On Money, Haggling & Beaches

I’ve tried to resist jumping into this week’s hot debate in the arts - how much artists earn - as it’s one of those areas that is so filled by personal experiences and passions that it is hard to engage a 360 degree debate without being burned at the stake. Offering a counter view is a lose/lose scenario. But since the story now seems to be popping up in every arts journal, blog and feed going, fuck it. I’ve been working in arts and entertainment for over twenty years now, I’m comfortable with losing.

My first thought is that whilst there are a huge number of artists and makers who are underpaid or not paid at all, it isn’t anyone’s fault. Suggesting that haggling venues or metropolitan focussed funders are to blame is entirely missing the enormity of the problem. Artists and makers on the whole don’t earn very much because we, on the whole, don’t buy very much. We don’t buy very much because a lot of what is made doesn’t speak to us, is out of date or just a little bit crap. There is some good stuff out there, but not nearly enough to feed all of us who think we deserve it.

Then again, most people don’t buy what we make or turn up to our things simply because when they were little, maybe 4 or 5, we began to wean them off creativity and free thinking altogether, preferring instead to feed them measurable skills and employment focused learning. The result is that when most people - them - those who are not us - have enough money in their pockets to buy our stuff, they don’t, because we spent 10 to 15 years telling them it wasn’t really important.

It is everybody’s fault that most artists and makers don’t get paid very much (I say most, because of course not all artists, creatives and makers are underpaid, not by a long shot), and dividing us up into saints and sinners won’t help anybody. More than that, that path and type of response is part of the problem, and the reason why we never seem to move any further forward, despite endless proposals, initiatives and hashtags.

Venues. I have worked at, set up and run a fair few, but I can’t speak for all of them. I can, however represent The Firestation and how that fits with the current conversation and language. Venues like The Firestation are not sentient, they are run by people who, like artists and makers, have professional and personal choices to make.

Pete, Benn, Chloe, Chantal, Charlotte, Adrian, Hannah, George - there are lots more - and myself are all on salaries lower than we could earn in other sectors. We know this, and we revel in it. Why? Because we all work here on purpose, because there is nowhere else quite like it and we understand each others motives. We have all made sacrifices, but more importantly we have made the decision to trade a little salary and maybe a few perks for living a life that makes us feel alive. This business pays what it can (which is not bad all things considered), and directly supports around 20 people in varying degrees. We joke about the New York Office and staff trip to Tahiti. One day.

Benn is our Programme Manager, I guess he would be the principle “haggler” referred to in the articles and posts on this topic. I prefer to think of him as an extremely good negotiator. His job is to match the needs of an artist or touring company with the realities of our audience and space and the aesthetic aims of the company, which for the record go like this;

"Life is better, for the individual and collective, when creative activity is prolific and culture is rich and dynamic."


"Firestation Arts and Culture adopts a dynamic and progressive role in the celebration and promotion of all forms of contemporary culture and entertainment. By showcasing and instigating performing arts, visual arts, critical thinking and production it aims to support and drive forward cultural activity and the importance of a creative life."

A normal conversation(s) with Benn, or any other regional venue might go like this;

"Hi Benn, we’d like to bring War Horse to you next year. Want it?"

"Well, hey, it is one of the most talked about pieces of theatre in the last decade, we’d love it. How much is it?"


"Right… well I know we’d sell out, but we only have 150 seats. That’s £200 a ticket (VAT init). Can you do it for £8k??"



"Hi Benn, we’re an emerging theatre company and we’re like to include you in or 2014 tour."

"Great, I’ve heard or you, it’s a very interesting piece. How much do you need?"


"Ok. Our audiences are growing, but they’re not huge for new writing just yet. I’d like to think we’ll get 100 in, but it might only be 50. If we do a £15 ticket, can you do a £600 guarantee with an 80/20 split to you after that?"

"Ooh, Benn, you’re a tough haggler, but it sounds fair enough. Lets do it!"


"and we’ll make sure we get some excellent copy and images to you in a timely manner so you can market the shit out of us!"

"Even better"


Or something like that.

As I said, I can’t speak for every venue, booker or experience, but certainly every venue I have visited or worked with in recent years, the many people I spoke to when researching “Fireworks” and all the others I meet at conferences, drop ins and the lavish champagne receptions we hold every month all work in a similar way to us.

There are of course funding opportunities and some superb initiatives (House for example) that address this mechanic, but they are ultimately sticking plasters (no disrespect intended) when dealing with the core problem, the gap between how much most people will pay for the arts (because this isn’t a comprehensive cultural problem) and how much we need/want to earn.

The Firestation isn’t perfect of course, the deal may be done but cash flow haunts us like Bela Lugosi in a mood! With multiple revenue streams and types of income, keeping track of it is a full time job (mine in fact), and with HMRC kicking the shit out of us every quarter (not a charity you see) more than one artist or supplier has had to wait longer than we’d like to get paid. But most of the time people understand that we’re all caught together in a bit of a cultural shit storm. We understand each other, we’re all on the same side. Right?

We could of course blow what little funding and resources we have in a blaze of egotistical glory over a year (probably more like 6 months) - booking stuff that we think is important and shouting at people for not coming and funders for not funding - but that’s been done before. Aside from what we’re doing this week, next month and next year, our job is to make sure that we’re here in 5 years time, maybe even 10, so that there will still be some kind of arts provision in Windsor, and places just like us, in 50 years time.

I have two daughters aged 7 and 10 and there is no doubt that underlying much of my decision making today, is the desire that when they are older they too will have a place to embrace culture and creativity in whatever shape that may take. To visit events, engage with ideas, immerse themselves in beauty and poetry, or simply get trashed in a place where people and creativity bounce and collide around them.

Of course, it may already be too late. In much the same way that we fret about global warming and environmental catastrophe whilst buying rapidly obsolete technology in our sweat-shop clothes, most of our conversations about culture, value and getting paid happen as the probability of a creative renaissance drifts further over the horizon.

I came across an old photo of the D-Day landings in a newspaper the other day, and was struck by a powerful thought. There was a soldier lying in the surf, half in and half out of the water, and I wondered if he knew that he died at Omaha? We’re all heroes in our heads, survivors. Did he know that his brave and terrifying leap from the landing craft lasted only a few steps?

On some days I think that we, us arts people, us underpaid but righteous creatives, are a little like the soldier on the beach. Everybody whose looking back down the beach, everybody looking at the photograph for over 65 years knows that we’re dead in the water, but in our minds we’re still heroes, running up the beach to take on the enemy.

On other days, like today for example, I know that whilst he only made it a few steps on the beach, others made it. He can’t know this of course, lying alone with his face in the sand, but others made it, and carried on the charge.

#euCultureForum Thoughts, Day 2 - Crowds, sceptics, sincerity and pop music

The fact that there are now an increasing number of revenue (let’s not call it funding) options open to cultural organisations and producers gives me enormous hope. The practical implications are obvious, but the underlying shift in how we behave - from passive guzzlers of what ever hand-outs are available to masters of our own wellbeing - is massive and will only deliver great reforms.

It is understandable why, in the past, large funding bodies have tended to work only with large cultural organisations, but this has often frozen out the people with the really big ideas. It’s ironic that it’s easier to get £50k as a big organisation than £500 as an independent producer. This creates a chain of reliance (and therefore power) which goes from artists to curator to organisation to local supporters to government, and in many ways chases it’s own tail. It will be interesting to see how the industry evolves when it is no longer needed - the book and music industry are already there. Contrary to popular fears, it seems that the interesting stuff is now wholly independent whilst the established institutions trade more and more in back catalogues, mainstream ideas and re-hashes.

The mistrust and scepticism from the sector towards this new technology-driven market focused approach - most certainly voiced in the room - continues to interest me. Two concerns were raised, one that crowd funding could excuse governments from funding work and put choices as to what is made in the hands of audiences, and the other that corporate funders may begin to exert control over creative policy.

Regarding the latter, not only is it fairly straight forward to set up an agreement which clearly defines the parameters of influence, but the right choice of corporate sponsor is unlikely to generate a negative shift in aesthetic output. I also find it a strangely naive view, as if governments and public sector funding bodies don’t also have an agenda and flex their muscles frequently. We heard the term “soft power” repeatedly yesterday and anyone who has worked with ACE, local authorities, British Council etc will know the undercurrents of agenda and association.

The first concern, in essence that funding power in the hands of individuals, fans and unprofessionals will mean that important work will not be supported, is a heinous and deep rooted reality of sector thinking. It is the inherent fear of barbarians at the gates, of the influence of the mob and the loss of our own superiority. How long will we re-muddle marketing techniques and develop audiences before we begin to focus on the limitations of our own aesthetic thinking? Despite all the talk, are we ultimately more comfortable in our own little cultural cages - no matter how small they get - instead of out there… with EVERYBODY ELSE?

Benji Rogers’ talk was terrific and the figures very interesting. c$9bn goes unspent by cultural consumers every year because they can’t buy the product they way. Pledgers average spend per transaction (who are paying for the journey and intimacy as much as the end product) is $55, compared with the standard $10-$15 industry standard.

I was going to complement Yoel Gamzou on his inspiring talk on democratic working and sincerity, but then he went and slagged off pop music. Why does pop music always get it in the neck? The conversation on sincerity is powerful and seductive but we shouldn’t assume that “the arts” (you know, that thing) hold the exclusive rights to meaning and beauty. As a pop lover I have always and will always maintain that, whilst I admire Mahler and appreciate his skill, the reality is that Take That’s “Back for Good” has touched me more deeply and means more to me. For a more recent example, Owl City and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Good Time” makes my heart beat faster and my soul feel more alive than Beethoven ever will.

Words of the day - clusters, crowds, relevance, sincerity

#euCultureForum Thoughts, Day 1 - language, separatism and energy

There seems to be a common belief, scored through the arguments today, that non-economic - and perhaps more comprehensively non-empirical - value measures are hard to articulate, a little slippery and generally unsatisfactory. This is fuelling a great raft of work, some of it a touch ridiculous, to quantify happiness, to measure the impact of looking at a painting or going to a show. I now know, for example, that I am likely to get more out of my cultural divings if I am female, from the country and pushing 70.

All this stuff about finding new measures to better map the value of culture, or building a robust economic case to justify it’s place at the policy table is a non-argument. The real problem is that we do not trust our own judgements, we are unsure what constitutes good or what is important to us, so we pass the responsibility for this judgement to non-viable institutions (like economists), knowing that they will fail. This is a good tactic, as it allows us to continue to assert our otherness and maintain the mystique of culture, which in turn masks our cultural poverty, lack of newness and fear of popular, low-brow (folk) trends.

But it is NOT tricky to measure our pleasure without the help of economists, mathematicians and slide shows. Examples are everywhere;

"I bought John Grant’s album yesterday, it just blows me away"
“Check out my new boots, aren’t they amazing?!”
“Thor 2 = Shit”
“#tate #yawn”

They’re there, but we choose to ignore them, or perhaps we just don’t trust them. Have we lost confidence in our language to express value?

Talk of culture demonstrating it’s value in budgets, of culture being a necessity we must not sideline suggests that there is a choice, that governments can switch it off if desired, but of course they can’t. Beurocrats, policy makers and power brokers know that we can’t really control culture any more than we can stop the tides, why don’t we? It’s an illusion of order. Culture isn’t a tap you can turn on and off when convenient, it isn’t a river you can dam, it is the manifestation of collective thoughts, feelings, aspiration and energy and like every other energy if you get in its way it just pops up somewhere else. This is why genuinely new cultural modes, like rave and occupy, like tagging and live provocations (think Pussy Riot) get stamped out PDQ (at least until they can be assimilated).

I wonder if there is a need for a kind of cultural separatism, not from each other of course, but from the languages and structures that don’t sit well with our creativities. All this effort to find ways to quantify and measure culture is drifting us further away from keeping (optimistic) or regaining (more likely) a culture that matters, or re-evaluating the cultures we already have that we frequently orphan from higher arguments.

Although I wrote it a few months ago now, I feel stronger than ever about my statements on anti-value;

"After years of looking, should we not be asking why it is so hard to demonstrate this value we are so sure is there? Could it be the case that arts and culture, whilst commodified and made distributable by systems of value, operates fundamentally in a realm of anti-value? Maybe art and culture offers us an escape from endless value judgements, from reason and sense. Maybe endlessly trying to measure it undermines its function."

It strikes me that a stubborn and precocious refusal to seek to measure what we make, or be drawn into clumsy clusters of intangibles like “wellbeing”, or feel that we must jump through empirical hoops to earn our place at the table, may be the only way to regain the trust of the population and spearhead the search for something genuinely new.

There was a lovely analogy from one of the Vox Pop speakers today (I didn’t get his name), of gardeners and biologists and it resonates with me here. He said - and I paraphrase - that in the past policy makers and arts professionals have behaved rather like gardeners, putting everything in grids and exterminating weeds to create the culture they were after. In fact we should be behaving more like biologists - studying with great care, exploring everything and (whilst we may have favourites) ultimately marvelling at the beauty of the whole forest.

.. interesting that half the room left before the @diversity Innovation awards.

.. and Commissioner Vassiliou’s Einstein (good old Albert) quote was great
“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” - Einstein

In research and explorations of measures of wellbeing, TV vs Arts for example, the socio-economic factor doesn’t seem to feature in conclusions. People who watch most TV may indeed be less happy and healthy, but this may be because arts participation is limited to higher income groups whose health and circumstance is generally better. The finding that people who visit more arts events are happier doesn’t necessarily mean that “the arts” are the driver.

Words of the day - spillover, capital, trust, soft power


Austerity? It Ain’t About The Money

Recent years have seen the start of a sharp, deep and enthusiastic challenge to how the arts are supported by the public and private purse. This might be ok, if our audiences were fresh, far reaching and happy to pay the real cost of a ticket. But years of funding have so distorted the market place and frankensteined our output that none of us, culture maker or consumer, know where we are or what we want.

Austerity isn’t just a money problem, not for us at least, it’s the microscope that exposes the disconnect at the heart of what we make, who we make it for and why we bother.

Cueva de las Manos & Frankenstein


As part of putting my thoughts together for this presentation, two images have lodged in my mind and become integral to this piece - first is Cueva de las Manos, or Cave of Hands, a 13,000 year old cave painting

and second is Boris Carloff’s cold stare from the stills of the 1931 film of Frankenstein. They are, admittedly, unlikely bedfellows, but I have reconciled myself to the fact that they both belong here. Perhaps they are the yin and yang of my thoughts.

We’ll come back to Cueva de las Manos, but for the time being let it sit quietly in the corner of your mind, a beautiful and surprisingly modern image, made with the creative engagement of many and seemingly for no purpose other than to celebrate their togetherness.

Frankenstein, however, we need to deal with straight away and up front, but to do so we need first to go back to June 1945. As the UK, Europe and indeed most of the world begins the task of dragging itself up from the ruins of war and the trauma of such violent loss,

John Maynard Keynes stands before Parliament and puts forward his vision for the cultural near future, a plan “restoring to the nation something it should never have lost”. Out of death, fear and fire the Arts Council is born, with an opening fund of a mere £235k (ironically, at the going rate it looks likely that the Arts Council budget in it’s 70th year may not be far off where it started), The Arts Council kick starts theatre productions, orchestras and exhibitions and within a few years plays its part in the Festival of Britain, an epic event, the ambition and infrastructure of which still resonates today.

Scroll forward 67 years and our closest equivalent is the London 2012 Festival, although comparisons with Woodstock would perhaps be more appropriate, “if you can remember it you weren’t there” they say of the 60s, for London 2012 try “you were there, you just didn’t know it”. Arts and culture (of the publicly funded kind) and the Arts Council no longer need audiences to meet their brief, it would seem.

Whilst I support the Arts Council’s gear change in 2011/2012, and recognise that the public arts sector is supported by a range of bodies from trusts and local authorities to businesses and philanthropists, it is the case that slowly but surely, over the last 70 years, kick starting has become maintaining, supporting has become selecting and funding has become engineering.

It’s hard to make the distinction between failure and need, but with decades of focus on the institutions of culture, the bricks and mortar of delivery, somehow our activity has drifted further and further from a collective creativity and shared aesthetic impulse and we have created something truly horrible. Welcome to the Frankenstein Sector.

King Lear

"Save the Arts" we cry out, throats dry from calling and wills weak from loneliness. But we don’t mean save the arts, we mean save us. Save us from the poverty of irrelevance, save us from the vulnerability of dependence, save us from the weight of our agendas and above all save us from ourselves.

For as we campaign for our worth and argue amongst ourselves over internships and regions, culture and creativity continue to fizz and progress regardless, in nightclubs and networks, in shops and forests, in public and in private. These may not always take the forms that we know or even the outputs that we like, but who are we to say beauty and the unique energy of aesthetic transmission needs a stage, script, a canvas or even our involvement?

Perhaps our value collapsed when one person in a crowd of 300, eyes tight shut and bass pounding in their ears, feeling their heart beat with perfection surrendered themselves to the moment, or when two friends, over a telephone network, shared the graffiti stencil that made them both lol.

Empty Pockets and Desperate


It was mentioned to me not so long ago that the income formula for arts and cultural organisations should be around 40% earned, with the rest coming from public and private funding sources. My view, from studying a large number of accounts going back 5 years is that our most robust organisations operate more along the lines of 70% earned and 30% funded, and there are precious few of these. From now on, I think for organisations to even survive they should be operating around 80/20.

The reality for us, as the 21st century begins to reveal its history, is that whilst the current shrinking of public funds and tightening of incomes represents a current and very real challenge, the underlying disconnect that bedrocks our helplessness and has been a long time in the making, is our most likely executioner.

To be clear, the disconnect is the difference in value that we assign to our activities and the value assigned to them by the public at large. It is born out by the amount of subsidy required simply to keep going, the lack of influence the sector has on policy and our social profile generally.

In the 16th century over 30% of Londoners visited the theatre every month. In 2011 our highly engaged culture seekers represent around 7% of the population. (Source: Arts Audiences Insight, ACE 2011)

In 1946, cinema admissions in the UK alone were 1.6 billion. In 2012, despite showing a little growth on previous years, cinema admissions only reached 172 million. (Source: Film Distributors Association, “UK Cinema Admissions 1935 to date”)

We are the architects of our own collapse, recognising too late that the business models we have built, the institutions we have protected and the dialogues we have adopted have only served to fracture our relationship with people, and therefore with the future. I have worked with artists who will accept rows of empty seats with a shrug and receive sponsorship from businesses with lukewarm gratitude, whilst grinning from ear to ear at the Arts Council logo emblazoned on their posters. It’s not the money that is making them smile, although this is nice, it’s the validation, but this approval - learned from a lifetimes education - is the sugar that coats the poison.

A suite of distortions just like these grows unchecked throughout the sector. We are awash with mixed messages, hypocrisies and confusion. I meet customer who ask me to bring emerging artists and performers to them but object when the ticket price crosses their value threshold, often roughly equivalent to Harvester “Original Combo”.

Our need to generate audiences, in a frame of disinterest, has led to regional ticket prices hopelessly out of balance with the costs of production, and this in turn feeds the downward pressure on cultural value that keeps the sector trapped in poverty. Heavy investment in bricks and mortar assets has meant that many organisations not only rely on their rising book values to balance the accounts, but are at the same time unable to dispose of them to adopt new models (who else would want a listed arts venue?).

Touring companies routinely lose shows because their costs are based on an ideal notion of income not market realities, whilst funded venues blow thousands on marketing to bring in accidental audiences, because this is what brings more funding.

The confusion in the sector is further evidenced by how we demonstrate success. Audience numbers, financial result, longevity or something altogether vaguer like wellbeing? These metrics, some our own some borrowed from others, may well guide and sharpen us, but if we let them drive and define us we are lost.

What People Want

Whilst the arts sector is currently marginal, the wider creative culture sector is far from it, with a healthy impact and deep fusion with our everyday lives. Music, gaming, fashion and publishing are very much alive despite the shadow of austerity and the public arts sector should perhaps look to these areas for a glimpse of what our public wants and needs.


People need an active role in shaping the future, but we give them monsters. As quaint as it may sound, people need beauty, poetry and purpose. We give them monsters. People want ambition and progress, despite the fact that comes with a measure of uncertainty, but we give them the stolen and stitched reprint of what was. Above all people need us to deliver the new, to find a horizon the separates our history from our future so that we can embrace both, away from the influence of our dusty and derelict institutions.

Bush Fires

In a superb keynote for State of the (Arts) Nation in Belfast in March, Diane Ragsdale explored what it is to be a sustainable arts organisation and the paradoxes that exist within that ambition. She gave mention to bush fires to illustrate one of those paradoxes and I’d like to explore that a little further here.

Wikipedia’s entry on Fire Ecology states that “Many ecosystems… have evolved with fire as a natural and necessary contributor to habitat vitality and renewal. Many plant species in naturally fire-affected environments require fire to germinate, to establish, or to reproduce, or all three. Fire suppression not only eliminates these species, but also the animals that depend upon them. Finally, fire suppression can lead to the build-up of inflammable debris and the creation of less frequent but much larger and destructive wildfires.”

It’s a phenomenon that mirrors perfectly the place we have come to after years of protectionist thinking from funders and protagonists alike. When did we slip from kick starting new ideas to protecting the old ones and are we currently in our wildfire, or is it yet to come?

With this in mind, if we are happy to carry out survey after survey to map the economic value of arts and culture to demonstrate why The Arts as it is should be valued and should be protected, should we not also measure the things that we lose?

How many revolutionary cultural projects never see the light of day because we are not equipped to support or even recognise them? What is the number of brilliant young creatives who drift away from us and the number of ideas hungry everyday consumers who look elsewhere because their paths are clogged with Shakespeares and Warhols, with theatres and opera houses, with The Arts and Education?

We must recognise that saving the arts might not be producing the results we are actually looking for. We invest so much energy in engaging with young people, the disenfranchised and isolated, but then betray them by suggesting that project success comes when they adopt our methods. We must own up to the fact that many of the most significant and exciting cultural developments of the past 25 years have not come from our sector, coming more often from computing and technology, an industry notably rich with bush fires, death and renewal.

Exploding Culture

When we are so entrenched in the practices and ways of thinking that have created this disconnect, looking for a way out is like unpicking a knot that has no start and no end. But there are strategies that make a pathway to a reconnected and vital arts sector that I would like to suggest here.

In “Fireworks” I described a way of working that I called “Exploding Culture”. It’s a term that describes the process of breaking apart the rules of what we do, challenging our value scales, building new partnerships and having the confidence to present ideas that we do not understand or may later dismiss. As a first step it can be as simple or as complex as needed, changing the wording on your website, the music in your foyer, making a phone call to start a conversation you always thought would be interesting or making some space for the performer who has asked ten times over to be on your stage. Sometimes, simply moving a desk from one office to another can start a chain reaction that invigorates an entire organisation.

Furthermore, breaking our habits and finding new ways of working also brings with it new opportunities and revenue streams. Focused on championing and educating the richness of modern life, cultural organisations could and should be partnering with architects, academics, coders and chefs, breathing life into stagnant business models and opening the door to new incomes and financial independence.

The shift here is that not only do we leave behind the motivation to make something complete or justified, but also that we move away from the notion of end product at all, favoring instead a process focused activity. We are seeking meaning not prescribing, searching for aesthetic endeavor in whatever form that may take, and acting only as conduit and tour guide.

Most importantly, I believe that the best, indeed only way to reinvigorate the production of art is to stop trying to make it altogether. Culture is where the action is in the 21st century and the process of breaking chunks off to label as “Art” only produces static relics. Behaving culturally, together, in the flux of new invention and with an acceptance that it is ok to not know where we are headed, is the only way to bridge the current gap between our sector and our public.

We need visionaries who champion and demonstrate that the power of arts and culture is it’s absurdity. That it’s essence is oppositional to logic, measure and knowing and by occupying this space it can not only be stronger but also financially robust.


There is a particularly perfect quote from Albert Einstein that I like to use here as it precisely illustrates the challenge before us

“Problems cannot be solved by thinking within the framework in which the problems were created”


In other words, whilst we can tinker with our make up and tweak our outputs, to really change our fate we must step outside of our practice altogether. Thinking back to our bushfires, there is a degree of destruction that we must embrace to move forward, but it doesn’t have to be painful. Rather like the end of a romance, we can let go with tears and affection, whilst still heading into the future with excitement and joyful expectation.

A 21st Century Aesthetic

The point of all this reassessing, exploring and un-making is to create the space to find our voice, our language, our soul. To find our own transmission forms and meaning, built from what it is to be alive in now. When the world around us has changed so much, why does the theatre of today look essentially the same as the theatre of Ancient Greece? Is it intimacy or laziness?

The disconnect between us and modern audiences is not just a result of how we do things, it is also created by our hesitancy to make work that is truly modern. One of the most common sentiments I hear from friends and colleagues, from students and customers, young and old, is how bored we all are. We have so much but are lost in a storm of options.

We have an urgent need to find a 21st century aesthetic, to find a way to transmit the aesthetic experience that is not a tweak or rehash of previous successes. We must not shy away from the ideological casualties and confusion that are a necessary path to the new, and must not rest until we have found a result that is genuinely independent and modern, if such a thing can ever exist.

Cave of Hands

To close, let’s return to our Cave of Hands. Unlike other cave paintings, which depict hunting triumphs and an array of beasts, this appears to have no function other than the joy of collective action and mark making. It’s colours are vibrant and alive giving it a surprising modernity, whilst it’s mix of tiny and grown up makers marks exudes a tactile intimacy.

It reminds me that at one time there was no distinction between the making and the consuming, no high and low culture and no disconnect between creating and living. How complicated we have become. Then, as if by magic, it reminds me that what we do now and what those hands did then has never really changed, that the most potent and long lasting sparks of culture always come from creating and sharing - in the spaces we inhabit - something we can’t quite do any other way.

Perhaps there is not so much separating us after all, only a little time and a little space, we just need to come out of our caves and into the morning sun, to begin the hunt for beauty, poetry and purpose again, together.

This presentation was delivered on 9th May 2013 at Creative Europe in a Time of Austerity, a conference produced by Euclid at Cornerhouse, Manchester.

Being Bobby Ewing

I must confess, I left. Got up, said my “excuse me’s” to my row and headed elsewhere. I never do that.. well not often. The last time I walked out of anything was the Spiderman reboot, which was so full of plot holes and sentimental teen angst I could’ve thrown up. Since I lasted longer with Spiderman, it’s fair to say What Next? was not for me.

But, as I don’t want to be cartoon angry boy for ever, let me start with some positives.

It wasn’t that long ago when an event like “What Next?”, or a group of 650 cultural professionals as we were, would have referred constantly to “The Arts”… The Arts this.. The Arts that.. capital T capital A, with all the certainty of the Aesthetic Elite and a smug incredulity that there are (gasp) some people who “just don’t get it” (there was still a little of that, but this is the positive bit). On this day, however, everybody was talking about “art and culture”, broad, inclusive, varied and not even capitalised. Heavens, Bernard Donoghue even championed the theatre, games designers and blockbuster films in the same breath. Hoorah for us! We are changing - whether our new found chums in multiplexes, record company offices and design studios will want to hang out with us remains to be seen - but at least we are playing.

The other good thing about What Next? is in the title, or lack of title in fact. It’s a big question what next? and although it may have been intended to merely imply a sense of investigation and openness, it carries within it all the uncertainty, loss and tragedy that will define the next few years of cultural production, whether publicly funded or not. The Arts (damn!) and a large part of the culture industries have crashed into the 21st century with an enormous crisis of purpose - stretched thin over social networks, washed out by hyper-media and beaten by the curious tyranny of creative democracy - it’s hard to know what we’re doing and our audiences (of course) share our confusion. It makes for a bit of a weird conference, but the fact that we are beginning to come together in the darkness, around the warm fires of our failures, is the first step to seeing in the dawn.

So, why did I leave? Well, first of all there was all this talk of starting a movement, or was it not starting a movement? I got lost somewhere between David Lan’s assertion that there was no agenda other than this “What Next?” question and Sir Ken Robinson’s peculiar endorsement of “the mission” and overriding message that it’s all the fault of politicians. Either way, this movement thing bothers me deeply. I am of course reminded of Groucho Marx’s “I’d never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member”, but more than that is that it just seems so quaint, so old fashioned, so us! In an age of rampant social networks and frenzied agenda setting, even the mention of a movement seems hopelessly out of touch.

So to is this notion of engaging with politicians, of pushing the importance or plight of arts and culture into the political spotlight, making it “a manifesto issue”. When voting numbers are shrinking year on year, and the fate of the country is being decided by fewer and fewer individuals, why on earth should we waste our time talking to the figureheads of nobody? If we spent the same energy building our audiences, making our output the lifeblood of, well life, politicians would surely come to us. We might lose out in the short term, at least or institutions might, but this is the long game, right?

Furthermore - as it cropped up more than once on the day - when politicians like Maria Miller ask the cultural industries once again to explain how they contribute to our economy, we could simply refuse to engage. It would be a far more interesting scenario than playing the frustrated regurgitation game. Then again, we could simply tell her to fuck off. I use the words explicitly and with purpose, for we are also often far to polite in our responses to such resource wasting ignorance. Sure, politicians may currently hold the purse strings, but in a few years strings is all they will be holding. We should join the rest of the population and move on.

Fuck off, Maria. Done.

After the movement / non-movement bit came the biggest tragedy of all. Art, we are told, has the power to change communities, rapping the ability to turn lives around and education should never be considered as separable from culture. I’m sorry have we met before? Oh yes, at EVERY ARTS CONFERENCE I’VE EVER BEEN TO! For a moment I panicked, wondering if - Bobby Ewing style - I was about to wake up to find the past 20 years had all been a dream, whisked back from the 21st century to some late eighties community arts rally. From that moment “What Next?”, when faced with the reality of needing some actual content and ideas, became “What Was” and once again we sank back into the glue of our preconceptions and allegiances.

This is the moment when I left, I know there may well have been good things I missed, but outside on Shaftesbury Avenue the sun was shinning and culture was being gloriously busy. I still have my “What Next?” card though. A big brown postcard that invites me to pledge (yes, really, just like the Brownies and Cubs) to engage with an MP, treat my stakeholders as high-level donors, sign up to something called the “What Next? grid”, start a group or “Other”. It’s worth pointing out that if your “Other” is “to unpick and dismantle the public arts sector’s over reliance on bricks and mortar solutions to the transmission of shared aesthetic worth”, then tough. You don’t have room. You could fit “Pray” though.

But seeing as I am writing here and you are reading it, and we have as much room as we need, here are my “Others”;

  • I pledge to focus the majority of my energies on finding and supporting contemporary cultural activity, whatever form that may take, that resonates wildly with the population and expresses what it is to be alive in the 21st century, not the past.
  • I pledge to allow the institutions that I understand to stop when they are no longer needed, to make space for new generations to make institutions that I do not understand.
  • I pledge to help steer the cultural sector to a place where high levels of engagement and value replace the need for state subsidy, so that I don’t have to be nice to people like Maria Miller.

Who Is The Us That Them Is Protecting?

Delighted that my talk “Who Is The Us That Them Is Protecting?” has been included in the Arts In Society conference in Budapest this June. An overview is included below. Arts In Society is always a superb (and intense!) few days of ideas and connections, hopefully see some of you there!

Arts organisations and the whole CCI Sector are currently facing their biggest challenge for decades; a seismic, global re-evaluation of the allocation of public funds to support creative projects alongside the prospect of years of shrinking customer spending in a challenging economic climate.

The squeeze is already highlighting the vulnerability of organizations, flushing out the failing business models and fair-weather policies. There are undoubtedly more shocks and disasters to come. But the tragedy of the arts and culture sector is about more than economics, it is haunted by a lack of relevance and failure of mission that has been growing despite the cosy drinks at 10 Downing Street and flag waving cultural projects to unify nations.

Using audience data and social studies from Arts Council UK and the European Commission Culture Programme amongst others, alongside blog extracts, keynotes and tweets, “Who Is The Us That Them Is Protecting” seeks to explore the identity of the arts sector, from the position that understanding and challenging our core values, assumptions and make-up is the only first step to a renewed relevance for the arts.

If the arts and culture sector can’t (or won’t) embark on an open and searching self-examination, then the likelihood is that in a few years time, when the sector as we know it has long gone, only then will we ask the questions that lurked behind the grants and policy makers and hash-tagged battle cries? Who were we anyway, what did we want, and who were the people who gave up protecting us from failure?

"The artist “walks where the breath of the spirit blows him. He cannot be told his direction. He does not know it himself. But he leads the rest of us into fresh pastures and teaches us to love and enjoy what we often begin by rejecting.”"

— John Maynard Keynes

"The function of entrepreneurs is to reform or revolutionise the pattern of production."

— Jean-Baptiste Say

"who is the us that them is protecting?"