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!