last week. One the somewhat premature announcement of the ACE inspectorate (Ofarts?) – we’re far from sorted on that yet. The other was Mark Ravenhill’s typically pithy suggestion for a parliament of artists. An interesting idea, (though not as interesting as artists getting involved in actual politics, as I’ve said before.) Only difficulty being that the names mentioned were very much the House of Lords end of the peer market – though yes, I would like to see Thom Yorke, Lesley Garret and Tracy Emin debating. But perhaps what we really need are more contrary ‘commoners’ whose names might not be recognised in the national papers, or dare I say it, London Village’s Bustling West End, but play key roles in the arts across Britain. Mix them up and who knows what insights and ideas we’d get? It's only a real diversity of voices that will help the Arts Council and the sector.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Would the Pitman Painters classes happen today?

It’s Adult Learners' Week here in the UK. Adult education is one of those things that makes me feel proud and sorrowful about being British – like good council houses, allotments and Greggs pasties. (Where else do you still find organisations called things like Workers Education Association?) The Ashington Group, subject of Lee Hall’s The Pitman Painters that I wrote about recently, began as a WEA class in the 1930s. And that tradition carries on today with many thousands of people enjoying the arts through adult education, and artists and arts organisations being heavily involved in both formal and informal adult learning. (Literature in the North East has always been particularly strong in this field, with writers and editors like Michael Standen, Gillian Allnut, Andy Croft and the late Bill Scammell amongst many others having played especially important roles.)

In recent years some of the tradition of adult education has come under attack by the forces of modernisation. Some of this has been for the good – there have been benefits from professionalisation of teaching – but other effects have narrowed the people who can benefit, and narrowed the activities. I did a lot of adult ed teaching earlier in my career, and got a huge amount from it. I also saw some great writers emerge who might not have taken the first steps if adult education had not been so welcoming. Increasingly, though, you could harshly characterise the approach as being that most people will need to pay, need to get accredited whether they like it or not and they’ll only be able to pay for things for which are deemed ‘useful’. (Unless we’re especially keen to get them off benefits.)

The government is currently consulting on proposals for ‘informal adult learning’ which seem to be something of a corrective to that trend. There do seem to be dangers within – not least the idea that a Google search and an online experience is as effective adult education as meeting other human beings in a room. (Call me old-fashioned… I know it’s AND not or.) If your practice or your work brings you into this sphere it’s worth looking at that and responses such as those from the WEA and NIACE and perhaps putting your two pennorth in.

Monday, 19 May 2008

How many Angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Last week was a bit manic, hence the lack of posts. One day was spent at a symposium marking the 10th birthday of the Angel of the North, by Anthony Gormley. This was a more serious part of a series of events organised by Gateshead Council and partners to mark this occasion, including parties and processions. There’s no need for me to run through the history of the Angel here, but look through the Council’s Angel site for some arcane facts. Look carefully and you’ll see that the Arts Council and Northern Arts paid for most of it - perhaps the best value £600 grand we’ve spent in the last 10 years?

There was lots of talk about ‘Angel Envy’ and the phenomenon of Big Art Projects. There are a number on the go – some through Channel 4’s typically ‘does what it says on the tin’ project and associated mapping, and others like the so called Angel of the South in Ebbsfleet. This seems to be splitting opinion just as Gormley’s Angel did. And does. Good. Here are a few links to give you a flavour from the Guardian the Times, Channel 4, and for a local view Kent Online. Even the negative comments are a shadow of what greeted the first Angel sketches.

One of the best talks on Thursday was by my colleague Matthew Jarratt at Commissions North within Arts Council England, North East. If you want to see what the North East has done since the Angel visit our website – it also has lots of info about the commissioning process. We’re proud to spend less of our grants for the arts budget on public art projects than many other regions: there are probably more projects but we persuade others including the private sector to commission and pay for them, with Commissions North concentrating on advice, brokerage and supporting the design stage. Perhaps that’s the next phase elsewhere too?

Friday, 9 May 2008

Where are you and how did you get there?

Do you work in the arts and cultural sector, for an organisation or as a freelancer? If so, the Cultural Leadership Programme want to know how you got where you are, what helped and what didn’t, and what you think you need to help you get where you want to be in the future. They have on on-line survey you can fill in to provide a picture of the sector, its workers and their backgrounds. It only takes a few minutes and the more people complete it the better the picture. It’s here:

I usually describe my career plan as ‘checking the locks to see which doors are open and then seeing if the room looks interesting’. (Cue soundtrack: Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads.) After university I worked as a chef and head chef for 6 years, which I count as major part of my cultural leadership training. (I got probably my best ever review as a chef: ‘World class’: Yorkshire Post. My books have had some good reviews but none that good.) People are often surprised at that: they don’t expect Arts Council staff (or writers actually) to have had such practical professional experience. I’m not sure what that says about people’s images of the arts.

But as I often point out, catering is one of the very few sectors you can leave to take up a job in the arts and your salary goes up and your hours get better…

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Can we move from indifference to engagement?

Here’s an interesting juxtaposition of two recently published reports which might shed some light on ‘participation’. The first is from that august body Arts Council England From indifference to enthusiasm: patterns of arts attendance in England. The research team have drafted in some top notch sociologists to help think through the barriers and blockages in a (at least slightly) new way. They divide people into four groups – voracious users (just 4%), the enthusiastic (12%) now and then attenders (27%) and ‘little if anything’ (57%). The biggest determinant is what they call social status: ‘arts attendance is driven by some concept of identity: who we think we are, the type of people we perceive as our social status equals and the kind of lifestyle we deem appropriate’.

Now that’s roughly what I mean when I talk about class, but I’m no sociologist. It is as much psychological as economic and changes in slower, more complicated ways than simply the job you do or how much you earn. It’s as much about your parents as your children, where you’re from as well as where you’re at…

So this report does open up new avenues for approaching building participation – but contains at least two big challenges as well as those disappointing numbers. Firstly: are ‘free weeks’ and so on going to make much difference on their own? And secondly: do we need to revisit our definitions of arts and cultural participation. The only night of the week my local is packed is karaoke night – people enjoying singing and listening. That doesn’t currently count: maybe it should.

The second report is about another kind of participation: in politics in the UK. The Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement 5 feels like a shadow cast by the ACE report (though it’s probably the other way round). Only 13% of people are very interested in politics, whilst 55% know nothing or not very much about politics. Only 12% are at all politically active – mainly through signing petitions and not buying certain products, 48% of people have not done anything remotely political and an amazing 59% have not discussed politics or political events with family or friends in last 2 or 3 years. It’s an interesting though slightly depressing read.

The common factor appears to be ownership and a sense (or lack of it) of influence. The phrase ‘people like me’ crops up in both. The question is: what do people like us do about it?