To the Bush Theatre for the ITC’s late Suummmer conference ‘What the Sector needs to Focus on Now’. It proved to be a particularly thought provoking and challenging morning – which mirrored some of the ideas and thinking I’d heard at the Festival of Social Enterprise on Tuesday (see here)
Like the Festival of Social Enterprise we heard a series of optimistic voices. The impact of the Olympics (with this Evening Standard article by Bradley Hemmings article referenced a number of times) had clearly led to a sense of possibility – the possibility of a new future packed with new ideas, new conversations and new ways of doing. As one speaker put it it’s about ‘trying to look optimistically at a different future’. Another saying if ‘we can’t do it after that [the Olympics]…God help us’
There were differing views in the room over whether we need to ‘slow down, make more connections, more elegant conversations that matter (Phelim McDermott of Improbable and D&D)’ or seize the moment and act now. Throughout the day the conversations kept coming back to a set of words noted by Judith Knight (arts admin) – Values (clearly articulated), Participation, Collaboration and (clearly identifiable) Public Impact.
But all this was set against a nervous backdrop. Change is coming – summed up @lyngardner. In a world of less funding it’s up to us to take responsibility.
‘They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself’ Andy Warhol
The new(ish) Executive Director of Arts and Cultural Strategy Simon Murray set the tone for the day ‘in conversation’ with ITC director Charlotte Jones. He described how his role of developing and delivering Great Art for Everyone ‘across the whole remit’ can feel impossible (tho’ we were told to expect a slimmed down version). That scope of role maybe why there have been 5 officers in his role in the past 7 years . Which naturally led to a question around what kept him awake at night.
‘I’m worried about going back to a time when we become more and more risk adverse’ he said ‘ its our role to ensure people keep taking risks. What’s going on now can’t be about just keeping the lights on’. And that worry is set against a context of an increasingly streamlined arts council with 150 jobs soon to go (‘what is the bit of Arts Council’s work that we are not going to do’), The reality of less public funding around – with potentially more cuts to come in May, indications of a decline in lottery sales and as Charlotte Jones put it ‘an increasingly schizophrenic government’ .
Equally as worrying – and certainly from a campaigning point of view – was the news that the recently released Taking Part figures had shown that public support for the arts was dropping for the first time. ‘We need some smart thinking – quickly – about how we all become effective advocates for the arts’ . Kenneth Tharp (The Place) talked of how a group emerging from the Young Vic meeting were looking to engage a lobbyist to make a more effective case to government. On the ground Mellor urged organisations to ensure they were embedded within their communities (Eastern Angles campaign against dis-investment is a case in point here) and be able to show how we contribute to the growth agenda. The absence of the National Campaign for the Arts in the discussion (neither in the room or once mentioned) was noticeable. You can’t help but feel now is the time the arts sector really needs an authoritative and persuasive voice into government.
More questions. Given Simon’s background at the Manchester International Festival it was not surprising to hear him ask how open the arts are to international influences. But interestingly he also riffed on how the arts council and the sector support artists who are not in the formal funding system.
Mellor was vocal on how ACE had a clear role to put pressure on all larger organisations to work more in partnership with the emerging sector. This sense of collaboration between larger and smaller organisations – it’s pros and cons – proved to be another theme for the day and is explored a little in this @artspro article. Ironic then to return home that evening to another example of how a large organisation had run rough shod over a smaller organisation. We have a long way to go before such partnerships can be truly described as ‘working together without fear’. Phelim McDermott talked of “Buildings paying lip service to engaging in conversation with smaller organisations, but conversation is a two way thing.” I was immediately reminded of a metaphor quoted by Lyn Gardner in her #shifthappens key note where one artistic director had described their large organisation as a massive liner which once the course is set struggles to change direction, let alone turn round.
Unsurprisingly for an ITC event Mellor was pushed on how much of the Arts Council’s financial investment was pushed into the big 5 organisations. He quickly noted how those larger organisations had taken a far bigger percentage cut than their peers and suggested it was unimaginable that the government would allow ACE to dis invest in the big 5. That’s not stopped them doing a public value review into opera and ballet which is currently ongoing. Much as I love the occasional night out at the Opera (and owe a debt to Opera North for this – see this post for more) I wonder if it will address the tyrannical costs of large scale rep touring with it’s daily over night get outs/ins often costing more than the overall box office take for the week.
Fellow ITC members expressed simmering frustration (or maybe) even anger for the Art Council’s Bridge initiative. Many members were unclear what they were there to do – or how to interact with them. Others criticised their lack of vision suggesting that they themselves don’t know what they are doing. The ACE line though was consistent – this is a new initiative – give them time, let them bed in. You could sense the impatience in the room!
Ultimately though it was a day that left you plenty to think about. As I write this I note how easy it is to pick off the sound bites from, in particular, the morning sessions – less easy(as always) to translate that into a definitive personal action plan. I’m left turning a lot of it over in my head -against a backdrop which is undoubtedly depressing you’re left clinging to the optimism and excitement of creative possibility.