State of the arts

Together with hundreds of other arts professionals I was at the State of the Arts conference last week. A number of the discussions were better than last year, and I liked the format of the first session with the audience tasked to answer and devise a question at their round table.

I lucked out for this, as I had Andrew Nairne and Laura Dyer from ACE, Jo Healy from Photographers Gallery and Gavin Stride from Farnham Maltings at my table – so we had a great discusson. Our answer to the question ‘what needs to change’  – Arts organisations need to listen to their audiences.

I found the parallel panel Where are the new audiences a frustrating experience –  the panel members weren’t well placed to address the question and despite the chair’s best efforts, the audience contribution didn’t really get us anywhere.

Back to some positives – Deborah Bull from the ROH was great talking about how we need to place audiences and artists at the heart of what we do, and I like Phil Redmond’s trajectory for arts orgnisations to

1st – survive

2nd -listen

3rd – become self aware

Plus he had a wonderful John, Paul, George and Ringo response… finishing with his prefered  philosphical response from George  that all things must pass…

Note to orgnisers –

Next year, I’d like to see fewer politicians on the panels (5 was too many, and 2 on the same panel the kiss of death) as this led to a not very sophisticated political point scoring style of debate.

Please bring back Matthew Taylor, who is a brilliant chair and John Knell who effortlessly combines being clever with being clear.

What would Tesco do? (if they ran a museum…)

Just back from the Museums Association Conference in Manchester. Could only be there for one day but managed to hear from keynotes Ed Vaizey and Neil MacGregor.

‘What would Tesco do?’ (a variation on one of my personal favourite creative thinking solutions) was used by consultant John Newbigin to get museums he was working with to think differently… their response was that if Tesco was running their museum they would know a lot more about their visitors and they would be using this information to improve their services and target potential visitors more effectively.

Quite right.

Worringly they seemed to think you need complex computer systems and processes to do this properly. It’s not the case – an organisational dispostion to listen and respond to customers is crucial; and then as we know there are all sorts of practical options (many low or no cost): informally chatting to visitors; through a regular survey – online or in person;  comments and suggestion cards; visitors books; holding discussion groups etc etc.  

Listeing to Neil MacGregor  felt rather strange that he wasn’t coming out of the i-pod in my kicthen (his History of the World in 100 Objects is one of my favourite podcasts). He spoke passionately about the role of a national museum, as a  ‘lending  library’ for partner museums up and down the country to access objects, and the unique ability of ‘things’ to tell stories and connect with other people, other times and other places. Finished with a plea to consider our national collections as one shared resource – to use to learn and study together.

Ed Vaizey was charming… (really, he was) and I thought was given an easy time by the delegates. I was struck by the contrast between Nick Serota’s heartfelt and hard hitting Guardian attack on the propsed spending cuts yesterday  and the deafening silence from the leaders of some of the country’s national museums in the room.

Some of the specifics I picked up from his speech

  • State won’t subsidise those organisations that won’t help themsleves
  • Partnership and collaborations  (or cultural convergence as Ed calls it) are the way forward (and not just with other museums)
  • Post Renaissance funding will go to ‘core’ museums which are ‘efficient, imaginative and innovative’

Evolve or Die? ITC shakes up our thinking

At a packed Independent Theatre Council conference in Tuesday we answered the call to discuss the timely issue of seeking alternative funding sources or models in these times of cuts and gloom. The title was deliberately provocative; and we all giggled nervously as we considered on which side of the divide we would fall.

The challenge of the title carried on through initial presentations by Dawn Austwick of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, ACE’s Althea Efunshile and Lorna Brown of Nalgao – and on through the afternoon’s breakout sessions.

 The clear messages of the day were:

  •   Cuts are here, don’t pretend they’re not.
  •   Arguing that ‘the arts’ per se are a special case and should be protected will not win any sympathy – indeed, quite the opposite – in the minds of the greater public.
  • Concepts such as the ‘Big Society’, a shrinking public sector and the cuts themselves are aimed at fundamentally changing our society, a paradigm shift. How can we frame what we do in the context of these ideologies? How do we ensure our values and ideas become part of the concept?
  • We can no longer be a ‘growth’ society as we’ve been used to – forever doing more. We need to learn to do less, better.
  • Big scale philanthropy may kick in, but not for a few years yet.
  • We need to prepare our minds for working with lower budgets – and not just a ‘keep doing what we do but squeezing and cutting corners’ mentality. This is a time for radically re-thinking how we structure our organisations, our offer and our relationship. Get creative!
  • Focus on what your core purpose is but also on what your assets are. Are they your building, your brand, your audience and supporters, your ability to create connections or unlock memories…?Image of an audience at Sadler's Wells
  • Keep close to and fully understand your audiences – their needs, desires and perceptions of you. Audiences are still a substantial source of income for many organisations. Now is not the time to cut your communications with them. It’ll also help you understand and respond to your own ‘Big’ community.
  • Collaborate, make partnerships, share and save – maybe even merge. From sharing sets to sharing producers; co-training to giving office space to a smaller company; from co-commissioning audience research to reusing past productions.

For Audiences London’s part, as well as implementing our own new models of working with you, we see ourselves as helping arts organisations collaborate between themselves – through such projects as the newly-established Outer London Venues Audience Development Support project and through the wealth of intelligence from previous joint research projects, available free on our website.

“More people take part in cultural activity in this country than vote”

The Stage has just published an article by Nick Clegg addressing the Lib Dems political standpoint on culture. Although he leads on the strong and measurable economic impacts of the arts and heritage sector, he does go on to say “I want to build a new economy, in which we no longer worship risk-taking and greed, but we value ideas and expression“. So what is that exactly? What opportunities will the Lib Dems create for free creative expression? It seems that their focus for culture is it bring it back to education, with “an extra £2.5 billion for schools” although only specifying that this “will allow teachers to cut class sizes and provide more one to one tuition” rather than how the arts will be incorporated into formal education.

I’m afraid for me it continues to get even more woolly – he’s taken this opportunity to raise the Lib Dems standpoint on Iraq, human rights, climate change and even their income tax policy.

Sorry Nick, to me this just seems like another opportunity to signpost your other key manifesto points and there’s nothing robust about how you would continue to support the arts in the UK. I’m not convinced. What do you think? Please do comment!

Transformation, Organisational Development and the RSC

Demos All Together ReportIt’s good to know that it’s not only us here at AL that are championing Organisational Change as a transformative way towards improving relationships with audiences. I’ve just come across ‘All Together: A Creative Approach to Organisational Change’ a report from think-tank gurus -Demos, that had been following the Royal Shakespeare Company as they embarked on a three-year organisational change process that successfully introduced ‘ensemble’ as a way of working throughout the company. The internal transformation process led to a significant change in fortunes for the RSC both financially and achieving critical acclaim with their audiences. You can download the report and see how they did it, find out just what ‘ensemble’ really means and how you might try implementing it by downloading and reading the free report.

Well-being in later life – new report from IPPR

Getting On is a new report from IPPR that reviews UK policies for older people and international practice, as well as the priorities of older people in urban versus rural locations. It concludes with recommendations for action, which signal a fresh approach to later life and seek to challenge outdated assumptions.

AMA Conference – what’s changing in organisations?

evolutionI enjoyed this year’s AMA conference a lot. I thought the debates were timely, speakers excellent and I caught up with colleagues I hadn’t seen for a while as well as meeting really interesting new people. I just wished that there were more colleagues from beyond marketing and audience development to share the experience…

From my perspective the highlights were:

Diane Ragsdale from the Andrew J Mellon Foundation – her excellent keynote combined inspirational ideas, practical actions, real examples and references for further reading. My takeaway is let’s move from being powerful gatekeepers to enthusiastic brokers.

An organisation that is already doing this is Watershed in Bristol, Dick Penny from there spoke about how he considers them  to be custodians of a shared culutral space and sees Watershed’s  role as bringing people togather around ideas that matter to them.

The urgent need for cultural organisations to change to keep pace with the changing world around us was a constant theme. This was brough to life by Cornerhouse in Manchester, whose experiment in adopting an open source way of working is inspired by Charles Leadbeater’s We Think. we-thinkStill very much a work in progress,  Dave Moutrey and Sarah Perks shared the organisational changes they have made, which include merging their programming and marketing teams.

It is always a pleasure (and an enjoyable intellectual challenge) to listen to or read John Holden’s work, and his AMA appearance talking about the value of culture was no different. He eloquently outlined how our conceptions of art and culture have shifted  from simply ‘high’ and ‘low’  to ‘publicly funded’ ‘commercial’ and ‘home made’  – and what impacts this has had on how we organise and communicate about culture. Like Diane, he referenced Bill Ivey’s Arts Inc, which I’ve not read, but am about to track down…  Questions included a lively discussion on the role of ACE funding policies in shaping how we  value culture. The John thought I’m taking away is that people’s value of culture is, of course, subjective, and we need to help them to create their value through a relationship of mutual respect between organisations, artists and audiences.

Finally, and I’m sure  a big hit with most delegates, Dan Germain from the legendary Innocent shared the  now apocryphal story of how the company was founded and the principles that guide the way it works. Very entertaining, with totally relevant and practical things we can use in our own organisations:

  • Know what you stand for – live your values
  • Have a regular AGM (A Grown Up Meeting) – meet your customers, to talk to them and listen to them

and my favourite….

  • Limit updates to 1 minute at team meetings

If you were there, what did you think?