Teaching an Old Dog New tricks

My day has been lost to The State of the Arts (#SOTA11) Debate a conference hosted by ACE National and the RSA. Like many people actually working in the arts (a huge,  eclectic and diverse sector) I couldn’t afford to attend and the actual conference is largely full of the heavy weight art organisations and sector *players* or dinosaurs of the industry as they are rapidly becoming not least ACE, for its slowness in embracing openess and digital communications and held back by it’s over awareness of ‘brand’ and ‘message’ and ‘City Centric’ culture. I can say this because they do not fund me, and it is my own opinion, which I can have because they do not fund me. I have worked with them, been to their conferences and events and some of their staff have inspired me with their dedication, understanding and knowledge of the sector but not many. My finest example being an Ace officer who would send out emails as if they were a primary school teacher and we were their class… “Hello lovely people, I’m here on the beach, in the hot sun (Clearly being overpaid whilst we are slaving in grimy dark spaces, doing overtime to get a project finished, with little hope of holiday…..)  or “How are you all doing with the changes in the world of Child Protection? anyway onto more important matters…. (Who let this child into the Arts Council Office’s email system, find their parent and get them out of there!!!). It’s not that inexperienced people shouldn’t work for ACE it’s just that I shouldn’t be expected to respect them just because they do. For me, ACE has become ‘the elephant in the room’ and dislocated from the people it purports to represent: that’s audiences, the public and artists and arts organisations and arts bodies. It is kept propped up by organisations who are too reliant on their funding support and approval to step back and take a good look at themselves.

#SOTA11 is an example of the distance, ACE are hosting this important, unequivicable event but it is geared for, chaired by and aimed at ‘the old arts establishment’ building bound, funding led, old established organisations and arts figures who once may have been challenging, provocative, innovative, demanding, progressive but got comfortable along the way and underneath all the posturing really don’t want change if it involves any form of ‘prickly discomfort’ or embarrassment. There has been a valiant attempt to re-dress this via, a somewhat underwhelming livestream and @SOTAflash  http://j.mp/hi6JtZ there has been talk about cultural bush fires, that the young are not the saviours of tomorrow but the audiences of the now, capitalism v. consumerism. We have heard people saying things like “We must build better relationships with our Local Authorities” Hello! Name me one arts organisation worth their salt who hasn’t been doing exactly this ever since God created the apple and the snake! They’ve been doing nothing but. Why did no-one say we’ve done that, it isn’t working not even NALGAO has managed to crack this one, what else should we be trying, doing to change this? We’ve heard Culture Minister Ed Vaizey proclaim his unchartered thoughts, it wasn’t inspiring. Andy Field did his bit, I like what he says http://lookingforastronauts.wordpress.com/2011/02/10/state-of-the-arts-11/ and the twitterati have tweeted thoughts, questions and responses and their utter disgust/anger at panelists views, statements and ideas but where’s the connection between what is felt, what is known and what is learnt? Distance, white noise, worm holes of parallel universe’s this is SOTA11

That’s not to say important discourse has not occurred but whilst apparently Local Authorities still don’t know how important the arts are (as they sit watching their TV’s and listening to the radio, reading the papers….planning the new look for their City/Town/Village centres…) and we all have to go away and grow our own Philanthropist and collaborate (because we haven’t been doing any of that over the past ten years either, have we!!?) I can’t help but wonder where some of the people at the conference have been these past few years? Thank goodness for twitter and the #SOTAflash team and those in the room who made it worthwhile. We’re artists, we’re communicators, we’re expressive, we bleed when cut and we shine when you hold us up to the light.


Music, Media and Mad March Scare Stories


So March is almost over, Easter looms and there are murmurings in the ‘Arts ether’ of more changes to the Arts Council which, should they prove to be true remove any ‘legs’ ACE has left with which to run. Will they really merge the East region with the South East, will ACE development officers be replaced by more ‘generic’ advice assistants? It’s anyone guess, as the likelihood of any open consultation is nil if past broadsweeping and arguably devastating changes to the Councils infrastructure are to go by. Or is it just a mad march scare story? Should we re-devolve the care of arts development to Local Authorities? Re-instate County Drama Advisers? Would we miss ACE if it shrank beyond all recognition? So much uncertainty on the horizon, so many questions.

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying new found friendships via twitter:

Adam Clavering aka @ourschoolrocks is a music industry officionado who is keen to put something back after his many years in the business.

Our School Rocks is launching in June 2009 and is a pioneering, vocational training Academy, that harnesses the enthusiasm and entrepreneurial skills demonstrated by participants and creates talented music industry executives, well versed and ready to undertake future challenges.

Interns will garner real time vocational skills, working with a diverse, well profiled selection of artists that are affiliated with the project, all of whom are making a successful career in music themselves.  No theoretical exercises. No artificial scenarios. We deliver genuine, commercial music industry business experience!

‘Our School Rocks’ stimulates career signposts in the potent Music, Creative and Media industries, a passion which so many young people develop for music right through in to their working life.

During their time at OSR our young people work towards a Gold Arts Award, which is delivered in conjunction with a professionally designed, well rounded, music industry structured programme. You can check out more details here http://www.myspace.com/ourschoolrocks .

I’m also enjoying conversations with emerging South Wales based illustrator/artist Dwayne Wyatt aka @theboywyatt whose work is direct and funny. In particular his Haiku’s, for example my current favourite:


Valleys spray tan booth.

Only two tones on offer,

Golden and extreme.


I am particularly indebted to him for a special edition of his proto-type design for ‘Celebrity Obsession Tees’. I am the proud owner of a virtual ‘I heart Daniel Craig’ one [see photo]. Once he’s got round the problem of putting masking tape through the washing machine I just know everyone is going to want a real one! You can find him here on Tumblr for more of his work, thoughts and observations http://theboywyatt.tumblr.com/

Creativity is the ‘x’ factor


Back in 2006 I started to research the evidence available on the internet on the impact creativity had on us, on our mental, physical and emotional health. I discovered that for some time scientists had been running projects with artists and young people looking at how creative activity not only influences the brain but also our ability to learn and to be receptive to learning. As a long serving Arts practitioner I knew about the benefits to young people of involving them in Arts projects, the improvement in their confidence, their language skills, their motivation, their ability to work as a team and to think and view their environment and the obstacles they face from a new perspective.  I also knew how hard it was to ‘evidence’ these small miracles given the tools that existed to measure them.
I had previously met Professor Matt Cuttle from Southampton University who had inspired me with tales of his work with Primary children and magnified images of brain cells; from drama to dance to visual art he had incorporated a range of art skills to help young people look at science with a creative eye. They had taken over an empty shop to hold an exhibition of art work about neurons and synapses, worked with a Dance agency to produce a choreographed piece on the brain – did you know for instance, the first concern of the brain is movement? So Professor Matt had cleverly introduced a swathe of young people to science in a fun, inventive and enjoyable way and opened the eyes of the professional artists involved at the same time, I’m sure.

If you ever have the time to visit the Arts Council England Library (and possibly the permission to do so) you could work your way through a raft of publications and reports on projects with NESTA (National Endowment for Science and the Arts) Government departments, Educational bodies, Creative Partnerships, University research foundations etc., etc., listing countless projects that investigated or explored and attempted to measure in a variety of ways, the potential of the Arts to enhance, improve, enable, inspire, re-juvenate; children, young people and adults, in a range of environments and settings and communities.

This was all encapsulated for me this Christmas when I met up with an old friend from my ‘youth theatre days’ who sensibly went into ‘business’ as opposed to ‘theatre’ but has put his theatre skills to good use, as he has built a reputation for being a successful ‘public speaker’. He mentioned that he regularly gets asked to mentor other staff who usually ask him for tips and how he struggled to define what made him so at ease with ‘Public Speaking’. He knew for instance, that there are plenty of books and teachers who can tell you how to shape a speech or show you how to speak confidently, but that technique isn’t enough to rise above the crowd. It was his four years as a young aspiring actor living, breathing and working in the professional theatre that nurtured the intensive, fertile and holistic ‘training ground’ of the youth theatre, that he credits with giving him the skills that make him a success today. He appeared in roughly fourty plays or events (poetry evenings, music halls etc.) during that time and thinks that no amount of purely technical speech and drama training can replace the value of that experience (observing, doing, debating, experimenting, failing, learning, doing). So, when asked for tips he tells his colleagues “Go and join an amateur theatre company, you won’t find what you’re looking for in the workplace”. I know what he meant, another friend is a high-flying business consultant and has read every ‘technique’ book going, his company thrive on putting ‘systems’ into place for their clients but it’s the extra dimension, the slight element of chaos perhaps, that sets something apart, makes us sit up and listen.

So back to creative learning, what was my point? Well, I’ve posted my creative learning journey as a downloadable pdf on my website if you’re interested and want to know more  http://www.artsmonkey.co.uk/14.html I’m no academic, it’s a personal and brief dip through some of the approaches to learning we’ve seen since the 60’s – with weblinks and references. I still get icy shivers down the spine when someone mentions ‘psychometric testing’ but if you haven’t investigated your learning style, your MI or given thought to how you might thrive better in your work environment it’s worth a read.  It won’t instantly improve your ability to remember information or think more creatively, or to learn new tasks but it might set you off on a journey – and it’s the journey that provides us with the ‘magic moments’ the experiences that inform us as people, give us the passion and make us of interest to others, isn’t it?

Back to the future – some incoherence on prescriptive Arts


A short but intense period of family history research has got me thinking. Something I’ve learnt about my ancestors in the nineteenth century was that they were itinerant, going where the work took them but staying close to family members. It must have been hard supporting large families; working as labourers, living in cramped conditions, ending your education at the age of 8 because you had to work, living away from your spouse in order to earn a living. In many ways I don’t think we’ve progressed quite as much as we like to think we have. We still build houses without building the community buildings and spaces that people need for their sanity and well being. We still have to travel great distances from our homes to go where the work is. Often both parents are working and often the work is short-term. Despite advances in education, medicine, healthcare, technology; are we moving forward or in circles?

There was a meeting this January for the National Campaign for the Arts to look back at the NCA’s 2004/05 manifesto and think about the shape and content of it’s successor. The Arts in terms of manifesto’s, mission statements, business strategies and development plans is a relatively young player, so it is heartwarming to think that so many existing arts bodies and interested parties can come together under one roof to consult and plan for the future. But I hope that we keep an eye to the past and leave room for the essence that is at the heart of all ‘art’ and art activity – it’s impact on the beholder, the recipient, the participant. Like parks, open spaces, good architecture, they may stand alone but have a much more beneficial impact as part of the whole. Art needs people to touch it, taste it, feel it, experience it. Forced into prescriptive approaches, which due to admin systems and the Arts Council England‘s funding processes it often falls into (Brought on by the need to be fair and impartial and thereby, the very nature of the beast.)  Art has become either tethered and inaccessible, or ‘prescriptive’. I generalise, of course I do, but the trend is there. Robin Simpson in his blog Cultural Playing Field pleads for a more holistic approach, sounds good to me.

A Local Authority I recently had contact with have gained funding to ensure access to the arts and creative activity for as broad a range of people as possible within a geographic area. How are they going to achieve this and their target of xxx amount of people within a relatively short time-scale?  Taster workshops. Taster workshops, offering access to a variety of arts provision across the area. An example of an achievable solution to a challenging task but does it really improve the hours of access young people have to ‘quality’ arts provision as stated in the government remit? Will those young people whose lives don’t encompass theatre, dance, music, visual art really sign up for a taster workshop if they don’t yet have a vision, a picture of what it is they’re signing up for? Or perhaps because they do have a vision and it’s a picture that they don’t relate to they most certainly won’t  make the effort. Will they be bothered? Is this forward-thinking?

Another project ‘Creativity 4 Health’ aimed at engaging ‘looked after’ young people and their carers, in creative activities to improve their wellbeing and health, held ‘family days’ – picnics where a range of activities were on offer – climbing walls, juggling, karioke, graffiti boards etc. Yes, you can argue it was a dressed up ‘taster session’ but it was a holistic approach and the challenge was still getting people to come in the first place.

In the UK exciting, wonderful Art is to be found in iconic buildings, spaces designed for people to be inspired and ‘wowed’ in, of course we want more people to enjoy these public spaces. But…

What is the need. Where is the need? How do we meet it? If  I want to see a rugby match I expect to go to a sports stadium to see it. Perhaps the challenge for the arts is in its diverse, eclectic nature, it’s refusal to be just ‘one thing’. So how do we profile the Arts to ensure that everyone can benefit from them?

  • Do we use existing buildings and beg, borrow and bully people into crossing the threshold? (sticky plaster mentality)
  • Do we equip a new more flexible space with the wherewithal? (Money pit mentality)
  • Do we go direct to them? (Outreach mentality)

Or is the answer something more organic and indefinable?

Is this why projects funded by ACE, which in order to gain funding have to (usually) fit within the boxes supplied, may produce great art but aren’t always holistic enough to meet the need? Is the real Art, the exciting, imaginative, life enhancing art happening without ACE’s benevolence. It’s a ‘catch 22’ because if so, then chances are that at some point it will need regular funding in order to continue thriving and once it come’s under the ACE umbrella it has to start fitting within the boxes.

So my question is, at the start of 2009 whilst the National Campaign for the Arts is thinking about the size and shape and future of the Arts – do we, the Arts world/communities/workers/supporters/campaigners have our backs to the future as we move forward or are we learning from the past?