Speaking a different language

Outlet Santa Shoot November 2011

Next up in my calendar in April 2017, I’ll be part of the Broken Crow residency at the Everyman Palace in Cork on 13 April. I’m delivering a workshop for artists and creative practitioners on how business concepts can help rather than hinder creative thinking.

There are a limited number of spaces so early booking is recommended. Follow this link

Opening up the conversation

Harty Room
Harty Room

I’m delighted to be coordinating and chairing this public talk ‘Brokers and Gatekeepers: Arts & Cultural Leaders in promoting intercultural exchange’ in the Harty Room at Queen’s University Belfast  on 6 April 2017. Tickets (free) are available now by following the link.

It should be an interesting and exciting event drawing on the insights of some top figures in arts management research and opening up discussion about the important roles the heads of arts and cultural institutions play.

It’s a public element of a longer and much more wide-ranging research network set up by Victoria Durrer and Raphaela Henze. You can read more about what they are doing here.

POST UPDATE: The audio recording & PPTs of this event and others in the seminar are now online.

A Fair Trade model for theatre?


Always hard to blow your own trumpet but here’s a thing I wrote for The Stage this week in response to an online conversation about the business model of theatre was broken and we had to rethink it. At the same time the overwhelming level of distress and complaint about diversity, lack of opportunity and exclusion from theatre’s workforce was really troubling me.

Click here to read the full article.

Setting a standard

Warning: There are no pictures here just a  boring table but please read on as it’s important

Much space is given over to discussing appropriate standards of remuneration in the non-profit and public sector. One of the things I have considered over time is the degree to which the boards of non-profits struggle to find and retain good committed board members. As both a former head of a number of organisations and both former chair and board member of many others I have seen the best and also the worst of behaviour, discretion, risk management, preparation, and conflicts of interest. Without a doubt, getting board appointments right is key to the success of the organisation.

Being a board member of a non-profit is by default a voluntary commitment. Many board members don’t even claim expenses, feeling it is their role to support rather than cost the charity money. Being a board member of a non-profit is also by default a responsible and time-consuming job if it is done properly. Being a chair even more so and sometimes, the rules around whether chairs and board members can or should receive some form of remuneration can be counter-intuitive. No, they cannot profit from the charity but yes they have to spend their well-earned downtime working to ensure the oversight of often complex and challenged organisations. This goes some way to explaining some of the challenges we face when trying to secure a diverse board. Governance costs money, if not to the charity, then to the individual board members.

Which is why when I look at public arms-length bodies, I have no issue with remuneration of the chairs and vice-chairs. I have seen the work needed to ramp up accountability to befit the duties devolved to body by government, often handed down with a slew of additional accountabilities and reporting measures (how they pass those on to the nonprofits is a story for another day). But I think I always thought public appointments operated to some kind of standard. Salaries and expenses of staff of public bodies and the departments they report to are all regulated. Ministers have set rates of pay. I think I just assumed this would be the same. So why do the most recent advertised public appointments of Chairs to the boards of Sport NI, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Health & Safety Executive NI and Big Lottery Fund NI differ so radically not only in the remuneration but the way it will be calculated.

Table 1: Calculated from the public appointments website on 27 September 2016

Position Chair – Big Lottery Fund Chair – Sport NI Chair – Arts Council NI Chair – Health & Safety Executive
Period of appointment Up to 4 years with possibility of reappointment Up to 4 years Up to 4 years 3 years
Time commitment up to 5 days per month 8 days per month At least 40 days per year. [from ACNI website: ‘In addition, the Chairperson will be expected to ensure the visibility of the Council by attending arts events on a regular basis.’] 1.5 days per week
Annual commitment 60 96 40 78
Remuneration £24,000 £26,880 £10,000 £19,245
Pro rata £400 £280 £250 £246.73
Notes Commitment is capped by remuneration is fixed Monthly commitment will be reviewed later but income is costed at a daily rate Calculation here is based on the guaranteed minimum number of days excluding arts attendance Calculation has been done as 1.5 x 52 but this does not allow for holidays

Some of these appointments talk about reimbursement of expenses, some don’t. None of the ads mentions whether this remuneration is an honorarium or liable for tax. Is it an employment? Do they get paid leave or is 1.5 days per week a 52-week commitment? Why is the Chair of the BLF worth nearly 40% more than the Chair of the HSE? Why are some fixed annually with open-ended commitments and others paid daily?  Why is the Chair of the Arts Council expected to attend events unpaid – is it a perk of the job? From my experience of meeting many Arts Council members, Chairs and Vice-chairs over the years, going to shows, readings, exhibitions and visiting projects,although often inspiring and valuable, is not about visibility of the Council or a perk but a vital part of the job in the Boardroom. It will occupy at least two evenings a week and more if you want to experience the full array of the portfolio over which you will sit and make decisions. What calibre of appointment will be attracted if this is wrong and how diverse can appointments be if the time and resource commitment is disproportionate?

If I’ve got this analysis wrong, then I’m very happy to be corrected and will happily publish any clarification. If I haven’t got it wrong and there is a marked disparity I would really like to see an examination of what is deemed fair remuneration across our public appointments. This is what public accountability means, isn’t it?

Mind the gap

mind_the_gapOn hearing the extensive coverage of this week’s release by the IFS showing the ongoing and shocking disparity between male and female earnings, many people  and particularly women, met the news with a shrug – ‘Tell us something we didn’t know’. Even with that, many were also shocked by how much the gap widens for mothers in particular. Genuinely shocked. Like something you had always suspected was even worse than you thought possible.

I was also somewhat comforted (oddly) by how widely this story was covered from early morning right through the day and through so many channels (BBC, Guardian, Telegraph, the FT, Sky News). Coming as it did on the same day as the announcement that HRT significantly increases the risk of breast cancer, I felt that for a change, these stories that really affect women, and are about women, made headline news. And although not exactly happy stories, they were stories about the female circumstance, what women encounter across classes and communities, not women as they so often appear in news headlines – victims. Sad I know that I should feel grateful that women were being noticed. Then I tweeted about the report and got trolled – plus ca change, nothing changes. This is the society in which so many things have to be reformed it’s hard to know where to begin.

maria-miller_2873389bWhile I was mulling this over, I heard Maria Miller interviewed on Radio 4 about the IFS report. Now clearly Ms Miller was unhappy about the pay gap and made all the right noises about redressing wage gaps, encouraging employers to think differently and wage reporting.  She has every reason to be concerned as the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee and former Minister for Women and Equalities – this has happened on her watch. She also talked about the importance of reducing gender difference in schools – something I am quite passionate about as a parent of two girls. My experience of their co-education is one where boys and girls are openly treated differently, separated into two lines to enter classrooms, given different dress codes and even separated in the offer of PE – my youngest couldn’t join the afterschools football club because she was a girl.

And then Miller said something that stopped me in my tracks. To paraphrase, she said we needed to encourage more girls to ‘take the right subjects’ (maths, sciences and engineering) in order to place them onto a better track for higher earning jobs. She said her own committee’s report had flagged that career choice and job choice were contributing to this pay gap because men were going into higher earning fields while women were ‘choosing’ lower wage occupations even prior to having children.

Right there, she said the thing that betrays one of the root causes of the continuing pay gap and a philosophy that has been tacitly adopted by successive governments, regardless of party or gender of their cabinet or leader. Between the lines, what she said means two things:

  • that women only deserve higher pay levels if they adopt the hierarchy of jobs and education predetermined by the existing political and economic elite (an elite that has a vested interest IMHO in the wealth gap staying pretty much where it is, a gaping chasm); and
  • that encouraging hard graft by individual women and girls will pull them up to the same level as men, ignoring what the report was saying about barriers to workplace progression, lack of childcare, etc).

What she didn’t say was that her own committee’s report in March this year said that the government is complicit in perpetuating the pay gap. This report had four key points:

  • ‘Supporting men and women to share childcare and other forms of unpaid caring more equally is one of the most effective policy levers in reducing the gender pay gap.
  • Many women are trapped in low paid, part-time work below their skill level. This contributes to pay disparities and the under-utilisation of women’s skills costs the UK economy up to 2% GDP, around £36 billion.
  • Not enough is being done to support women returning to work if they have had time out of the labour market.
  • Too little attention has been focused on the situation of women working in low-paid, highly feminised sectors like care, retail and cleaning. Until their rates of pay and progression improve, the gender pay gap will not be eliminated.’

It did mention job and career choice but this was not considered the major contributor to this gap.  Now Maria Miller and her party may have had a few other things on their mind between her own committee’s report and the IFS report but one thing is clear. The reports both talk about CURRENT conditions and issues of policy not about FUTURE labour force and what career paths will yield higher salaries.  Miller emphasised higher earning jobs and access to promotion as the route to higher salaries but actually if she is serious about equality she needs to look at her own committee’s report.

Asking employers nicely to think about changing their working culture, putting more women onto non-exec boards and encouraging  women to ‘man up’ (should that be ‘ovary up’?) when asking for bonuses MIGHT help some already educated, already employed women to earn more money. For the Women and Equalities Committee to truly do their job properly (and for the committees responsible for equality in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to do the same), what needs to change is the state’s relationship to work, citizenship and economic activity.

So I ask Maria Miller, and as a citizen sitting in one of the devolved countries over which she has little or no direct responsibility, I ask my own elected officials responsible for equality, to address themselves to real reform:


  1. Listen to what these two reports are actually saying about barriers, problems with working culture, etc and work with the devolved assemblies to achieve reforms nationally.
  2. Stop basing the nature of work and pay level escalation on a structure that rewards the financial services sector to a greater level than caring professions, the voluntary and education sectors or the SMEs that are the backbone of our private sector and local communities. Respect that hours at work do not determine knowledge or effectiveness and that the old-fashioned nature of work as it is currently determined can be anti-woman or anti-family. Are you the government of a society and a state or are you a principle negotiator with a small group of wealthy privileged bankers and business men who base their management structures on the military?average basic salary and bonus icaew careers
  3. downloadStop treating education as employment training. Equality is about widening choices and respecting diversity. If you want to fulfil the brief of the women and equalities committee, re-examine what time in school and other training/education is for and reform the relationship between formal education, early years care and informal activities like youth clubs.
  4. While we’re on the subject of education, re-examine what we mean by gender equality in schools – we already have a gender imbalance in teaching in which more early years and primary teachers are female while the 20% of teachers who are male are mostly at second level. What is that telling us and more importantly our children about the role of men and women? Why are we privileging sciences in the curriculum over literature, arts and history? Why is a Minister responsible for Equality encouraging young women to see their route to equality in the private sector and not in healthcare, education, social reform or even politics? Why are domestic science and other life skills not compulsory? Why are we still failing to provide young people (male and female) with skills in managing and understanding their emotional responses and relationships with others? You want to change women’s future prospects – you need to change it for everyone.
  5. Stop being piecemeal about national minimum and living wages and start being more demanding of employers to raise salaries at lower levels. This debate is about closing the gap and that can happen more universally by bringing lower wage levels up rather than encouraging the small number whose families can already afford the ‘right’ education and know the right people to be socially mobile . The committee’s own report is pointing to this.
  6. Think long and hard about whether a Universal Basic Income might actually be more financially effective in increasing career opportunities, dealing with childcare and supporting fulltime parents, lower paid and part-time women. Would it reduce administration costs, health issues related to stress, anti-social behaviour, the breakup of families, and problems with age-related poverty? I think it just might.
  7. single parentChampion the rights of women and men to take time out to bring up the country’s
    children and not be hounded by social welfare offices or penalised in their careers and earnings for doing so. The #genderpaygap is as much about the gender gap as it is about pay and particularly when it comes to our choices in bringing up the next generation.
  8. Recognise that encouraging ‘entrepreneurialism’ is also a route into removing employment rights, affecting women more than men. I have known many women become self-employed to deal with the demands of childcare or the lack of progression in the workplace only to find themselves earning far less with no entitlements to maternity or sick pay. The ‘self-made entrepreneur’ is a fictional pup for all bar the very few and you know it.
  9. Suspend social welfare reforms that adversely affect parents or caregivers of either gender.  Part-time workers and primary caregivers are being penalised both now and when they reach pensionable age. You already know it. This is not equality.
  10. Gender balanceEnsure all government departments in Westminster and the devolved assemblies recognise the connectivity of policy and their effects on women, whether it is about national living wages, universal credit, corporation tax reform, incentivising of industries, or the removal of the Human Rights Act. Universal credit is anti-woman, harmful to both genders and future generations of women and men. Right now the changes to housing benefit combined with cuts to council funding are threatening to close many women’s shelters while the government claims to be increasing funding for victims of domestic violence. I call Maria Miller out on this – she have been one of the leaders of women’s rights within government and she is letting this happen.

Ultimately, as the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Maria Miller needs to stop encouraging employers to do something her own committee and government are not prepared to do – change policy to support women and close the pay gap. Put your money and your actions where your mouth is. The point of equality is about equality of choice and respect for those decisions not meeting a male version of equality and success based on an archaic economic model of the workplace. Changing the environment for women would improve equality for all.




The triple bottom-line or how a cake shop began to mill flour

This is a neatened up version of my talk at Theatre 2016 in May of this year. It was part of a break-out session titled “Who should pay for the value of theatre?” The conference report should be out shortly.  Check their website.

 I’m delighted to be here this Friday afternoon to discuss the boring topic of social enterprise. But I’m not going to show you a bar chart or any kind of Venn diagram. Actually, I’m here to talk about the creative and ethical challenges that not only led me down the path of social enterprise but also the dilemmas it poses.

The triple bottom-line is about meeting all the demands of a social business – achieving returns financially, socially and in our case artistically. I’m going to talk about why I thought this would be a good idea and what I found out.

Copy of A Sweet Story04
A Sweet Story in a Very Big Book, Theatre Company TUIDA, South Korea. Belfast 2006

So as no presentation is complete without some background, this is it. Young at Art was set up in Belfast in 1998 with the express purpose of running an international multi-artform festival for children and young people. It had aspirations for international excellence (and who doesn’t), for access and participation and for showcasing.

At the point that it was set up there were very few festivals in the UK and Ireland catering for children and young people; the majority of performance work for young audiences was presented for or toured to schools. Northern Ireland had virtually no history of making theatre for young audiences bar one company, Replay Theatre Company which had been running since 1989. Most children’s experience of live theatre (and the experience of their parents and even their grandparents) was pantomime – hard to imagine given what a big percentage of audiences families have become.

There were other particularities to setting up an international arts festival in Belfast. Huge areas of the city were what is known as “contested” spaces, the city centre was deserted at night and in particular people from outside the city did not see it as a place they felt safe to visit. Audience development was less about ticketing and more about persuading people of their security to come out.

Into this came an international two-week festival which in its first year showed work from 3 continents, built an installation in a derelict house, suspended a junk orchestra from the walkways of a major concert hall, and more or less sold out 8,000 tickets. Fabulous! A new generation of hungry parents and children were born and this seemed like the perfect celebration of new found peace.


What the founders of Young at Art realised quite quickly was that, despite a healthy pool of artistic talent, no-one was making work that matched with the inspiration of the international work and and as the community of people interested in making work for children was very very small, there was little sign of that changing. So Young at Art started to commission artists to make the work it wanted to see. Now, today when you look at LIFT or Manchester International Festival or many others, the idea of the festival commission is more common place but then it was more unusual.

Chilly & puppet
Chilly in the Dark Times, Monkeyshine Theatre in assoc with Young at Art, Belfast 2003


And credit to the founders, they were right. Of the first three stage productions they commissioned, two led to the establishment of theatre companies that still operate – Cahoots NI and Monkeyshine. Other commissions led to artists changing direction in their work, developing careers as standup comedians, discovering new partners. It was in general a positive – there was work for a growing audience, showcasing within the festival rather than perpetual import and the community of artists who wanted to make work for children was growing.

For me festivals are a bit like cake shops – they are very front-facing, with grand things put out there on display. They are a kind of shop window to see an array of creations side by side. So when Young at Art began commissioning they had in essence become a baker – what you saw on display was only part of the work. This too inevitably became problematic. It wasn’t what we were set up to do and it stretched the tiny company too far.

There is never any one reason for companies to do what they do. It’s almost always a distillation of multiple needs, opportunities and barriers. By 2003 when I joined, it was clear the company had insufficient funding and staff to continue commissioning, particularly as many of the artists were coming from a much earlier career stage and needed more support. I was rearranging the festival to focus on families and not schools. I was trying to find work for the very young and also work that was accessible to non-arts attenders.

Baby Rave, Young at Art, Belfast 2005

And not so much a commission as an evolution of ideas, in 2005 we made Baby Rave – a one-off high volume accessible event for 0 – 4 year olds that just buzzed. It reached new audiences, it attracted attention. People loved it and other festivals wanted it. Within 2 years, we had presented it all over the UK and Ireland. We took it to the Adelaide Fringe. We sold T-shirts. People sent us letters to say what a life affirming experience it had been. And in terms of audience development, we were starting our audiences at 5 days old. Given that they stop at 14, this is probably the greatest possible audience lifespan we could achieve.

But again it was problematic – we weren’t set up to tour this to other festivals. We still didn’t have enough local artists to showcase in the festival. When we did commission, we didn’t have the means to extend the life of the work. We also saw that we by that stage had a small lean company infrastructure that might find selling shows like this easier than an individual artist or small unfunded company.

It is sometimes easy to think we all know what we’re talking about and that our experiences are, broadly, the same. Standing at this conference today, it’s worth saying that, while times have been tough for everyone in the arts sector and theatre as a whole, Northern Ireland has suffered from a singular failure to invest in its arts and cultural sector. Per capita spend on the arts in Northern Ireland was less than £7 at the time of the Good Friday Agreement. Despite the challenges of working in a post-conflict society and economy with some of highest rates of suicide and disability in these islands, where one in four children live in poverty, the boom years of millennial and New Labour investment never really happened. Per capita spend on the arts today is pretty much the same as in 1998. Running an arts organisation in these difficult times made us feel a moral obligation to try to find an alternative way to ensure artists could be paid, work could be made and children could be reached. We, as often overworked and underpaid staff were the lucky ones. We had salaries.

It would be nice to say we set it up and off we went but actually what I did in 2008 was go and find out what a social enterprise was in order to separate Baby Rave from the festival. And we quickly came up with some conclusions:

  • That we could set up an agency and it could survive if it sold Baby Rave and other things – other shows
  • That this might resolve some of the challenges we could see in our sector – artists’ poverty, insufficient work available for touring, challenges to programmers to find work
  • That this might function without creating a fundraising target

We put together a business case.

We thought about risk and full cost recovery.

We talked about quality – a lot!

We talked about quality again.

We canvassed opinion.

We got creative industries seed funding to experiment over eighteen months from 2010 and then we incorporated the company as a commercial subsidiary in 2012. Very quickly from 2010 we saw that the corporate sector (shopping centres, banks, etc) had money for workshops, family events. But. They didn’t want productions. We also saw that venues and local authorities (who ran arts centres) wanted the shows and exhibitions we had to offer but they were in budget freefall (in part because of the recession but also in part because their budgets were built on an expectation of subsidised product). We also realised that what we did as a company was in itself an asset. We sold ourselves as family event organisers.

Some six years on, from the start of this journey, these are the dilemmas we face:

If you set out to generate a profit from selling creative work like this, it will probably be a disappointment. The agency contributes about 20% of Young at Art’s combined turnover but it does not replace the development funding needed to make the work that defines us and our intentions. We all exist in a market of sorts but existing in a fully commercial realm pushes you towards what the market wants and that’s not always a creative place to be.

Your brand, and your resources are exposed through these kinds of ventures in ways you didn’t expect. The peaks and troughs of the year are different, the turnarounds are different and how you represent yourselves to the world becomes a much more complicated discussion.

The economic reality is that the funding problems driving us towards this model of operating also fund the potential market – selling work at full cost recovery (which is what you have to do) is not affordable to many venues, arts centres and festivals. It became clear to us that until the market pays the actual cost, a fully viable social enterprise model cannot happen. As it stands, most of the public sector partners we work with start with the budget they have available rather than ask how much something will cost to deliver. The expectation of subsidised work is so prevalent a commercial model will always look over-budget when it’s not.

The logical next thought is to cut your costs but the person MOST likely to lose out is the artist.

Where does that leave you if you started doing this to support artists? (Either that or the parent charity ends up subsidising the commercial company). At the time we were exploring this in 2010, the average income of an artist in Northern Ireland was less than £7,000 a year and it has continued to fall. In the last two years I have seen talented experienced artists reaching breaking point with stress and depression, unable to pay their rent, going to food banks, leaving the industry. Let’s not begin to talk about reminding themselves they are creative imaginative individuals. So what we were doing was in part about keeping our artistic community alive and working so that we continued to have artists to work with and draw on in the future.

With relatively few exceptions, this model does not fit the development of new work. In Young at Art, we separated the support and development of artists as the business of the charity and the touring of the finished piece as the agency’s responsibility with no guarantee it would happen. But even with that we still faced challenges – putting too much hope and expectation onto a new piece of work because your agency needed something new to sell, or saying no to an artist when you didn’t feel their work was right to promote at that time or simply wasn’t up to scratch. I will always be proud of what we produced, work like Katie’s Birthday Party (appearing in Birmingham, Edinburgh and Bath this summer by the way) by Mary-Frances Doherty, a piece about the fragileness of being the kid moving to a new school; Cardboard Cities by Caragh O’Donnell and Sinead Breathnach-Cashell, working with children and architects, an interactive exhibition in which the city is rebuilt every day, and of course Baby Rave which continues to tour and appeared on Broadway last year.

John Baucher Cardboard cities 2010
Cardboard Cities, Caragh O’Donnell & Sinead Breathnach Cashell in assoc with Young at Art Belfast, 2010. Photo: Jon Baucher

Without us stepping in, these things would either never have happened or they would have disappeared after a brief appearance and never reached a wider audience. But we also recognised the pressure it put on us to manage expectations of what we could realistically achieve for and with an artist.

In my title, I said this was about how a cake shop began milling flour. What I meant was, we set out to address a gap in the artistic landscape (for us and others) and ended up doing art installations at an agricultural show or corporate launches. We thought we were in one line of work and ended up in another.

Much richer and more deeply ethically driven, we started out with an intention to make a rich landscape through a festival and ending up going further and further back in the creative process from presenting, to commissioning and touring, to trying to get artists started in their practice. To get what we wanted we had to get to the basics, the ingredients – the flour for the cakes.

When you separate your functions, you can see them more clearly. It becomes easier to say this is or is not relevant to our intentions and this is what needs to happen. I’m not saying I didn’t know how to put a budget together before but trying to carve out costs in a different mindset helps you understand invisible costs (extra hours of admin on a project, prep time for workshops, how much time you spend on supervision). Cost, price and value are different things.

Replacing your core business with something else can have unexpected effects – audiences, sponsorship, online presence, media coverage have all gone up because we are present in more places and reaching further than our meagre festival budget could afford. We all know that some projects or parts of our work come together easily and some suck you in. Understanding that this part of our work was at a slight remove (but not too much) helped us call time when something was taking too long.

The test of it all is – if it doesn’t do what you need, are you prepared to shut it down? Right now it’s good but having no funders means it’s much easier to call time on something that’s no longer fit for purpose.

And so is it worth it? Only if you remember why you’re doing it.

Say anything

John CusackLike John Cusack standing, his stereo held aloft in Say Anything, the cultural sector can feel left in the cold.  Rejected, with no one listening and, worse, no one returning our affections.  The result – apathy. The next result – further isolation.

Does standing still, our hands aloft in supplication, get us anywhere when governments are ransacking the miniscule culture and heritage coffers and making off with society’s creative future (see Ireland, Northern Ireland, EnglandAustralia)? When our media and political debates are fuelled by scaremongering and misinformation, and our economy serves up quick-fix solutions and services the interests of the wealthy few?

I don’t believe in entitlement to public subsidy or that funding is the only thing that confers value. State policy does however fundamentally change the status of artists in those countries and it affects their capacity to create and innovate from which society reaps rewards.  In that respect, how governments treat culture is a barometer of civilisation.

I am as guilty as anyone else of losing the will with lip-service consultations, cliched media responses and engagement with ill-informed politicians and public officials.  I have wearied of trying to collectivise responses and trying to make the cultural voice bigger, louder and more effective, only to see the sector divide itself into ever smaller factions. But as my brain distills the conference I was involved in organising the last few days (about which more another day), I am returning to this post which I have been mulling over for two weeks.

We can all learn lessons from the many John Hughes’ movies that shaped my teens. John Cusack in Say Anything – just doesn’t give up.  Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink – determines not to be a class snob, even when she’s the poor one, because otherwise she’ll be ‘just like them’. Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club – because, well, because he’s Judd and he won’t succumb to a makeover like Ally Sheedy (big disappointment for little punk me I can tell you).

We, as the great cultural communicators we say we are, need to say something, say anything about the world. We cannot leave it to others nor can we give up.  For what it’s worth, here’s what I think we need to be saying something about and loudly:

  1. The livelihoods of artists & the arts sector – we need to speak up about accepting and offering poorly paid work.  There are a lot of campaigns about it(#PayingArtists, Professionally Made Professionally Paid to name a few) but across artforms something tangible needs to happen for our artistic community.  There is so much knowledge and so little security.
  2. Intellectual property – Connected to (1) but also worthy of discussion, we need to have an industry-wide conversation with our audiences (co-creators, whatever we want to call them) about how ‘content creation’, royalties, copyrights, downloads and creative commons, can not only liberate but also destroy the routes to making and enjoying art. (On point of principle, I don’t do free movie hacks and downloads, I don’t ask for free tickets although it’s nice to be invited, and I do use public libraries).
  3. Opinions on society – we talk a lot about contributing to society but we ARE society.  Are we engaged with what’s going on?  Are we part of the civic debate and are we actually listening to anyone else’s conversations? Campaigns like Devoted & Disgruntled are great but we also need to be in the bigger social forums (fora?).  We need to take ourselves and our concerns and energy to where the debate is at not have it between ourselves.
  4. Political decisions that affect us – not just our sector but US as people.  #Brexit, the Draft Programme for NI Government; debates on citizenship, censorship, abuse inquiries, the role of faith in our government and schools, privatisation, TTIP.
  5. Censorship – we need to ask ourselves if we have the right and obligation to speak out as companies and institutions.  Is public funding (or indeed commercial financing) a gag to our freedom of expression or are we simply fearful about stating our case? How do we inform ourselves to make a considered opinion through our art?
  6. And finally, we need to think hard about how inclusive we are.  I know we talk the talk about the arts being for everyone but actually our industry is floundering in inequality. I’ll write about our communities and audiences another day.  Our business practices exclude people because of their gender, sexuality, ethnic origin, geography, disability, age and parental responsibilities.  Guilt & witch/warlock/non-binary-hunts will get us nowhere. Actions and honesty will.

I’m not asking you to agree with me – my role as a citizen is to present my own rationale for why I choose certain positions and your role as a citizen is to consider your own opinions and act accordingly. So say something, anything.




Lost at the third click

Theatre 2016 Conference

There are few advantages to being on a bit of an island, off the coast of another island, off the coast of a continent with whom our relationship status would read ‘it’s complicated’. One of the very few advantages is the appreciation of nuance of meaning in the words we use to define who we are and what we propose are the important elements of that identity.

I was struck by this at the Theatre 2016 conference when the words ‘national campaign’ were used repeatedly to describe things that would only change policy in England (E-BACC, local government funding, DCMS, Arts Council England, etc.); and Britain and the UK were used interchangeably (they’re not, could we rename the British Theatre Repertoire Report?); and everything outside London was referred to as ‘the regions’; raising the question of whether this was or was not a ‘national conference’. Nuance and understanding the significance of terms is everything.

The removal of words such as ‘arts’ and ‘culture’ from not one but two government departments on this island in the last 12 months, sets off warning bells of much greater significance.  When it was first announced in 2015 in Northern Ireland as part of the ‘Fresh Start‘ agreement (again whose fresh start are we talking about?), we were told this was only a name change and that it was more about reducing government than altering the status of arts and culture.  Not great as the status of arts and culture was already at an alltime low.

Maybe because of size of the artistic community; maybe because they have not experienced the same deeply depressing disinvestment over such an extended period; the Irish arts sector’s response to a similar absorption of departmental function without departmental name has been loud, swift and has annoyed Minister Humphreys (always a sign of a good campaign).  Other people (Emily Mark FitzGerald and John O’Brien) are writing better about this and may this campaign be a success or the consequences will be dire.

Back to 2015 on this bit of the island.  When pressed on the lack of a top line inclusion of some element of arts and culture in the name change, the decision to name it the Department of Communities was cited as a policy decision to ‘give all departments single names’.  This will no doubt come as some surprise to those of us who thought that ‘Agriculture’, ‘Environment’ and ‘Rural Affairs’ were separate words – we could try to say them really fast so that they become one word.  Maybe it is still better than the Department of Social Welfare, Communities and Sport which was originally suggested and would have rendered pretty much all functions of the department in the title except arts and culture. But the reassurance remained – arts and culture would still form an intrinsic part of the new department’s priorities.

Cue 2016 and the new departments of the NI Executive were revealed.

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No definition needed.  Just lost.

London calling

The badge has arrived.  IMG_0316

The instructions have been given.

Think I’ll pack a bag – maybe this one?

On Thursday morning, I’m on the redeye to London for Theatre 2016.  I’ll be talking on Day 2 in the afternoon so hopefully everyone will still be awake. I’m going to talk about social enterprise and the performing arts industry but there won’t be a bar chart in sight.

Looking forward to two days of intense discussion and inspiration.