Monday, 30 March 2009

How do you de-merge a penguin?

On April 1 Creative Partnerships will be officially 'de-merged' (there's a lovely word, for you!) from Arts Council England and move over to the new organisation Creativity, Culture and Education. That means the CP teams across the country will all be in new situations working with a whole range of partners as most appropriate to the local situation, overseen by CCE, who will become the largest Regularly Funded Organisation of the Arts Council. (Interestingly enough CCE has split its national base between London Village and Newcastle. Their independence has, however, meant I've lost the entertainment and intellectual stimulus of having Paul Collard occasionally working just outside my office, which is a shame.)

There are whole books to be written about the Creative Partnerships, and no doubt when he retires Paul - who you can hear explaining the virtues of CP in the video above, albeit metamorphosed by a participant from Northumberland - will write one of them. I worked in arts education for many years, both as a writer in schools and then setting up the Teesside Arts Education Agency. Creative Partnerships has been, I think, helpfully challenging to my own orthodoxies about that work, as well as doing some of the kinds of things we dreamt of.

It has pushed creativity beyond the arts, though without (most of all the time) losing the arts. It has pushed teachers and schools to innovate, as much as it has pushed creative practitioners. It has done a huge amount of action research into what works in developing the creativity of schools and young people. It has reached a huge number of people. It has also pushed the Arts Council into thinking more creatively about how it engages with people and institutions.

Most significantly though, I think it has developed a model for how it thinks creativity makes change happen in a school context. That is something which seriously strengthens the case for government investment, and something we need for the arts more broadly. The model may not be exact, but it is better than simply saying change sometimes happens but we're not sure why. We need to think through - as a sector - what it is we talk about when we talk about the power of the arts, and how it works. (Though it's been criticised, I do think The Arts Debate got us going on that.) CP, I think, is built on the intrinsic merits of the arts and creative practice, but does not stop there. That's its ongoing challenge to us.

At the risk of seeming cheesy, I wish it and all the staff leaving Arts Council today the best for the future. We'll be watching!

Thursday, 26 March 2009

What can these hand gestures possibly mean?

Here are some interesting hand gestures from the Great art for everyone day. Imagine for yourselves what they might mean... and what the adjacent listeners are thinking....

You can see other gestures and other faces on Flickr here.

Should we pay more attention to prepositions?

Our 'great art for everyone' conference at The Sage Gateshead this week was really stimulating - and gratifying, as the debate was exactly the sort we are trying to encourage. 160 people there were able to debate what the hell 'great art for everyone' might mean for them, with very little defensiveness or weariness, and with a lot of humour, understanding, challenge and creativity.

Questions were raised about ‘great’ – who decides, why does it need to be great, what values does that carry, how can you know without years of hindsight?. And about ‘art’ – do people know what they enjoy can be classified as ‘art’, especially when the Active people survey rings, is it on off-putting term? And about ‘everyone’ – does the Arts Council mean everyone-all-the-time, does it mean things with small audiences are not valid, does everyone have to enjoy great art? (The answer to those at least is No in every case.)

As I said (smilingly) in my closing remarks, a shameful lack of attention was paid to the word ‘for’ in the Arts Council’s mission. I drew attention to the idea of great art for everyone not as provision and uptake-or-neglect but as gift or exchange. (I was drawing on ideas from Lewis Hyde’s great book The Gift.) If we see what happens when art happens as an exchange between artist and audience, and between audience and artist, which commerce may complicate but not fundamentally destroy, perhaps the issues around the other words become clearer - and less disabling. Think of the end of a performance when the conductor, the singer, the dancer thanks the audience, and the audience thank them. That’s often an emotional climax to the evening – precisely because of the mutual exchange I (perhaps overstretching!) suggested is implied in the little word ‘for’. If it’s not mutual, there’s something important missing from the 'great art' and 'everyone' ends of the equation.

Anyway, it was a great day, though my brain was rather struggling to contain the stimulus by the end of the day, when I went over to Northern Stage be rehearsed for giving out the Arts Council Award at The Journal Culture Awards. I managed to walk and carry a trophy at the same time, and happily present it the AV Festival 08, and then engaged in some highly unstrategic enjoying myself.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Will we join us on-line tomorrow?

Just a reminder that tomorrow - Tuesday 24 March - you'll be able to see a number of sessions from our 'Great art for everyone' event live on the web. You can also add comments to the blog and twitter us (is that the phrase - I suspect not?!). All the details can be found here:

Tune in at 9.30am Greenwich Mean Time and you can see me introducing the day, followed by our Chief Exec Alan Davey, and then a debate on what great art might be with such luminaries as Erica Whyman, Godfrey Worsdale and Neil Astley. There other sessions later in the day also being webcast. The ustream channel is

It's going to be a really stimulating day of conversations anyway, but it would be great if the online aspect - which is very much an experiment for us, and may simply be a lot of faff for nothing if no one watches or comments - also contributed.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Are you keeping calm and carrying on?

Nice story in The Guardian today about the spread of the poster you can see above – from Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland to the world…

You can read an account by one of the owners of Barter Books on her own blog too, which gives a bit more detail, including reference to the worst kind of approach to ‘intellectual property management’ by one of the copyists.

There’s something I love about this poster, something about it that captures an aspect of Englishness I cherish. (Just like Barter Books actually, a fantastic shop in an old railway station building.) There are times the Francophile in me wishes we were always jumping to the barricades and striking. But actually – perhaps as I get older? – I think there’s more to be said for persistence, stubbornness and simply cracking on and making sense of your part of the world in order to change the whole. It's very different from the 'stiff upper lip'. I could probably relate this to an acceptance of systems thinking and resilience if you really want, but time is short. (I will get back to resilience as promised but need to carve out a couple more hours!)

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Is great art for everyone possible?

The event I mentioned in my previous post is ‘Great Art For Everyone’ – a day of debate, ideas and discussion that is taking place at The Sage Gateshead on 24 March. It precedes The Journal Culture Awards at Northern Stage that evening – a celebration of some of the best arts and culture events of the last year in North East England.

We’ve posed a number of ‘provocations’ for attendees and our panels, relating to the mission of the Arts Council – ‘Great Art for Everyone’ – and how it can be achieved. The aim is to bring people together to debate the ways to achieve great art for everyone. I don’t expect pat solutions, and we won't be offering any, but explorations, ideas, collaborations, some mutual learning, some aching ‘listening muscles’ by the end of the day.

The ‘provocations’ include
- ‘Digital technology: how far behind is the arts sector, and should the DAFT (‘digital as a foreign tongue’) stop worrying and let the digitally savvy take over?’
- International working: jollies and jaunts or deep relationships that spark new ideas and create great art?
- Sustainability: in the ecology of the arts sector, which parts need to change, evolve and maybe even stop, for the whole to become more resilient?

There are a number more. You can see them all on the event blog that’s been set up at On the day you’ll be able to watch live streaming of the main sessions, follow a Twitter stream, and interact online. You can also share your thoughts on the blog beforehand.

It would be great to get some takes on these questions from Arts Counselling readers beyond the North East and beyond England. People in 26 countries have read it in the last week. How much of these debates applies in those other places and situations, other politics and traditions? What might we learn from your experience? Visit the site and help us out!

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Wednesday Word of the Week: DAFT

DAFT is a term I think I made up a few weeks ago, in the office actually, such is the creative frenzy we can work ourselves up into when trying to come up with provocative copy for an event. (More on that tomorrow.)

It means people who have ‘Digital As a Foreign Tongue’ – people sometimes referred to as digital immigrants, as opposed to digital natives. Maybe because I’ve a degree in what used be called a ‘Modern Language’, I prefer images of multilingualism rather than identity and nationhood. And my wife teaches ESOL – English as a Second or Other Language. But of course DAFL isn’t quite so catchy.

Anyway, the DAFT are those who did not grow up using the now ubiquitous personal computer-based digital technology of email, web and so on, let alone grow up in the social networking, instant chat world. I’m one of the DAFT, probably at the younger end of the spectrum. But I was 30 when I first got my modem working, so it’s definitely not my first language. (Although to be honest, neither is the phone – which I seem to recall the novelist Bruce Sterling once called the first cyberspace experience. I can actually remember the time we got a phone in the house for the first time, and I think I was the aged side of 10 then. Think Life on Mars.)

It is a useful concept, for thinking how to approach different audience. Behind the concept of digital natives and immigrants – Marc Prensky’s explanation in an education context is a useful exposition – is actually the idea that the DEFT (Digital Experience as First Tongue? Hmm, just trying it out…) or digital natives’ brains work differently.

I saw some examples of the DEFT and the DAFT mixing at the Clicks or Mortar conference at The Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle recently – the first time I’d seen live Twittering on screen whilst conference speakers spoke. As I grew up doing my homework whilst watching the telly, I could cope with that, but I’m a bit nervous I’ll find it distracting when we try it at the aforementioned Arts Council England, North East event soon.

Funnily enough my colleague Sally Luton has been making some of these points whilst taking the blogging plunge herself at South by South West Interactive this week. On Sunday Sally (who is far from the DAFTest member of the ACE Executive team…) put it perfectly: ‘Watching delegates at the conference listening to speakers whilst surfing the web, twittering etc it's hard not to think that their level of engagement is superficial. But maybe what is information overload for me is manageable for someone whose grown up with technology.’ You can read her notes here .

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Why is North East England important in the world of poetry?

I may have given regular readers cause to think that North East England is the centre of the poetry world. (Or indeed the world period.) Further evidence of that, if it were needed, can be found – if you’re quick – in a Radio 4 programme by Lee Hall of Billy Elliot/Pitman Painters fame. This looks at the Northern working class tradition of poetry, in particular the influence of Basil Bunting on Tom Pickard, Barry MacSweeney and others involved in Morden Tower and the Newcastle Poetry Scene in the 60s (and subsequently.) It’s a great programme – not just for poetry buffs but for anyone interested in Lee Hall’s ongoing analysis of the role of class in cultural life. If you come across this post after it’s been taken down from the BBC i-player, have a dig around Morden Tower’s website and be sure to check out the brilliant Flickr sets of photos by David James.

There’s some brilliant recordings of Bunting, and of tv and radio coverage of Briggflatts, too. Giving similar pleasures is this bit of footage Neil Astley of Bloodaxe has recently shared, which tells the Bloodaxe story, but in 1985, when they were but bairns, and very much pre-digital in their production methods. Neil and Simon Thirsk may have aged slightly, but sadly not so much as the prospect of regional telly giving more than 10 minutes to coverage of a poetry publisher…

It being the 5th of March, and as I’ve just mentioned Billy Eliot, here’s a Miners’ Strike 25th Anniversary link to some of Side Gallery’s archive: to a project capturing (pun intended) Easington in August 1984.