Thursday, 24 September 2009

World Summit on Arts & Culture

This week I've been in Joahnnesburg for IFACCA's 4th World Summit and Arts & Culture, a gathering of people from arts councils, cultural agencies, ministries and other interested parties. I'll post about the themes more next week when I'm not busy conferencing, but you can follow some of the immediate responses and questions on my Twitter profile.

I had the pleasure of being responsible for the Arts Council England organisation of the 3rd Summit in NewcastleGateshead 3 years ago, and I must say it's even more enjoyable not feeling responsible for everything!

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Just to help me dry the tears...

If you found the previous post a tad depressing, I hope this will lift your spirits, in the way only heartbreak can. Proof that just because some versions of a thing are horrible, another version can't be a thing of beauty and a joy forever...

First cut is the deepest?

The c word is now being spoken out loud on all sides of the political spectrum. There are good cuts and bad cuts, it seems, but the focus is all on cuts in spending. Joe Hallgarten on his arm’s length state blog makes the point that politicians needs to be talk more honestly about the limitations of their power over the world, and thus encourage in us, the ‘public’, a more realistic and probably more forgiving attitude. (He kind of praises Arts Council with one hand, for at least grappling with change, and then digs us in the ribs with the other, which is probably fair enough.) Politicians, he suggests, need to point out they cannot do the impossible - eg keep costs down but make sure no one ever gets hurt. (I'd say the same goes for funders.)

Also this morning someone sent me a link to a report called ‘How to Save £50 billion’, which is at least honest enough to have a clear and relatively unequivocal list of cuts in spending that the Institute of Directors and the Tiny Minority of Tax Payers Alliance think would be a good idea. Read the list and you can see which Tax Payers the Alliance voice might represent: not those like my dad living on the Basic State Pension, or families being helped by Sure Start or Education Maintenance Allowance, or the children being educated in dilapidated buildings. Not to mention the people employed as a result of the things on their little list.

This is not to deny savings are possible or even necessary in some areas. But what needs to be considered is not which expenditure lines should be reduced, but which of the outcomes we want to do without. (We do also need to remember that some of the ‘savings’ also have a direct financial cost, in terms of unemployment, but also indirect social costs – conveniently left out of most of the equations.) I’d happily live without ID cards, but I don’t want the state education system on starvation rations in horrible old buildings. (I know there are some horrible new buildings, but let’s not go there right now.)

In a sense, the public spending cuts debate could then become a part of a wholly necessary discussion about how we are living beyond the means of the planet and our real economies, and what we are prepared to forgo, and how we can reinvent our ways of living and working. That’s obviously also a discussion that is ongoing in culture, and we at Arts Council are constantly making the case as strongly as humanly possible that money spent on culture is well spent and productive. A more mature language for the overall debate can only help us in that.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Bigmouth strikes again

Is there an arts strategy point to be drawn from the odd fact that I found myself on BBC Tees yesterday afternoon talking about the tv chef Keith Floyd who passed away yesterday? Let’s have a go, shall we…

(I should explain they asked me as I had an earlier career as a chef, and I’d been a guest on the breakfast show just last week, so must have been in someone’s head as the more obvious people didn’t answer their phones. At least I’m presuming the BBC don’t have a gigantic database of all our lives, though I gather that kind of thing is all the rage. I failed miserably to slip in a ‘Patrick Swayze died today too and we support some great dance through the Arts Council you know’ line, for which I apologise to the Communications team.)

The point I was able to dredge up in the five minutes notice I had was that Floyd, for all his foibles and failings, was an early part of a movement that moved cooking away from exam-style following of recipes to something freer without abandoning high standards, more expressive – what you might call the ‘fondle vegetables in foreign markets and whack it in the pan’ school. It also led to the current ubiquity of cooking on British television.

The arts point I might draw from this is that too much arts coverage on television is still too much like Delia Smith to really shift how people think about the arts. Tim Marlow has a robust zest and zing, and Mark Kermode is one of my favourite cultural commentators on screen and page. But both arguably enjoy sorting the wheat from the chaffe a little too much for popular taste, though there are few things more enjoyable than Kermode demolishing some nonsense.

In terms of promoting ‘participation’, the really great new tv figure is Gareth Malone, whose new programme, The Unsung Choir, follows the creation of a community choir on a ‘tough estate’. He is human, warm and uncompromising, and the programme is a great example of what a deep introduction to art can do for people and a community. You can see it here, and if you don’t find any of it moving I diagnose you as a cynic. (The BBC have also wrapped some useful info around the programme to encourage people to join choirs and sing.) We need more advocates and champions like this on our screens. And then maybe in 20 years Saturday morning telly will be given over to arts coverage rather than cooking.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Are you ready for the future?

That's the question Mission Models Money want you to consider. They are exploring the competencies, qualities and attributes necessary for coping with the complexity and flux of the 21st Century, and are asking as many people as possible to complete their survey. You can even get a personalised report comparing your answers to the survey results.

Being able to make time to fill in online surveys might be a new competency, given their prevalence, but fortunately the MMM survey is at a slightly more elevated level than that, so I do urge you to get clicking.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Plus ça change?

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation have done an interesting thing and republished a seminal report from 1959, Help for the Arts. The aim is to stimulate debate about how we meet today’s questions of how best to support the arts. It’s a fascinating read. Many things are different – and not just the ‘surface’ signs such as language. (I’m pretty sure I don’t want to bring ‘patronage’ and ‘provinces’ back into regular usage for instance, let alone phrases such as ‘men of means’.) The post-Austerity landscape does look free of agency ‘clutter’, and the text has a refreshing directness – though that may simply by style of the report, unafraid to be patrician where necessary.

There are also many things that are oddly similar through the differences –sometimes in an ‘eternal question’ way. What’s the best balance between support for individuals and institutions? Is it simplistic to say that ‘artists not institutions create art’ – where do ‘producers’ fit in, let alone commissioning ‘bodies’ public and private? If institutions endure, in a way individuals (as opposed to their artwork, of course) may not, is that a good or a bad thing?

Funding interventions are the key theme of the report – which led to the Gulbenkian’s crucial work in developing arts in the regions, and some key 'arts spaces'. I’ve been involved in some discussions in the North East about ‘intelligent funding’ (as opposed to stupid funding, you might say!) and was struck by this paragraph:

The reluctance of the State to help new needs in the arts has been emphasised by the tendency for State grants to take the form of meeting deficits (and to some extent the same criticism applies to local authority grants). No doubt grants on this basis are more easily justified where public money is concerned. Nevertheless the deficit basis of finance has a crippling effect on creative work. Moreover, since bodies which receive deficit grants cannot build up reserves, they are prevented from putting their finances on a sound basis: in the long run this system is therefore uneconomical. This criticism is not, however, valid where guarantees of fixed amounts are made to new and adventurous enterprises.

This is something Arts Councils and both local and national politicians grapple with today, further complicated at times by lottery regulations - well, either grapple with or studiously ignore. (It applies across the voluntary sector as a whole.)

The report posits four key things that need to be addressed, and again, whilst acknowledging how much progress has been made, it’s startling to see how unchanged they are from the list many would draw up today. I’ll end simply by quoting them:

The first is that far greater support is needed for the arts than in the past. Nor is this a temporary need. Once high standards of artistic creation and performance have been established, an increasing sum is required to maintain these new standards. This means
that over the years public authorities will have to find more money for the arts.

The second is that far more needs to be done today to render the arts accessible, particularly in the provinces.

The third point is that there should be more scope for experiment in order to invigorate the arts.

The fourth point is that we think that more should be done to foster appreciation of the arts among the young. The introduction of music and drawing into primary schools has been of the highest importance. But in grammar and secondary modern schools, the practice and appreciation of the arts is apt to be crowded out after the age of 14; while little incentive or encouragement is given to boys and girls after leaving school to develop whatever interest in the arts they have acquired. The best means of doing this is something which would well repay enquiry.