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2016: Faster But Slower

Well, 2016 has been a year memorable often for all the wrong reasons. I can’t be the only person wanting to slap themself for their previous complacency, can I? I’m not going to go on about the dark times that have emerged from neglected corners, I suspect ‘regular readers’ know where I stand, and others are more eloquent. Read the brilliant Zadie Smith’s piece here instead. I do, though, want to remind us that as Brecht half-said, in the dark times there will still be singing, and much work to be done. The combination of much work and an ongoing sense of not wanting to add to the ‘blabber and smoke’ (to quote Captain Beefheart) has meant I’ve been quiet on the blog this year. This does not mean I’ve been quiet elsewhere. As in previous years, I’ve written tens of thousands of words in reports, evaluations and articles. Two big pieces of work have been about Creative People & Places, one of the most significant initiatives Arts Council England have supported i ...read more.
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The Art of Relevance

Nina Simon, who is the Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, and a leading museums thinker, was the punchiest keynote speaker at the recent AMA conference. I came away with a copy of The Art of Relevance, her new book, the themes of which she set out in her talk. Relevance has the potential to give the other R word a run for its money in the 2016 Buzzword stakes, but we should not hold that against Nina or her argument. Using the images of rooms and keys and insiders and outsiders, the book is a sharp argument for mattering more to more people, not by assertion of your own intrinsic value but by making genuine connections. It uses stories and micro-case studies to illustrate how switching the terms in an open and ongoing fashion leads to change, and to relevance. Along the way there are a good number of highly quotable lines and arguments. Simon starts off by skewering two common delusions, seen weekly in the arts: firstly that what we do is relevant to everyone, and ...read more.
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Models, Missions, Visions and Hope

Well, a lot has happened since I last wrote a blog, much of it enough to make me put my head in my hands before getting back in gear. I don’t have time right now to start on causes and implications of Brexit; the new headmistress, I mean Prime Minister; the adult-ed teachers room squabble to be head of department in the Labour Party; or multiple murderous madnesses around the globe. Besides, something else may have happened whilst I was writing this paragraph. I may return to this in time – one of my conclusions is rushing to immediate opinion isn’t conducive to very much at all. I’ve been trying to bring my personal vital signs back to functional by working hard, relishing the small pleasures of life and turning off social media more often. Let the Horizon of Stupid stay where it is for a while. (Yes, I know this is what The Man wants.) Amongst other things, I attended the Arts Marketing Association’s conference in Edinburgh last week, giving two seminars on the uses an ...read more.
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The one with the chat about the role of the Critical Friend

For the last three years I’ve been the Critical Friend for bait, the Creative People & Places project for South East Northumberland. Although all the CPP projects have a Critical Friend, the exact role has varied depending on the context, needs and skills of the teams and their Friends. With bait, my role has been a combination of coach, facilitator, challenger, mirror, and bringer of other perspectives and frameworks. I’ve worked with the team and with the Consortium Board, mainly around identifying and understanding what is happening as a result of the work, and what the implications for action might be. Along the way, I’ve passed on various techniques and frameworks for everyday use, which is another key aspect of the Critical Friend role, and we’ve developed bespoke frameworks together, such as bait’s Quality Guidelines. The role differs slightly from that of, say, a coaching or mentoring situation, as it is much more engaged with the mission of the team. (Co ...read more.
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Mission, values and business modelling

Last year I was commissioned by the Arts Marketing Association to research and write a large set of case studies looking at arts organisation and museum business models, using the Business Model Canvas, devised by Osterwalder & Peignuer. This is a format that, with some additions I’ll come to, I’ve used regularly with many organisations of different types and scales over the last few years, so it was an interesting opportunity to dig a bit deeper into the format, as well as into some fascinating organisations. The case studies were based on interviews and examination of several years of annual accounts and reports. This last led to my new top tip to organisations seeking funding or investment: take your annual report seriously as an opportunity to portray yourself to the world, not just as a statutory duty, they are your visible portraits. Remember: someone might look at them to try and understand you. The 18 case studies were used as part of the AMA’s Future Proof Museums ...read more.
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Storifying the creative case

[View the story “Creative Case North National Event” on Storify] Last week, for one day, I had a job title again. I quite like avoiding having a job title whenever possible, only adopting one when forms require it, but last Tuesday I was Official Tweeter at the Creative Case NORTH national event at Leeds City Museum, having failed till it was too late to demand to be referred to as Executive Tweeter or Vice President of Tweetology or Humphrey Jennings Memorial Documentary Tweet Director. I was part of the documentation team, alongside another poet, a photographer and a visual notetaker. It was actually much harder work than I’d anticipated, listening, writing and editing in as close to real time as possible. I’d like to do it again, can see how I might be able to become more creative with it with more practice. So if you’d like some informed and creative reflection on your event or conference, get in touch. After the event, I pulled together a ‘stori ...read more.
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Not bold, not new, but workable

I was tempted to head this blog ”Minister, you’re no Jennie Lee’, but I decided that would be a bit unfair. Ed Vaizey is obviously passionate about his brief, and is scrupulous in his run through the 50 years between the first White Paper on the arts, overseen by Jennie Lee, and his own, published recently. He gives due credit to his predecessors, regardless of party. But although there are clear continuities in some areas of attention, such as access and education, it is in the discontinuities and disconnections that the real story is told, and where the new White Paper falls down against not just Lee’s vision, but, more importantly, in relation to what’s needed now. Vaizey has claimed the White Paper represents a ‘bold, new vision’, but there is really very little new here – and what one might at a push consider bold, such as putting culture at the heart of communities, is definitely not new. The paper starts with this statement ‘Everyone should enj ...read more.
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Springtime

Well, it’s been very quiet on the blog this year, hasn’t it. This has been to leave you time to digest some significant developments in UK arts policy thinking – including ACE investment proposals, AHRC Cultural Value Project final report, DCMS Culture White Paper, just to mention three. It’s also been because I’ve been deep in one of those periods where every time I thought of blogging, I was occupied on other important work or recovering from important work with the family. I’ve been working on some significant projects, which I hope to catch you up on here over the next few weeks. They included: • Finishing writing 20 case studies for the AMA about organizational business models – many up already on CultureHive with more to follow • Working with Bait on plans for the next three years of Creative People and Places in South East Northumberland • Working with a great team from EWG on two projects for ACE – one considering how best to increase numbers and experien ...read more.
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Five things people forget about resilience

Engage have just published an edition of their International Journal of Visual Art and Gallery Education themed around resilience, with a wide range of articles looking at various applications of that word, in an equally wide range of contexts and settings, including internationally. It’s a good read. The foreword by editor Barbara Dougan here sets it out, and is accessible to anyone, but you have to subscribe to read the whole thing. You can also watch out for the print version in good gallery bookshops near you, of course. I contributed a piece entitled ‘Five things people forget about resilience’. I thought it might be useful to tackle some of the things I sometimes need to make my position clear on, especially to say something about why I feel that although there are valid critiques of the use of the R word to shift responsibility to, for instance, the poor, the weak and – in arts and culture – the undercapitalised and underfunded, I ultimately think ...read more.
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Dialogue and Affection

There were a couple of thoughts about dialogue I had hoped to squeeze into the post introducing the Creative Case NORTH review. They are from the section in the full report talking about the CCN process as perhaps most powerful when generating dialogue. They also failed to make the cut in the Executive Summary but felt worth highlighting here. They discuss writers on dialogue I had not come across until looking for relevant frameworks to test CCN against. You may know all about them, of course, but given the frequency with which creating the right conditions for productive dialogue comes up as a challenge, I thought I’d share. I’ve reformatted slightly to create clearer lists, but otherwise just copied from longer report. They may be useful checklists next time you are trying to engage in productive dialogue. (They’ll probably be less useful if you’re just trying to assert how right you are…) I will just pause to suggest it would be helpful to generate more of nu ...read more.
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