Friday, 19 June 2009

Books and records

I'm just sharing this because I think these, and other, 'classic records lost in time and format, re-emerged as Pelican books. Just for fun.' are brilliant. Enjoy more here. They're by Little Pixel and you can find out more about him here.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

More on sharing and digital

All the dots do join up, you know...

After struggling to get yesterday's blogs up I was reading Wired - the new, easily available for reading on trains UK version I'd been too busy working to read on the train. And what do I find but an article by Kevin Kelly about 'The New Socialism' - digital online collectivism. He talks, as I did yesterday about sharing: 'Sharing is the mildest form of socialism, but it serves as the foundation for higher levels of communal engagement.'

It's a fascinating article that posits the online nation as exemplifying 'a third way' which combines 'individual autonomy and the power of people working together' to enhance 'creativity, productivity, and freedom', free from the clumsy ruling hand of either the state or the market. His analysis of the potential impact of common purpose not driven by individual profit I find really powerful.

You might conclude that the lack of comprehension the government show for such a vision of the digital world in 'Digital Britain' (even the term sounds parochial after reading Kelly's essay, he is of course an internationalist, drawing attention to the lack of borders to this new socialism) is precisely the traditional response to the suggestion that we might be better off driven by creativity and collaboration rather than property and profit.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

(Digital) Irony Corner

Here's something a little ironic (as that annoying song has it):

I just spent 40 minutes carefully crafting a post about Digital Britain, pressed 'publish post' with a sense of 'good job done', only for an error message to come up, and my fine words and links to have disappeared even from the saved draft.

I'm sorry, readers, but life's too short to do it again. It welcomed the report, though it's a bit baggy in places and over-long - a bit like modern software that does with gigabytes what a programme on a floppy disc used to do just as quickly, or so it would seem. Digital sprawl.

So I'll keep this short: read Digital Britain, start with the exec summary if pushed or just not that geeky-wonky, then get on with changing the world.

You can't pirate a moment - or can you?

Of course, I was lying when I said everything was digital. One of the best things about going to Wexford for the Theatre Forum Ireland conference was hearing Tim Crouch give his first ever keynote speech (and first ever powerpoint) and talk in the car down from Dublin. Tim’s address focused us on the moment, the present, the human – a stripped down vision of the heart of the dramatic connection that happens when audiences meets performer. It was entertaining and thought-provoking and definitely fulfilled the TED rules for presentations I shared recently.

At the heart of his talk was a delight in, and a commitment to, the way the dramatic moment – in which the performing arts specialise – refused to become an object that could then be monetized and traded. Tim is far from a luvvy, and has been performing his play England in visual arts galleries around the world, most recently at the newly opened Whitechapel Gallery, so he's seen art markets. The Guardian called it ‘an endlessly thoughtful piece which artfully challenges a globalised world where everything is for sale, and questions the value we put on art and on human life’. Unfortunately I've not seen it, but I can imagine that from what he said.

I mention this because one of the side affects of Digital Britain, if not applied carefully, might be a lessening of the human connection, rather than a burgeoning of individual and collective possibilities. This not just because we’ll be sat twiddling with our phones with earphones in rather than talking to each other, but because of the centrality of commodification to the thinking.

This most visibily (or even understandably) manifests itself in discussion of downloads and piracy. I'm always a little ambivalent personally about the piracy theme - I can remember home taping killing the music industry, and even have some of the weapons in the attic. (I mean cassettes of albums borrowed from friends.) The 'lost income' figures always seem very notional, for instance. A couple of years I heard a very impressive and challenging speech from Sunil Abraham of Mahiti in India, who basically suggested this piracy/protection issue was a very Western imposition which resisted the fundamental and healthy human urge to share as well as own.

I've some sympathy with that. If my son borrows one of my cds and puts a copy on his i-pod, it just doesn't feel as if he'd gone next door and stolen a cd, no matter what the music industry say. (Not that my neighbour Eric has the same cds.) It feels more like borrowing a drill. (Should Eric send me down to B&Q next time I ask to use the Black & Decker?) It might be the strict position to say 'No, you can't share that cd, go buy your own,' but it also feels a little peculiar. And what's the impact on social capital of that approach?

But I do appreciate the need to create ‘monetisable products’, and the need to develop models in which any sharing increases payment to creators (you might call that professional culture, might you not?) and to protect creators from flagrant abuse, so, no, I don't share or download files online. (Apart from anything else I like records and cds too much, and Spotify takes care of the rest.)

My point is that in drawing the map of Digital Britain we shouldn’t forget the human moment of shared, human connection even digital creation can give us.

Monday, 15 June 2009

What's the best way through a time of crisis?

I spent a fascinating two days last week in Wexford in Ireland, at the conference of the Theatre Forum Ireland. The theme was 'The Way Through', and I was asked to talk about the creative uses of crisis. As well as drawing attention to the thinking around resilience I've talked about previously here - and in particular the habits of resilient organisations - I talked about how crisis is often defined as something which disturbs equilibrium (psychological or business, for instance) because it can't be responded to using one's usual methods or approaches or skills. As such it is precisely the thing that allows us to grow, or to (in the jargon) 'build capacity'. It relates to the ways things move from the 'release' or creative destruction phase to 'reorganisation'. When we realise our usual methods of control are no longer sufficient for the world (if they ever were), we are forced to find new and better ways. But before we get to reimagining, we have to properly accept the limits of our current methods.

The 250 theatre and dance professionals from all over Ireland seemed to be at precisely that point, because the Celtic Tiger economy appears to have gone 'pop!' very messily indeed. Interestingly, the Arts Council of Ireland also seemed to be at a point of reimagining how best to support theatre, given the challenges. These seemed huge, but there was, by the end of the two days, a real appetite to work together. It was fascinating for me to observe the sector and the Arts Council relationship at one remove, for once - the different perceptions and the difficulty of communication and partnership. It was also nice not to have to feel personally responsible every time I heard 'the Arts Council' being criticised! (That wasn't all the time, I hasten to add, and there was a general understanding of the necessity of the difficult decisions that Arts Council had to take, and an acknowledgement the Council was really making an effort to work with the sector.)

It was my second conference speech in a week, and interesting that the issues around young leaders I wrote about after the ENYAN conference were very apparent. One of the biggest dilemmas facing the Arts Council of Ireland, and the sector, is how to maintain some stability for the key institutions and companies, whilst also bringing on new talent. Clearly some of the 'emerging' artists, most in their 30s, felt more needed to be done to assist them.

There were lots of other thoughts stimulated by a hugely enjoyable two days, so thanks to curator Belinda McKeown and Tania and Irma at Theatre Forum Ireland for the invitation, and to people for making me welcome. I may return to some of those thoughts, once I've caught up with myself.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Who's filling whose gap?

The back page ad in Arts Professional recently has been for Blackbaud, who provide ‘innovative ticketing, fundraising, marketing and CRM solutions’. That’s the second half of their pitch – the first half was what caught my eye. Blackbaud, it says, has ‘helped hundreds of arts and cultural organisations to fill the gap in government funding through innovative ticketing...’ (My italics.)

It’s interesting because it seems to be underpinned by a model of 100% government funding for a supplier-led arts world with the customers filling the gap, rather than a ‘market failure’ model which see government funding as making possible valuable things which cost more than the market (ie paying customers of one sort or another) can afford, or a demand-led model with funding encouraging consumption. And it’s a commercial organisation putting it forward.

I may be reading this too closely, of course. It could just be smart marketing people playing to their audience. And the quote from Su Matthewman at West Yorkshire Playhouse is much more positive in its view of customers. But if the CRM specialists make this kind of Freudian slip, what does it say about how audiences – people who put their hands in their pockets to pay for art they want – are seen by arts organisations? Or about how those organisations see their business models?

Friday, 5 June 2009

How can bad paintings be good?

Here's a little light relief for a Friday afternoon: a website showcasing (if that's the word) bad paintings of Barack Obama. Apparently there is an ongoing wave of artistic representations of the US President which shows no signs of abating. I find these bad ones - and some are quite spectacularly awful - rather fascinating, more so perhaps than 'better' ones. I once visited the Nelson Mandela Museum in Umtata (near where he was born) and there were rooms of similarly bad but somehow touching portraits by children from all over the world.

I wonder if there is an equivalent phenomenon of portaits of Gordon Brown I don't know about?

Thursday, 4 June 2009

How Soon is Now?

On Tuesday I was the keynote speaker at the national conference of ENYAN – the English National Youth Arts Network – at the Customs House in South Shields. This was a very suitable venue given the Customs House’s involvement in Creative Partnerships and now Find Your Talent. (The Customs House was the first RFO to run an ‘independent’ Creative Partnerships area, in North and South Tyneside – a model we had to work hard to convince people would work, but which is now more or less the model adopted across the country.)

I’d been set a topic which was possibly some kind of revenge for the kinds of questions young people get in exams, about policy and investment and the importance of ‘young leaders of the future’. I did address it but with a different emphasis. If I say I titled the presentation ‘How Soon Is Now’ that will give both my age and theme away.

Whilst there is a greater policy emphasis on young people and their leadership skills, and more investment there are three key themes I drew attention to. (You can read the policy stuff in ENYAN’s excellent publication Young Arts Leaders.)

Firstly that we need young leaders now, not in the future. (Apart from anything else, they’ll be older by then…) If diversity is a central element to a good leadership team (apply that as broadly as you want, organisation or sector-wide) and innovation vital, we need to develop a more multi-generational model of leadership. In my talk I skipped the research about the way in which Babyboomers, GenX and GenY and what I saw described as Gen@ interact, but it’s not uncomplicated bringing different generations together.

Secondly, ‘professionalisation’ is affecting how young people enter the workplace and their roles there, especially given how the workplace itself is changing. I did a straw poll in our office and the highest concentration of MAs, for instance, is probably at the more junior levels rather than the more senior levels. What happens when managers are less academically-qualified, but have more dirty-handed experience from the University of Life, running a theatre company from the back of a van or a poetry press with a long-arm stapler? We need to develop less hierarchical versions or visions of leadership.

Thirdly, the workplace demands this adaptation and diversification, but is arguably crowded with older folk working hard and productively. The management tiers are not emptying out to make room for talented young people. The leadership programmes are arguably struggling to cope with this, in bringing younger leaders through. The definition of young gets pushed up - sometimes as high as 40 as it was when I joined the British Council's UK -South East Europe Forum at the age of 39.9.

This means it is harder to be trusted and given the risky opportunity to run things, even small things, at a young age. I was 32 when appointed as Director of Cleveland Arts, my friend and predecessor Reuben Kench was just 27. One of my antecedents in this job – or perhaps ancestor is more the word, given he was actually running Northern Arts – Peter Stark was New Activities Co-ordinator in the Midlands for Arts Council Great Britain at 22 and Director of South Hill Park at 25, with 50 staff. Talking to both, we found it hard to think of recent examples of such trusting appointments of young people. There is less room in many senses perhaps.

The further question I was left with, after spending the morning at the conference, was might the recession create a bit of ‘clear space’ in which young leaders can carve out the chance to both fail and succeed - ie grow - in safe but not too safe circumstances?