I enjoyed myself immensely yesterday watching George Osbourne deliver his humanity-free speech to the Conservative Party conference. ‘Twas the usual stuff about keeping investment appeal high and questing tirelessly for the almighty Grail of zero debt. There was, of course, the occasional heartfelt assurance that Boy George and the rest of his Eton chums are “all in this together” with us, which presumably means I can expect a government subsidy soon to enjoy the kind of modest holiday that Osbourne is wont to embark upon.
Osbourne delivered all of this with the smackable smirk of a spoiled child who just got away with stealing his little brother’s lollipop. Nonetheless, I must confess some guilty enjoyment at Osbourne’s lambasting of Ed Miliband’s weirdly Manichean plan to create a kind of moral Star Chamber for businesses. Miliband’s scheme would have Government loftily sifting the ‘good’ businesses from the ‘bad’ businesses; or as the Phlegmatic One put it, “separating the producers from the predators.” Osbourne painted a humourous picture of Miliband “with a copy of the Guardian in one hand and the FT in another,” his ample brow furrowed as he pondered which businesses to smite and which to reward.
The Good Business/Bad Business idea is ridiculous stuff, of course, precisely because its moral centre is so obviously correct as to render it entirely unworkable, even conceptually, in a world where politicians quake at the notion of applying any significant fetters to the global money machine, even as it continues to have its way with us. ‘Moral capitalism’ is an oxymoron: the market is the morality, and thus ever shall it be even as the entire system continues to shake itself apart. Marx must be laughing in his grave.
Ironically, one fall-out of all this happy capitalism is that the UK’s cultural industries are being scrutinised, assessed, rated and measured in a Good/Bad-ish manner that would send the average banker screaming for the door. Given this, I wonder how might we judge who, amongst arts and culture organisations, are the ‘predators’ and who are the ‘producers’? Is a ‘predator’ arts organisation one that hoovers up all the grants in sight by virtue of its popularity and/or well-established product, thereby starving smaller, more interesting art? Are ‘producers’ defined by quantity (as in, bums on seats), quality or efficiency? Is there a fourth standard, consistent with Red Ed’s scheme, wherein ‘producers’ are those who employ local talent?
Then there is the worrying likelihood that many organisations are both predator and producer, at least by Milibandian standards. Those organisations who prove best at attracting audiences and money might also be the ones who job in their ‘art’ (case in point: the National Gallery…all those foreign painters!) and thereby do relatively little to grow the local ‘cultural economy.’
This wide-swinging analogy exercise is just that, of course, but only to a point. In the brave new austerity universe–which looks to be with us for awhile–the organisations who make the most noise or attract the largest audiences are increasingly likely to be the same organisations who get the money and thus survive. The space for smaller organisations, or even for larger ones that toil at the avant-garde, will grow ever smaller. This isn’t government policy but it might well end up being just that: consider David Cameron’s Commons remarks last November when he lauded the Harry Potter films as sterling examples to the UK film industry, which he admonished to make more “films that people want to see.” In the PM’s mind, at least, Harry Potter is Good Art; one shudders to think what he considers to be bad.
The film and publishing industries are increasingly making these kind of draconian assessments, weeding out what is ‘good’–meaning, instantly popular and profit-returning–from what is ‘bad’. And what of theatre, visual art, music, and dance? Despite criticisms, I think the Arts Council surely did its best last year in determining who stayed and who went in the ranks of NPOs/RFOs. But if Government has its way, the Arts Council will be less and less influential in determining the future of the nation’s cultural landscape.
Instead, funding (and influence) will head into the marketplace, which doesn’t tend to have particular tolerance for ambiguity or risk, at least in the artistic sense. There will be Good Arts Organisations and Bad Arts Organisations, based not least on survival, which will prove harder year after year: private philanthropy likes winners and bets on unknowns far more rarely than does the Arts Council. Increasingly, ‘good’ art will be that which is funded and ‘bad’ art that which never sees the light of day.
It would be a stretch too far to say that exciting, dynamic, challenging art would cease to exist in such a scenario. But, sadly, it isn’t a stretch to say that it may well not happen here.
Cross-posted from The ReAuthoring Project
It’s not often that I find myself in the position of bigging up a major media initiative, particularly when it comes to literature. Even less likely that the major media in question should be the Guardian, whose concept of innovation in literature is typically limited to allowing a spoken word ‘tent’ at its heavily sponsored Hay Festival. But I quite like the recently-launched Guardian-Observer Book Swap…don’t know whose idea it was, but they’ve hit a lot of ReAuthoring buttons. Which of course makes us happy.
The Book Swap officially launched on 16 September, but I’m proud to say that I was inadvertently ahead of the curve. Early last week, I left some books out for charitable collection; coming home from a shop, I found my postman having a peek through the titles. He looked a bit sheepish when I arrived, but I said he was welcome to take what he liked, assuring him that I was merely donating what had been thoroughly read in the household. Checking later, I noted that Chris Cleave’s Little Bee and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore were missing from the charitable pile. Good taste, that postie.
That brief exchange is emblematic of what the Book Swap project is attempting, albeit on a much grander scale. In a nutshell, the G-O has distributed some 15,000 books across…well, it’s not clear where the books are being distributed (one presumes primarily greater London, as this is the G-O’s main territory). The project encourages people to join in and offer their own favourites, leaving them on buses, benches, in cafes, etc. As Laura Barton’s introductory article puts it, the Book Swap is “a wordy treasure hunt, a sort of literary message in a bottle, a chance to toast the extraordinary specialness of books.” Admirably, the Book Swap has promised to range far and wide in its idea of literature: manuals, textbooks, obscure novellas and suchlike are out there waiting, along with Dan Brown and Margaret Atwood.
The Book Swap makes some noise about being an antidote to the increasingly virtualisation of reading, but it actually undermines this point in a good way. Perhaps the most fun aspect of the Book Swap is its integrated use of Twitter and Flickr in an attempt to make the ‘treasure hunt’ aspect of the project more lively. As Barton’s article states, the project encourages participants to “snap it, map it, tweet it.” In this, the Book Swap becomes precisely that: a huge, and hugely distributed, literary flea market (sans trestle tables). And all of it, free.
The Book Swap runs through the end of October. Later today, I’ll be parting with a copy of Lolita and will duly ‘snap and tweet’ its location on the Book Swap site.
Across Britain today, most schools finish for the year. Children will say farewell and scatter to the winds with family, whether abroad or on staycations. Teachers will breathe a sigh, tidy up their admin, gather their things and take a well-deserved break. Summer officially begins.
But with the end of this particular school year comes the end of one of the most ambitious education reform programmes ever attempted in Britain, or anywhere for that matter. Creative Partnerships began in 2002 as an attempt to loosen up attitudes and approaches to teaching and learning. It has since made its mark on more than a million children, along with thousands of teachers and as many artists, many of whom have reinvented their entire careers as a result of the work. There is evidence that ‘CP’ has improved standards broadly. It has also, in very many cases, helped to reconnect teachers with their own inner artist: is there a career that requires greater flexibility, creativity and improvisation than teaching?
The end of Creative Partnerships was in the wind last year and the new Coalition government defunded the programme entirely as of this year. All government programmes end, of course, often with good cause; indeed, in recent years, many have grumbled about the growing bureaucratisation of the CP programme.
This blog, then, is part tribute and part lament. The tribute is for what CP has achieved, evidence of which can easily be found on the programme website. The lament is for the Coalition’s current dismissal of this kind of work, and indeed of the arts in general as a driver of Britain’s future prosperity. Ironically, just as Britain seems to be shrinking from the kind of flexible thinking and skill-building that CP has championed, other countries across the globe are now embracing it. Only a few weeks ago, I concluded some work in Lithuania in advance of the national roll-out, next autumn, of a CP-style programme. Like many former Soviet bloc countries, Lithuania is keen to develop more innovators and entrepreneurs and they’ve made a direct link between arts-led creative learning and the kind of socioeconomic future they aspire to. There are many other examples.
I don’t want to be a doom-sayer here; if anything, these days I’m slightly more sanguine that the Coalition will see the proverbial light where arts-led creative learning is concerned, if only because it soon will be difficult to ignore the fact that so many other countries are valueing and funding such work. Arts Council England, which has stewarded Creative Partnerships for most of its existence, has attempted to bridge the gap between the programme’s end and whatever comes next by creating an entirely new category of funded organisation. Some work on the CP tip will undoubtedly continue, although in what form remains unclear particularly in light of shrinking school budgets.
That said, I can’t get an unfortunate analogy out of my head, that of the famous early 15th century Chinese ‘treasure fleet’ that touched port in parts of the globe where European fleets would take another century or more to reach. Alas, on the verge of establishing world-spanning trade and influence, the emperor of the day recalled the entire fleet and burned it in toto. China turned inward, and would remain so for centuries.
Creative Partnerships isn’t perfect, but it is if nothing else about the future in terms of ways of thinking and working. If Government is serious about Britain being a world-beating society it needs to embrace such work, not reject it in favour of the cheap neo-Victorianism that so many of its policies seem to reflect. Right now the fleet is being recalled. Whether or not it is burnt remains to be seen.
first published as “Obama’s arts report” in ArtsProfessional on 15 July 2011
America has a rather Marmite-ish place in UK culture these days. Do you love it because of Barack and Michelle, or hate it because of the US military’s various global entanglements?
Such musings are merely for the punters, though. Between Whitehall and the White House, it’s all about the love, as underscored recently during Obama’s state visit: witness the table tennis, the backslapping bonhomie and of course, the BBQ. If you believe the headlines, there is nothing of significance, it seems, that Dave and Barack can’t share a high-five over.
Well, almost nothing. If the subject of arts education popped up over burgers at Downing Street recently, there may have been just the slightest awkward moment between the ‘essential’ friends. Because just as the Coalition is busily conducting a kind of arts pogrom within the nation’s education system, Obama arrived on our shores only a few weeks after his office released a landmark report called Reinvesting in Arts Education – Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools.
‘Landmark’ isn’t too strong a word, nor is bold. Here we are, still clawing our way out of the Great Recession and the air thick with phrases like ‘back to basics’ and ‘hard choices’, and along comes a presidentially-commissioned study that recommends “expanding in-school opportunities for teaching artists,” and utilising government policies “to reinforce the place of arts in education.” Some offerings will brim with irony for artists and educators here: the language supporting the recommendation, “Develop the field of arts integration,” for instance, could have been lifted from our very own, recently defunded Creative Partnerships programme.
And yet the report itself is only partly about the arts. Leave aside the fact that the Obama report is the product of a star-studded committee that includes artists, of course, but also philanthropists, corporate titans and academics. Leave aside, too, that Obama sent his popular and charismatic wife, Michelle, on the road to announce and promote its findings.
What makes the Obama report worth our notice is its studied, relentless emphasis on the arts as essential fuel for the national engine of prosperity. Yes, the arts “remind us of what we each have to offer, and what we all have in common.” But for every such conservative-baiting pronouncement, one finds harder-edged language and data that directly links strong arts education provision with achievement, innovation and behaviour.
In other words, the Obama report isn’t merely an example of the president’s crazy liberal side making a token appearance. Sprinkled generously across an ocean of statistics are quotes and stats from think-tanky economic studies invariably fretting about America’s competitive future…and linking a happy version of that future directly to arts education. The report’s foreward says it best: “To succeed today and in the future, America’s children will need to be inventive, resourceful, and imaginative,” writes US Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “The best way to foster that creativity is through arts education.”
Hard to imagine Michael Gove thinking such thoughts, let alone making them public. On the contrary, Gove and his colleagues are doing their level best to strangle arts provision for future generations of young people. Not only has government virtually eliminated support for university-level arts teaching, its new English baccalaureate—soon to be de rigueur in the nation’s secondary schools—makes absolutely no mention of the arts at all (although note, in this link, the irony of Arne Duncan being quoted in support of the E-bacc).
As with so much else between the UK and US, the Obama report does not translate perfectly to circumstances here. But we don’t need it to: there are already piles of data, evidence, reports and studies supporting the critical role the arts play in shaping a socioeconomically robust, modern Britain. Particularly powerful is the evidence linking arts provision to marked improvements in behaviour and attainment among otherwise low-achieving children, although it’s no secret to arts educators that such children usually do flower in the arts (and often after teachers of more ‘traditional’ subjects have written them off.)
Above all, the Obama report sets an example for strong national leadership in recognition of the essential role of the arts in building a successful modern nation. It also begs two very big and scary questions. Where is the political leadership here—from anyone, in any party—to fight for a new value proposition for the arts, particularly in the context of education? And if that doesn’t happen, how will it take before the UK’s economic competitiveness and social cohesion begin to deteriorate irreparably as a result?
I spent this morning singing with teachers on a pier. As a trainer, I was paid for this; the teachers were also paid, in that the work they would normally have done at school was covered by other teachers. We were led by a wonderful vocalist through a series of exercises and activities in voice, rhythm, posture, presentation and performance. The vocalist was paid, too.
I’m chanting this mantra of remuneration for a slightly perverse reason. Creating a site-specific jazz riff on ‘Row Row Your Boat’ may or may not immediately help students hit their government-mandated targets in maths, literacy or other subjects. Discovering the wonders of diaphragmatic breathing may not correlate directly with better classroom behaviour. In fact, if I’m completely honest, it is possible that today’s session in all of its singing, vocalising, rapping, snapping, clapping glory–all in promenade, beneath the glorious summer sun, on a wooden platform stretching into the sea–might have no effect at all, other than to have been an awful lot of fun for those of us actually doing it.
It is perhaps reckless to say such things at a time when school budgets are being slashed, teacher pensions are being pared back, and indeed the entire public infrastructure is under siege. Better to keep quiet, perhaps, about such blatantly joyfully, possibly not terribly ‘practical’ work, right? Wrong. Now is precisely the time to talk about sessions like today’s. The adage says to sing when you’re winning. That’s easy. But to sing, loudly and without fear (and in public), when everything you feel is valuable in society is under threat? That is something else entirely.That is a statement of rebellion. A statement of value.
And that value is this: teachers, and everyone else who toils in the public sector, deserve their opportunities to leave the classroom behind for a morning and revisit joy, laughter, enjoyment, and emotional wonderment. Strangely, we do not begrudge these things to the private sector so worshipped by our political masters. I know plenty of folks in business who, despite being under the media microscope more than ever, still have their ‘away’ days playing paintball or their lavish end-of-quarter bashes on the continent. Such things aren’t considered perqs or frivolities. The private sector knows that loosening up, playing and celebrating are essential components to unlocking camaraderie and creativity.
We don’t apply the same standards to public sector employees. Teachers, in particular, feel a tremendous burden to make every second of their working lives visibly and measurably ‘count’ in the service of boxes ticked and targets attained. For lower pay and longer hours, we work them harder and harder. And if they’re let out of teaching duties for professional development, well…it had better produce results.
I’m confident that today’s session will, in fact, produce results. The teachers left our session humming and smiling. They were talking about how to bring music and rhythm into their classrooms as ways of engaging children. They were talking about planning more trips to the seaside and the pier in the still-warm months of the early autumn. They felt good. They were energised, excited about life and work, and feeling creative and full of ideas. And that, of course, is pretty much the general ‘person description’ coveted by any private company worth its stock shares.
If the government really wants the public sector to be more like the private one, they need to put their money where their rhetoric is. It’s not about tests, targets, cuts, threats and half-baked restructuring. Instead, we need to loosen up and let teachers, and perhaps everyone in the public sector, sing a bit.
First published in ArtsProfessional 235, 11 April 2010 (some links modified from original article)
As a sucker for the double entendre, I’ve always had a soft spot for the phrase, ‘lie of the land’, which turns rather neatly in the wake of the recent funding decisions unveiled by Arts Council England. It’s still early days, but for the arts sector the lie of the land betrays a future of hard battling for favourite art forms and organisations, amidst a general bun-fight for limited resources and (ignoring the potential irony) cries of sector-wide solidarity.
But there is the lie of the land, and lies in the cultural landscape…and both the arts sector and Government are guilty of fomenting the latter.
Let’s start with the arts sector, which if not consciously spreading a lie is too often guilty of peddling a position that few seem to be buying. I call it the Spinach Argument, something familiar to any parent trying to broaden their child’s diet: you (offspring/society) need (spinach or broccoli/the arts or culture) because it’s good for you. The latest Taking Part survey seems to indicate that a new approach is needed, since stagnant arts engagement won’t do much to change the general opinion that the arts are an easy cut. Ways forward might be found in the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships scheme, now being applied to the arts and which seeks to link practice, theory and perception. There is also potential here in a more robust dialogue around participatory arts
The ‘lie’ peddled by Government arises from those familiar bedfellows, ideology and ignorance. The Government’s various actions, including its dismal ACE budget, convey the message that the arts are a bauble, an adornment—and thus destined always to be first on the fiscal chopping block. But there’s a disconnect: key ministers bang on about innovation as essential to Future Britain, all the while having virtually nothing to say about the processes or context that enable a society to be innovative.
If creativity is the indisputable engine of innovation, then surely the arts provide essential creative fuel. In this context, it may be that the Spinach Argument needs to be made more convincingly to Government…even as the sector explores new ways of discovering how and why the arts fit into people’s lives more generally. As a push-back against the cuts, I know colleagues who will find these arguments too reductive; certainly, it may be more comforting to rail against the unfairness of the situation. And in many senses, it is unfair: for the price of a single Typhoon warplane most of the ACE cuts could have been avoided. But that’s not the world we live in.
For British arts and culture, more change is yet to come: anyone reading the lie of the land can see that much already. The question is whether the sector itself will be driver, bystander or victim.
first published at www.artsprofessional.co.uk
The holiday season can play strange tricks on one’s associative sensibilities. Examples abound: Pine trees + living rooms = bubbly cheer. Bad choral singing + overstuffed shopping malls = community spirit. Likewise, events that in less emotionally heightened times might appear to have little in common suddenly seem to burst with connection.
Here’s what I mean: last week, two items of news melded together in what felt like oracular fashion for me. The first item could hardly be missed: the announcement of the London 2012 Festival, the 12-week arts-a-thon meant to justify the reported £83m being poured (largely from public sources) into that elusive thing called the Cultural Olympiad. At first blush, the Festival looks something like a mash-up of Glastonbury, WOMAD and a large wicker basketful of Barbican-esque offerings. How it will all hang together, or even if it’s meant to, remains to be seen.
The second news item was a brief e-mail from an organisation called Hidden Art. I’d never heard of them, but upon closer inspection Hidden Art appears to be one of those quiet yet busy arts companies that does a lot to keep a variety of artists informed and in funds. Hidden Art actively promotes the commerce end of its artists and has a broad, international spread of income. Tick and tick again in important boxes aligned with the government’s brave new world of the arts.
Yet the e-mail sent to me, and god knows who else, was a desperate plea for cash, because Hidden Art is on the verge of shutting down. It turns out that a big chunk of Hidden Art’s support comes from a London Development Agency (LDA) matching fund that looks likely to disappear. Government match funding to support the arts…haven’t we heard that one recently? Apparently, being asked to make up half its income gap in the space of a few months is a rather tall order for Hidden Art. What a shock.
I imagine sitting here in two years’ time, lolling into the 2012 holiday season. The tree is up; the parties are in full swing. The Olympics will have come and gone: Cate Blanchett, Toni Morrison, Damon Albarn and the other London 2012 Festival headliners will have pocketed their fees and moved on. By then, of course, the austerity hatchets now raining down on the nation’s arts provision will have done their work: we now talk about the hurt, but by then we’ll surely feel it. I wonder whether Hidden Art will have survived. Here’s a holiday wish that they do.
But regardless of Hidden Art’s fate, I also wonder how many other ‘hidden’ artists – the ones that don’t win Oscars or have massive hype machines at their disposal – will have quietly faded away by the time the Cultural Olympiad is no more than an expensive memory. And with each lost artist and company, I wonder how much more diminished will be the cultural landscape that the 2012 Cultural Olympiad is meant, in theory, to celebrate.
A random, holiday-inspired list of stuff that was good in the Nimble Fish universe in 2010:
- Creating and delivering Space to Learn, our new programme of site-responsive teaching and learning. We engaged eight schools, dozens of teachers and loads of kids. It was about how to re-see and re-use the spaces and places all around us as innovative locations to enhance teaching. Great fun, and more to come.
- We were pleased and proud to have taken our first Re:authoring Project offering, Katherine May‘s Burning Out, to the Pulse Fringe Festival. Re:authoring has been quiet this autumn but will pick up in the spring (so watch this Nimble space.)
- The re:bourne festival was a real highlight of 2010. Created with our friends at Workers of Art, the festival was a site-responsive, community co-devised celebration of the past, present and future of Sittingbourne, a place that gets more knocks than it deserves. We had a blast doing it; hopefully, the more than 3,000 people who came along had fun, too.
- Very pleased to have been selected as one of 13 arts companies to help A New Direction deliver the Biggest Learning Opportunity on Earth, an arts-led and Olympics-focused programme of work stretching across 145 London schools…which makes it the largest education programme associated with the London 2012 Olympics. Just finishing the planning phase of things and looking forward to kicking things into gear in 2011.
- We were glad to be able to help our friend Laura Mugridge get some things sorted for her fab new show, Running on Air, which went on to win a Fringe First at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The show was very much Laura’s and Tom’s baby, but we enjoyed being part of the early development dialogue and helping Laura score some kit to make the show happen. Running on Air will tour soon; don’t miss it!
- Thinking, planning, devising, and laughing with our friends and collaborators. The future of the arts sector sometimes looks scary right now, but it is also filled with opportunity and great people. Happy holidays, and here’s to a prosperous and exciting new year!
originally posted at www.artsprofessional.co.uk
A friend of mine is trying rather hard right now to convince me that David Cameron is a political genius of Disraelian calibre, largely based on his government’s ability to get away with pronouncements that are entirely at odds with action.
Certainly, the ConDems have managed this where the arts are concerned. For instance, quoth Jeremy Hunt: “If we had learnt to value the arts in education, as Creative Partnerships is helping us to, I believe that we would have tackled literacy and numeracy failings much more quickly.”
That was in May; a few months later, government killed the programme. If there’s since been any significant political fall-out, I haven’t noticed it.
Whether that’s genius or merely competent spin is debatable. But the ConDems are nothing if not innovative in their means of obfuscation. Witness a recent addition to the ConDem stable of economic advisors, one Richard Florida, an American urban theorist who espouses the essentialness of creativity to economic viability.
Florida is the kind of slick populist intellectual that America seems to practically mass-produce: if you picture a Venn diagram whose circles constitute Sir Ken Robinson, Malcolm Gladwell and Richard Branson, you might find Florida at their intersection. Florida rose to fame with his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class, in which he asserted that cities with bumper crops of high-tech workers, artists, and gays and lesbians were measurably better performers economically than cities without these groups. He dubbed this creative collective “high bohemians” and got a lot of play from ranking cities worldwide on a kind of creativity index.
Britain embraced Florida early on when the Labour-friendly think-tank Demos created its Boho Britain report based on Florida’s research, with necessarily subjective results: raise your hand if you think that Manchester really is “the UK’s answer to San Francisco.” Of late, Florida has publicly supported David Cameron’s plans to create something Silicon Valley-esque in and around the Olympic Park site. Returning the favour, the ConDems have apparently latched onto Florida’s message that creativity produces economic benefit.
Or rather, the ConDems have latched onto part of Florida’s message; the part, not surprisingly, that suits their ideology. Florida is not without his critics, but he does state time and again that artists are an integral, not peripheral, part of the creative-economic cycle. And so once again, we see the familiar pattern: the ConDems thump on about being progressive—trotting out a progressive, not to say liberal guru into the bargain—while continuing to be very regressive indeed. As far as can be told by media coverage and public debate, the spin is being bought hook, line and…well, you know.
There may be a deal-breaker where the Florida-ConDem love-fest is concerned. Florida very publicly opposes spending public funds on big cultural venues, including sports stadia, which would of course include a certain massive, globally focused, publicly funded athletics complex under construction in London. But surely the government will find a way to spin its way out of that one, too.