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.’

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Is Google watching you?

Eric Schmidt knows I'm writing this. He probably knows you're reading it. So you should probably take the chance to read about him and the founders at Google -where he's the CEO - in the latest Wired here. They know what you search for, where you go, even where your car keys are, or they will soon, so you better pay some attention to what they're thinking. (Apart from anything else there are some interesting new ideas.) Here's a few quotes that set me thinking.

“We don’t have a big picture. We don’t have a five-year plan, we don’t have a two-year plan, we don’t have a one-year plan. We have a mission and a strategy, and the mission is… you know, [to organise] all the world’s information. And the strategy is to do it through innovation. It doesn’t bother us if something doesn’t work. Because we understand that something else will work.” Interesting, though more possible if you have the kind of resources they do at Google - if you can afford to lose $0.5Billion a year on youtube you've got time to work out a viable business model, I guess.

"Would you like to be able to say to Google, ‘What should I do tomorrow?’ or ‘Where are my car keys?’ We’re just at the beginning of answering the really hard questions. We’re good now at cataloguing, indexing stuff that’s already been written. But what about meaning, what about understanding real intent? These are very, very hard problems, and search is the way to access those.” Both barking and a little worrying. What will happen to the English Lit and Philosophy depts if you can google 'real intent' as well as quotes for your essay?

One of the originators of Google, Sergey Brin, did make me smile with this insight: 'Small local businesses can increasingly use video – you could easily imagine restaurants showing what they serve, people happily dining away, then you’ve got a sense of the atmosphere.' Isn't this just the old ads for local Indian resturants that led to so many classic moments? Is the old always wrapped up in the seeming new?

Anyway, it's worth a look. (That's my office window in the middle on the ground floor, by the way, courtesy of Street View. You can see my car in the car park too...)

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Do we have to think small to think big?

At some recent briefings for regularly funded organisations, one of the hot topics was the national engagement campaign we’re planning. It would be fair to say reactions ranged from enthusiasm to scepticism. Some people suggested we should just focus on the quality of the art and the audiences would take care of themselves. Some people suggested we were only taking about increasing audiences because we felt pressured to by government. Some people suggested it was really complicated to get new audiences for the arts, and that we risked dumbing down quality work by taking an approach that might be too populist. Some immediately thought about how they might use the campaign to promote their work, or how they could partner with the campaign, and had some very practical suggestions and issues. Some seemed to think we only wanted ‘big numbers’, and that big numbers were suspect. They were interesting discussions.

This is clearly not a easy nut to crack. But shortly after I read a really useful article in the new RSA Journal by ‘persuasive technology’ expert BJ Fogg: the new rules of persuasion. I’ll leave aside the technological aspects of his argument – though they’re obviously important. I’ll also not expand on his ‘behavior model’, though you can read more about it here. (It’s basically motivation + ability + trigger = behaviour.)

What particularly struck home was his advice to think simple – because it’s something I think neither the Arts Council or the arts sector are good enough at. Indeed, I feel there is often a resistance to ‘simple’, and a preference for (as Facebook would have us say) ‘It’s complicated.’ It has applications to lots of areas of arts development, but especially to encouraging 'everyone' to engage with the arts.

This quote illustrates the challenge to our tendency to want to change the whole world at once:

‘The first critical step in designing for persuasion is to select an appropriate target behaviour. I believe the best choice is the simplest behaviour that matters. Often this requires a team to reduce their ambitious long-term goal to a small near-term objective. For example, last year I worked with a large health-care company whose goal was to help people reduce their stress levels. That goal was too vague and too large-scale. So for starters we picked a smaller target behaviour: let’s persuade people to stretch for 20 seconds when prompted. Note that this smaller goal was so simple that anyone could achieve it, and the success rate was measurable. This was a good starting point for the larger goal of reducing overall stress level.’

Fogg advises that we should start small and fast and then build on small successes: ‘As the small offerings succeeded, they then expanded. That approach to innovation works. In contrast, services launched with many features or ambitious goals seem almost always to fail.’

He concludes with this thought: ‘Simplicity requires courage. Inside big companies and academic research labs, thinking small will rarely boost your status. An innovator who says 'no' to complicated designs and unrealistic goals may appear timid to colleagues or clients.’ The challenge for everyone in the arts, then, may be learning to think small in order to really think big, or learning from those already doing it.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Isn't it better to seek forgiveness than permission?

Last week I hosted an ‘Artsmark Celebration Conference’ at Dance City in Newcastle – probably the first time the words celebration and conference have been conjoined in such intimacy. This brought together heads and teachers who’d just received Artsmark awards to listen to a couple of inspiring speakers, as well as get their awards. Poet Kate Fox, who you may have heard on Radio 4’s Saturday live (she talks about the experience here), rewrote the ‘levels’ primary teachers work within. And QCA adviser Robin Widdowson talked about the changes in the primary curriculum coming out of the Rose Review, which puts understanding the arts much more central to developing successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens – and hopefully some people who are all three.

Robin was particularly interesting as he rather challenged the assembled teachers to push at the boundaries, and to use the freedom they had – which was more than many assumed. He suggested that many schools had operated as if they were much more restricted in how they worked than they actually were, assuming or imagining limits to be placed upon them that had never actually been written into guidance. They were following rules that weren’t there, and unnecessarily distorting their practice.

It struck me this was a parallel to what I’d observed when talking to RFOs at a couple of recent briefings, where the sense that ‘Arts Council was now a voice of government’ forcing people to ‘do social inclusion’ at the expense of quality of experience came across strongly from some people. They clearly felt far more directed or pushed than we intended. (I'll defend our right to challenge 'normal service' at times, of course - but I've never once felt we were doing that around diversity or inclusion, say, or the use of arts in regeneration 'because government tell us we have to'.) Things were being heard that were not being said. Our intent, even our statements, are not the issue. The unheard melodies are more powerful. The result in education, or so Robin suggested, was teachers not teaching to the creative limits of either the curriculum or their natural confidence. The question is, in the arts or the classroom, how we break through that syndrome?

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Not in my public space?

A few weeks ago Andrew Taylor wrote about ‘a different kind of cultural infrastructure’ – 30 pianos in public places across London. You can read more about the project here . It sounds really exciting and democratising of both music and public space.

But I was talking recently to some friends of mine who live very close to one of the pianos in central London and they had a slightly different take, which also says something about ‘excellence’ I think. Although they really liked the pianos, and the way they were used, mainly by people with some talent or skill, as well as those just playing around, the locks which close the pianos at 11pm, so local residents can get some sleep, had been broken off, leading to late night and early renditions – not so welcome.

What was interesting was that they found the people bashing out great renditions of Beethoven at 4am more disturbing than the passing drunks just making noise. This leads me to think that the power to capture our attention, be un-ignorable and to unsettle is a really important element of artistic excellence. Which may be one reason it’s not always welcome or appropriate for some people, at certain times and places. Suggesting great art may be for everyone but not all the time.

(When I walked past their local piano later it was locked up, so I can't vouch for the sound, but it was certainly beautiful to look at.)

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Would you get naked in the office?

Yesterday evening I was in London Village (for once not meant sarcastically as from where I was sitting I could see a bookshop, a clothes shop, a dentist and a funeral directors as well as pubs and restaurants, which sounds like a good definition of a great village to me) discussing the issues of the day with some of the finest arts strategists and planners I could find, over something long and fizzy. We’d had a long, tiring and at times even trying but very productive day in a very hot room, and I’d inadvertently offended some colleagues by seeming to suggest they were very remiss in not blogging too, so was having to dig myself out - but it was a lovely London Village evening.

Despite the heat though, and slightly more bare legs than usual as a result, at least we all had our clothes on. I was amused to read this morning about an experiment (for a telly programme called, unsurprisingly, The Naked Office) in which the staff of two Newcastle companies had gradually stripped off in order to work better together. According to the ‘leadership guru’ David Taylor, who has written about The Naked Leader, ‘as people strip off, they also strip off their defences and can enunciate issues that bother them, leading to frank discussion and the empowerment of all involved.’ You can read more about the programme here and more about Naked Leadership here.

Whilst some colleagues are known to kick off their shoes in meetings, I can’t see this catching on at Arts Council England, or many other places else actually. Collectives of live/performance artists perhaps. This blog is not usually about announcing Arts Council England policy, but to reassure my teams, I can confirm that this is absolutely not an experiment we will be joining in with, at least in the North East.