Friday, 27 November 2009

In a right steady state?

MMM and ERA21 held one of their peer-to-peer events in Newcastle this week, in the trendy new offices of Northern Film and Media in the Hoult’s Yard development. The theme was whether the sector is now ‘overbuilt’, underachieving, at ‘steady state’ or in a perilous condition. Or indeed none of the above.

The conversation demonstrated, for me, that we are at the point when innovative solutions start to pop up – ie that bit where you think you have a series of irreconcilable ‘truths’, and an intractable problem the current tools can’t fix. These clashing factors mentioned include:

- a renewed infrastructure – notably capital, but also organisational – that needs time and support to develop and have greater impact
- the sector can’t stand still and may need further infrastructure investment (capital of all sorts perhaps, including into digital technology)
- buildings and their physical assets are not always used to best effect to create cultural impact, and our business models (eg greater reliance on ‘commercial hires’ leads to less artist use of space for r&d, leading to diminished quality or quantity of new work). This suggest building in some ‘downtime’ to budgets.
- the public sector as a whole faces big cuts, whilst optimising service to the public – delayering of management, more efficient back offices. This suggests tightening of budgets
- the cultural sector is not meeting the needs of significant parts of the population
- but demand for the arts and culture is high, and thus far not significantly hit by the recession
the increased emphasis on the knowledge economy is an opportunity for the cultural sector, in helping the country out of recession
- we need to think broader than the commercial and subsidised sectors, and consider the role of amateur and voluntary activity
- non-arts agendas offer great opportunity for development but we lack compelling evidence (at least according to those judging matters)
- it’s unclear whether the base of the cultural sector pyramid (people enjoying the arts, say) is broad enough to give us enough people at the top of the pyramid (highly skilled, knowledge-based earners)
- there are lessons to be learned from creative industries and third sector experience
- persistence should not be mistaken for real, productive, resilience.

There were some local points, as well, but that will do as a summary for now. My own conclusion from the afternoon was that a more concerted ‘looking out’ would really help us disrupt our own patterns of thinking – from region into world, from artform into sector, from sector into economy or community or globe.

There are still a few spaces on MMM’s next series of events, if you can get to Edinburgh, London or Newcastle. Clare and Rohan have put a great panel of speakers together, including, in Newcastle, Clara Miller, President and CEO of the USA's Nonprofit Finance Fund, Ben Cameron, Arts Programme Director of the USA's Doris Duke Foundation,David Carrington, Member of the Supervisory Board of Triodos Bank, Erica Whyman, CEO and Artistic Director of Northern Stage. Oh, and me...


Annie Rigby said...

Sounds like it was a good discussion. And thanks for the tip off about the next round of events - have booked myself in for the Newcastle one.

I think the fact that the cultural sector is not meeting the needs of significant parts of the population is the biggest issue for me. In pure business terms, it means we've got a smaller market to sell to... but more importantly, it restricts the potential of the art itself. It's when we reach into new spaces, connect with different people, hear voices that we weren't expecting that the really interesting work happens.

And each of us arts organisations and individual artists do, of course, reach out to new audiences, hard to reach groups, etc, etc... But I can't help feeling that our capacity isn't as big as it could be if we joined up a bit more.

Mark Robinson said...

That is one of the paradoxes - it's not for the want of trying, and it's not there are loads of terribly attended events...