Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Wednesday Word of the Week: 'Strategic'

In a new, hopefully-regular-but-we’ll-see feature, at the suggestion of a member of the Arts Council North East team, I bring you the inaugural Arts Counselling Wednesday Word of the Week.

‘Strategic’ - often used to mean:
1. Really, really big and expensive
2. Really, really, really important and absolutely not to be rejected under any circumstances
3. A way of stopping doing things you've changed your mind about
4. Bound up with the organisation’s or your own sense of self
5. Not something that should be expected to lead to actual action in the real world because it’s more a kind of thinking and mindset
6. The kind of work you do when you get too exhausted or senior to do practical work, leading to others doing all the practical work and wishing they too could be strategic.

My preferred dictionary meaning: Important or essential in relation to a plan of action.

Thing to note: essential in relation to a plan of action. Test questions before you use the word include:
Have I got a plan I can describe in real terms?
Does it involve action I can point to?
Is the thing I'm talking about really essential to it?

Click here for a reminder in cartoon format from Savage Chicken's Excellence in Management on-line training course.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Fancy a brew?

Here's a suggestion for a little artistic down time, to follow yesterday's rather lengthy posting.

Since 1 January 2006, artist Ellie Harrison has been maintaining the web-based project Tea Blog. Every time she drinks a cup of tea or another hot drink she notes down a snippet of what she is thinking about and uploads it to the blog. There are now well over 1,500 thoughts archived online, which chronicle the last three years of the artist's life via her tea-drinking habits. Tea Blog is now entering its final two months and is due to end at midnight on 31 December 2008. It makes me smile and think and imagine someone else's life - all of which I think are Recommended Activities.

I found this project whilst browsing around a-n's marvellously refurbed new website, which really is an example of what can be done to open up dialogue and practice using the web. To be honest I found it rather overwhelming, in fact - there is just so much on it, so many artists, so many projects, so many aspiring students, so much good advice... I was a little paralysed by choice.

But I'll get over it. I just need to put the kettle on and have a think...

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Is it time for a 'new flow'?

I’ve a lot of time for the work of Mission Models Money. Their basis thesis – as I understand it – that the arts sector needs to evolve and work differently to be sustainable and achieve its potential, and stop being undercapitalised and overstretched is a compelling argument, and they’ve done some important action research.

They’ve just published a thought-provoking publication called New Flow, by Tim Joss, the Director of the Rayne Foundation. His article in Arts Professional to ‘launch’ it focused on the weakest parts: the suggestions for change to what he calls the state funding system’. That’s a shame as the rest of the publication has many sensible things to say about, for instance, the changing ecology. He has four key arguments I want to respond to.

1. ‘See the arts as they are’: ‘abandon the state arts’ bodies’ narrow definitions of the arts’, for reasons including ‘equitability, consistency and unity of purpose’. There is some argument that culture needs to speak to certain people like RDAs and local government with ‘one voice’. And I agree we need to widen our definitions of the arts. Firstly I would say that is happening. Secondly I would say that to argue that small publishers, big galleries and film producers have the same purpose and need the same support feels simplistic. It also omits – as does his argument in general – the perspectives of other supporters and providers of the arts such as local authorities and those whose interest in the arts is as much to do with place as cultural ‘product’.

2. Creation of ARDA the Arts Research and Development Agency to ‘pick up where formal education leaves off’. Joss’s ARDA would support pressure free research and somehow ensure ‘only works which justify the investment would be put into production’. It would ‘create safe contexts in which artists and other artistic decision-makers could critique each other’s work’. A slightly grass-is-greener comparison with scientific research is made. It seems insular and self-referential in its conception of the arts and artists. It also seriously under-estimates the impact Arts Council support has had on the development of artists through Grants for the arts. Like much of his argument it seems shaped by a metropolitan perspective and a centralising urge.

3. Creation of COPEA, the Commission for Public Engagement with the Arts. (Yes, both his new bodies do sound like something created during the Second World War, I’m not sure why.) Again, thinking seems to be a little muddled, as this would not just promote engagement, it would improve the quality of businesses working in the arts. It’s left unclear whether it would provide regular funding to those businesses. I think there is more to do to help organisations expand sustainably, but we do not need a new organisation to do that. The partnership working which the Arts Council is involved in, right across the country, again does not seem to be recognised. Here too I find Joss’s arguments metrocentric.

4. Finally, he argues we should give up the arm’s length principle for a seat at the top table. It makes me smile that Joss uses the phrase ‘core script’ here: something Peter Hewitt devoted much of his 10 years to, and where he made significant progress. Local Area Agreements can seem a ‘bureaucratic bog’, as he puts it, but they are where the core script is written. We either get our hands (and feet!) dirty or we don’t. The place in the core script locally, regionally and nationally is not universal or 100% secure, but it is stronger now than for many years. The implicit retreat into the beautifully designed artists’ box that runs through New Flow, contradicting many of his own observations, would put that at risk. Where, I wonder, has Joss’s attention been for the last few years?

The sarcy devil on my left shoulder suspects he’s been sat around the North London dinner table he refers to, amongst people who use the word ‘cull’ for a set of funding decisions designed to meet the very challenges they’ve identified, and who are actually a little uncomfortable that the cultural world is starting to include a wider variety of planets, moons and orbits than simply The Centre and the Rest of the World. But the angel on my right shoulder knows that suspicion is a bit harsh and unfair. (Have I ever mentioned I’m a Libran?)

The book contains a lot of good thinking: at times it suggests we both live in the same devolving, complex civil society where the arts are hybridising, arguing and evolving. But it is undermined by an emphasis on structural change when what’s needed is more of a cultural change, by a centralising tendency that feels there is a group of peers who know best, and by muddled and politically na├»ve conclusions. Improvements in the funding system need to take into account the new and potential cultural reality of Britain, and the devolved nature of both talent and demand. There is much to respond to in New Flow, such as the argument that funders' and organisations' mutual fictions have led to under-resourced organisations veering off-mission in the search for funding, a cycle which need to be broken. I do think it is a necessary read.

The Arts Professional piece summarising the arguments for change is headed ‘Who should lead the arts?’ I meet some people in my work who clearly think the standard of arts funding leaders has declined since the Good Old Days when the Arts Council of Great Britain was undeniably in charge and not run by people based in the provinces – I’m sure Tim Joss is not one of those, and I know MMM isn’t. But I can’t help thinking an artist or a foundation director living in Doncaster or Hull would have a different analysis.

But then as a Northern apparatchik of the state arts funding system I would say that, wouldn’t I? Go make your own mind up.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Are we now post-black or just post-election?

Continuing the Obama theme just till the weekend...

Novelist Diran Adebayo is a member of the Arts Council's National Council. Every now and again I get to spend time with National Council and, whilst marvelling at how Diran looks cool in a pinstripe suit while I look like an 'Executive', I always find he's got a stimulating take on things. He 'spotted' Barack Obama early on, and has now written a great piece on his website about why he likes him so much, and the highly debatable concept of 'post-black'. I am going to think whether I can become 'post-white' - although if I get many more grey hairs I will certainly eventually achieve 'post-ginger'.

Further proof, if it were needed, that novelists can do more than make stuff up comes from academics at the LSE and Manchester Universities, as reported in the Telegraph. Apparently novels like The Kite Runner are better at informing the public about development issues than reports. Who'd have thought?

(Andrew Taylor, the Artful Manager, also talks about Obama's arts policies - didn't you just know he had some - and good taste in advisors, with Michael Chabon amongst others on the committee.)

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Say it loud...

Ok, very quickly, to mark this momentous day…

I don’t think I believe in heaven, though I wouldn’t write that doubt on the side of a bus. In recent times though – since my mum died I suppose – I've found it comforting to think that something hangs around. Certainly the books and recordings of Studs Terkel, the great Chicago-an oral historian, writer and broadcaster will live on for me as recording and exploring the kind of America I can believe in. He died last week. I hope he voted early, and I hope was hanging around Grants Park last night.

If you’re feeling emotional and optimistic for once, listen to this: Sam Cooke singing A change is gonna come.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Are shared standards compulsory?

‘Essays on integration and participation’ is perhaps not the snappiest title Demos have ever come up with for one of their publications. But this new collection does what it says on the tin in a fascinating and challenging way.

There are a couple of essays that refer specifically to the role arts and culture can play. One is by a former colleague at Arts Council, Gus Casely-Hayford. His piece calls into question the urge to control that has entered the debates around both integration and participation, largely driven by government. As he puts it:

‘Britain, led by our government, is developing a taste for trying to control and build super-cultural narratives; we are starting to talk about excellence, cultural standards, The Arts, Britishness as though it was possible to curate or control value or content in national culture. That might have been conceivable in the 1950s, but the relationship between culture and nationhood has changed. The British cultural sector of the twenty-first century will have to work with communities, with its population to earn their participation.

Individuals may choose to participate in debate at their own level of negotiation; permission to engage, or rules of engagement can no longer be meaningfully mediated by the state or a narrow channel of organisations. There is a larger and more complex framework of engagement that no single agency can control. We cannot curate or legislate participation, as nations once did.’

That such a taste for control exists is apparent in Minister Liam Byrne’s essay on the need for ‘shared standards’ for citizens, which has, like most government pronouncements on this subject, an edge of menace for me. If those ‘shared standards’ include locking people up for 42 days without charge and letting refused asylum seekers who can’t go home beg or starve, count me out. Which is easy for me to say, because I don’t actually have to prove my allegiance to them as I had the good fortune to be born in Lancashire.

Anyway, this obviously has implications for people who make art and culture, and for policy makers, especially given the debates on both identity and participation I’ve talked about so regularly. The most interesting thing about the BBC’s Brand/Ross controversy may ultimately be a debate about ‘shared standards’ and the difficulty of agreeing and abiding by them without over or under-policing them. How we ‘integrate’ the many (mainly) young people who don’t see the bullying but laugh at the boundary crossing and defend ‘creativity’– in a way which strikes me as not that different from the supporters of happy-slapping – with people who don’t want any reference to s*x on the radio, with the many people somewhere in the middle is a parallel question to those raised by these essays.