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 naïve 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.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mark,

I think you taint your own arguments about New Flow by attacking Joss for being Metrocentric. As you probably know, and if you don't you should, Tim ran the Bath festival for 10 years before joining the Raynes Foundation, and before that he was with the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. At the beginning of his arts career, he was Music Officer in the North West Arts Board. So one thing he is not is metrocentric.

It is never safe and never a good argument to make ad hominem attacks or allusions.

Mark Robinson said...

I was aware of his background. I didn't say Tim himself was metrocentric, I said I found his arguments metrocentric - it's an important distiction, and not an 'attack'. I think the argument in New Flow takes too little account of the cultural and political reality of the arts sector outside of the main urban centres.

I don't think you don't have to live or work in London - or any other metropolis come to that - to have a metrocentric world view, by the way. I know lots of people in the North East who seem to think things somehow aren't fully validated unless they've been to London, or critically approved by those in London.