Wednesday, 23 December 2009

It's Chriiiiistmas - what are you doing here?

This is my 94th post of 2009 - I'm rather sorry not to hit a century, but it's time for turning off and mulling wine rather than mulling over cultural policy. 2009 has been a difficult year personally at times, although I've done loads of exciting things too, but I'm very excited about 2010.
Nearly 5000 people have visited Arts Counselling this year, twice as many as in 2008, which is pleasing. 11% of those have visited more than 100 times. Probably only these people will be looking at this time of year, so here's a link to Arts Council England's Christmas greetings for them, by Pomme Chan and INTRO.
Have a good break if you're getting one, hope you get at least time and a half (or at least a thank you from the boss or the public) if you're working, and see you in 2010.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Give me enough rope: albums of the noughties

I'm now going to really expose my shortcomings as a high brow, by listing 10 of my favourite albums of the decade. And show my age by using the word album probably...

No classical, no jazz, no hip-hop or r'n'b, nothing too ou-there, I'm afraid. I could have done a Mercury and put Bill Frisell and Medeski, Martin and Wood on here, for instance, or Kanye West - I like them a lot, but when I go with my gut they've not made real favourites this decade. Here goes...

Time (The Revelator) - Gillian Welch (includes possibly the best 14 minute long song in the history of folk-rock)
Not The Trembling Kind - Laura Cantrell (a favourite of the late John Peel, classic debut, though check the song 'Bees' on her 3rd album for my favourite Cantrell song)
Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not - Arctic Monkeys (Sillitoe crossed with Cooper-Clarke with great tunes and well-thumped guitars - yes it's obvious, but for good reason)
Is This It? - The Strokes (as fake as the Monkeys are real, maybe, but in a great way, even now)
The Futureheads - The Futureheads (Early Gang of Four crossed with Pink Flag-era Wire crossed with 'Born to Run' - how could I not love it?)
More Adventurous - Rilo Kiley (history of pop alluded to on one record, with great girl group attitude)
Dig Lazarus Dig - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (a long way from The Birthday Party but still with fire in his belly, an unlikely advert for growing older)
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - Wilco (wonderful record from my band of the decade, from when they were the American Radiohead - except good. In fact, I like Wilco so much I could have named all four studio albums from a productive decade, but will limit myself to two...)
Sky Blue Sky - Wilco (highspot so far of the Nels Cline era)
Aman Iman - Water is Life - Tiniwaren (not a token world choice, saw them live twice and they were astonishing - the Velvets with gourds. Saw them give the Mayor of Gateshead an amulet once, but that's another story.)

Ok, going to press publish before I add in Lightspeed Champion or Fleet Foxes or...

Monday, 14 December 2009

Slim volumes, rich pickings: poetry2Ks

Following a little off-blog abuse for my book choices, which is exactly what I hoped to inspire, here's my list of 10 favourite poetry collections from the last decade, all plucked from my own bookshelves rather than other lists...

De/compositions - W.D. Snodgrass (one of the best American poets of recent decades, this is a wonderfully entertaining book of bad, supposed early versions of great poems - witty and educational)
First Things When - Robert Rehder (American living in Switzerland, funny and profound)
The Invisible Kings - David Morley (pitch perfect)
These Days - Leontia Flynn (classic lively debut collection)
Dart - Alice Oswald (atmospheric exploration of a river from perhaps the decade's strongest emerging figure)
Mandelson, Mandelson - David Herd (Alexander Pope crossed with Frank O'Hara in the Age of Peter)
Tramp in Flame - Paul Farley (mature third collection syndrome)
The Drowned Book - SeanO'Brien (hard to choose between this and Downriver, to be honest)
Nelson and the Huruburu Bird - Mairead Byrne (Irish poet now in the US, fantastically hybridising before your eyes in this book)
Ideas Have Legs - Ian McMillan vs Andy Martin (a personal favourite as a book - meaning book as object, some strong McMillan poems combined with inventive design, accessible, funny but also moving and powerful)

I've not included anthologies in that list. Neil Astley's Staying Alive would be my essential anthology of the decade, though the 2nd most read is Legitimate Dangers, edited by Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin, a great wedge of younger American poets I found far more exciting than, say, those anthologised in Bloodaxe's recent Voice Recognition.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

How do you fund for resilience?

This week I was part of the panel at MMM/ERA21’s latest Peer-to-Peer event in Newcastle, the topic being ‘funding transition’. Chaired by David Carrington, the panel was myself, Penny Vowles from the Northern Rock Foundation and two leading American thinkers on funding and philanthropy, Clara Miller of the Non-Profit Finance Fund and Ben Cameron of the Doris Duke Foundation. (The audience was pretty stellar too, of course.)

It was a really stimulating conversation, encouraging and daunting in equal measure. Encouraging because it showed potential ways through the issues which seemed to face arts organisations on both sides of the Atlantic. Daunting because those issues are so deeply ingrained in the mental models of both funders and funded, and because of the political pressures we face in this country, given our public sector-leaning funding model. (Although, as Jim Beirne from Live Theatre pointed out, the issues of under-capitalisation, lack of focus on business growth and fluctuating revenue streams seem common to the UK and the US, where government funding is a very small percentage of income.)

Both Clara and Ben have a great turn of phrase. Clara described how NPFF had realised it could ‘either nurse the malaria patients one by one or drain the swamps’ and decided to try and deal with the underlying issues. She also introduced us to ‘the four horsemen of the non-profit financial apocalypse’ – Overbuilt, Over-endebted, Labour Economics and Disappearing Revenue.

If there was a single idea to take away and pass on from the very rich discussion it was this:

Both funded and funders need to acknowledge the difference between capital fund and revenue funds, and use them well. Capital is not just about buildings, but about building enterprises (organisations if you don’t like that word, though Clara also suggested we ‘learn to love our inner enterprise’.) The best definition I heard was ‘investment that builds capacity to attract reliable income'. Revenue funding is about ‘buying’ – of cultural value, or activity, or ability to take risks, depending on the funder. This is not an either or: for a resilient organisation and cultural sector, building and buying are necessary. Doing one without the other is the biggest risk of all for funders. Mistaking one for the other is unhealthy for organisations. It’s often – maybe always? – about survival and transformation. The task of being flexible and responsive enough is shared – and goes all the way through the system, which in the case of the UK, takes it right up to central government.

Video and recordings of the conversation will be available on the MMM site very soon. You can also catch up on the Steady State discussions last month.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Notes on the noughties...10 non-fiction books

Here's my second-list of 10 of my favourites from the noughties... all from the Robinson bookshelves... prose non-fiction, with some notes...

Like a Fiery Elephant, - Jonathan Coe (great biography of the fantastic B.S. Johnson)
Bringing It All Back Home - Ian Clayton (best book about loving music I've ever read)
Chronicles, Volume 1 - Bob Dylan (can't think what to say here it's so obvious)
Bass Culture - Lloyd Bradley (encyclopedic history of reggae)
Blink - Malcolm Gladwell (thinking without thinking)
Resilience Thinking - Brian Walker and David Salt (just search 'resilience' on this site to see why)
Freakonomics - Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (I like thinking with number as well as words)
17 - Bill Drummond ( entertaining art philosophy, my name in here somewhere as a member of The 17)
Getting to Maybe - Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman & Michael Quinn Patton (making the impossible happen, inspiring book on social change)
Rip It Up - Simon Reynolds (how post-punk changed the world, or bits of Britain anyway.)

Hmm, very blokey, very contradictory, glad I didn't list the books about northern soul (d'oh!) No wonder the supplements never ask, is it? I have read some of the books I should have on this list, but this are more my favourites. I spent the 80s and 90s reading about literature, art and theatre, honest.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Leaving (the first decade of) the 21st century: 10 favourite novels

Well, what with the papers being full of 'end of the decade' summaries, I've been scanning the shelves and my brain for a few lists with which to expose my narrow- and shallow-ness. Here's the first, 10 of my favourite novels published since 2000. (In no particular order, as they say on The X Factor, and missing out lots I wanted to list.)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay - Michael Chabon
Snow - Orhan Pamuk
The Night Watch - Sarah Waters
The Lay of the Land - Richard Ford
Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
The Peoples' Act of Love - James Meek
The Cold Six Thousand - James Ellroy
White Teeth - Zadie Smith
The Damned United - David Peace
The Madolescents - Chrissie Glazebrook

Odd how many of them begin with 'The'. Don't know what that means!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Own Art generates interest

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an hour long documentary about an Arts Council scheme and thought, ‘you know, the only thing missing there was some criticism.’ But last night’s BBC 1 Imagine documentary on the Own Art scheme was so absolutely positive it could almost have done with someone going ‘hang on a minute, what about…’ The programme, with Alan Yentob, explored ‘a small revolution in art collecting’ as a result of this interest free loan scheme. (Declaration of interest: I chair ArtCo, the trading company of Arts Council England which runs the scheme, alongside a similar one relating to musical instruments.) It was a really fascinating programme, warm, affectionate and optimistic.

It was a great demonstration of not just the worth of the scheme, but of the fascinating and glorious variety of ordinary people. Whatever I might have thought personally of their taste in visual arts, I'd fight for their right to exercise it. Each person spoke eloquently and with passion about their works, and the impact on their lives, their families and how they saw the world. They all contained a little surprise which defied expectations and reminded me how easy (and silly) it is to pigeonhole people and the arts position in their lives. The sculptures next to the collection of Jean Genet books, for instance, turned out to belong a gentle policeman in Yorkshire. And the down-to-earth keeness and curiosity of the Darlington mod and his wife commissioning a portrait - he thought it was mainly of his scooter, but as Alan Yentob pointed out it was entirely of him - made me mad again at how working class is more often used these days as a synonym for dysfunction than as a positive description of decent people like these. Here was an intelligent, discerning and culturally demanding working man, ordinary and unique like most people are if you scratch the surface, without pretension. I could, though, hear snootier parts of the art world sneering even as his portrait was unveiled. Well, to adapt a great new Malcolm Tuckerism, when I want their opinion, I'll give the signal -which is me being sectioned under the Mental Health Act. (Non-British readers: that's a quote from The Thick of It.) Meanwhile, I'd suggest the BBC occasionally add the couple to the commentators on the Culture Show - not instead of but in addition to the expert regulars.

Anyway, dismounting my hobby horses before they gallop away with me, it's a lovely film and I won't let any purists tell me otherwise. I'd say there was something quintessentially English about it, and there is, except that the Scottish Arts Council are very strong partners in Own Art, so will go for British. It's available on the I-player here until 29th December.

Monday, 30 November 2009

It may be art but is it cricket?

Sports versus the arts is a seemingly perennial – though entirely pointless – debate. Michael Vaughan, the former captain of England and Yorkshire is the latest example of the two meeting, with his new career in the visual arts threatening to give a whole new meaning to the phrase Turning Point. Apparently enjoying the galleries of Shoreditch on rainy days has led him to a new practice he calls ‘artballing’. (As dictinct to the art balls that some artists talk?) See here for a news story and here for the gallery's description.

There’s not a huge amount to say about the actual works themselves, though I think I’ve seen worse. He hits cricket balls at the canvas, with a concept behind each one. You could say it's a kind of a Yorkshire cricketing version of Niki de Saint Phalle. But you'd be pushing it. I can imagine they'll be very popular with cricket-loving executives.

It’s certainly an interesting commercial model. Perhaps there’s a market for barn doors whacked with footballs covered in paint by failed premier league strikers?

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Who do you think benefits most from the work of the Arts Council - and who should?

I said I’d return to the topic of who our stakeholders (artists, arts organisations, local authorities and other partners) thought currently benefit from the arts Council’s work, and who they thought should benefit.

If we look at who respondents feel currently benefits most it goes like this:

1. Arts Organisations – 50%
2. The public – 18%
3. The Government – 15%
4. Artists – 11%
5. Other – 4%
6. The Arts Council – 2%

Who they feel ought to be benefiting is intriguingly and significantly different:

1. The public– 49%
2. Artists – 30%
3. Arts Organisations– 18%
4. Other – 1%
5. The Government – 1%
6. The Arts Council – 0%

What this might suggest definitely requires closer scrutiny of the detailed findings. I don't know yet whether there are big differences between the responses from different categories of people, which might be important. Knowing how, say, local authority and non-arts partners views of our impact differ from those of artists and arts organisation should help colleagues grapple with how best to work with different sectors in achieving shared goals. Might a very strong feeling in one group explain some of the differences above, for instance? But since almost half the respondents were Regularly Funded Organisations, it seems unlikely the ‘should benefit’ answers are totally unrepresentative of their opinions. I’d say this suggests a really positive focus on public benefit – but defined very differently from simply serving government agendas, and acknowledging that artists and organisations that work with them are integral to that public benefit.

On the face of it, respondents feel there's scope for a sizeable shift in who benefits most. (Although I need to note the caveat that those figures capture feelings, rather than any objective analysis of the actual benefit.) This is potentially really exciting and challenging for the new leadership team, in thinking through these findings. Does the Arts Council, for instance, need more 'tools' along the lines of the interest free loans used by Own Art and Take It Away, or schemes like A Night Less Ordinary, which put power (and effectively subsidy) directly in the hands of the customer rather than the provider? Or is it more about developing sectoral understanding and impact? Or some other solutions? Or (as I'd argue) all three?

Friday, 27 November 2009

In a right steady state?

MMM and ERA21 held one of their peer-to-peer events in Newcastle this week, in the trendy new offices of Northern Film and Media in the Hoult’s Yard development. The theme was whether the sector is now ‘overbuilt’, underachieving, at ‘steady state’ or in a perilous condition. Or indeed none of the above.

The conversation demonstrated, for me, that we are at the point when innovative solutions start to pop up – ie that bit where you think you have a series of irreconcilable ‘truths’, and an intractable problem the current tools can’t fix. These clashing factors mentioned include:

- a renewed infrastructure – notably capital, but also organisational – that needs time and support to develop and have greater impact
- the sector can’t stand still and may need further infrastructure investment (capital of all sorts perhaps, including into digital technology)
- buildings and their physical assets are not always used to best effect to create cultural impact, and our business models (eg greater reliance on ‘commercial hires’ leads to less artist use of space for r&d, leading to diminished quality or quantity of new work). This suggest building in some ‘downtime’ to budgets.
- the public sector as a whole faces big cuts, whilst optimising service to the public – delayering of management, more efficient back offices. This suggests tightening of budgets
- the cultural sector is not meeting the needs of significant parts of the population
- but demand for the arts and culture is high, and thus far not significantly hit by the recession
the increased emphasis on the knowledge economy is an opportunity for the cultural sector, in helping the country out of recession
- we need to think broader than the commercial and subsidised sectors, and consider the role of amateur and voluntary activity
- non-arts agendas offer great opportunity for development but we lack compelling evidence (at least according to those judging matters)
- it’s unclear whether the base of the cultural sector pyramid (people enjoying the arts, say) is broad enough to give us enough people at the top of the pyramid (highly skilled, knowledge-based earners)
- there are lessons to be learned from creative industries and third sector experience
- persistence should not be mistaken for real, productive, resilience.

There were some local points, as well, but that will do as a summary for now. My own conclusion from the afternoon was that a more concerted ‘looking out’ would really help us disrupt our own patterns of thinking – from region into world, from artform into sector, from sector into economy or community or globe.

There are still a few spaces on MMM’s next series of events, if you can get to Edinburgh, London or Newcastle. Clare and Rohan have put a great panel of speakers together, including, in Newcastle, Clara Miller, President and CEO of the USA's Nonprofit Finance Fund, Ben Cameron, Arts Programme Director of the USA's Doris Duke Foundation,David Carrington, Member of the Supervisory Board of Triodos Bank, Erica Whyman, CEO and Artistic Director of Northern Stage. Oh, and me...

Sunday, 22 November 2009

A thought on writing

'But why this urge to speak things, rather than make do with observing them? Where does it come from, this compulsion writers have to turn into words everything that touches them or holds their attention? Would it not be more sensible to prune and look after those trees, before describing them? But both the one and the other are necessary. Once men thought that uttering the true name of a god conferred full power over him: the priests were accordingly careful to keep it to themselves. There was a profound truth in this belief. Whoever seizes a landscape, a moment, a light, with suitable words, cures them - provisionally, at least - of this malady where everything dissolves, disappears, escapes us. Where do they go, all these moments, these lives, and our life? A beautiful poem, a well-wrought phrase keeps them, encloses them, gives shape to what is no more than vapour and cannot be grasped. In that way a person, without being entirely mistaken, perhaps, can believe he is somewhat less alien in the world, somewhat less helpless in the face of time's brilliant stratagems.'

That's a quote from a prose-poem I was reading earlier today, by Phillipe Jaccottet, translated by Jennie Feldman and Stephen Romer. It's from a great Anvil Press anthology, Into The Deep Street, Seven Modern French Poets. My favourite phrase there is even better in French, due to the wonder of the reflexive verb, 'sans se tromper completement, peut-etre'.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

74% of Everybody's Happy Nowadays

I’ve done a presentation on the headline results of our ‘Stakeholder Focus’ survey twice this week, once to staff and then to Regional Council. It’s a kind of customer satisfaction survey, where people get the chance to say what they think of Arts Council England, their relationships with us, how we work, our impact and so on. So it’s always a bit nerve-wracking opening the document and seeing how you come out.

Fortunately, things are heading very much in the right direction, and it's certainly a far more positive feeling than last time we did it, when there a few 'difficult messages'. Obviously not everyone thinks the Arts Council’s great (1 in 10 respondents consider us ‘unfavourably’, for instance), and there is, as ever, plenty to work on – reducing bureaucracy, being even more flexible and responsive, being more open with partners, for instance - but also lots to build on – being supportive, helpful and strategic are already strengths we can use. (According to the 896 people who responded, not according to me.)

There’s lots more interesting stuff, such as that 7 out of 10 members of the public have heard of the Arts Council, but most of those know nothing about us and that North East respondents have a very low propensity for taking the ‘Don’t know’ option. This may help explain why more people than average would be critical of us whilst more people than average also think we make a positive impact difference in the region. (In fact that welcome group seems, according to my maths, to include some of those who'd criticise us when asked.) So lots of useful feedback and issues to dig deeper into over coming months so we can carry on improving. (Blimey, that sounds a bit corporate, doesn't it? Rest assured Alan Davey is not standing over me whilst I write this. I can't think of anyone in the organisation not genuinely committed to listening and improving.)

There was one figure which puzzled me, staff and Council members alike. 15% of arts organisations, artists and partners thought that the Government benefited most from Arts Council activity at present. This is more people than thought artists benefited most, and nearly as many as said the public (18%). When asked who should benefit most, only 1% of respondents said the Government. (I will return on another occasion to which categories came out top in perceptions of current benefit and ‘should benefit’.)

This feels really interesting, assuming it's not some kind of blip. One in eight people think the government benefit more than the public, or artists or arts organisations from our work. It may just be a survey poke in the ribs for us from the Intrinsic School. It may be a sign of scepticism about government full stop. But what returns is it thought the government are getting that the public aren't? How does a government benefit without the public, or the economy benefiting, anyway? Popularity-by-announcement? Given the government decide on levels of funding, what should they get in return for their money? What image do arts organisations and our partners have of government - and, of course, the Arts Council? Is that a sign of healthy scepticism or of a kind of solipsism and myopia, expecting, presumably, continued government funding with no 'return' to government? I'm not saying the Government should benefit most, I just find it very interesting.

You can read a summary of headline results here, though there will be more detail and a full response in due course. This is not part of the Arts Council response!

(By the way, those of you who get this by email subscription, and read it on your blackberry or some other mobile device, do go to the actual site and you'll find a free gift, courtesy of Manchester and YouTube that you might not see in your hand. You could even leave a comment - Arts Counselling is also committed to listening!)

Monday, 16 November 2009

Younger than that now

There’s been lots of coverage in the last couple of weeks of 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the subsequent ‘domino’ effect across Eastern Europe. Whenever I think of that November, I also remember my first naïve steps into 'arts development', as it’s when the first issue of Scratch, the poetry magazine I used to edit and publish, came out. I recall stuffing envelopes with fresh-smellign magazines whilst watching the news on tv.

I started the magazine with a strong interest in how poets were reflecting the 2nd decade of Thatcherism with a kind of expanded, po-mo-realism, wise-cracking and allusive but political at a deep level. Although there were some signs of hope (the Green Party got 15% of the vote in the European Elections in 1989, for instance), it could feel as if nothing was ever going to change. So why not start a poetry magazine that would show that, as I put it in the first editorial, ‘the exercise of the imagination is an act of liberation’?

As is only normal and proper there’s a lot about that first issue that now makes me cringe and smile simultaneously – the youthful self-righteousness, the slack use of Letraset. But no one can deny that within a year of me starting a poetry magazine, the Berlin Wall was paperweights across the world, repressive communist regimes had crumbled, Ceausescu was dead, Thatcher was out of power, Nelson Mandela was free and my wife gave birth to our first child – who says poetry makes nothing happen? (Of course, I can make a strong case for personal responsibility for only one of the things in that list.)

Why am I sharing this, other than to mark the occasion? Well, it’s something to do with change. In that first editorial, I also quoted Greil Marcus:

‘It was too easy to lose touch with rage, with a sense of what is good and evil, to lose touch with the idea that its worth something to make, and try to live out, such a distinction. These are the politics of the freeze-out. They turn into a culture of seamless melancholy with the wilful avoidance of anything that one suspects might produce really deep feeling. Raw emotions must be avoided when one knows they will take no shape but that of chaos.’

Change runs through a number of recent posts – perhaps because I’m personally very alive to it right now, mainly because it’s in the air. I suspect we’re not in a melancholic freeze-out, with two tribes eyeing each other guardedly, but in something both more manic and more ersatz than that. (As with the ridiculous attacks on Gordon Brown last week.) It can feel like raw emotion or personal interest is all that’s allowed. Whether we are actually shaping chaos to a greater degree feels highly debatable. We seem to know change is-a-coming, in a way few did in 1989, but are we any better prepared?

The question I keep returning to, in our culture and in our Culture, is how we bring into actual being a proper combination of emotion and analysis, imagination and intent, change and continuity. And as in 1989, I have a hunch that if the arts can’t help, we’re going to struggle.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Any appetite for a naked lunch?

I join the dots between things and look for patterns. I probably over-do it at times, but it’s how my brain works. Here’s my latest set of dots.

Firstly a phrase echoing from the IFACCA Summit, Shelagh Wrights’s diagnosis that the arts suffer from ‘dodgy advocacy’, ran through my thinking – actually more worrying – about some themes from the IPPR/RSA event about the future of the public sector in the North East I mentioned last week. Themes like the need to acknowledge the unworkability of current ways before innovation kicks in.

Then that connected up to an essay I found via Matthew Taylor blogging about ‘policy-based evidence making’ with the rather wonderful title of ‘On bullshit in cultural policy practice and research’. In it, Dr Eleonora Belfiore uses research around evidence for ‘the impact of the arts’, as a case study in bullshit, that mode of discourse which puts persuasion above accuracy, what she describes as an ‘indifference to how things really are’. (Just for the record I think she’s right in general, but rather harsh on the arts, coming across at times as the kind of academic who’d be happier just having cultural policy and no actual messy culture.)

I then wondered if the current collective mindset of the publicly-funded arts and cultural sector is open and self-critical enough often enough to imagine all possible futures. (I include in that the funders involved, including government.) Have we become too accustomed to growth? Do we still believe that someone somewhere will have a pot of money they need to use at just the right moment –? For all our needs? What might we have to give up to respond to climate change? There is strong evidence for the impact of the arts, more than Belfiore can admit for her argument I would suggest, but if we only look for the answers that are useful to us, do we make ourselves overly-reliant on those we’re making the case to? Don’t we have to strive for the moment William Burroughs called the naked lunch - 'a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork' – so we can start to move beyond it?

The final dot (never end on Burroughsian apocalyptic paranoia!) was catching up on the new series of The Thick of It, which is a lesson in the way political discourse has been perverted by language. It’s somehow missing something the first series and the specials had, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. (Maybe the loosened grip on power makes Malcolm something of an underdog, albeit one with horrible bark and bite?) It is still very funny though, especially if, like me, you think swearing can be grown up and funny.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Paradoxical times?

IPPR North’s recent publication Public Sector Paradox draws together some conclusions from the Commission on Public Sector Reform in the North East. These centre on ways out of what they believe is a paradox: public services in the region are working well but the North East is not closing the inequality gap on the rest of the country. (The same pattern could be said to pertain to the arts in the region and participation levels.) The Commission puts forward a number of striking (and pithily expressed) theories, such as that public services ‘may be hitting targets but missing the point’ and need more local definition and freedom from Whitehall centralism.

To mark the publication and to discuss what the ‘inevitable’ (it's a quote, yes, but I also think we need to emphasise the constructed quality of the inevitablity) public sector cuts will mean to the North East and how to respond, IPPR and the RSA organised a conference today at St James Park in Newcastle. (No, I didn’t see anyone putting ‘’ signs up.) Speakers included Sir George Russell, who chaired the Commission, Matthew Taylor from the RSA, John Tommany for Newcastle University and Deborah Jenkins, one of the founders of Common Purpose.

There was much talk of leadership – without it ever being defined and without who it might refer to being narrowed down much. The spectre of the Great Man model was behind a lot that was said. The idea of a more networked leadership model, which allowed for a greater diversity of voices, seems an important one to explore – though challenging to many orthodoxies.

The North East is clearly vulnerable to cuts in public sector spending, given our relative dependence on government funding. (I was reacting strongly against this word during the day, but struggle to avoid it. It suggests government funding is a kind of drug we need to be weaned off, rather than a positive investment with a particular kind of return on investment. Do people talk about dependency on financiers? I guess so.) But one possible reason for the seeming paradox was given by John Tomanny in an ironic quite: it’s the economy, stupid.

Matthew Taylor suggested a scarily believable nightmare scenario for the North East, where a retrenchment into the so-called essentials leads to the region becoming less attractive to talent and investment, leading to even less achievement and so on. You might call this the ‘It’s Grim Up North Again’ scenario. (My phrase, not Matthew’s, in case anyone wants to take offence.) He suggested turning the potential weakness into a strength by becoming a centre of excellence in public sector productivity and innovation, by adopting an Innovation Charter, clusters of new thinking and creating international links rather than regional or national ones. (And yes, Matthew, as you guessed, we are doing some of that already, but not boldly or quickly enough.)

The biggest barrier to this is probably what was described as the first pre-condition for innovation: a sense of otherwise-unavoidable-crisis-or-disastrous-problem. I was reminded of something I’d read in the Guardian this morning, where Ben Bradshaw accuses the arts sector of ‘sleepwalking’ towards a difficult future (under a different government than his own oddly enough.) Certainly in some of the cultural sector broadly there is a kind of complacency disguised as either fatalism or oppositional critique that worries me. There is not, it seems, yet what the change specialists call ‘a burning platform’. I have to think it’s the optimist in me that can smell burning, not the fatalist. (I’m optimistic we can find great new ways of working – to engage more than 1 in 10 adults on a very regular basis, for instance - but only once we realise some of our old and current ways are part of an urgent and damaging problem. I think it's about more than the next election too.)

The question I personally came away with was this: how do I use my last few months as a North East leader-with-job-title to make sure I can still play my part – in fact even build my part in some ways – in the future? I’m thinking on it, believe me, but your answers on a postcard welcome.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Is thinking becoming more popular?

I spent last weekend mainly at The Sage Gateshead at Radio 3’s ‘festival of ideas’, Free Thinking. I threw a couple of 3 minute theories out, in the Theory Slam -‘Sustainability is a convenient but dangerous word and we should talk more about resilience’ - and the Speed Dating with a Thinker event -‘We need a nationwide programme of strangeness to build our sense-making skills and teach us we don’t really understand the world.’ Think-dating was fun, but as I said to a couple of people, saying the same thing 11 times to a mix of keenness, scepticism and intelligent questioning was a little too much like being at work for comfort on a weekend. (No, I didn't win. And yes, dear team, I'm only kidding. No, really.)

I also attended lots of talks being speakers from William Orbit to Tanya Byron. A debate on which was most valuable to humanity, sport or the arts, made me suspect I was the only person in the room who did/enjoyed both, and I fiercely wanted to send the ‘arts people’ on a cross-country run or get them on a squash court.

What struck me most was the size of the audiences though – packed halls, often simultaneously and lots of debate in the concourse – a real appetite for intelligent debate and learning, from people of all ages and accents. It rather encouraged me about public discourse, which I can sometimes think is a thing of the past. Noticeably the politician speakers, David Miliband and Ken Livingstone both had capacity audiences. Maybe the next election will see a revival of big public political meetings?

In fact the ‘thinking’ obviously spread into the concerts also going on at The Sage Gateshead that weekend. I bumped into an old friend who was halfway through a piano recital by Freddy Kempf, and asked him whether he was enjoying it. (I’m a deep thinker, me.) He immediately wondered why he’d ever been a Marxist and launched into a critique of Beethoven’s weak class analysis and his romantic transcendentalism. Perhaps thinking is contagious? If so, spread the virus!

(Visit the Radio 3 Free Thinking microsite and you can ‘listen again’ and find links to lots of short videos too.)

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Last words on the IFACCA World Summit, for now

I’ve had a very hectic time of it for the last fortnight, which is why it’s been quite on here. I had one or two more things I wanted to say about the IFACCA World Summit, but have decided it’s best to do them as a kind of montage of the last day or so, before they go completely cold in my notebook. I will return at another time to the themes of translation as a kind of dialogue relating to diversity, and to the interface between tradition and innovation, I hope you'll find here.

So, imagine some atmospheric background music, and plunge in to the following paragraph. (I did try and render it in SA colours but it lost some legibility.) Then work out what the applications might be for you. (Speakers listed at the bottom, not exact quotes – all clumsiness mine.)

The crossroads of identity I don’t want to be part of any club that will have me as a member Watching speakers rush through too many slides makes me feel so tense, especially white text on a white background An open political space is a pre-requisite for proper creativity Intercultural dialogue is not about the connection of two fixed points Does intercultural dialogue actually lead to the erosion of identity? Eric Clapton’s guitar style as an example of hybridity I am interested in shattering morals We were connected to our mother cultures but felt like orphans Give up on authenticity…culture is a necessary fiction Use the moment of perfection in a traditional form to inform contemporary forms of art The intercultural moment is also in time/history: between old and new, now and past There is no interculturality without translation, even within a single language A photograph of BALTIC in a presentation on microfinance?! Should we have a World Art Day? We had been good at doing the impossible but not so good at the ordinary

You can now see and read more of the presentations on the Summit site. Many thanks to Sarah Gardner and her team at IFACCA, to Annabell Lebethe and her team at the National Arts Council of South Africa and to programme director Mike van Graan for a great time in Jo'burg.

Quotes from (in order) Frank Panucci, Groucho Marx quoted by Frank Panucci, me, Joy Mboya x4 , T Sasitharan x6, Arturo Navaro with my exclamation and questions marks, Sanjoy Roy, Albie Sachs

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Does democracy have customers?

I wrote about cuts and choices recently , suggesting the debate needed to be about what we are prepared to do without. Matthew Taylor, on his RSA blog, puts his finger on the underlying problem: which is, as it so often is, an inappropriate metaphor:

'Modern representative democracy, as it is practised in England, is based on a false metaphor – that of consumerism. We think the task of democracy is to give us what we want, the customer is always right. In contrast, I want to argue that representative democracy is actually much more about trying to agree what we can’t have and coming to accept the reasons why. This, after all, is the question posed by the public spending deficit and by the even bigger challenge of reducing our national carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. But deciding how to make sacrifices is much harder than promising everyone goodies. The way we think about and undertake representative democracy is incapable of supporting this kind of discussion.'

I also relate this false metaphor to my unease when people - especially in the media - say certain things are 'owned' by the tax payer, or that 'the tax payer now pays some bankers' wages' because the government invest in them. It feels inaccurate. And maybe that's because it's based on the metaphor of consumerist shareholding for profit/goods rather than (jargon alert!) community stakeholding.

Matthew also says 'every policy option has a downside and involves a real political choice' which is something I feel is often overlooked by the sector in responding to arts policy. (And sometimes by policy makers themselves!)

This could be explored further, but no time for that now unfortunately - but felt it was a useful insight.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Pata pata time

The posts this week have been a bit serious. No apologies for that, but here's something for a different kind of mood to wind down your week/up your weekend!

I wanted to include the video of Miriam Makeba doing La luta continua, a song which was played by the dj at the IFACCA Summit Dinner, but it can't be embedded. You can see it here.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Why it needs to be 'for everyone'?

Just because I like it and want to share it, here’s another quote from Gilles Deleuze’s essay ‘Desert Islands’. I suppose you might say art where he says literature.

‘The essence of the deserted island is imaginary and not actual, mythological and not geographical. At the same time, its destiny is subject to those human conditions that make mythology possible. Mythology is not simply willed into existence, and the peoples of the earth quickly ensured they would no longer understand their own myths. It is at this very moment literature begins. Literature is the attempt to interpret, in an ingenious way, the myths we no longer understand, at the moment we no longer understand them, since we no longer know how to dream them or reproduce them.’

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Are there really no innocent songs?

One of the speakers who caused the most breaktime-buzz at the IFACCA World Summit was Stojan Pelko, the State Secretary in the Slovenian Ministry of Culture. After a tour-de-force of Minister-as-tourism-advocate from the Jamaican Minister of Culture, this was a totally different kettle of fish. There may be other State Secretaries who end by exploring a metaphor from Gilles Deleuze, but I’ve missed them so far.

His topic was whether cultural diversity was the source of world peace or the root of all conflict. Coming from a part of the former Yugoslavia, as he put it, once you have known poets shooting from the hills it is hard to see culture as therapy or something than can overrule ‘real power’. Using a devasting clip from Goran Markovic’s The Tour, he suggested that in global capitalism ‘there are no innocent songs’, and that the discontinuities of history - where old certainties break down - are where the universalities emerge. (Certainly at that point, this seemed a world away from the ‘dodgy advocacy’ I mentioned yesterday, and suggests a positive outcome to recession.)

Where the arts could be ‘real arms’, Pelko argued, was in creating what he called ‘subterranean solidarities’ – by encouraging a sense of non-identity with the collective where people became ‘raw, free and vulnerable’. (As opposed, I take it, to the security of common identity and values that can, in extremis, lead to intolerance.)

He then concluded by exploring the central images of a short text by Gilles Deleuze, ‘Desert Islands’. (You can find this on Scribd here. It’s a very short essay and well worth reading - and not as difficult as much of his later work.) At the time this simply resonated as a metaphor, and I’ve yet to have chance to read the full text of Pelko’s talk, so I may have misinterpreted things. Deleuze sets out how islands are of two sorts, which I think now may be both two kinds of cultures, but also apply to different strands of artistic practice. There are he says, continental islands, ‘accidental, derived islands… separated from a continent, born of disarticulation, erosion, fracture; they survive the absorption of what once contained them’ and oceanic islands that ‘are originary, essential islands…display a genuine organism.’ (There’s no suggestion one is better than another.)

Deleuze says ‘Continental islands serve as a reminder that the sea is on top of the earth, taking advantage of the slightest sagging in the highest structures; oceanic islands, that the earth is still there, under the sea, gathering its strength to punch through the surface.’ That speaks to me of tradition and innovation, of growth and decay, of the power relations within culture over time. This is where Pelko seemed to take his talk, suggesting a need to ‘become the stranger’ on the desert island, before moving from solitary to solidarity, in the knowledge that songs will not save alone but must be seen in relation to real power. As he said, quoting Delueze in French, ‘il faut l’imagination collectif…’

Metaphors defy the need for practical conclusions, so I’m going to refrain from drawing any right now. I’ll end with an amusing and provoking quote from Deleuze’s essay Stojan Pelko didn’t refer to, but I’ve written down for future use as the epigram to a poem:

‘That England is populated will always come as a surprise; humans can live on an island only by forgetting what an island represents’.

Monday, 5 October 2009

The heritage of expectancy

The first roundtable I attended at the IFACCA World Summit on Arts & Culture focused on the likely effects of recession on intercultural dialogue. Shelagh Wright drew on ‘After the Crunch’ for her introduction, with some especially telling comments about the ‘phony hierarchy and dodgy advocacy’ that limits much British debate. Even more challenging was the contribution from Farai Mpfunya of the Culture Fund of Zimbabwe Trust. He drew on 8 years of official recession in Zimbabwe to suggest a more fundamental questioning of our ways of life was necessary. He used a phrase I found really resonant in describing what he hoped to pass on to his family, ‘the heritage of expectancy’.

This led to a discussion about who was actually wealthier (and/or perhaps healthier) – people/countries with huge amount of credit/debt leading to spending power, or those with no access to credit, but therefore correspondingly little debt? Farai's phrase also echoed many conversations I've had in the North East about the so-called lack of aspiration in the region's young people, and whether actually what is missing is not so much aspiration as expectation - the lack of which will eventually quash many people's hopes.

In the context of recession, however, the phrase is more debatable. It struck me there was in the cultural sector's thinking, as in the general population's, a continuum, only part of which was actually healthy. This continuum might go something like this:

Despondency - Aspiration - Expectation - Optimism -Entitlement -Dependency

Discussing the different ways of investing in culture, notions of trust and social capital became central to emerging out of the recession in a healthy manner. There being no genuine dialogue without trust, for instance, and the connections which make up social capital building trust, potentially forming a virtuous circle. But holding the centre of that continuum above is perhaps also dependent on the health of our social capital. (I'm picturing trying to keep a seesaw balanced on your own - you need to avoid both ends.)

What might this mean practically in the cultural sector? Well, perhaps things like:
  • leading organisations playing prominent roles in creating apprenticeship and other development opportunities
  • funders not colluding with dependency
  • an increased focus on sharing of stories to create a heritage of healthy expectancy
  • (even) more collaborative working and social networking
  • avoiding business as usual.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Should Arts Council England have a Director of Strangeness?

As mentioned, I spent last week at the IFACCA’s 4th World Summit on Arts & Culture in Johannesburg. (And a few days prior to that meeting South African participants in the amazing Swallows Partnership in the Eastern Cape. You can read accounts by some of the English Swallows on Northern Stage’s website here.)

It was a really stimulating few days, in all sorts of senses. Firstly I saw some challenging and exciting art, including Brett Bailey's Three Colours. Secondly I heard some challenging speakers who did their level best to shake up my sense of how the world of cultural policy looks and feels. And thirdly I met loads of really great people from all over the world. And as a bonus, I wasn’t ultimately responsible for organisation, as I was at the previous Summit in NewcastleGateshead in 2006.

But it’s hard to summarise the discussions around the theme of ‘intercultural-dialogue’. So I’m going to spread a few thoughts out over the next few posts, covering the key ideas I took from the Summit. The first is this idea of ‘strangeness’.

Keynote speaker Professor Njabula Ndebele set out a challenge to the notion of diversity and difference as automatically ‘a good thing’, arguing – as did a number of people – that it could promote separation as much as appreciation. (A diverse community, he remarked, being more often evoked than experienced.) He then went on to suggest that the notion of intercultural dialogue is intrinsically linked to both integration and loss, that what we often label as ‘diverse’ is more simply ‘unfamiliar’ to the dominant culture, and the reactions to it will inevitably include both resistance and accommodation in different measures, leading to either integration of the unfamiliar or loss of previous assumptions or beliefs, or, often, both. It may then be more helpful to think of cultural ‘strangeness’ than ‘difference’ or ‘diversity’.

This seems a fruitful avenue to play with – partly as it feels like a paradigm common to innovation in both making and experiencing the arts.

I could, for example, describe ‘getting into jazz’ following that pattern:
1. initial incomprehension – ‘what a racket!’
2. rejection due to then current norms and beliefs – ‘solos are self-indulgent’
3. a gradual making sense of attraction or potential uses – ‘actually this has a kind of freedom and emotion I don’t get elsewhere’
4. integration into my new set of ways of understanding and being in the world - another section of record shops to browse, new gigs to go to, a more varied musical diet.

But it also shifts the power dynamics often at play in discussions of ‘diversity’ – who brings diversity, where, when, who decides etc. Whilst the dialogue between the strange and the familiar - central to much art – reframes cultural diversity as a process, not a state reached by simply putting people from different backgrounds together. It is through the connection with the 'strangeness' of our diversity that we create something new, which then helps us understand difference more deeply, and from where we can renew a rich cycle.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

World Summit on Arts & Culture

This week I've been in Joahnnesburg for IFACCA's 4th World Summit and Arts & Culture, a gathering of people from arts councils, cultural agencies, ministries and other interested parties. I'll post about the themes more next week when I'm not busy conferencing, but you can follow some of the immediate responses and questions on my Twitter profile.

I had the pleasure of being responsible for the Arts Council England organisation of the 3rd Summit in NewcastleGateshead 3 years ago, and I must say it's even more enjoyable not feeling responsible for everything!

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Just to help me dry the tears...

If you found the previous post a tad depressing, I hope this will lift your spirits, in the way only heartbreak can. Proof that just because some versions of a thing are horrible, another version can't be a thing of beauty and a joy forever...

First cut is the deepest?

The c word is now being spoken out loud on all sides of the political spectrum. There are good cuts and bad cuts, it seems, but the focus is all on cuts in spending. Joe Hallgarten on his arm’s length state blog makes the point that politicians needs to be talk more honestly about the limitations of their power over the world, and thus encourage in us, the ‘public’, a more realistic and probably more forgiving attitude. (He kind of praises Arts Council with one hand, for at least grappling with change, and then digs us in the ribs with the other, which is probably fair enough.) Politicians, he suggests, need to point out they cannot do the impossible - eg keep costs down but make sure no one ever gets hurt. (I'd say the same goes for funders.)

Also this morning someone sent me a link to a report called ‘How to Save £50 billion’, which is at least honest enough to have a clear and relatively unequivocal list of cuts in spending that the Institute of Directors and the Tiny Minority of Tax Payers Alliance think would be a good idea. Read the list and you can see which Tax Payers the Alliance voice might represent: not those like my dad living on the Basic State Pension, or families being helped by Sure Start or Education Maintenance Allowance, or the children being educated in dilapidated buildings. Not to mention the people employed as a result of the things on their little list.

This is not to deny savings are possible or even necessary in some areas. But what needs to be considered is not which expenditure lines should be reduced, but which of the outcomes we want to do without. (We do also need to remember that some of the ‘savings’ also have a direct financial cost, in terms of unemployment, but also indirect social costs – conveniently left out of most of the equations.) I’d happily live without ID cards, but I don’t want the state education system on starvation rations in horrible old buildings. (I know there are some horrible new buildings, but let’s not go there right now.)

In a sense, the public spending cuts debate could then become a part of a wholly necessary discussion about how we are living beyond the means of the planet and our real economies, and what we are prepared to forgo, and how we can reinvent our ways of living and working. That’s obviously also a discussion that is ongoing in culture, and we at Arts Council are constantly making the case as strongly as humanly possible that money spent on culture is well spent and productive. A more mature language for the overall debate can only help us in that.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Bigmouth strikes again

Is there an arts strategy point to be drawn from the odd fact that I found myself on BBC Tees yesterday afternoon talking about the tv chef Keith Floyd who passed away yesterday? Let’s have a go, shall we…

(I should explain they asked me as I had an earlier career as a chef, and I’d been a guest on the breakfast show just last week, so must have been in someone’s head as the more obvious people didn’t answer their phones. At least I’m presuming the BBC don’t have a gigantic database of all our lives, though I gather that kind of thing is all the rage. I failed miserably to slip in a ‘Patrick Swayze died today too and we support some great dance through the Arts Council you know’ line, for which I apologise to the Communications team.)

The point I was able to dredge up in the five minutes notice I had was that Floyd, for all his foibles and failings, was an early part of a movement that moved cooking away from exam-style following of recipes to something freer without abandoning high standards, more expressive – what you might call the ‘fondle vegetables in foreign markets and whack it in the pan’ school. It also led to the current ubiquity of cooking on British television.

The arts point I might draw from this is that too much arts coverage on television is still too much like Delia Smith to really shift how people think about the arts. Tim Marlow has a robust zest and zing, and Mark Kermode is one of my favourite cultural commentators on screen and page. But both arguably enjoy sorting the wheat from the chaffe a little too much for popular taste, though there are few things more enjoyable than Kermode demolishing some nonsense.

In terms of promoting ‘participation’, the really great new tv figure is Gareth Malone, whose new programme, The Unsung Choir, follows the creation of a community choir on a ‘tough estate’. He is human, warm and uncompromising, and the programme is a great example of what a deep introduction to art can do for people and a community. You can see it here, and if you don’t find any of it moving I diagnose you as a cynic. (The BBC have also wrapped some useful info around the programme to encourage people to join choirs and sing.) We need more advocates and champions like this on our screens. And then maybe in 20 years Saturday morning telly will be given over to arts coverage rather than cooking.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Are you ready for the future?

That's the question Mission Models Money want you to consider. They are exploring the competencies, qualities and attributes necessary for coping with the complexity and flux of the 21st Century, and are asking as many people as possible to complete their survey. You can even get a personalised report comparing your answers to the survey results.

Being able to make time to fill in online surveys might be a new competency, given their prevalence, but fortunately the MMM survey is at a slightly more elevated level than that, so I do urge you to get clicking.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Plus ça change?

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation have done an interesting thing and republished a seminal report from 1959, Help for the Arts. The aim is to stimulate debate about how we meet today’s questions of how best to support the arts. It’s a fascinating read. Many things are different – and not just the ‘surface’ signs such as language. (I’m pretty sure I don’t want to bring ‘patronage’ and ‘provinces’ back into regular usage for instance, let alone phrases such as ‘men of means’.) The post-Austerity landscape does look free of agency ‘clutter’, and the text has a refreshing directness – though that may simply by style of the report, unafraid to be patrician where necessary.

There are also many things that are oddly similar through the differences –sometimes in an ‘eternal question’ way. What’s the best balance between support for individuals and institutions? Is it simplistic to say that ‘artists not institutions create art’ – where do ‘producers’ fit in, let alone commissioning ‘bodies’ public and private? If institutions endure, in a way individuals (as opposed to their artwork, of course) may not, is that a good or a bad thing?

Funding interventions are the key theme of the report – which led to the Gulbenkian’s crucial work in developing arts in the regions, and some key 'arts spaces'. I’ve been involved in some discussions in the North East about ‘intelligent funding’ (as opposed to stupid funding, you might say!) and was struck by this paragraph:

The reluctance of the State to help new needs in the arts has been emphasised by the tendency for State grants to take the form of meeting deficits (and to some extent the same criticism applies to local authority grants). No doubt grants on this basis are more easily justified where public money is concerned. Nevertheless the deficit basis of finance has a crippling effect on creative work. Moreover, since bodies which receive deficit grants cannot build up reserves, they are prevented from putting their finances on a sound basis: in the long run this system is therefore uneconomical. This criticism is not, however, valid where guarantees of fixed amounts are made to new and adventurous enterprises.

This is something Arts Councils and both local and national politicians grapple with today, further complicated at times by lottery regulations - well, either grapple with or studiously ignore. (It applies across the voluntary sector as a whole.)

The report posits four key things that need to be addressed, and again, whilst acknowledging how much progress has been made, it’s startling to see how unchanged they are from the list many would draw up today. I’ll end simply by quoting them:

The first is that far greater support is needed for the arts than in the past. Nor is this a temporary need. Once high standards of artistic creation and performance have been established, an increasing sum is required to maintain these new standards. This means
that over the years public authorities will have to find more money for the arts.

The second is that far more needs to be done today to render the arts accessible, particularly in the provinces.

The third point is that there should be more scope for experiment in order to invigorate the arts.

The fourth point is that we think that more should be done to foster appreciation of the arts among the young. The introduction of music and drawing into primary schools has been of the highest importance. But in grammar and secondary modern schools, the practice and appreciation of the arts is apt to be crowded out after the age of 14; while little incentive or encouragement is given to boys and girls after leaving school to develop whatever interest in the arts they have acquired. The best means of doing this is something which would well repay enquiry.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Brahms for breakfast?

I've been in a number of conversations recently about campaigns to increase public engagement in the arts, and the best way to do that without either dumbing down, or making an offer you can't live up to, or simply banging your head against a brick wall. I came across the Americans for the Arts tv ad campaign to encourage young people to do more arts. There are probably some serious policy issues to discuss, but I'm sharing this primarily because they made me laugh.

Vincent :30 from Americans for the Arts on Vimeo.

If you've recently had a sense of humour or irony by-pass, or are one of those arts people born without a sense of humour, I suggest you move along now, as there is nothing for you to see here.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Self-employment in the visual arts

AIR – Artists Interaction and Representation – have had research done by a-n on employment patterns for visual and applied artists. This was in the context of the Future Jobs Fund and the work done by New Deal of the Mind that I talked about a short while ago. I commented then that the focus on employment by employers, and the exclusion of self-employment, was problematic. The summary of the findings appears to back that up. I quote…

Whilst previous research by a-n, ACE and others over the last ten years suggested at least half of all practising visual and applied artists were self-employed, the new AIR survey reveals that has substantially increased.

72% of artists are self-employed
25% are a mixture of self-employed and employed
2% are unemployed
1% is employed

In terms of status by career stage:

88% of established artists are self-employed
73% of mid career artists are self-employed
67% of emerging artists are self-employed

Significantly, the overall level of self-employment amongst artists is considerably higher than for the creative industries as a whole, where it stands at 41%.

They also note that self-employment is currently excluded by the Office of Statistics when analysing the efficacy of art and design courses in creating employment, which seems perverse, given the career trajectories of those graduates.

Whilst this pattern will not be replicated right across the artforms, it is important that it is taken into full consideration by government and policy makers looking to ‘create jobs’ within the creative industries.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

What next for the left and ex-Culture Ministers?

James Purnell was in the process of making quite an impact when he was promoted out of DCMS, not least in allegedly reintroducing the word excellence to the daily lexicon of petty bureaucrats everywhere. (Just as an aside, I was looking through Raymond Williams’ Keywords recently - as you do - and neither ‘excellence’ nor ‘quality’ is discussed. ‘Standards’ is though…)

Purnell came to speak to the National Council and Executive Board and was straightforward, frank and clearly committed to the arts, culture and social justice. I rather warmed to him, and was sorry to see him go off to DWP so soon. (I was especially sorry when he seemed to fall into cack-handed Daily Mail-appeasing workfare proposals, but that's another subject.) Anyway, earlier this year he find himself on the back benches in a classic example of an assault that ended: ‘You and whose army?’ ‘My army…oh, where have they gone? Damn…’

He has now reappeared heading up Demos’ Open Left project, ‘a project aimed at renewing the thinking and ideas of the political Left … an open conversation across the Left about the kind of society we want and how we can best bring it about’. There are a small number of artists featured on the site so far, with their ideas of what it means to be on the left. Some are obvious – Billy Bragg being no surprise – others less so. I’d never clocked Anthony Gormley as an artist of the left, for instance, though some of his work obviously has a real interest in ideas of self and community. His essay is typical of many in being kind of interesting, but also disappointing for anyone expecting an articulation of a vision for social change encompassing the poor and excluded. I struggled slightly to find the socialism in his essay, as in some of the others, but perhaps that’s not really the right thing to look for, even in its mildest or most liberal forms.

The Open Left project should also be read in relation to Demos’ set of essays, What Next for Labour? Beneath the howls of despair (it was written about the time James Purnell was drafting his resignation) are some really important ideas and debates. A stronger emphasis on ‘a stronger sense of the social — of communities, civic associations and social institutions…. a politics of social life’ sits alongside voices emphasizing the empowerment of individuals, usually in the context of the state withdrawing from ‘interference’ or ‘regulation’. You can feel this dichotomy running through cultural policy, for course, although interestingly cultural policy is more or less absent here.

Whether this moves us beyond right and left (now, and arguably always, tribal terms as much as anything else) and perhaps past worrying about the S word and its presence or absence, especially given the rather new thinking from the Red Tory zone of Thinktankland, that is at least interested in the social, we shall see.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

More thoughts on Expressive Lives

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been on holiday. The first part was a real ‘staycation’, enjoying the Stockton International Riverside Festival, which just happens to be my local festival. Paul Harman, with whom I am rarely known to disagree, honest, describes it very well on Arts Professional here. Listening in as two classic brick-outhouse, cropheaded, tattooed Teesside Blokes debated whether BalletBoyz Next Generation was as good as the dance thing they’d seen last year, whilst waiting for Avant Garde Dance to begin, really made my weekend. Well, that and seeing the rest of the family express themselves in performance – my wife and daughter running away to join No Fit State Circus (only for the weekend, mind, in line up in photo above)in the DVC Choir in Parklife, and my son and his mates in Cold Pistols getting an early slot in the Fringe Festival (amusing that's-my-giant-boy photo below).

Anyway, that and the rest of my holiday in Norfolk – my, that period as ACE Executive Board Rural Champion had a lasting impact! - made me want to add a further note to my thinking on Expressive Lives, which is that there is a certain metropolitanism to the tone, and to the notion that we are now awash with opportunity. Not every place is like Stockton-on-Tees, after all, where we get to live expressive lives. (By metropolitanism I don’t mean London-centricity, by the way, though that’s a common manifestation. For another strain of the syndrome, again probably not malignant, see recent discussion in the States over the new NEA Chair Rocco Landesman’s comments about theatre in smaller places – here or here.)

This is then built on by a point made on Town Hall Matters by John Craig-Sharples, drawing attention to the role of local authority cultural services in supporting expressive lives. Although there are some passing references to local government in the publication, mainly in the context of funding, the role that culture can play right across a local authorities functions is underplayed. As John puts it, and as councils like Stockton at their best demonstrate, ‘Perhaps if we really grasp the potential of cultural services we would find that they may play as big a part in building the kind of communities to which we are committed, as some of the core services like social care’. This is about taking the arts out of their box and putting their influence to use throughout local provision, throughout the country.

I came across Town Hall Matters via Blogger’s Circle, which is an experiment in creating debate around blogs that fall broadly into the area of ‘public policy’. This is the first of my ‘Bloggers Circle’ inspired posts. If you’re interested in policy and politics have a look around.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Wrapped up in books

Well, it’s been quiet on here as the Family Robinson have been away on holiday – having fun to put the thought of this next week’s A Level and GCSE results out of our minds. Well, that’s what my wife and I were doing, not sure about the kids…

Anyway, after a day and a half of dealing with the things marked urgent, I thought I’d relax for a few minutes and create Arts Counselling’s first ‘annual feature’ and share with you my holiday reading.

The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland – entertaining tale told in epistolary and note form with an novel-within-a-novel that did make me laugh out loud, and then go back to rewatch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Read this and you’ll never go into Staples without thinking of it.

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson. Beautifully imagined story of the poet Rupert Brooke and a housemaid. The facts of Brooke’s youth and artistic circle are seamlessly woven into a picture switching between Brooke and the maid – who becomes so real you think she must have been a real person too. (Arts Council England gets some nice thanks for support whilst writing of this, by the way.)

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano. A massive (though not as huge as his final book 2666) and massively lively story of the founders of the Mexican school of Visceral Realist poetry – apparently based on Bolano’s own youth in Mexico City. A bit like Kerouac’s Desolation Angels rewritten by Thomas Pynchon. A bit.

Cider with Roadies by Stuart Maconie. Not sure why I hadn’t read this before… forty-something man reminisces in humorous fashion about the punk and post-punk years growing up in the North West of England, it could have been written to give me a relaxing day. (Maconie grew up in Wigan, which is where the 113 bus that went past my childhood home went. He even worked for a while at Courtaulds like my Dad.) Warm, self-deprecating and fun, slipped down like a pint of Boddingtons.

The Masterpiece by Emile Zola. Don’t know why, felt like a bit of 19th Century French naturalism by the end of the fortnight. Suffice to say, you can’t get much further from Stuart Maconie’s good humour than Zola’s ‘never-going-to-end-well’ school of realism, but what better way to prepare for the return to work than a book about artists and their visions and travails.

I knew I was writing this for a reason: looking at this list they are all about one form of art or another, and the search for ways of making that manifest in society and in life. Hmm...

Back soon with some serious policy related stuff - just getting back in the swing.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Do It Yourself?

Because I became a chef the week after I left university, I never went on the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, though I had lots of friends who did. (You can listen to some 80’s janglepop from my friend Ally's record label, Sombrero, partly enabled by the EAS, here.) My recollection is a key boon (to both individuals and the government of the time) was getting away from the dole office for a year, but that may just have been my friends, and it did undoubtedly assist some long-lasting businesses, and provide some great experience for people making their way into the world with few resources. (And MySpace and the internet mean those old records, books and magazines in attics and garages might even have a second life.)

Do it yourself: cultural and creative self-employment in hard times is a new report by New Deal of the Mind for Arts Council England, just published. It provides research and analysis to inform thinking about opportunities for young self-employed creative people and the potential implications of the government’s Future Jobs Fund, and amongst other things suggests creating a 21st century version of the EAS. (It has interviews with people who benefited such as Louise Wilson.)

I feel there are also lessons to be learnt from more recent small grants schemes to support creative industries, such as the North East’s Cultural Business Venture. Investment in technology and marketing in the early days of a business, enabled by access to ‘micro-finance’ may have more impact than the same amount spread across a year to subsidise living. The requirement to talk to a Business Link adviser and work on a business plan was often of real benefit to people, they told us – though usually only afterwards! We have been working with Business and Enterprise North East to make sure artists get a good service: see here for a press story about the new MOU we’ve signed. Such an approach would also encourage an approach to the support of artist businesses based on building a business - or 'just' a living - though investment of funds rather than simply a weekly subsidy. Probably a mixture is required to help people out of unemployment.

Where I think the report hits the bull’s-eye is in drawing attention to the lack of focus on self-employment in the government’s approach to recession and job creation. The Future Jobs Fund is based on having employers and employees, and self-employment hardly features. This has to be self-defeating as an approach, particularly in a sector with such high freelance and self-employment figures as the arts.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

What chance of an expressive life?

Samuel Jones’s introduction to the new Demos book Expressive Lives has the somewhat clunky title ‘enfranchising cultural democracy’. We shouldn’t let that (or the even more heinous use of ‘platform’ as a verb later) distract us too much from a stimulating and important publication. The core arguments can be gleaned from Jones’ introduction and from the essay by the creator of the term ‘expressive life’, Bill Ivey, Barack Obama’s arts advisor.

Ivey argues, pretty persuasively, that the term ‘culture’ is now of limited use in public policy. It is too vague, too debatable, too much of a portmanteau word. Instead he proposes the term ‘expressive life’, which he argues combines ‘heritage’ in the sense of continuity and community and ‘voice’ in the sense autonomy and innovation. As he puts it: ‘Heritage reminds us that we belong; ‘voice’ offers the promise of what we can become.’ This obviously means that cultural policy needs to encompass not just the public sector supported arts, museums and galleries, but the whole panoply of cultural choices people make, and the ‘tools’ they use to make them, including digital and commercial. It suggests a focus on participants as well as producers. Ivey also suggests that ‘a vibrant expressive life, offering a yin-yang balance of ‘heritage’ and ‘voice’, affords government leaders an arena of action in which quality of life can be affordably advanced through smart public policy’. This new emphasis would stimulate changes right across government policy – into planning, housing, transport as well as economic policy for instance.

It’s a strong, fresh set of thinking, and opens up a number of areas for me – some not explored by the other essayists, too many of whom don’t really add much more than endorsement and balance. (David Lammy and Ed Vaisey get to agree technology is central to the future.) The term ‘heritage’ sit less well with me than ‘community’, but I’m not a folklorist like Ivey, and I do think the reminder that innovation is the yin to tradition’s yang is a helpful one. I also like the various resonances of ‘voice’.

I think the notion of ‘enfranchising’ expressive lives throughout the population leads to a necessary reconsideration of what you might (avoiding the word power) call cultural authority. Some of the ‘national’ institutions have made considerable progress in recent years in sharing their assets and skills across the country, with really positive reactions from both partners and public. But how do we respond to those strands of arts activity that don’t want a share but to actually undermine those notions of national expert endorsement? How does cultural policy relate to a media that is finding it difficult to even stand still in reflecting the expressive life of the whole country, and of all the population, even where it wants to? Is a redistribution of some of the ‘power’ necessary to genuinely enfranchise cultural democracy and if so how can that be done? (Let me be clear: I’m not talking about funding.)

This leads me to areas where I find Jones’ arguments a little problematic, as this paradigm shift towards expressive life is yoked to firstly an emphasis on what her terms ‘our innate sense of the individual’ and then to a critique of ‘provision’, especially through venues. The emphasis on individualism, for me, tips over from the personalisation of culture into the privatisation of society – a blurry line never too far away from the surface in broader New Labour thinking, of course. Ironically, I feel he underplays the role shared culture – made up of individual choices – plays in creating the ‘heritage’ part of Ivey’s equation.

The other troublesome area is linking the broadly sensible idea that we need to move ‘from a model of provision to one of enabling’ to an increasingly tired claim that venues are ‘simply doling out either more visual arts, more music or more drama’. (An argument often boiled down to ‘fund people and creativity, not buildings’, most recently by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian in a horribly clumsy article.)

This omits what I would suggest is the missing or maybe implicit third part of ‘expressive life’: which I might call opportunity, or space, or place – ie the opportunity to make cultural choices, to learn the skills required to make or take part in expressive life, the chance to see and hear and otherwise experience art. Whilst temporary spaces are increasingly used, these often need places or spaces more permanent than festival sites. The capital developments in the North East in the last 15 years were not driven by monumentalism, but by an analysis of the needs of artists and audiences, that said the lack of the right venues inhibited choice and participation. They were designed as (to use Samuel Jones’ words) ‘spaces in which we can make cultural choices’. That’s what so great about them. The fact is that large parts of the population would not be properly able to make such choices if there were not some element of provision – and I don’t mean simply by the publicly funded sector – as well as enabling, and that not everything can be done well within a ‘pop up’ infrastructure. Too simplistic a move from provision to enabling will leave some with nowhere to go. (Obvious parallels here for me in the so-called ‘choice’ in schooling, health, welfare insurance, etc.) A canny hybrid of traditional cultural policy and planning and community policy could make a huge impact in, say, housing growth areas.

So, to end this rather long post, I would suggest a third dimension to expressive life, and suggest, entirely for argument’s sake, an equation using multiplication rather than addition on the basis that zero in any of the terms leads to the sum being zero:

Heritage (community, knowledge, grounding)
x Voice (individuality, talent, innovation)
x Space (facilities, opportunity, confidence)
= Expressive Life.

(Not sure ‘Space’ is the best word, but it will do for now.)

The policy challenge therefore becomes how to get the most from those three dimensions.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Between swine flu and Shearer

I've been trying to find the way to bring this up... but now my friends at The Journal have done it for me, in rather amusing and bemusing style. As I write it's number 2 in 'today's top stories' on the website - after swine flu but before whether Alan Shearer will manage Newcastle United. And it was nearly 2 pages in the paper. This is clearly a great testament to the the way North East media value the arts, rather than to me, but it has made me laugh. (I didn't put that violinist on the roof of The Sage Gateshead with my giant's hands, by the way.) And that's testament to David Whetstone actually, the Journal's long-standing arts correspondent who is an unsung hero of the North East arts scene.

I had been pondering whether to say absolutely nothing for now (rarely my preference!), or to just share the following quote, from Richard Ford's great novel Independence Day, which I've just finished. It comes from the section I read at the end of the very day I'd given my staff here the briefing on the conclusion of the review stage of our Organisation Review, and it just goes to prove my previously mentioned theory that art turns up when you need it. Here it is and here (in due course, timing tbc, watch this space, business as usual till you hear it from me etc) goes:

...Yet, while it's bad to make a wrong move, as maybe I did with the Volvo, it's worse to regret in advance and call it prudence... Disaster is no less likely. Better - much, much better - to follow old Davy Crockett's motto, amended for use by adults: Be sure you're not completely wrong, then go ahead.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Does the arts sector trust the public?

A recent article on The Stage's website began: 'Arts practitioners have raised concerns about the government’s plans to give the public more say in how funding is allocated, warning that such a move would favour “populist” art work at the expense of “quality, diversity and risk taking” in the sector. ' It was bridging off a new publication on Participatory Budgeting And The Arts. It brought on one of my not infrequent 'get over yourself' moments.

Participatory budgeting is a fairly horrible-sounding term for giving people control of budgets - usually small ones at local level. It's beginning to be used by local government in the UK, though so far the community development use of the actual process is often as important as the actual budgeting decisions. Some places have experimented with supporting arts projects in this way, and there are examples in the report. It's an interesting and challenging read, which looks at potential scenarios if the process is more widely adopted. The report also makes some recommendations for how to encourage best use of participatory budgeting. Key to this are communication and good information, clarity about need and outcomes, making time for learning and using the 'tool' appropriately.

There are clearly threats to the arts as well as opportunities in this way of deciding funding, and it's not a simple thing to do. Finding a way to talk about what an arts project actually is, and what it does or could do, is really key to this. Of course I feel frustrated when the populist vote seem to choose the mediocre and avoid what I think is brilliant, via the participatory budgeting called 'consumption'. But that's their choice and who, ultimately, am I to say that they're not getting out of their choice what I get out of mine? I'm only depressed by people who make no choices at all - though I'm not sure i know any.

If we can find better ways of talking about the wide variety of things people mean when we talk about “quality, diversity and risk taking”, avoiding our arts jargon, the public will make informed choices, albeit different ones perhaps than those schooled in curation and production. Tools can then be developed which support this - such as small grants schemes for localities, or Own Art-style interest-free loan schemes for customers, or free/discounted ticket schemes - that then support the public rather than the provider. Information, discussion and good communication can then do what time usually does and give the public ways of understanding and enjoying what at first seems bizarre, bad or 'arty-farty'. (I mean the way things move in from the margins over decades until they become the mainstream.)

One final thought: if 'arts practitioners' really have so little faith in the people we live with and amongst - the people we are - that we really think the public are currently incapable of being part of this kind of discussion without simply picking 'populist' rubbish, how do we change that?

Monday, 13 July 2009

You can keep them for the birds and bees?

A new working paper from two Harvard Business School academics has as its title ‘It Is Okay for Artists to Make Money… No, Really, It’s Okay.’ (I picked up on this from Ian David Moss’s very lively and useful blog Createquity, which I heartily recommend.)

The paper describes how ‘an inclination to take offence often attends the close juxtaposition of art and commerce’, making reference to ‘a lively response to ideas we didn’t write and meanings we didn’t intend’, which is precisely what I was writing about just last Tuesday. It then explores what the authors, Robert D. Austin and Lee Devin, say are three fallacies:
- Art is a luxury, an indulgence
- Yeah, but that’s not art, it’s not any good
- Commerce Dominates and Corrupts Art, and Subverts its Purpose.

Much of this is interesting, and there are some nice apercus along the way – 'art is a behaviour', anyone? - but rather old ground. You can apply their argument not just to commerce as in the sale of art, but also ‘marketing of the arts’, and the drive to increase participation levels and the various views on that. Where it gets potentially rather useful, I think, is their conceptualisation of the inhibiting dynamic at play. This comes in the form of a handy 2x2 matrix.

Their basic provocation is that too much of the world – artists and potential audience alike – is so obsessed with avoiding quadrant B, that they fall into quadrant C, and thereby miss the chance of moving from quadrant C to A. (Don’t ask me why the Junk quadrant doesn’t even deserve a D!)

I would want, naturally, to caveat and broaden some of their terms – marketed and commercial, for instance, need to refer to more than simple purchase transactions - but I find their conclusion, whilst not flawless, rather rousing:

‘Our culture has many flaws, one of them, perhaps, the movement of art away from the center of life. But we change things by reconceiving, by including what is in a larger conception of what can be. The supposed malign influence of commerce on art will not go away because marginalized artists cry “How dare you!” or when people object to high values placed on art outcomes. It will go away when artists and non-artists find ways to include what is in their worldviews, and to combine what is with a view that includes art understood and valued in many different ways.

In a better world, art will command fair prices, best-in-the-world jazz musicians will
make as much as partners in consulting firms, and jobs up and down the value chain around such activities will pay a living wage. To fulfill the vision of art as a humanizing force in the world, we need to make the market for art work better, not separate the art world from markets and commercial value.’