Wednesday, 24 December 2008

And so this is Christmas?

Ok, I'm out of here for the Christmas period - normal service will be resumed in 2009.

I think I've had more electronic Christmas cards than 'hard copy' ones this year - signs of the digital takeover of the world? Here's a link to the Arts Council's e-card, commissioned from artist Suky Best. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Are making music and cooking connected?

I mentioned in passing earlier this month that I’d attended a seminar on commissioning opera. This was to mark the creation of Skellig the opera – with libretto by novelist David Almond and music by composer Tod Machover. One of the things I didn’t know before that day was that Tod Machover was also involved in the technology used in Guitar Hero, in his role at MIT. The new RSA Journal has an article by Tod about the creation of ‘personal instruments’ for opening up genuine musical creation (as opposed to Guitar Hero’s game-based application of the technology) for those without musical training. It’s particularly interesting to learn how it has been used to enable musical creation by people with physical impediments that mean traditional instruments are impractical. He also talks about the role of the youth chorus in Skellig and his aspirations for ‘a new model for the interrelationship between experts and amateurs in musical listening, performance and creation’.

He goes on to make an analogy with food and cooking which I think reveals more of a challenge than he suggests. He claims we ‘all’ have a food culture or ecology in which appreciating the achievements of experts – the Michelin-starred chefs and so on – sits happily alongside our own participation in both daily, improvised cooking expressing our personality and special occasion meals. Whilst there is evidence of that in some parts, there is also plenty of evidence that actually the distant relationship many have with the arts is mirrored in an even more dislocated relationship to food and cooking, with many people simply not eating well at all, losing the traditional skills and rituals associated with food – and the family and social capital that goes with it. I can’t imagine my life without either music or cooking – I get frustrated if I go too long without playing or listening to music or being able to cook - but there are many people who can. (And after all I did work as a chef for 6 years before working in the arts...) To create that healthy ecology in the arts we have to address some very big issues. (See Jamie Oliver’s ‘Ministry of Food’ work for just one take on this.)

The new RSA Journal, coincidentally, has another article that might give some clues as to why this is the case, Crossing the class divide by Lynsey Hanley. It’s worth a look.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Adrian Mitchell

I was really saddened to hear today that Adrian Mitchell had passed away. You can read a short biog and see him performing, including the poem he will always be remembered for, To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam), on Bloodaxe's news page.

Adrian was one of the poets that inspired me to become serious about writing, and helped shaped the way I was serious about it. When I was a 6th former, the village library acquired a copy of For Beauty Douglas, his collected poems up to 1979, and it probably spent more time in my bedroom than it did in the library. It helped confirm in me that writing, performance, and art more broadly - it is full of reference to other artforms, as well as a love of life in general - could connect to people and try and change things. This was poetry that was funny, angry, political, sexy, loving, anarchic, committed and not content to sit in the corner being admired.

When I started a poetry magazine I sent the first issue to Adrian. He wrote back with advice, encouragement, a drawing of an elephant which was almost part of his signature, and a poem for me to publish. (We also began exchanging quotes from Kenneth Patchen, a joint passion.) When Yorkshire Arts turned me down for a grant because the literature panel weren't convinced of the quality, I sent them a snotty letter saying if it was good enough for Adrian Mitchell it should be good enough for them! I met him a number of times, at readings, and he was a lovely, kind and gentle man. It did always feel to me like meeting a hero. I was also proud to be included in the anthology of British socialist poetry he co-edited with Andy Croft, Red Sky at Night. His work continued to develop and his Blakean socialism and his distress at the mess some humans make of the world ran through some fine books of what we will now have to call 'late poems'. But he remained essentially an optimist. We're all the poorer for his departure.

Friday, 19 December 2008

How was 2008 for you?

Well, the only invitation to share my books of the year in a newspaper round up came from The Morning Star, courtesy of my friend and five-aside team-mate Andy Croft, so I thought I’d do a little round up here of ’things of the year’ – some personal, some serious, some less so.

Word of 2008: Excellence
New record of 2008: Fleet Foxes by Fleet Foxes
Old record/songs of 2008: Tell Tale Signs by Bob Dylan
Play of 2008: Pitman Painters by Lee Hall
Cultural Policy Document of 2008: Pitman Painters by Lee Hall
Poetry anthology of 2008: In Person – book and dvd of poets reading – edited by Neil Astley and Pamela Robertson-Pearce
Novel of the 2008: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
Exhibition of 2008: Unpopular Culture: Grayson Perry selects from the Arts Council Collection
Poetry collection of 2008: The Invisible Kings by David Morley (pedants: yes, came out late 2007 but I only read it this year!)
Mis-casting of 2008: Equity putting Peter Hewitt in the role of pantomime villain
Oddly exhilarating team-building experience of 2008: Arts Council England North East Management Team Ukulele Orchestra performance at the staff summer party. Oh yes, we walk the walk.
9 hour multi-lingual experience of 2008: TSF/Lepage’s Lipsynch at the Barbican
If They Could See Me Now That Little Gang of Mine Moment of 2008: Feargal Sharkey admiring my long-arm stapler story when I chaired VAN’s Our Creative Talent conference (see photo above from VAN's Flickr site of photos - this one by Paul Caplan.)
I love this job moment of 2008: lots to choose from, including some of the above, but probably all the 'backstage access' I enjoy was topped by a day in February spent with the Premier of the Eastern Cape in South Africa, and the signing of an MOU between the Eastern Cape Government and the Association of North East Councils, in Gateshead's Council Chamber. Sounds dry perhaps but it comes out of a deep relationship between artists and politicians and arts funders/developers in the two regions, mainly embodied through the Swallows Partnership. I read something I'd written when visiting the Eastern Cape in 2006. Our visiting colleagues, Premier included, responded by singing a fantastic Xhosa song, bringing their political and artistic tradition to the Council chamber. The moment caught the way the arts can work in a deeply political world. I definitely walked out of the room reminded of the worth and pleasure of my job.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Obama - the North East arts connection

Whilst the UK waits with baited breath to see who will be crowned the next poet laureate (well, waits with a slightly bemused amusement, anyway: see here for just one example), Barack Obama has revived the practice of having an Inaugural Poet, in the shape of Elizabeth Alexander. What's more she's published - in the UK - by Northumberland-based international poetry phenomenon Bloodaxe Books, whose 30th birthday I wrote about in October. Elizabeth Alexander is one of a number of fine American poets published by Bloodaxe. You can read about her role in Obama's inauguration here. I just knew there had to be a connection between the new President and Arts Council England's RFOs...

It's good to see the new President including poetry in what is bound to be an emotional occasion. Perhaps the new laureate - whoever she or he is - could pop up in Parliament from time to time?

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Wednesday Word of the Week: Policy

Few words excite such apathy as ‘policy’. The word feels like it should be preceded by something to do with small print like ‘insurance’, or followed by ‘wonk’, neither of which sounds exactly sexy. It can feel like a slower, more bureaucratic version of 'strategy', and indeed the words often seem to be used fairly interchangeably, though for different effect. (‘I’m sorry but it doesn’t fit with our new policy’ being much more final than ‘It doesn’t seem strategic.’)

The dictionary definitions suggest why, both referring to a plan of action. Strategy, however, seems to be more related to specific goals (hence common uses of the word ‘strategic’) rather than general principles and standards. Policy should be enabling – a set of principals and ways of behaving that embody and deliver our values or aspirations in a particular area, be that customer care, employment or how we think about artforms. There is implicit in policy a setting down of the standards, codes and modes by which we will operate and can be held to account. As such, I think many people shy away from it, but I don’t think we need fear its 'rules' aspect. And it’s nearly always helpful in the long run to surface unwritten policies, so everyone knows what the score is – be that organisational or artistic. (I don’t think policy need be a bureaucrat’s word.)

It’s not a word I find myself using very often, if I’m honest. But my preferred usage is a set of statements that provide clarity about how I need to act to make the world how my organisation or I want it to become. Something that doesn’t let me be vague, or float off into the abstract - avoiding talking without saying something being one of my general policies.

(I was sparked to think about this by Andrew Taylor’s recent posting about the silence created by the word at a recent conference.)

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Are you experiencing pixelation?

Over the last few years Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle’s much-loved and fantastically recently-refurbed ‘arthouse cinema’ has been steadily reinventing itself as 21st century facility for makers and audiences alike. It now combines its heritage as a 30’s ‘news cinema’ with state of the art digital tools. Most importantly it has a state of the art vision of how those two combine.

The Tyneside Cinema have recently launched a project called The Pixel Palace which aims to explore this new territory. There is of course a website and a blog, to which they asked me to contribute. (Arts Council are supporting the project, alongside other partners including Northern Film & Media.) You can see some brief thoughts about the pixelation of the arts - including classical music as exemplified by recent developments by the Avison Ensemble - here.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Wednesday Word of the Week: Capacity

Not long after I began working for the Arts Council, a friend of mine said to me, menacingly, that she would be checking how often I used the word capacity. It is a bit of a jargon bingo classic.

It is often used to mean:
1. Ability (organisational or individual) to do the ‘right’ or necessary things
2. Training or support provided so people learn how to do things more effectively
3. The number of staff an organisation has (more people = more capacity)
4. The number of good people an artform or other ‘subject area’ has working in it
5. A mix of the above that can be created by investment of money, or staff time.

It is often used in the negative: eg this organisation/sector lacks capacity, or needs to build capacity. It can therefore be a kind of code for brilliance, failure, lack of willingness to do the right thing or 'correcting' a lack of funding for an organisation or sector.

Interesting dictionary definitions include : innate potential for growth, development, or accomplishment and the quality of being suitable for or receptive to specified treatment alongside definitions clearly relating to the above.

My preferred meaning is a mixture of skills and ability; understanding and willingness; stamina and strength. Being a metaphor kind of guy I think of organisational capacity as being like lung capacity for an athlete: you need to learn how to breath, build up stamina and technique and know how to use it at the best time.

The importance being that building capacity that lasts requires investment, practice over time and real motivation. (If I think of my own ‘capacity’, it’s mainly come from the most testing situations, usually lasting some time, where I could ‘put learning into practice’.)

If you’re interested in capacity building in the arts you could have a look at Annabel Jackson’s work in this area as a starting point.

(I should say that none of these comments, or on other words, should be taken as ironic or critical. I won’t bother with words that don’t have their uses. I just think it’s helpful from time to time to observe and think about the words we use, and the linguistic conventions that build up around them.)

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Why have I been so quiet?

It was of course foolhardy and poor planning to introduce Wednesday Word of the Week just before going on leave, and locking myself away in a friend's flat in Whitby to do some writing and editing. I had a week away from family, work, email, tv and only turned on the blackberry to check the football scores on Tuesday night. I'm slightly relieved to say I don't have to delete that bit to the left of here that says I am also a poet, or change the tense of the verb, as I managed to do a lot of writing.

Whether any of it sees the light of day, especially in book form, remains to be seen, of course. I've felt my Arts Council role has ruled me out of going back to fine publishers of my books such as Flambard, who we fund regularly in the North East. Given my national responsibilities now that probably also applies to RFOs elsewhere in the country. And I've never managed to nab a non-subsidised poetry publisher - of which there are precious few, of course. (Insert your own ironic aside about people who had funding withdrawn here: .) This has led to new work appearing mainly in anthologies such as this and this, and emerging from projects such as the ongoing North East-Bulgaria link which led to A Balkan Exchange last year. Clearly this has been a bigger sacrifice for me than it has for the world of poetry, and I don't lose any sleep over it - I've been getting my buzz in other ways. At least it gives me at least one thing in common with the great Irish poet Michael Longley, who went twelve years without publishing before retiring from the Arts Council of Ireland and beginning an amazing - and happily long - 'late period'.

The best thing about last week, as I think about it now, a day and a half back into work, was being able to engage with language without having to talk or listen to other people, to shape it to my own ends, or the ends of my imagination. When my kids were smaller and asked what I did at work I used to say I talked and listened and thought. (They added 'Have meetings and do emails.') I once listed all the decisions, large and small I was asked to make in a day - as part of trying to get better at both delegating and deciding - and found it was literally dozens. That takes up a lot of energy, and can make the useful space in your head shrink. (I decompressed from my retreat at an international seminar on commissioning opera, at The Sage Gateshead at the weekend. No easy way back for me!)

Anyway, I really meant to explain the silence here last week, and to recommend occasional silence to you. The really good news for you is I've decided to spare you any of the poems I wrote last week.