‘Too small to succeed’: continents and archipelagos

Last week a-n sent me to Manchester to write something about the No Boundaries conference. It was a really interesting couple of days and you can read my immediate thoughts over on the a-n website. As I say at the end of the a-n article, there was a lot more I could have said.

I had to cut, for instance, the quote from the brilliant Jackie Kay, ‘Isn’t it great to be simultaneous?’, moving from the practicalities of an online, multi-venue event to a metaphor about the multiple selves of artists and young people.

I also skipped a discussion of the implications of a stimulating presentation by John Knell, which you can read here. He argued – as he has been doing for a long time – for a whole ecology-based approach to investment, with funders working together more collaboratively and strategically, something I have also advocated. Regardless of whether one approves of the ‘ecology’ metaphor, it seems perverse for funders, especially public ones, to take decisions on an individual case by case basis, or to purport to.

The more controversial part of John’s presentation was the suggestion that them that’s got should get even more as they have the capacity to make better use of it. He argued that even the biggest organisations were often not ‘too big to fail’, but ‘too small to succeed’. By succeed he seems to mean compete for audiences and attention in the winner takes all markets digital has created. Only by ‘aggregating’ could culture really expand beyond its super-served core audience.

Although he didn’t use these terms, an image popped into my head to sum up John’s argument about what might be most ‘productive’: more continents, fewer archipelagos. Some people hate the natural world metaphor of ecology applied to the arts, so perhaps it’s a good job he didn’t use that image. His argument seemed to be that culture might reach more people, do more new things, if aggregated into or under the wing of larger brands more able to compete. A comparison from the commercial arts might, perhaps, be the boutique independent record label that sits within a multinational company for services including distribution.

It would have been useful if John had been able to expand on exactly what he means by ‘platform organisation’. He – and Maria Balshaw – got a bit of stick for allegedly arguing for more big building projects but I don’t think that was quite what either was arguing for.

There was too much blitheness around the potential side effects of aggregation in both arguments, and around how government will choose about major investments, but I did not sense a tight prescription over the culture to be made. Just because you’ve got a good, rooted idea, doesn’t mean you’re not being used for political convenience. (Nor that you necessarily are, of course.) It’s easy to call for people to not be afraid of big ideas that threaten ‘our patch’ if your patch is expanding, perhaps. (Although the now familiar cautions about ‘simplistic rebalancing’ damaging the commanding heights of culture suggest that some big ideas are less welcome on certain patches than others.) And who wants to be against ‘courage’? But even if – or perhaps it should be especially if – the overall effect has been beneficial, we should not gloss over the costs of change.

As is pointed out in this interesting response from the intriguing ‘hawks in the wings’, competing on those terms is something of a fool’s game, even for the largest publically supported organisations. Exploring how ‘capacity’ can be used by more people, especially those at the smaller scale, might be more interesting. (This is something some medium-large organisations are arguably already doing.)

The idea of ‘funding fewer, better’ has some ‘strategic’ attraction, especially to funders who hate being thought of as salami-slicing, this is something ACE and others should be wary of applying simplistically. Without a diversity of organisations and audiences to connect to, of spaces and places for gathering and making culture together to link to, and ways for individual artists to develop and work with, it is hard to see how ‘aggregation’ would avoid becoming distant and controlling. That’s the biggest creative challenge for the aggregation argument to respond to, rather than a simplistic economic or quasi-economic debate about return on investment.