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Culture, Government, Society

A new booklet was published by Demos yesterday, entitled ‘Culture Shock‘. Sam Jones, its author, said that he wanted to call the book ‘Culture and Government’ but decided that the former, and preferred, title would have more of an impact on would-be readers, and he also felt that it reflected some of what the pamphlet had to say.

Its thesis, very briefly, is that our definition of culture  has altered dramatically since Government first started ‘doing’ Culture – public policy debate has shifted, and there have been wider and more fundamental cultural and technological changes to how we engage with, consume and practise culture.  The pamphlet argues, logically, that the way in which culture is dealt with in Government needs to change to reflect this.  He recommends a range of mechanisms for fostering cross-Government commitment to a new, much broader, concept of culture.

All very well. Except of course, Government has changed its approach fairly comprehensively over the last 15-20 years. Continue reading “Culture, Government, Society”

Creative accounting

When does 2 + 2 = 5?

My fear, when reading the following two articles, would be that logic takes us to a permanent cut in funding for the arts.

Logic tells me that 2 + 2 = 4.

An article from a business perspective which encourages the arts world to work harder to engage with business, on the same day that David Cameron tells us that public sector funding cuts may be permanent, leads me to a fairly pessimistic view that the arts are in for a tough time.

Not even Jeremy Hunt believes that private sponsorship can replace public sector arts funding.  In a series of recent speeches and letters to newspapers he has attempted to set out his commitment to public funding, and to put up a fight with the Treasury.

He may be right.  Maybe he has sacrificed the UK Film Council for a bit of extra funding for the arts.  Maybe he believes that the fragile ecology of the cultural sector can be sustained by some trimming and pruning here and there (for which read: 40%+ cuts in some places will allow for negligible cuts in others).

So how does one end up with an answer of “5”?

One should turn to David Micklem for an astonishing example of illogicality.  How else to describe the ‘optimism’ outlined here?

A timely reminder of how a straightforward process of Treasury accounting may not have the capacity to deal with the imagination of the arts world.

The Three Cs – Cameron, Clegg, and Culture

With an eclectic array of references – from Grayson Perry to Shakespeare, Osip Mandelstam to Danny Boyle – Jeremy Hunt kicked off the new Government’s commitment to the arts in some style.

In an impressive speech at London’s Roundhouse, Hunt has demonstrated an understanding and empathy with a sector which has, historically at least, viewed Conservative governments with a significant degree of suspicion.  A far cry from the apparent philistinism of Thatcher, Tebbitt and co, this government is made up of enlighted, public school educated young men (mainly), who appear to share a more traditional Tory approach to the arts.

And that old, mainly philanthropic, tradition of supporting the arts for the masses is what underpinned what Hunt outlined.  While Thatcher’s Victorian Values provided echoes of the poor-house, Hunt talked of the role of public libraries and national museums, the benefits of private giving, the importance of supporting “good causes”, and the value of education.  A very different set of Victorian ideals indeed.

What will this mean in practice? Continue reading “The Three Cs – Cameron, Clegg, and Culture”

What should Gordon Brown be reading?

Gordon should probably be stock-piling a whole library of books now, given the assumption that he will have a lot of time on his hands after next Thursday.

It’s a shame really, since the last twelve years – most of which when he was Chancellor – has seen a massive growth in the public and private sector book trade, and in reading more generally. The massive increases in public sector investment in schools, universities and the arts (and libraries) has helped to liberalise reading – which, perhaps only with the hindsight brought about by the forthcoming period of cuts and austerity, will we really appreciate.  Meanwhile the private sector book trade will have benefited from the huge growth in the economy up until the recent downturn, including fantastic revenue sales of books via Amazon and more varied consumption through other on-line channels.

But before embarking on a post-6th-May reading marathon, there are one or two books he might want to make time to look at over the course of the next few days.

Shakespeare’s Henry V might help inspire him, as he goes once more “unto the breach“;  or, if he dare, he might turn to Coriolanus – whose capacity to keep fighting despite advice to the contrary, seemed endless:  even when being advised to stand down he remained determined: “do not bid me to dismiss my soldiers or [to] capitulate” (Act 5, Scene 3).

If he wants further inspiration – and informed by the debacles of recent days – he may simply turn to the poem ‘To a Bigot’ by George Essex Evans.  Reading it, he might be re-inspired – noting that there is always a “spark Divine that glows within”, even when all appears lost.

Finally, however, he will probably turn to his own favourite poem (one I have written about previously – here).  But he should aim not to do so before the early hours of 7th May….

Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard – which notes that “perhaps in this neglected spot was laid some heart once pregnant with celestial fire” – might end up, sadly and ironically, being Brown’s own political epitaph.

Thinking Design

This piece is in response to two recent contributions to the subject of Design, Design Thinking, and Design in successful companies. One was a blog by Kevin McCullagh following the recent Design Council/Economist conference, The Big Rethink, the other a ‘tweet’ by Clive Grinyer on Apple and Jonathan Ive.

Both shed light on the following two conundra:
* What is the role of Design in management?
* Is it possible to be a ‘design-thinker’ and not a designer?

McCullagh’s piece addresses the overuse and abuse of the term ‘design thinking’, and the extent to which the term has been hijacked by managers and innovators, at the expense of designers themselves – who have often felt excluded and de-skilled (‘design thinking’ is often positioned as a ‘superior’ type of design, which only certain designers can aspire towards).  He explores some of the history of the term, and the different ways in which it has been interpreted and applied.  Finally, he comes up with the no-less-intriguing alternative: ‘thoughtful design’.

Grinyer’s tweet on Jonathan Ive and Apple, though much shorter, also helps shed light on the conundra.  Here it is in full:

“Ive says design is not important, good design is important. But good design requires an organisation to be designed to deliver it. Apple is.”

Putting these two reflections together leads me to the following very simple conclusion which I think helps to make sense of the challenge of design in management, where design-thinking fits in (if at all), and the importance of – how can I put it – ‘proper design’.  Again, with reference to Apple (though one can apply this to various other companies):

Steve Jobs is a Design Thinker, whose insight into the importance of and contribution of design to business competitiveness has led him to appoint the very best designers and to put his Head of Design, Jonathan Ive, on the board of his company.

As McCullagh puts it: “Let’s forget about design thinking as a magic process, and focus on how designers and managers should best work together to deliver great quality outputs.”

Politics and the art of story-telling

I feel a little sorry for David Cameron, whose appearance on the first TV Leaders’ Debate has been criticised for failing to be entirely factual in his re-telling of anecdotes used to make his political points.

OK, so his “recent” visit to a Humberside police station happened last year, and the cost of a new Lexus isn’t exactly £73,000. But does that invalidate the point he was making?

We expect our politicians to be honest – certainly;  but don’t we also want them to be instructive and inspirational.  A good communicator will always use examples, if not stories, to illustrate a point, or to bring colour to an otherwise dry message.  Dogma or political point-scoring is hardly the best way to garner support, and we should welcome politicians telling us stories and drawing on real experiences to communicate their messages.  Surely, we don’t expect those stories to be scrupulously detailed and correct.  Based on fact, yes, but true?

Of course, a carefully selected, well-told story can communicate ‘truths’ which a factually-correct account of an incident might not.  Does it really matter for instance, whether or not the Good Samaritan crossed the road to assist the person beaten and robbed by thieves?  Or whether there were five or six fish to go with the loaves which fed the starving thousands?

Not that I’m comparing Cameron to Christ, by the way.  But the comparison here will help to illustrate what the problem is in the case of Cameron.

Jesus Christ got away with his various stories because he had a close connection to the people about whom and to whom he was recounting them.  There was an understanding, an engagement, a ‘veracity of experience’, let’s call it – if not in the experience itself, then in the telling.  The best story-tellers – whether novelists or simple tale-spinners – demonstrate an acute engagement with the experience they are re-telling.  Did Defoe need to travel to a desert island to convey the daily trials and difficulties experienced by Crusoe?  No, but the language – with its laboured, methodical, attention to detail – takes us there, and gives the reader a genuine belief in the ‘veracity’ of the narrator.

Cameron’s problem is that he cannot really communicate that ‘veracity of experience’.  He appears detached from the very people he’s talking about or wanting to connect to.  His language is, inevitably, the language of a politician – and his experience feels far removed.  As the leader of the Party, he’s further away.  And, as an old Etonian from a wealthy background, the extent to which he can convey a sense of engagement and connection with ordinary people is becoming very tenuous indeed.

The telling of illuminating and insightful stories is one thing, but if Cameron is serious about demonstrating his experience of the needs and desires of ordinary people, then he needs to be a little more careful about his selection of stories and the honesty with which he tells them.

CSR and all that – part 1

It’s difficult to pen a quick response to the CSR, which takes account of the wider impact it is likely to have on the cultural and creative economy. Not least because it will be 5-10 years before it takes effect.

But it’s worth looking at some of the initial headlines, because they will help give us an indication of the shape of things to come.

This is the first of a number of responses over coming days.

* The headline is, and will be, the cuts to the arts.

Some say it’s 30%, others say 15.

ACE has been asked to restrict funding cuts to “frontline organisations” to 15%;  and has been asked to slash its core running costs by a massive 50% (this for an organisation which has shed lots of staff over the last couple of years, and reduced its regional office base from 9 to 3).

The first fight will be to determine who or what is “frontline”.

Education activity is unlikely to fit that bill:  Creative Partnerships, as was, has already gone.  So expect any educational or community-focused work to be considered ‘back-office’.

Second-tier organisations, supporting infrastructure or promoting partnerships across other sectors (for example, A&B) can hardly be called “frontline”.  So, their sterling work in leveraging support from other sectors, or advocating on behalf of a fragile sector is likely to suffer dramatically.

And, just to be clear:  a “frontline” company getting a 15% cut will be considered to be a very good deal.  Imagine that even just two years ago.

There will be a lot of blood on the arts carpet.

* Local authority cuts

That’s the national arts carpet, by the way.  The vast majority of arts organisations rely on local authority funding – alongside their own self-generated income.

DCLG was hit hardest of all government departments, and local authorities will be expected to bear the brunt of much of the public sector savings over coming years.

So, many, many arts organisations can expect to have funding cut, with all other opportunities for funding from other budgets massively diminished.

And libraries, and museums?  All under threat too.

So: so far, so bad.  Big cuts to what some might describe as core activities.

But the indirect and wider sphere of culture and creativity has already been damaged by earlier announcements:

* The Design Council has lost its NDPB status, and is being encouraged to be more entrepreneurial.
Although its core budget will have been hit, I can see new money being generated in response to various project initiatives. That may well benefit the Council in the short term, as it demonstrates the capability of design on a wide range of cross-departmental issues.
But longer-term: the loss of NDPB status will inevitably lower the profile of design, and will diminish the ability of the Council to argue the case at top tables.  The CEO of a Design charity will have a much tougher time making his or her case to Ministers and senior civil servants than one who sits, by right, on a number of inter-departmental panels and committees.

* NESTA was already operating in a different way from other ‘NDPB’s and has the benefit of an endowment to keep it going.  It has also recently identified creative industries as one of its three core programme areas.  All good news.  But the chances of it retaining its BIS funding for additional activities must surely be questionable.  Watch this space!

* UK Film Council.  For good or ill, that has gone.  Where the funding goes is not clear – but the BFI has taken a 15% hit on its already meagre funds (and of course funding for the National Film Centre on the South Bank has already been stopped).

* CABE:  funding has gone completely.  Presumably, it too can compete in the Big Society for some project funding, but this is likely to be very damaging longer-term to the profile and clout of design and architecture across the UK.

I will be watching forthcoming statements, announcements and commentary, to elicit more information and insight.  But so far, it is difficult to detect anything other than a very heavy hammer-blow for a sector which appeared to be in the sympathetic hands of Hunt and Vaizey……

Gordon Brown’s new year reading

This is a follow-up to a post I put up just before the Labour Party Conference in September 2009. That one’s worth reading again I think: What is Gordon Brown reading?, modelled on Yann Martel’s delightful website for the Canadian PM. Like Martel, I have no aspiration to create a definitive reading list for the PM – this is, rather, a set of musings on how literature might provide some food-for-thought for an embattled Prime Minister.

Things don’t seem to have changed much for Gordon since the Conference. He’s still under pressure from all wings of the Party, and still seems vulnerable, despite Hoon and Hewitt’s failed coup.

So, where might he turn for some inspiration or some solace? Just as I recommended in September last year, I think he could do a lot worse than read Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake. A wonderfully mischievous excursion into the pleasures of taking risks, seen through the eyes of a young boy.

A much more macabre and thrilling version of this theme of risk-taking is provided by Blake, that great proponent of passion and energy, in his ‘Proverbs of Hell‘, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. There’s plenty for Brown to chew on here.

“Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead” advises the narrator – I can imagine that advice being given by one particular member of Brown’s Cabinet.  Indeed, the poem appears to have other echoes of life behind the doors of Downing Street: for example, Brown has been criticised for being a ditherer, such that it might feel as if “one thought fills immensity”; on the other hand, he would rightly point out that “the hours of folly are measur’d by the clock; but of wisdom, no clock can measure”.

Blake’s poem provides an array of intriguing pronouncements, and the challenge for Brown is to navigate his way through the range of voices providing instruction and advice – to know when to be ruthless (“sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires”), and when to be thoughtful and restrained (“the weak in courage is strong in cunning”); when to take advice (“the thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest”), and when to ignore his advisers and, Malcolm Tucker-like, vent his anger (“the tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction”).

So what can Brown take from this poem?

He needs to be wise and cunning, that’s for sure. But he also needs to learn ruthlessness and ensure that his desires do not remain unacted on. Time is running out for uncertain leadership. Like the boy in Rosen’s poem, Brown needs to take his chances. Come May 6th, we might know if he has reached Heaven or Hell.

graham hitchen

twitter:  @graham_hitchen