Monday, 3 May 2010

The three Rs; repetition, repetition, repetition

A few Arts Counselling subscribers I've bumped into in the real world have asked about how to subscribe to my new blog, Thinking Practice. You can do so by going to the site and filling in the email subscribe dooberry on the top tight hand side, or by clicking here and following instructions.

A good many of AC's subscribers have done so, so apologies to you for repetition. Please accept this video of someone playing The Fall's Repetition on a record player by way of recompense. (I do have this single, but this is not my video, honest.)

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

360° Review

Here's the piece I would 'end on'. Although I've mentioned it, and linked to it, I've spared you my poems here, but this is one I wrote for my leaving do, and then forgot, in the emotion of the moment, to read. Besides we'd already had a new Shakespeare poem that night. (Tom Shakespeare, that is, my chair at ACE amongst many other things.) It was probably for the best, that night, but I shared it afterwards with the team in the North East office, and it seemed as as good a way to go quiet here as any.

360° Review

The angles of the north are sharp as words

bitten in the wind, ballasted by bricks

so they can’t float over Pennines or Borders

to the uber-North as it plays its trump card,

devolution. My devotion is fast,

true as the compass of the A19,

A1 , or East Coast Main Line, the magnet’s pull

towards home or good work, twin poles that switch

and twitch like dancers in cold rehearsals.

Even restless melodies can settle

for equilibrium, and those have been mine,

home, work, twin arts of making worlds together.

But winds change, pick my dump weight up and heave.

Release is good, from on high landscapes shift,

graceful application turned to growth, sun

staccato off roofs and extractor fans,

curves and corners of new tunes and stages

rising like time-lapsed dough giddy with yeast.

There’s a toolbox down there, plenty to make

us tight with invention, rapt in creation.

There is no stopping us, no hopes gone south

now, no mothballing but of metaphors

of our doubt. We are done with all that,

have set out on fresh sweaty marathons,

mantras muttered against cynicism’s

insufficient priorities, competing

demands for fresh beats of northern hearts.

The sun sets in the west, beyond Barrow.

Yes, we are brothers and sisters from sea to sea:

our vowels as flat as the plains of class.

I have walked slowly to’t Foot Of Our Stairs,

a long march of a ten year trek but that’s

where I’m bound now, working out what I’ve done.

What we’ve done, is all I can see or say to end.

More is needed than these puzzled lines, more due

to others than this circular ‘thank you’.

But thank you will have to do.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Say goodbye wave hello

Well, I did warn you March might be quiet on here... but I'm back. Kind of.

It's a bit of a shame, really, as in many ways I wanted to ramp up activity here, but it seems the work ethic got in the way during my last few weeks at the Arts Council. However, I was trying to do a few too many things at once to eke out the time and energy to do justice to the subjects that arose here. You may, therefore, never hear about the 'Cafe Culturel' discussion I took part in, with Kate Fox, in which I read poems by Zbigniew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz and a women in the audience sang us a song after telling us about her job interview, or about what I learnt about arts leadership on the first part of a coaching course, about my struggles turning the theories of resilience into something like plain English or my writing the mother of all leaving poems for 14 colleagues leaving the Arts Council, or the fantastic and art-full week my wife and I have just had in New York.

Those of us who have departed as a result of the recent restructure - which stems back to the last Government Spending Review and will see an extra £6.5M for Regularly Funded Organisations, with the Arts Council having around 25% less staff - are now all off to pastures new. In my case that's my own business, Thinking Practice. The name combines the two elements I believe the arts and culture sector need to integrate even better - more consciously perhaps - than now, and because I hope other people will become involved over time.

The aim is to help the arts and cultural sectors, and maybe the broader third sector, create a fairer and more beautiful world, by helping them to increase their own impact and build their resilience through creative approaches that combine thinking (eg analysis and strategy) with practice (eg doing, learning, coaching). You can read about it on a beta site here.

Lots of people have asked whether I'll carry on blogging when I leave the Arts Council. The short answer is yes, although obviously it's a quite different context. I started Arts Counselling because it seemed the perfect form to share enthusiasms and ideas, whilst demonstrating that not everyone who works for the Arts Council is a faceless bureaucrat. (There are a total of 27 of those according to the most recent HR stats, apparently.) Sadly my Executive Board colleagues have been terribly slow in following my example, not for the first time either, though once someone shows them the on switch for the blogosphere, who knows? Seriously, I'm told Andrew Nairne's twittering is cult following amongst some, and there are more and more ACE-types on there, so things/people are opening up. If you want to petition Alan Davey to take up the Arts Counselling baton his email is publicly available, and I for one think he'd do a great blog.

Opinion has been split on whether I should keep the Arts Counselling name for future blogging. It is - obviously - a brilliant name, but given its origins can't help but relate to my now former employer. I'm incredibly proud of that organisation and my time there, and will be using what I learnt for the rest of my career, but it feels time to let go of that association for my writing. Later this week then, I will start blogging on Thinking Practice. You can expect the same mixture of ideas, thoughts, links, descriptions of experiences, questions and recommendations. You'll also be able to subscribe by email as many people do to Arts Counselling. If you are currently a subscriber you can subscribe to Thinking Practice by clicking here. Please do, I'll be disappointed, and my ego shattered, if too many of you were just watching out of funder-curiosity rather than hanging on my every word.

There's one more post I think it appropriate to put here, then this site will be dormant but available, as I think there's some useful stuff here. I'll find a way of archiving some of the more durable posts on the Thinking Practice site. Thanks for reading, and thanks for all the feedback and thoughts. Remember: it's time for some Thinking Practice.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Michael Foot and the smashed watch trick

On the radio last night they played a great clip of Michael Foot in Parliament assualting Keith Joseph with typical wit and grace. He compares Keith Joseph (one of the hard men of the Thatcher cabinet at that time wandering the country in bewilderment at the industrial 'reorganisation' they had set off) to a magician he used to see in the theatre in Plymouth as a young man, who would obtain a watch from someone in the audience, carefully place it under a handkerchief and then smash it with a mallet. He would then look completely puzzled and announce he had forgotten the second half of the trick...

This made me think two things. Firstly, how the genuine the 'laugh' is when it comes, from the other MPs, and how different that is to today's yahboo behaviour in the house - although there are one or two genuine wits left, notably William Hague, perhaps surprisingly, in themain the barracking and pantomime behaviour would get MPs excluded from any decent comprehensive. Secondly, and more importantly, how relevant the story is today. As all parties try and sound both tough and magical about cuts, hearing Michael Foot's elegant scorn illuminate the real issue, I couldn't help wonder whether the second half of the trick is any better known thirty years on. If it is isn't, only those with the money to buy new watches will be laughing.

(You can hear the clip 55 minutes into the programme here for the next few days.)

Michael Foot and the value of hope

I was really sad to hear the news of Michael Foot passing - although at the ripe old age of 96. I saw him speak a couple of times in the 1980's, once in the run up to the 1983 election and once after that heavy defeat. He was as powerful an orator as I've ever seen in this country. Perhaps not unrelated, he was also one of the most cultured politicians you would find. For him politics and culture and history were not seperate categories, nor were they contained from the real world struggles of real people.

Inevitably much reference has been made to that 1983 election, although his life had been a long and distinguished one even by then, and the tributes have tended to subtly state he was, well, mistaken but passionate and committed. Even at the time of the 1983 election, I thought he was treated unfairly. (I got to vote for the first time in that election, on the day of an English Literature A level exam. We played The Beat's Stand Down Margaret through the 6th Form Common Room in a vain - in all sense of the word probably - attempt to influence voters using the school. It was 14 long years before I got to vote for a candidate that actually got in.)

Thinking about that, and what (and who) Michael Foot represented, I was reminded of something Vaclav Havel said: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Checking that quote , I came across this: “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.” That seems to me what Michael Foot was about, win or lose. In that he differed from the breakaway SDP who really cost the country that election, and their spiritual progeny in all parties. Would that there were more like him still around.

(I know I'm leaving very shortly, but I suppose I should state: personal views, not Arts Council views.)

Friday, 26 February 2010

Giving up art for lent?

Will Self has written in the New Statesman of his idea that we should give up art for Lent in order to get in touch with ourselves. His typically sparky essay ends: 'Our deep faith in Fortuna's free market remains intact, and no dissident theses have been nailed to the doors of Tate Modern. Archbishop Serota sits secure on his throne. As for me, I find I do need a period of contemplation away from the hurly-burly of religious gallery observance. I feel strangely drawn to visit a modern church, where it's quiet and calm, and divinely ugly.'

Perhaps he got the idea from Arts Council England North East's communications team, as they've just conducted a similar experiment, which is documented in the video above. The Usher family from South Shields were asked to remove all art from their lives for a week and see how it felt. (No doodling, no humming, no all singing all dancing as the mum puts it.) They were then rewarded with a week of rather special artistic activities, including workshops with Kate Fox and Beccy Owen round the kitchen table.

Perhaps we should promote a national-no-art-week, as a counter-intuitive way of helping people appreciate the arts more?

Dark and true and tender is the North

Whether the North East forms part of a larger Northern identity has been the subject of much debate recently. Obviously this has resonance for Arts CouncilEngland as we (they!) get closer to implementing the new management structure. Alarm at power shifting is, I think, generally greater than it needs to be, but there's something interesting culturally about it.

The Journal newspaper have been running a campaign 'Case for the North East', which alongside many strong cases has included some rather odd and (to my mind) parochial statements suggesting there is no such thing as the North - it's 'a convenient line drawn on a civil servant's map' and 'the truth is we relate as much to London, Scotland and Europe as we do to the rest of the north'. Economically there may be some truth in that, but culturally I couldn't disagree more. (And whoever built Hadrian's Wall, or thought up the word Northumbria - North of the Humber? - might be with me.)

Of course the North East is as different from the North West as a Geordie accent is from Scouse, and both are different from Yorkshire. But then Tyneside is different from Teesside. They do though, have things in common - industrial and class heritage most particularly. The stereotypes of 'Northernness' cut across the country - and so do the positives. I think that's an interesting thing to explore - and the understanding of our variety and diversity that results a real inspiration.

Two things are happening at the moment that explore ideas of northerness is a more exciting sense than the Journal's campaign. (And don't get me wrong, I want resources and power to reside in the region - just not for almost charitable reasons.) Firstly Northern Stage (now run by that lovely southern lady Erica Whyman, or Why-Aye-man as she's known in Newcastle) is celebrating its 40th birthday with a major project exploring Northernness in a global context. And then The Civic in Barnsley are hosting Northern Futures, a competition for northern talent. I guess one can see the dangers here though, as even I thought they could have included some North Eastern names in their examples. (Or indeed more people who still lived in the North.)

(Of course, I would say all that, wouldn't I, having spent the first 22 years of my life in the NW, 5 in Yorkshire and the last 17 in the North East. I did spend a year in London Village, but that just reinforced my northerness.)

Friday, 19 February 2010

Art at the right time (part x in an ongoing series)

I've referred before to my theory that art finds you when and how you need it, and it happened again this week with a particular song from Field Music's new album. The refrain 'them that do nothing make no mistakes' has been in my head all week. It's a good mantra, I think, for funders, funded and commentators, to apply to ourselves and others. And a hell of catchy tune, which also has a use of the word 'tight' I find absurdly pleasing.

Here's the video for you to enjoy. (Has Sunderland ever looked so lovely?)

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Time for innovation

Time is tight, it seems. A few months ago I thought might be in wind down mode by now, before leaving the Arts Council, which just goes to prove how stupid I really am. The next few weeks may be a bit quiet on Arts Counselling as I have a lot of work to do, a lot of travelling to meet people to talk about resilience, and a lot of writing to do. I'll try and share some of that thinking as I go, but the blog is already feeling the squeeze.

Anyway, very briefly, I want to point you at two really interesting papers about innovation and research, bth of which are co-written by NESTA's Hasan Bakhshi.

The first, which was published a few weeks ago is Not Rocket Science. As MMM put it The authors’ proposals challenge two entrenched prejudices, which block arts and cultural organisations from playing their full role in society and economy:
- arts and culture are largely excluded from R&D by definitions based on its Science and Technology (S&T) origins
- the arts and cultural sector relies on a conception of creativity that mystifies too much of its work, preventing it from accessing valuable public resources.

The second is an interim report on Innovation in Arts and Cultural Organisations, co-written David Throsby. This includes descriptions of two case studies with TATE and the National Theatre, exploring the use of digital technology. (In the National's case the broadcasting of a show into cinemas around the country.) This makes the link between this kind of innovation of the actual business models of the organisations.

Both well worth your time, even if you don't have the time!

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Lord of the Rings?

On my way home tonight I detoured so I could go past the first ring of Anish Kapoor's Temenos in Middlesbrough. This is a huge sculpture, or the first part of five over a decade (or so) - lauded as the world's biggest public art initiative when it launched in July 2008. You can see what I wrote about it then here, read about the raising of the ring here and see a photo above. Be assured, the Transporter Bridge is not that far away - this really is big. (There's also a great photo on the Evening Gazette website here, but I'm not borrowing that out of respect for the fantastic project manager Sean.)

There is only the first ring in place, but it is impressive and enjoyable in its own right, like looking at the first few marks an artist might make on a drawing or a painting. (Except, of course, you don't need years' of detailed engineering studies and so on to start a painting. )

The ironies of the piece, its location, conception and materials have only deepened since the launch, with the potential closure of Corus's steel plant just down river at Redcar. Regeneration has not got any easier, or any less important. But the imaginative impact perhaps only gains power from that. I can't wait to see it take shape over the next months - apparently the 'net' takes some time to be made taut.

(The eagle-eyed who read my July 2008 blog will deduce the project is slightly late getting finished. An accident early in the construction process led to some delays. It's nothing to the gestation period required for great big horses though...)

Friday, 22 January 2010

Just play music

It's Friday afternoon. The sky above the railway station is gradually fading from white through grey to black. It's been a busy week, full of meetings and discussions and decisions and brain strain. My piece on the ACE consultation drew some very personal comments - I don't mind people disliking my ideas, but take criticism of my prose style to heart! I've just finished a letter in support of some artists from the Eastern Cape in South Africa who've been refused visas to travel to take part in a major education programme in the Spring. A pint or a gin and tonic wouldn't go amiss, to be honest.

Days like this I will often go home and have a little noodle around on the guitar to decompress. I like to sing songs, but nothing relaxes me quite like just playing. (It's a non-aggressive way of getting the effect a game of fiveaside has on me.) There was a great article in The Guardian about amateur music making, by Charlotte Higgins, this week which really made me want to do this with some other people too. The people just sounded as if they were having so much fun and getting so much depth out of the experience. Play is, after all, a very serious thing.

Charlotte meets a number of orchestras and groups, and also communicates her own passion for playing. I'm no classical music buff, so my music making is in another sphere, which makes it hard to avoid the '40something-guitar-dad' cliches when even thinking about playing with other people. I don't mind inflicting those on my family through the walls, but would draw the line at strangers. (I think of my staff here like family, obviously, hence our inflicting the Management Team Ukulele Orchestra on them at one party.)

One person says something I really empathise with: learning a piece is "a life's project: even if I do learn [the notes] of the D minor Partita, that's just the beginning of ­interpreting and ­understanding that piece". He adds: "I'm struggling to express this, but there is something about ­playing that is wholly good for myself, ­uncomplicatedly good, in a moral sense. When you play music you are an agent, you are doing something rather than being a consumer or a subject. For me, it's part of being a human ­being."

The size and significance of the amateur sector is, I think, increasingly realised. The point the article makes is that quality is there too. It sometimes just goes with the love of music rather than the presence of payment. Charlotte Higgins has followed up with a blog asking for details of amateur groups - hopefully there'll be an upsurge in numbers of people using their instrumental skills.

Perhaps there is something in the air for 2010, about 'expressive lives'. The choir my wife and daughter sing in, which I've mentioned before, have started a 'sing for your supper' session at Arc in Stockton and had 80 people there last week - families of all ages and backgrounds making music together just for pleasure. I also had a lovely letter from a user of the Take It Away scheme recently, thanking us for making it possible for him to buy a banjo - 50 years since he gave up playing. The gentleman's aim was to be able to play it by his next (76th) birthday.

There, that's reminded me of the transformative power of the arts up enough to drive home now - do read the articles.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

More on achieving great art for everyone

Here's what I wrote for Arts Council England's consultation microsite, as mentioned previously. It's the first of a series of think pieces they are commissioning from various opinionated people to keep the debate lively.

I've been privileged to spend much of the last year debating how to achieve great art for everyone, so this consultation period is very exciting, and not a little nerve-wracking. I feel very attached to it, even though I am one of the people leaving the Arts Council in March and my colleagues will take our work forward. I want to highlight two areas where responses might be especially useful to them, although there are many more ideas in the consultation worthy of deep consideration.

Firstly, the need for shared purpose around a set of clear goals, delivered by collaborative effort with the whole sector and beyond, is powerfully articulated. If funders and arts organisation and partners can get behind the things that unify them and focus on making the sector more productive and resilient, we will all benefit. I welcome the goals - but they will undoubtedly be improved further with input.

By focusing on our collective impact as a sector, having a shared 'big picture' to refer to when things get fraught, we can, perhaps paradoxically, give each other more 'space', worry less about irritating detail, and generally be more forgiving and less adversarial. (Does that sound like a truism about a marriage? Perhaps that's not coincidental.)

Secondly, there are important ideas here about how funding is invested. Proposals are made such as fixed term funding for organisations and greater use of 'strategic commissioning'. This opens up an urgent conversation, which the experiences and views of 'the funded' will shape. The model of either regular or project funding, plus the fabled and rather obscure 'managed funds' is now neither flexible nor strategic enough.

I would urge colleagues to expand the suite of investment mechanisms to include loans for organisations, tools such as Own Art and Take it away that encourage individuals to spend their own money on art at full cost, and much more funding than at present invested in building arts businesses to a point where they have a range of reliable income sources. It is vital that new talent is supported, but it is equally important they do not become as dependent and over-focused on Arts Council funding as some of their elders. The sector, however, will need to grapple with a deeply ingrained instinct to look for 'support' rather than 'income' or 'investment', and the implications of changing the paradigm.

Shared purpose does not, then, mean there will be no challenges and differences. It's our diversity that makes shared purpose so productive, not adopting a single way of doing things, I believe. So share your thoughts. I hope the team who've toiled so painstakingly so far, are given an equally big task reading your consultation responses.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

What do you want from the next ten years?

Today, Arts Council England begins a major consultation on its ambitions and strategic approach for the next ten year. As the intro puts it: 'the directions we should take and the ways of working we should adopt'. You can read the various documents (including a really fascinating literature review and set of art form perspectives) here and respond up to 14 April. There are various meetings being arranged by Arts Council England across the country, but I'd also urge people to discuss it amongst themselves, at their board meetings, across their networks, and in the pub.

During the consultation period the website will also publish a series of think-pieces from a range of different people. I was asked to do the first of these, one of the side effects, I suspect, of my reputation as the Blogging Exec Director. (Can't help thinking of the Dancing Priest from Father Ted whenever I get called that.) You can read what I had to say here or in the post which follows this one.

This is undoubtedly a major moment for the organisation, as it prepares to shift to a new, slimmer structure. This work had been a major undertaking so far, with many furrowed brows and heated discussions as well as careful analysis. The next three months are a real opportunity for the sector to shape priorities and ways of working at a time of change. The sector also needs, I think, to consider the implications of the research and knowledge base for itself. I hope people will look at the evidence as well as the goals and think through the potential impact for themselves as well as Arts Council England in responding. But whatever you do, and whatever you say: respond.

Monday, 18 January 2010

What's the state of the arts?

The RSA and Arts Council England collaborated to produce the ‘State of the Arts’ conference last week – a long and packed day of presentation and discussion. We heard from both Jeremy Hunt and Ben Bradshaw, two very similar men to the naked eye. Bradshaw’s speech seemed to me to have a certain valedictory feel to it, Hunt was clearly trying to not to appear too cocky, but came across as passionate and open. Neither really broke any news, although Hunt’s proposition that emerging policy makers should aspire to have jobs at DCMS rather than, say, ACE, did make a small shudder run through the 500 plus crowd.

The sessions I attended varied in their impact. The session on business models had some interesting speakers – I wanted to go and work for Coney immediately, or at least volunteer for the Society of Codenames – but reinforced the need for more people in the sector who can frame a model, or a theory about how the sector actually functions. It only takes us so far to say ‘be great at what you do’. We need replicable models if we are to convince politicians and policy makers. (And voters too, actually.)

Highlights of the day were (therefore, I might almost add) the highly contrasting Helen Marriage and Bill Ivey. Helen Marriage spoke about the work of Artichoke in transforming cities – but only on a temporary basis. She made a sound argument for ‘the power of the temporary’ and the ‘cultural value of the merely spectactular’, based not just on what she’d seen work in London, Liverpool and Durham, but on how she thought that actually happened. She put together an argument for large-scale investment in the temporary in a way I’d never quite heard before, stronger for having what I can only a methodology behind it. And she ended by reciting a poem, which I always think is a good trick, though don’t all start doing it please, it’s one of my own favourite techniques.

Bill Ivey could learn a thing or two about powerpoint from some of the other speakers, but apart from that was really impressive in applying his ‘Expressive Lives’ thinking (see here for my thoughts on that) to the idea of a cultural bill of rights. Challenging and intellectually rigorous, the tone wasn’t quite maintained throughout the debate. The questions from the floor suffered from a kind of solipsism, a framing of things only within the arts. Freedoms of expression and of movement are not being restricted for artists because those people are artists primarily, but because of broader political issues. They can’t be addressed simply as artistic issues, but need to be put in a bigger context. But then the earlier discussion around whether artists could change society suggested a deal of nervousness about getting explicitly and deliberately political… For this reason, allied to my inate triviality, I therefore had the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy running through my head for the latter part of the day. (‘You gotta fight – for your right – to PAAA-RTY’ and ‘Party for your right to fight’ respectively.)

I believe there are already plans a foot to make this an annual event – we shall see in what roles Messrs Hunt and Bradshaw might be there. That's a really healthy thing, as this kind of serious discussion needs to happen on a regular basis, and be informed by more serious research and provocation.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Who's got the power?

According to The Power Gap, a new report from Demos, people in the Guildford constituency are the most powerful in mainland Britain, whilst those in Glasgow North East have the least power to be in control of their own lives. I live in the constituency at 294 in the list of 628. Doesn't sound great, but it is the 3rd most powerful part of the North East region, which illustrates one aspect of the gap the title of the report refers to - some very big regional disparities.

The relative power or powerlessness of people is calculated using 8 indicators, including education, occupational status, income, employment, freedom from crime, health, voter turnout where you live and the marginality of your constituency. So although Stockton South and Stockton North share many socio-demographic factors, the relative marginality of the seat may help explain why Stockton North is much lower at 519 in the index.

The report is an attempt to break through essentially class and deprivation-based analyses of inequality to focus on capability. As they put it 'it is power, not more narrow approaches of income or mobility, that is the critical inequality in Britain. This is the divide that matters to our wellbeing and progress as a nation, and the challenge to which politics and leaders must rise.'

Although I think you could argue the approximate nature of the indicators and the proxies used to measure them could lead to some misleading conclusions, the map looks and feels about right to me. The value of seat marginality is interesting. It's certainly the case party machines will be ignoring people in safe seats in the next few months, and concentrating on those in marginals. This can make you even more powerful if you already have a decent job, education etc. And much less so if your area suffers from multiple deprivation but is unwinnable by anyone but one party. Logic therefore suggests people in, say, Middlesbrough, should make their seats less safe in order to have more influence. (This could, of course, be a risky strategy.)

This matters - and here I agree absolutely with the authors because feeling you have control over your life breeds confidence and virtuous circles, whilst powerlessness leads to anger, depression and spiralling disconnection.

That the arts can sometimes make someone feel more in control of their life, with great positive effects, is a familiar argument, and a thing I've seen in reality many times. I've not had chance to do a detailed comparison, but I suspect from a quick look there is some correlation with arts attendance, albeit complicated by the spread of indicators. The recent figures for national indicators of cultural participation suggest the disparities run roughly parallel, although they are reported on a local authority basis rather than constituency so it hard to compare exactly. There is something in here for someone to mine. We might then look at how building capabilities could impact on participation, and how that may relate to control over one's life, and where the arts can usefully join up with other players. (I'm reminded of the lack of power some people said they felt in relation to the arts in the Arts Debate.)

So, it's worth a look, even just to see how their view of where you live compares to how powerful you feel. There is a nifty little 2 minute video version, too, which you can see above, or here.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Prime suspect for nonsense

You know, I meant to hit the New Year blogging, and have had several things I wanted to point out/at on here last week, but the snow and some pressing issues rather stole the hours away. I'll try and make up for it this week.

Next time someone tells you that there's less need for a focus on diversity because even the people who don't really get it at least now know 'the rules', or that diversity is 'an add on' to their real arts work and just a burdensome Arts Council box to tick - I'm not making this up for effect, people do say this stuff! - remind them of Lynda La Plante's recent and widely-reported comments. (Overseas readers: she wrote a half decent tv series once, Prime Suspect, and has been banging out crooks with heart and police dramas with diminishing returns ever since.) As reported here by the BBC and here by the Telegraph, she feels excluded by the politically correct BBC and that commissioners would 'rather read a little Muslim boy's script' than one by her. “If my name were Usafi Iqbadal and I was 19, then they’d probably bring me in and talk,” said La Plante, apparently.

Well, that made me give three cheers for the BBC - or it would if it were absolutely true. Or if these comments were the last we ever heard of La Plante. Unfortunately I suspect neither is quite the case. Although the range of voices heard on the BBC is broader than it was, there is still a tendency to commission a relatively small set of old faithfuls. It seems very easy to use the same people over and over. (More noticeable, of course, when the person is some way from the tv norm - Griff Rhys Jones doesn't stand out in the same way as even Alan Bennett.)

The theatre has seen a number of precocious debuts of late, it must be time for some new talent, new voices on tv too. How did Griff Rhys Jones corner so many markets, for instance? Most urgently, perhaps, we need to hear the stories and imaginings of those who are most often represented by phantasms - young Muslim men, amongst them, but not exclusively.

The diversifiying of the arts workforce and of the stories the nation tells each other still has a long way to go. Have a look at the comments on some of the other coverage of La Plante's comments and you can see why. Look at the tv schedules and you can see the nonsense of La Plante's comments. If I was a commissioner at the BBC, I'd be forcing her to collaborate with Shazia Mirza, on a comedy drama.

(Hmm, maybe that's why I'm not a commissioner at the BBC...)

Monday, 4 January 2010

Is 2010 the year of the amateur?

Robin Simpson, CEO of Voluntary Arts Network, had the best New Year back to work Twitterbrag this morning, as he was quoted in Newsweek's story about the rise of amateur artists. There are few better people to quote, as Robin walks it like he talks it, a serious but unpaid French horn player and advocate for the importance of voluntary and amateur artists. I tend to agree that the emphasis on paid arts production as the entirety of 'the arts' has been meant something has been lost to the overall, and leads to some of the feelings of exclusion some people describe, and that a continuum is both more accurate and healthy culturally. (I agree that this predates the recession, and actually predates the digitally-enabled 'pro-am revolution' too.)

I might say that, coming from a poetry background, where the actual production of poems is rarely paid for - although associated products and activity might be. Some years ago I put together a books of essays on poetry readings, and there were at least two essays in there which reflected the tensions about quality and openness obvious in the Newsweek piece. They looked at the phenomenon of open readings, one, by Martin Stannard questioning the value and comparing some readings to Les Dawson's piano playing as I recall (without the book to hand), another by David Kennedy marking the personal psychological and therefore arguably social value of even bad poems, drawing on poems of mourning. I've hosted more than my share of open readings, and wouldn't necessarily go out of my way to go to one these days, but when I do see them, there's always something fascinating and heartening about them. And if there's not one really bad poem, it's not open enough for my liking. (The book, Words Out Loud, published by Stride in 2002, is no longer available except second-hand - unless you ask me nicely in which case I've a few in a cupboard...)

So let's make space in 2010 for amateurs of all qualities - the gems of brilliance that are let in will more than make up for the mediocre, I'll wager.

Oh yeah - and Happy New Year!