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?


Steve Dearden said...


It would be interesting to know how big a part the dole played in the early/pre-careers of people of our generation.

Certainly for me, it meant three years with a little money to live on and my rent paid in which I could direct plays, help make films, write, get a whole load of different experiences and read, read, read. Perhaps, most importantly, it enabled me to spend all my time doing it, making culture in the real world for people like me.

Not an internship exactly.

Whatever we think of them, the changes in benefits and the introduction of student loans have eradicated that possibility for all but the most privileged. For most young people work - usually low paid and not connected to cultural industries - fills an increasing part of their lives.

The sooner you jump out of the academy, the harder it gets, maybe one reason for all those MAs.

I think cultural policy needs to address this, to find ways in which young people can spend all their time mucking about, experimenting, getting experience, making culture for people like them. The mix that young leaders emerge from.

Of course the academies, internships, CPD, mentors etc. should be part of the offer. But sometimes I think we need to be more arms length, lighter touch, concentrate more on creating time and space for young people to make culture for people like them, and less on dragging people into the structures we have defined.

And when we are giving money, be a little less concerned about track record (if I could have a £ for every young person who has been dissuaded from applying because they have no track record, no proven connections with what we know!)- less on track record and more on potential.

Certainly, G4A grants by ACE Yorkshire to early emergers from the Writing Squad have borne brilliant fruit (see and but I am conscious that there are many other people with potential out there who either have not benefited from association with the organisations like Squad, or from such an empathetic ACE officer as our Literature Officer.

Steve Dearden

Mark Robinson said...

I agree with most of this I think. When I left uni I went straight into a kitchen and worked as a chef for 6 years whilst I filled in the gaps in my writing and reading education uni had left. (Lots.) I think this idea of the impact of the time on the dole to create is in the air but in a slightly different sense perhaps - the whole regime seems much more directive. (And I can't see James Purnell's legacy in DWP helping.)

Really agree re. taking risks and backing early and about letting people have their own space not dragooned by more formal structures. The notion of spotting and investing in talent rather than simply funding activity...

You know the first bit of course Steve as you were my first properly productive contact with the arts funding system when you bothered to come out and see me in York, when I was still just a veggy chef with a poetry magazine, and then support Scratch to become a bit more professional. For which I am eternally grateful. It's an example I've always tried to live up to since! Mind you, I thought you were an old hand at the time...