Friday, 27 February 2009

The Week That Was

It’s been a funny old week. Last Saturday night I was at the North East Royal Television Society Awards do in Gateshead, with much angst about the future of regional production. Sunday culminated with a meal and a frankly-fantastic Hank Williams tribute band, the Lovesick Cowboys, at my local prize-winning vegetarian restaurant, The Waiting Room. Monday and Tuesday were pretty hard days getting ready and then presenting to my staff material proposals for the Arts Council’s restructure, which must save £6.5M by 2010. (I’m not going to go into all that here, that doesn’t feel right, visit the Arts Council website for a briefing, but obviously it’s been a backdrop to everything this week.) Wednesday I helped sort through applications to be on the Artists taking the Lead panel in the North East. Thursday afternoon I took part in a stimulating think-tank for the Creative Reading Charter (something Arts Council are doing with The Reading Agency and MLA). This was chaired by Sir Brian McMaster and was the first ever meeting in what will very soon be Newcastle’s amazing new City Library. Then I drove down to Middlesbrough for the opening of two fantastic shows at mima – ‘The End of the Line: attitudes in drawing’ and ‘Raising the Bar: Influential voices in metal’ (craft metal not Spinal Tap). Next I went over to The Georgian Theatre in Stockton to see my wife and daughter in the Diaspora Vocal Choir (a collection of immigrants to Stockton from all over the world under the direction of the marvellous Mike McGrother) as part of a celebration of a number of local community arts projects. (Then I went to play fiveaside but we’d be into the S of DCMS at that point so I’ll stop.)

And that’s just the things I can tell you about... (Well, I could tell you about management team meetings and how many emails I've read and sent, if you really want, but you know what I mean.)

The highlight of the week though, was Wednesday afternoon’s Samling Masterclass at the Sage Gateshead. Samling Foundation, run by the remarkable Karon Wright, provide training and development for emerging opera singers, called ‘Samling Scholars’. Six of them were in the middle of an intense week of masterclass work with a team led by Sir Thomas Allen, and submitted themselves to a public version – to a capacity audience in The Sage Gateshead’s Hall 2. At that point in the week, it was just what I needed. I’m far from an opera buff. But the fantastic music was moving and uplifting. What was even better was the way the masterclass format revealed the process of making really great art. A process rooted in dissatisfaction – never being satisfied with really good, but always looking for improvement. Seeing Sir Thomas Allen and colleagues lead the young singers through the piece and find deeper meaning and expression in text and melody and portrayal was brilliant, a vivid demonstration of artistic tradition and development. It also helped me understand the difference between good and excellence in opera singing, just a little, which was great. (Next someone can do likewise for free jazz perhaps?)

Clearly this was a powerful experience for the ‘scholars’. It’s intensive and expensive, and not a process supported by Arts Council funds at the moment, though we have supported some Samling projects previously, as well as rather reluctantly turning some down. (Karon takes the approach of inviting us whether we fund or not – in fact, I suspect she takes some kind of masochistic pleasure in ensuring I see how good their productions are without our support.) We can not support everything, nor should we, and there are other ways for young opera talent to develop we do support, but there's no denying the excellence of the art created. But I’m glad Samling continue to find support when and where needed.

So I was reminded, in a full and tricky week, about the nature of art, the power of art, and the challenge of art, all at once. (If this were a story I would of course have moved it from Wednesday to Friday afternoon for dramatic closure effect, but life is not art…)

The Week That Was, by the way, are a great band from Sunderland. Watch one of their videos here. It wasn't filmed in our office (that only makes sense if you watch it) though it does feature someone who used to work here. (Hi Laura.)

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Wednesday Word of the Week: Resilience

This is a word I think we’ll be hearing a lot more of this year and next, in the arts as elsewhere. Enjoy it now before it gets tiresome. It draws on thinking in the field of ‘ecology’ – a word I’ve been using a lot lately in describing the needs of the sector, though there is also a strand of thinking about personal or 'emotional resilience'. This sees the sector not as a fixed infrastructure which may or may not reach a state called ‘sustainability’, but as a system or field where individual elements will grow, shrink, give birth, die and mutate, with organisations of different size and nature both co-operating and competing for the greater good. It also draws, as that description might suggest, on systems thinking. It’s not about simply pulling a lever or inputting something to get an output – it’s about often overlapping systems and their impact. (This is one of the reasons I don't think simply protecting funding is the answer to all the issues of the recession - unless we understand the complex systems at play that may only be a sticking plaster.)

So the best definition of Resilience as it applies to the arts sector I’ve seen is ‘the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function’. For the arts the ‘disturbance’ (not always a negative) might be loss of funding, sudden influx of funding or commissions, change in funders’ priorities, change in environment (eg a multiplex opening down the road from your arthouse cinema), changing audience patterns, changing technology and so on. Many arts organisations are already highly resilient, but there may more that can be done by thinking this through as a sector. Size does not guarantee resilience – note, for instance, that the best independent record shops may be surviving the download era better than the chain stores.

I plan to return to some of these themes over the next month, as they seem some of the most urgent things to think about, and there a number of possibly fruitful parallels I want to throw up to be challenged. (I’m currently pushing Resilience Thinking by Brian Walker and David Salt onto people – it’s a really good exposition of these ideas. There’s an article summarising them here .)

I also recommend an article by Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz about the ‘Six Habits of Highly Resilient Organizations’. It's worth thinking whether your organisation does these things:

1. Resilient organizations actively attend to their environments.
2. Resilient organizations prepare themselves and their employees for disruptions.
3. Resilient organizations build in flexibility.
4. Resilient organizations strengthen and extend their communications networks – internally and externally.
5. Resilient organizations encourage innovation and experimentation.
6. Resilient organizations cultivate a culture with clearly shared purpose and values.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Do you say please and thank you?

Geoffrey Crayon and I have been having an interesting exchange in the comments on my recent post about artists and farmers. I mention this for two reasons.

Firstly I want to encourage you to comment. I do read them, I do reply and others sometimes join in. If you get this via email subscription, do click through and visit the site so you can comment or read the comments others leave.

Secondly, we got on the subject of what it's right for Arts Council to expect from its funded organisations, stimulated by Sir Christopher Frayling's recent comments on how he felt he was treated during his time as Chair. I won't repeat it here, other than to say I don't think funding should buy agreement or silence when people disagree with a funder but that people should remember that even funders have feelings too, and be reasoned or at least human in their disagreement. Personally I am more interested in difference and diversity than unanimity but no one likes being shouted at.

The quick, possibly blindingly obvious point I was reminded of was this: it is good to say please and thank you. (At least in England, there may be cultural differences across the globe.)

In fundraising terms this is very basic - I was taught by someone many years ago. If you approach funders (any funders, this is not an ACE-specific issue) with a sense of absolute entitlement to their money, it a) is usually misplaced as most programmes are competitive b) it can suggest either naivety or intransigence and c) it just rubs people up the wrong way. So make it clear you understand they don't have to fund you, but they'd be wrong not to.

Then, let them know what you do with their money. Keep them informed, not by simply following the payment conditions and so on or doing the minimum reporting, but by sending them invites to see activity or updates, by talking about the fact that they've funded you to do what you're doing, by mentioning them in your press activity, by dropping them a note afterwards to say how brilliantly it went. (Don't fret if they can't come: there are simply not enough hours in the day, it's nothing personal.) If you want to get on the good side of a funder, you don't have to agree with their latest strategy or all their decisions - just send them a card or even just an email and say thanks for their help. (Send it to the officer or adminstrator that helped you, not the boss, by the way - the boss will hear about it anyway.) It doesn't take long, and don't go over the top with your gratitude, but it will help when you next approach them. It might also make a better starting point if you need to complain, campaign or otherwise become disgruntled with them.

This may sound simple and trite, I know. But if it's that obvious, why do so few people do it?

Thursday, 19 February 2009

How long from avant-garde to ad-land?

There's a theory, I don't know if it has a name, that the experimental end of the arts feeds the commercial and popular - that the avant-garde will develop techniques and approaches that will be appropriated or adapted (depending on you look at/feel about it) by commerce. I just saw a great example of this, though I'm still working out how I feel about it.

The new ad for the opticians' chain Vision Express, which I just saw on British tv but you can see on their website wherever you are in the world, shows the world of eye-care carefully referencing/borrowing the world of The Residents, perhaps the archetypal avant-garde artpopmusic combo - specifically th eyeball heads which are the Residents' trademark. It gave me a bit of a shock. I had a Residents album once as a teenager, for a while, when I was trying to impress someone or convince myself of something. It was bloody awful as I remember. But the image of a band with eyeballs for heads and top hats is a brilliant one, and they are, it seems, still going, in their own world. I hope they're getting a cut from the glasses and contact lens the ad helps sell.

Could we persuade a nurse to fund the arts?

I mentioned recently the debate that's been taking place in the States about additional funding to the National Endowment for the Arts as part of the stimulus package. (I've already had emails using the phrase shovel-ready, by the way.) It seems this has been in, then out as a Senator tried to make it illegal to fund theatres and 'that sort of thing' through such a bill (I paraphrase broadly), then finally back in. Good news, but indicative of the issue. It's set out really well by Greg Sandow in the Wall Street Journal here.

I think he's right in many ways. Precision in our arguments is going to be important. We need to be positive as well as protective - the arts have a role in job creation as well as economic stimulus. We need to draw on every bit of evidence we have, look more closely at what we do and what it actually involves, and avoid special pleading. The kind of data Arts Council collects could be better used, I'm sure, and colleagues are working on it. The work done by Arts and Business and CCSkills is also helpful for local arguments. As a sector, it sometimes seems there's an instinctive nervousness about numbers part in telling a story, but they can very powerful.

We should, for instance, remind ourselves and politicians that jobs in the arts are proper jobs. Perhaps not well-paid at times, perhaps not standard, but real jobs. But many people who work 'in the arts' are not the obvious 'artytypes' but cleaners, administrators, craftsmen, accountants and so on. You can't make major public art works without major construction skills and building companies. When, say, local authorities are making choices it's worth reminding them of that. But everyone, even the luvviest of luvvies or most unusually bespectacled of installation artists, pays their taxes and spends their wages. Unfortunately (or so it feels to me, as I think it was at least partly what got us in this mess in the first place) that consumption-driven view is what's driving thinking around economic stimulus, so we have to make the case in a way it will be heard.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

How are artists like hill farmers?

I remember being at a conference a few years ago about arts and creative industries in rural areas. (Creative industries encompassing The Shed and a very impressive women who made bras.) The attendance was a real mixture, but someone found the common thread between the two main constituencies. Artists and farmers may seem very different, they said, but they're alike: both groups feel they are misunderstood and undervalued, both fight horribly amongst themselves, and both are addicted to subsidy whilst thinking they get no support or love from anyone. It was a quip, and got a big laugh – but one that recognised the underlying truth.

An article in The Guardian by Peter Hetherington reminded me of this. It describes the battle hill farmers have to make a living. But also the pleasures and freedoms of ‘being your own boss’, and the value of not being driven by money, but a better balance (and rhythm) of life and work and landscape. The earning figures – from farming – are if anything even lower than those that are quoted for artists. The dilemmas are very similar. The arguments about public subsidy also feel rather familiar.

The discussion of the need to look at the very ‘structure’ of the industry, and the way the individuals and business work also rang bells, as I’ve been re-reading John Knell’s work for MMM recently. The question for artists and small arts businesses is where or how far the ‘countryside guardians’/’guardians of cultural values’ analogy lead us – up a hill or down a dead-end track?

Today is a birthday

It's a year since I started Arts Counselling. I've found it a really useful way of thinking aloud, sharing things with readers. It's made me think more and harder, and read more, and make more connections. There's certainly been a lot to think about in the last year! I hope you enjoy reading it too.

I've had a really good reaction to the blog, both from Arts Council staff (even the mythical Stalinists in Communications!) and what we know and love as The Sector. And also bits of what we know as The Rest of The World. (You know by now I'm kidding I hope.) I really like it when people come up to me and say 'I read your blog'. It's even better when they say they like it rather than take me to task for some infelicity. Though I quite enjoy that too.

I'd still like a lot more readers though, and subscribers and fans on the Facebook group. I'd like it if more of you commented more often, and spoke to each other that way. But hey, I'm just glad someone's reading it otherwise I'd have to stop.

If you're one of those people who pops by occasionally, each new blog will drop into your inbox if you subscribe. Apologies to the subscribers who got a blank version of this - I think I may have inadvertently broken some Blogger rule by embedding a Youtube video of the Sugarcubes doing Birthday. You can see it here though if you want to celebrate some great art with me.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Wednesday Word of the Week: ‘shovel-ready’

Bit different from other words I’ve looked at, this one, but I can’t resist. The debate about Obama’s financial stimulus – which includes $50M extra for the National Endowment for the Arts – has brought me a new word – ‘shovel-ready’. It means something – usually a capital or construction project – which is ready to start, and therefore (in this context) provide immediate activity, expenditure and general stimulus to the economy. (See this definition on the entertaining Word Spy site.) I shall be making every effort to use it as I go about my business. ‘Do we have any shovel-ready projects?’ ‘Is this work really shovel-ready?’ ‘I’ve got something shovel-ready for you.’ I apologise to everyone in the office in advance!

An article in Atlantic Monthly suggest the arts, especially public art, are a worthy part of a stimulus package because the arts are shovel-ready. It has a slightly naïve view of how artists work, and in particular how large public art projects work – in my experience they are rarely shovel-ready until relatively late in the day. And major arts capital projects including public art rarely run to the originally discussed timetable – even before they get on site. That said, it’s basically right: the arts can be both an immediate stimulus, and help improve both the physical and ‘mood’ environment, in a way that’s definitely worth 1/600th of the package.

There’s clearly an interesting debate going on the States about this. I picked up on it through Artful Manager. It’s an argument we’ve made – and often won – many times before, since the 80s. Given pressures on Regional Development Agencies, and public spending generally, we will need to revisit and sharpen our arguments once more.

What role can the BBC play in the arts?

I started this week in BALTIC’s fabulous new ‘education’ space Quay at a workshop exploring how the BBC could help young people in particular engage with the arts. The last week has seen lots of media coverage of the BBC’s plans to set up an arts board and create an arts strategy, of which this work will form part. See here for The Stage, here for The Guardian and here for an interview with the person in charge of creating the new arts strategy, George Entwistle. (George has a great job title – Controller of Knowledge Commissioning. ‘Hey you – stop commissioning the wrong kind/too much/too little knowledge. Commission more good knowledge over here, now…’ I’m sure that’s how it works, aren’t you? It does make me wonder though if some broadcasters have Controllers of Ignorance Commissioning…)

One of the things I’m currently busy with is co-chairing the steering group that oversees the Made In England partnership between Arts Council and BBC. It took a good while to gather pace, due the arcaneries of both organisations, but is now developing some really good projects linking artists and audiences and exploring the theme of what makes England, with regional offices and regional BBC stations working closely together. (It will lead to over 55 broadcast hours, large audiences on screens, on air and online, and many new works – watch out for activity around St George’s Day especially.)

Having been involved in other broadcast partnerships such as Fivearts Cities and Self Portrait UK, I am sure broadcasters can play a huge role in changing perceptions about the arts, in raising participation, and in critically exploring the arts - not to mention commissioning new works. For arts organisations it can, I think, sometimes feel difficult and constraining, but there are potentially significant gains. I also think there’s huge potential in the live aspects of certain broadcasters activities. Imagine a version of Radio 1’ Big Weekend’ focussed on arts participation, for instance, as the culmination of country-wide activity drawing in people who are comfortable with the BBC brands but less so with ‘the arts’.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

How much will the recession crunch culture?

Sorry it's been a bit quite on here. Regular readers will know I was off in Bulgaria helping some friends of mine translate 10 of my poems in to Bulgarian - in just five long days, alongside 30 others by three other poets. You can see them here. My first few days back at work simply got too, too full.

One of the things I did was attend a really interesting seminar organised by the Sponsors Club for Arts & Business on Culture and the Credit Crunch. Speakers from the Chamber of Commerce, the CBI and Waitrose made the audience respectively feel
  • optimistic (because there's more good stuff than bad going on really)
  • nervous (because the recession may be even harder than predicted)
  • jealous (because we're not partners in the wonderful sounding John Lewis/Waitrose.)
There was also a presentation on the latest Arts & Business research into private investment into the arts and culture. This shows a record high, but predicts a sharp frost a-coming. In North East England, as the research suggests, we've already experienced something of that with the difficulties Northern Rock hit having a knock on to the fantastic investment of the Northern Rock Foundation into culture. This was withdrawn and then brought back by the trustees, which has had a very positive impact on the sector. It did underline the fragility of private sector investment, however. The Arts & Business research is well worth close attention as it draws on figures going back several dips and recessions. As such it should help inform planning of organisations that work closely with private sector sponsors and foundations.

One of the points I made from the floor was that we should not slip into thinking of 'business' and 'the arts' as separate: arts organisations are businesses and employers too and should make full use of the things being put in place to help businesses of all kinds, though things like Business Link. I also supported the point that mood or confidence will shape reality. We must not talk ourselves into defeat, be it around the economy or around public spending and the arts. The next spending round will need to be strongly argued by us all, but we must not give anyone any excuses or alibis by talking as if cuts to the arts are inevitable or sensible.