I’m not really a fan of ’round robins’ and I completely avoid those yearly reviews in the newspapers. They just remind me of how quickly the year has gone. I generally don’t understand the fuss around the turning of the year. It’s just another day. But, a post by Antonio Diasri made me think this, more than any other winter in my life, is a real time of change and reflection. This hard winter is acknowledged to be an effect of climate change. The UK is feeling climate change now. This weather is more dramatic than the gradually rising seas nibbling away at our shores, and more visible than the changing patterns of plant flowering and bird migration.
In 2010 I’ve been more involved in work to do with public engagement and education with environmental sustainability, but these have tended to be voluntary projects. In 2011, this will need to become a much more significant element of my paid work, including the work of my co-directors at Flow, without losing our focus on the arts and heritage sectors. This will call for a big change and a lot of discipline.
So, looking ahead to a big change I need to reflect on how I’ve developed this year. Above all, it’s a year in which I accepted that I’m middle aged. I’ve finally started wearing glasses (abating headaches and dizziness). I’ve experienced loss and bereavement. I’ve stayed at home in the evenings much more. We stopped renting a company office and started working from our homes, communicating virtually, so I’ve had more time with my family. I’ve shopped much less. I’ve worked longer hours.
I’ve worried about business as funding cuts have affected public support for culture, sustainability and education more than any other sectors. But, we’ve thought hard about new opportunities and business approaches, and feel quite positive about new ventures in 2011.
I’ve learned a great deal more about the world by immersing myself in current affairs and wondered if and how I can be more politically active.
I’ve become comfortable as a photographer (not losing interest but needing a proper funded project to lift my learning curve).
I’ve tried all year to find proper time to write a book (about rethinking education).
I’ve worked hard on the expansion of Flow to India.
I’ve worked hard. I’ve sat for too many hours at my computer, ending the year with a bad back from too much sitting.
So, 2011 must involve more walking, more creatively intellectual work and less report-crunching, more action to tackle social and environmental injustice, and maybe a bit more fun.
I’ve been meaning for a while to write a post about the people who daily inspire and inform me, after Dougald Hine launched a new personal website with a generous long list of people who do that for him. I was about to do that when he contacted some of us in his very particular urbane mode of ‘high dudgeon’ about a call from Radio 3 for a new generation of public thinkers. His dudgeon was that to be nominated you must be from a university. In response he has launched a….thing, called New Public Thinkers. Given the big shake-up (or destructive commercialisation, call it what you will) of the UK university sector at the moment, it is an excellent time to be boosting the thinkers and thinking networks that provide a university for the commons. I was just looking up the origin of universities and saw that the first one was in India, devoted to Buddhism, fine arts, politics and more. That seems appropriate. I like it too as we’ve just incorporated Flow Education and Culture Consultants in India, aiming to promote open culture and learning for good.
But back home in the UK, where I am now looking out on the snow (not quite ‘deep and crisp and even’) I’m desperately worried about the effects of the cuts on publicly-supported cultural learning in universities, schools, museums and libraries. I found it hard to afford academic study after my first degree. I don’t know if my daughter will be able to afford university. Or, even if we can afford the fees, in 8 years time will any British university provide the kind of illumination I would wish her to experience, as I did through exposure to amazing critical minds like Marcia Pointon and Homi Bhaba?
Terry Eagleton comments in today’s Guardian: “What we have witnessed in our own time is the death of universities as centres of critique. Since Margaret Thatcher, the role of academia has been to service the status quo, not challenge it in the name of justice, tradition, imagination, human welfare, the free play of the mind or alternative visions of the future.”
I believe we must all learn and teach each other, to help resist this dereliction to the notion of university as a public good. So, I’m happy to support Dougald’s call for alternatives. Not to create a sort of alternative club, or to exclude people who do work within universities, or to make some people feel miffed that they weren’t nominated. I want to support it so that we can build a mutual generous network, appreciating others for their inspiration, challenging them to teach us more, to learn more for themselves.
So, first I’m going to follow Dougald’s example and name lots of people that daily inspire me via Twitter and their blogs, or in conversations. There are many more I may add over time. Then at the end you’ll see my whittling down to three, selected by being in the UK, too unknown and in the area that needs most public debate: facing the challenges of environmental sustainability. I’m not explaining each person but do click on their profile and investigate them.
So, on sustainability, on facing a difficult future and imagining a new one: Dougald himself, Vinay Gupta (@leashless), John Thackara (as in Doors of Perception and @johnthackara), Jody Boehnert (@ecolabs), Indy Johar (@indy_johar) and Johann Hari (@johannhari101), Andrew Simms (@andrewsimms_nef), Polly Higgins (@pollyhiggins and @thisisecocide), Caroline Lucas (@carolinelucas) and Tom Crompton (@valuingnature)
On digital strategy, open culture and the public good: Paul Clarke (@paul_clarke), Nick Poole (@NickPoole1), Mike Ellis (@M1ke_Ellis), Mia Ridge (@mia_out), Jeremy Ottevanger (@jottevanger), Ross Parry (@rossparry) and Mark O’Neill (@marxculture). And outside the UK, Mike Pedson (@mpedson), Seb Chan (@sebchan) and Madanmohan Rao (@madanrao).
Artists and facilitators of creativity: Alana Jelinek, James Aldridge (@jamesaldridge4), David Barrie (@davidbarrie), Andrew Nairne (@artsthink), John Hartley (@johntonta) and so many more that this needs a post of its own.
Some more interdisciplinary people, who think about culture, learning and well-being: Fred Garnett (@fredgarnett), Nicola Triscott (@theartscatalyst), Tony Butler (@tonybutler1), Pat Kane (@theplayethic) and Anthony McCann.
And I couldn’t fail to mention my fellow co-directors Mark Stevenson (@optimistontour), Eliza Hilton (@ElizaHilton76) and Katherine Rose (@kathbrose). I could do another post on all our amazing associates but I will just mention one: Michael Jenkins.
So, my three nominees are Polly Higgins, Vinay Gupta and John Hartley.
This is a combined reflection on two events in which Ed Vaizey, Minister for Communications, Culture and the Creative Industries, was a central feature. The first was the Big Link Up from the Cultural Learning Alliance, mentioned in previous posts. The second was organised by the Collections Trust, yesterday at the ICA, a more intimate event in which Nick Poole posed his own and our questions about the future of collections-based cultural organisations.
The Cultural Learning Alliance event involved the whole cultural sector (with a bias towards performing arts), with a focus on the cultural offer to children and young people. The Collections Trust event was focused on organisations with cultural collections, with no particular focus on functions or audiences, though with a slight bias towards digital innovation. But the themes of discussion were very similar at each event because when it boils down to it, the Government has a very simple message for the cultural sector, and the cultural sector finds itself in a very complex situation. So at both events, the Minister repeated what we already knew: This country’s culture is wonderful, public engagement in culture is very important, but there is no money, we have to face that fact, the cultural sector more than others should be expected to be imaginative in facing this challenge, we have to consolidate and collaborate, use digital services to be efficient, work with small businesses to innovate, ask bigger businesses to fund us. I would say ‘and so on’, but really, that was it in terms of the simple message. Now, for a bit more detail about the questions and responses of the distinct audiences at each event.
I hope the Honorable Minister will forgive my familiarity in shortening his name to Ed in this account. It’s to save time.
I’ve interspersed my challenges throughout, and I hope my opinions are distinctly expressed.
The Cultural Learning Alliance Big Link up
I’m very optimistic about the Cultural Learning Alliance as I feel it’s the main opportunity to bring together the organisations that drive policy and fund cultural and creative learning, to ensure the kind of efficient delivery we need. However, I was disappointed by this event, and interestingly, Ed Vaizey said to the Collections Trust audience that he felt it had misfired. I think it misfired because the audience were so aware of what’s about to hit in terms of funding cuts, but the structure of the event didn’t enable positive problem-solving together. We were assured it would use digital media to be interactive, but the audience’s submissions in response to three questions were nowhere visible, the chat system disappeared after the event, and there was no mobile signal or wifi in the room. Because of the tension about funding cuts, Ed was led to accuse the audience of caring more about the agenda of our cultural organisations that want to be saved than the needs of children and young people. This didn’t go down well, as those in attendance care more about people being changed by culture than saving their own skins, and they passionately believe that culture needs space and sustenance.
The tone of the event was characterised by a defence of the arts and their intrinsic value, and Ed Vaizey’s (and Mick Water’s) efforts to get the panel to define and quantify the value of cultural learning were resisted. This would have been so useful given that the DCMS plan for cultural learning focuses on music (instrumental opportunities, singing, and a general cultural education), showing a lack of awareness of the breadth including libraries, the built & natural environment, museums, creative science, digital creativity and so on. In attempting to broaden the definition of cultural learning himself he he only listed some performing art practices and then focused entirely on the Henley Review and music education. In my view, music education was established as healthy by David Miliband’s Music Manifesto and the resulting initiatives. But now starting to affect its health are the cuts, affecting local music services and more. It doesn’t need a review, it needs some protected funding.
He wants to see more consolidation yet on the other hand he wants to see a ‘thousand flowers bloom’. For example, he said if he had asked Nick Hornby to set up his (wonderful-sounding) monster shop for creative writing, he would have run a mile. But to be clear-eyed about it, in my view, there are a great number of extraordinary literacy projects for disadvantaged young people, without wealthy celebrities to give them media coverage, which are losing public funding. How do we ensure that such vanity projects link up to form a full cultural offer meeting needs all over the UK?
He announced that he wants to establish a cross ministerial group about cultural learning, which is excellent to hear. However, I was slightly concerned that he emphasised this involving the Department of Work and Pensions, to ensure exploration of links between culture and employability.
The panellists took turns to give responses, some more pertinent to the political situation than others.
Mick Waters was excellent. He expressed concern about the Education White Paper (The Importance of Teaching) with its ‘high stakes testing, narrow accountabilty, regressive approach to curriculum’. He asked ‘what will DCMS do to ensure that learning is enriched in the face of this?’ Ed’s response was to defend Michael Gove as passionate about rigour in learning.
Shan MacLennan explained that at the SBC, their overall concern is well-being. The Government has decided to have a happiness index, but what do they think is the role of culture in that? He agreed, thankfully, that culture should be front and centre of the happiness index.
Andrew Nairne asked: what’s the most compelling argument you’ve heard to convince you of the value of Cultural Learning? Ed said that he was passionate about it, and that he prefers the intrinsic rather than the instrumental argument for cultural learning. This belief in culture is encouraging. However, I worry that in upholding only intrinsic value he might not listen to or extend work to develop better ways to measure the value of culture (e.g. this report published by DCMS this week.)
John Knell asked him: Why is there no statement about Cultural Learning in the business plan? Ed said that it’s not right to set up an organisation to do Cultural Learning, just give them a cheque and abandon them. (I think he must be referring to CCE.) He wants to see more localism, with Government just providing overview and support. It seems to me there is room for a great deal more conversation about how this happens in a context where he won’t ensure that cultural services are statutory in local authorities.
There were some voices that we must face up to the cuts and thrive in austerity. I agree partially with that but also agree with the voices that cuts are happening too fast, without a strategic overview of need, and stripping assets in the process.
Someone from the floor raised an important question about a unified digital infrastructure for cultural learning. I was pleased to hear this as I’ve worked on such a strategy for ACE. I was a bit disappointed that Andrew Nairne didn’t embrace the question more fully. He responded that the arts is not about the web, it’s about live experience, and John Knell reinforced this view. My counterpoint to this, which I know Andrew would agree with, is a) that Cultural Learning is not just the arts, but knowledge b) digital can enhance the exploration and production of the live experience and c) the questioner was not suggesting delivering art online but information services, training, using data to inform planning and so on. In my view, the use of digital networked information is undeveloped and could be extremely useful in facing the big challenge.
I’ll just finish with some more suggestions from panel and the floor about ways forward:
Every school should make a formal link with 3 organisations representing arts, science and history. (I hope the CLA’s Cultural Learning Ambassadors will take this broad approach.)
Every arts organisation should get behind the Arts Award.
We need some quality assurance brokers.
We need some proper funding for innovation.
The Collections Trust at the ICA
This was an odd situation. Nick Poole has extraordinary insight into how the cultural sector and its policy bodies might better organise and innovate, yet he was in the position of asking the Minister. Ed Vaizey didn’t have the answers, he could only outline the constraints and ask us to find imaginative ways through. It might have been interesting if the tables had been turned and Ed Vaizey had asked Nick (and us) for ideas. Maybe next time?
Q: Museums and the Arts Council
Nick asked how he might ensure the MLA sector don’t feel they are swallowed up by the Arts Council. Will it become a Culture Council to reflect their interests? Ed felt the move to ACE was positive because it has an overview and a strong regional presence. He didn’t understand the question about a Culture Council, as he felt that MLAs are a strong fit with the arts, and didn’t see why it should have to change wholly. Confusingly, he explained how he hadn’t wanted to dilute the identity of ACE by moving the Film Council to ACE, which is to be merged with the BFI to create a body more strongly focused on the creative industries. He implied that ACE would therefore be less about creative industries and more about public engagement in culture. (At the same time, he wants the whole cultural sector to be more entrepreneurial.)
I’m actually quite positive about MLA being absorbed into ACE, because there is so much wasteful duplication. However, I do think bringing libraries, archives and science and history museums into the mix means that the agendas and naming of ACE will need to change. ACE’s 10 year strategy will need to be re-released to reflect them, I believe. Jane Finnis later pointed out the irony that ACE had a clear strategy yet its arts organisations tended to be poor at strategy, whereas MLA (and museum sector overall, because fractured) has a poor strategy, yet the museums themselves tend to be excellent at strategy.
Q: Nick asked about his position of support for investing in digital culture to ensure a democratisation of access. Ed says he’s passionate about this and sees massive opportunities for participation. (It would have been wonderful to have been able to do a 5 minute video of all the future potential of Open Culture at that point, as I wasn’t sure he was fully aware of these massive opportunities from the examples he gave of what inspired him.)
Q: Nick asked how he felt about cuts to local authorities threatening cultural services first and foremost. ‘Are you happy to see die what’s an important part of our industry?’ This was the most disappointing answer (on the day that the Localism Bill was going through): Ed said that central Government should let LAs decide what they want. He respects the right of local councils to make decisions themselves because he sympathises with them having to make such difficult decisions. He can’t make culture a statutory service. He said ‘we can advise’ but then on the evidence I wonder whether his advice would be useful. He advised that Local Authorities should talk to HLF about whether they can fund their cultural services before they are cut. (Unless HLF changes its processes entirely, and makes them less fair, this would be impossible.)
He recommended that we consider forming consortia to digitise collections and create shared websites. Of course, this is what we have been doing, or trying to do. But there is much more to it than that. Also, the slow progress we’ve been making towards a really strong national strategy of digital culture is now in danger of being derailed.
Q: Nick asked him if he would you consider a national museums strategy? His reply worried me just as Nick’s question worried him: “I’m a bit worried if you think we don’t have one. We have clear positions on most of the major issues. We don’t believe local authorities should have cultural services as statutory. We want to protect free admission. We want ACE to take on MLA. Isn’t that enough of a strategy?” He seemed to be denying any knowledge of the history at DCMS. For years, DCMS had been working towards, or intending to produce, a national museums strategy, to deal with a range of intractable issues, to clarify muddy relationships between nationals and regionals, to establish clear terms by which national museums are custodians for local authorities to help protect the nation’s valued collections, to modernise terms of funding agreements and so on. We absolutely still need this. Nick outlined some problems that occur with the lack of such a strategy but Ed asserted that ‘things are OK as they are and we’ve made our decision’. Basically, national and local museums will rely on the goodwill of ACE to ensure that they are drawn into strategic partnerships and not neglected, and he has faith in that goodwill.
There were five questions from the floor, but I’ll just pick up on two:
Jane Finnis of Culture24 asked: How can the DCMS work more substantially with DfE to co-ordinate and deliver cultural learning in efficient digital ways, for example, now that BECTA (and its planned digital content ecosytem) has been axed?
He said he was going to talk to Michael Gove now, and would mention it. I hope he did!
Jack Gilbert asked: Given the vitality of engaging with local heritage for delivering social outcomes, could there be guidance from CLG to ensure that as we shift to ‘Big Society’, heritage has a place in localised and outsourced services?
Ed cited as helpful the Heritage Champions policy at English Heritage where one councillor in every Local Authority is supposed to be a heritage champion. He didn’t mention that English Heritage has had to axe its Outreach department (and probably other public engagement initiatives given their 30% cut.)
This post is a response to a lively thread on the Museums Computer Group e-list about the Cost of Sales, which was sparked by a Twitter chat about whether museums should fully assess the cost of running an image sales operation. When it transferred to an email discussion it became much more philosophical and political, especially after Nick Poole raised a challenge from an international financier about the lack of clear monetary value in digitising cultural heritage. Now, my thoughts on the discussion may seem so philosophical and political that I’m not even posting it on the MCG list but on my blog.
I agree with Nick on the need to talk with financiers, to appreciate their perspective and learn from business. This may seem very unlike me, but I have partly been stirred to say this by his rousing keynote at the UK Museums and the Web conference last Friday. My take is that we need to proceed towards a more business-like mode in a way that is profoundly ethical and ecological, to the extent that we need to lead bankers and business to see value very differently, and that by doing so we can help change the world.
I’m not an economist or a business specialist, but an educationalist above all, so I maybe have no right to contribute to a debate about monetisation but I want to raise the issue of rapidly changing relevances and the importance of shifting our frames of reference. The key to advocating and generating value is establishing, and stretching, contextual relevance. I think digital culture & heritage people must shift from being technologists who are servicing the dominant modes of value, into leaders capable of transforming their organisations. As a sector we can then join the vanguard alongside the Commons and Social Enterprise movements, where technology enables an opening of access to culture, for widespread change. (I say ‘vanguard’ but it’s worth remembering that the earliest dated printed book, the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, was marked as for free universal distribution nearly 1200 years ago.)
The least significant aspect of our context is the economic crunch. You could even argue there isn’t a money problem, but that there’s just a money flow problem. There are great reserves of money, for example the top European companies are sitting on around 500 billion euros, not to mention the wealth of other internationals and the high net worth individuals. Public money isn’t flowing to UK culture so much now because the response to the deficit is ideological, and there is an entrenchment of values that favour financial growth for the sake of corporates over the wellbeing of the commons. This entrenchment is allowing a backlash of philistinism, allowing the multivalence of culture to be overlooked, only valued when it is a valuable commodity due to rarity or celebrity or market demand. The few public cultural organisations that have managed to work that system of commodity, brand or celebrity have been more successful at tapping those reserves. The Tate is one of those few, having just announced a £45 million revamp alongside their £215 million extension at Tate Modern. This magnetism is partly related to the oiling (in two senses) of the worldclass value of the British market for modern and contemporary art. None of this critique is meant to criticise Tate, especially as it plays such a great role in education and in showcasing radical and participatory art such as Ai WeiWei’s Sunflower Seeds. (By the way, to monetise this artwork, have they considered selling 10 seeds for £1 after the show? I’d pay that, especially if some of the profits went to charity.)
So, if smaller organisations in the MLA & arts sectors want to tap that corporate source too, they may want to emulate those operations that attract money, by using digital media to build brand, and a sense of glamour around a venue, and the artefacts themselves as symbols of power. That approach can certainly make a great visitor experience, and can stimulate support and even learning. But it can also be very superficial. I want to propose that they should look elsewhere for their relevance.
I’m not just talking about looking beyond the financial value of culture to alternative ways of defining capital that are ‘softer’ and…indefinable. So many reports or pleas about the value of culture, although they may say much that is heartening and useful, are either
- circular (‘people want that soft indefinable something and they’ll pay for it so, look, it yields money) or
- self-defeating (‘you can’t tarnish the softer indefinable stuff with money, you just have to accept its otherness’).
The problem is that our dualistic model holds hard economic value in opposition to soft cultural value. If we synthesised the two, with money and culture not in opposition, we would see something I call ‘biosphere capital’. This is about resources for survival, and that is as hard-headed and sensible as you can be, harder in some ways than money, which is pretty abstract. It’s also about drawing on all the resources of the human spirit and memory to achieve survival.
If the sector wants to embrace relevance, this is what matters: The scientific consensus that the planet is heading, at current trends, to a temperature increase which may not sustain mass human life before the end of this century. Also, wrapped up with the causes and effects of global warming are resource scarcity, biodiversity loss and chemical pollution. As these take effect, there will be a major increase in conflict (ranging from low level crime to the threat of nuclear war) unless we can counter dominant values that separate humans into civilisational clusters, to foster a spirit of collaboration and tolerance.
The time may come soon when we start to say that if cultural & heritage organisations aren’t pulling out all the stops to tackle this overarching ‘wicked problem’ then they don’t deserve public funding. Also, given that corporate wealth is really commonwealth (in private hands), we might argue that they don’t deserve corporate funding either.
So, what are all the stops you can pull out to make an almighty noise, and how (in the brackets) might you afford it?
You can work with financiers and corporations to change what business is, to change the way they work, to enable the success of a knowledge economy that does not harm the environment. (That’s why I think digital people in the cultural sector are important, because knowledge is the key, and also because knowledge & technology companies tend to be more keen to forge a sustainable future. Can you make a case for their investment? Can you innovate together?)
You can work with educationalists to help people be more creative, resilient, tolerant and better able to access knowledge to apply it to action. (The education business is set to grow massively in countries like India and China. Can you package and sell expertise and assets internationally?)
You can work with Governments and civil society organisations to promote cultural democracy and diplomacy. (If gentle respect for human craft and natural diversity becomes the norm, it can help counteract aggressive and destructive attitudes, and you can generate income by developing trade in craft, ideas and knowledge.)
You can work with scientists and academics, and wider communities of enquiry, to unlock the knowledge that is in archives, biodiversity banks, and in living cultures, and also to help protect and preserve that knowledge. (Can you work as partners with Knowledge Transfer teams in Universities to seek financial investment?)
You can work with contemporary creative and cultural practitioners to develop metaphorical and participatory outcomes that can accelerate public understanding and ethics. (In UK, if the MLA sector is drawn under the Arts Council, there will be more opportunities for arts & museum joint programmes.)
They can work with social and health services to ensure that cultural resources and spaces aid wellbeing. (NHS reforms mean a greater localisation of services, with needy individuals given personal budgets for their care.)
What has this got to do with the Cost of Sales debate? Maybe not a lot. Or maybe everything. It’s a plea not to think too small, not to regress to past practices of business in being more business-like. If being business-like is like being a farmer, it’s about making a shift from vast agri-business (monocrops, forced fertility, asking for public subsidy, ultimately unsustainable), to permaculture (where you mix and match, experiment, always have something to eat, and you swap seeds & glut with others). It’s a plea to think as broadly as possible in mapping all the assets that can generate value (not just your digitised collections, but ideas, venues, brand, supporters etc), and all the ways they can generate value (especially ecological value or Biosphere capital). It’s a plea to invest in digitising a collection not because it’s immediately clear how it will make money but because it’s immediately clear why that knowledge helps sustain life. It’s a plea to remember that knowledge only wants to be free.