Thursday, May 23, 2013

In Battalions Phase Two: Delphi Study

Three months have passed since my report, In Battalions, was launched at the Independent Theatre Council AGM.

Since then, it has been widely disseminated within the British theatre industry, clocking up over 8,000 downloads on its Scribd page. It has received media coverage in the Guardian, the Independent and the Stage, and has even had questions tabled in Parliament.

When two months passed without even so much as an acknowledgement of receipt from Ed Vaizey and the DCMS, 70 of theatre's highest profile names - including Dame Helen Mirren, Sir Tom Stoppard, Mike Leigh and Sir Richard Eyre - wrote an open letter to the Culture Minister urging him to take the report seriously.
This did prompt Ed Vaizey to finally respond, though his letter was a disappointing dismissal of our concerns.

I will be responding to Ed Vaizey's letter shortly, but in the meantime, I wanted to let you know about Phase Two of the campaign - which is actually more important.

At the suggestion of my ever-wonderful researcher Helen Campbell Pickford, we have decided to embark on what is known as a Delphi study. If you have professional experience in the new writing sector, we would like to invite you to take part.

A Delphi study is a systematic research process recognised by the civil sevrice and research bodies, which helps collate expert opinion on a specialist subject, and express preferences for a range of proposals using a voting system.

The study takes place in two stages: 1. Generating the longlist, and 2. Voting and Commenting.

The first stage requires you as the experts - literary managers, artistic directors, freelance theatre-makers - to engage in consideration and discussion to generate answers in response to the study question.

After consultation, our study queston is:

"In what ways can theatre-makers, theatres, and the Arts Council work together to help protect risk-taking on new work and new talent within their organisation, without creating significant extra expense?"

After generating a longlist of ideas together, the longlist is anonymised and sent back out to participants, and the voting process begins.

ach participant receives a set number of points to 'spend' on the proposals on the list. They can also comment, giving reasons for how they have allocated their points, and adding  recommendations or caveats they have about each.

The results are then collated and published, the idea being that a shortlist of top-scoring proposals will emerge, generated and assessed by a pool of experts in their field. This can then be sent to funders and policy-makers, and treated as a list of recommendations.

If In Battalions described a problem, the Delphi study is about trying to find some solutions. The Delphi format allows us to do so in a way which carries methodological weight, and which will (hopefully) stand a chance of influencing policy.

I've uploaded full instructions on how to take part, along with a list of sample ideas as a stimulus for generating your own, here.

The deadline for receiving contributions for the longlist is one month from today, on Mon 24 June 2013, with the voting taking place after that.

If you would like to take part, please get in touch.

d Vaizey may not be willing to help us, but we don't need him to be able to do this. 

Thank you for your ongoing support.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Getting the measure of 'Baz'

Last week, I was invited to a Q and A in Parliament, with the new Chair of the Arts Council, Sir Peter Bazalgette. It was an event organised by the Performers’ Alliance Parliamentary Group, jointly run by Equity, the Musicians’ Union and the Writers’ Guild.

I took a few notes during it, and wanted to write them up for my own records, but thought it might be worth reproducing them here. The meeting was only semi-public; it was held in one of the Committee Rooms in the Commons and though you could probably have wandered in if you were passing, officially you had to be invited by one of the unions who’d arranged it.

It was quite a small affair, with perhaps 30 people – a mixture of MPs and Lords, union members and Arts Council staff. We mostly all fitted around one large table, and people drifted in and out over 90 minutes. (Mostly out, actually. Lots of the MPs in particular said their piece then left, presumably for other Parliamentary business.) 

I was introduced to Peter Bazalgette beforehand, who insists on being called ‘Baz’ in person. He seemed friendly and approachable and made it clear he knew who I was, and had read In Battalions, which was encouraging (he even referred to it in his speech). 

He started by thanking everyone for coming along, and stressed that this was a listening exercise, and that all ideas were welcome. He was new in post and wanted to hear from us. He gave the impression of genuinely entering into this in the right spirit. Then he went on to outline the priorities for ACE in the short and medium term.

Short term, there was the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), which would set Government budgets across departments until the end of the 2015-16 tax year – though there is of course a general election planned by May 2015, so all bets are off after that.

The CSR results will be announced on 26 June, and though the outcome is unknown, the rumours are not good: an average 10% across departments, though of course this won’t be evenly spread. ‘Baz’ pointed out that ACE income had been cut every year since 2010, by 29% at first, followed by a further, cumulative 5%. Another 10% on top of that would be devastating. 

So the first priority is to make the case to Treasury as best we can in the coming weeks. 
The second short term priority was the situation with local authorities, especially outside London. He cited an average 40% reduction to arts funding from councils, though of course this was also not evenly spread. Baz said he had travelled to 15 cities since coming into post, and met with local government leaders to raise this issue. He said it was a priority to cast the arts as an essential service – even though of course there is no legal obligation for councils to continue to fund them. 

Then he moved on to medium term priorities. There were two of these. 

First, was the need for the arts to diversify its income streams. Every time he mentioned this, and it came up a few times, he went out of his way to emphasise that this wasn’t to replace Government funding, which he confirmed he considered an essential “seed corn”, but was just about helping the arts survive at a difficult time. He cited an FT study which showed how London-centric philanthropy was, and said we need to address that. He also said we need to make a better case for the arts as social enterprise. 

The second medium-term priority was digital, in particular making better use of new technology. He recognised that it was early days, but also said the arts were perhaps 3-5 years behind the commercial sector in this respect. He divided the focus up into new creative work on digital platforms, distribution and marketing. He said about distribution in particular, this was about extracting maximum value from public money by disseminating the work further, citing NT Live, The Space and work some orchestras were doing. He said this would not be key to organisations securing funding, but was about audiences. 

Marketing was obviously about sales and more effective business practices, but wasn’t just ‘bums on seats’ – it was about data collection and sharing among organisations with similar audience bases, and “customer relations management”, involving them more in what we do. 

Then he took questions. 

Some speakers asked him to look at the definition of London, with David Lammy MP in particular making an impassioned plea for more work to happen outside zones 1 and 2 – likening the situation in Tottenham and Bromley and places like that as being equivalent to the most culturally-deprived regions, in terms of ACE investment. Lammy also asked for an emphasis to be placed on young people, and that we focus not just on economic value but on cultivating the arts as a civilised nation. Lammy said that ACE needs to make it clear to the Government that they are “being asked to massacre now”. He even thumped the table a little bit. 

Baz seemed to agree; he made the point that the arts need to articulate their “social value” better, especially in relation to benefits arts can bring to education, health and social care. 

One Lord said he wanted ACE to re-think the amount of funding it gives to “the big boys”, and that even a small slice from an opera company or other large national flagship was a lot of money which could be better spent on smaller companies. He accused such institutions of a sense of entitlement, and that the biggest ones are the best placed to replace it with philanthropy – citing the South Bank Centre. (Baz didn’t agree or disagree with all this in the moment, he just made notes and thanked speakers for their contribution.)

Someone else echoed the London-centric point, and quoted the statistic that London received two-thirds of all public arts investment. The Catalyst fund was particularly singled out.

Baz did respond to this by saying that we can’t dismantle those big institutions, and that we need flagship centres of excellence to set standards and inspire others. Some of the regional ones, like the Lowry in Salford, had transformed whole areas. However, he did recognise that the big boys had the ability to submit “gold-plated bids” to funds like Catalyst, because they could employ specialist fundraisers to work on them. He said this was a problem and that ACE needed to look at how to support smaller organisations in putting in better bids – which could perhaps involve some funding to support the bid-writing process itself. He also added that the national organisations, especially those with the actual word ‘national’ in their title, needed to do more to live up to that name. But he did also say that ACE had been reviewing Catalyst and that it had been a big success in achieving what it set out to do.

One MP said he had never been lobbied by a single constituent about arts funding, and that only 1% of charitable giving goes to the arts. It was also acknowledged that philanthropy was inherently unstable as a funding source. This led on to a discussion about inheritance tax breaks for making gifts to the arts, and other incentives. Apparently most higher rate taxpayers who donate don’t claim gift aid at the higher rate, so that’s revenue the arts is missing out on.

Community foundations came up as a financial model used by some charities, but I have to admit I didn’t really know what they are. (If you do, please tell me in the comments box below.)

Baz said that ACE were busy offering training to arts fundraisers, and had employed Tom Hughes-Hallett, a well-known fundraiser for Marie Curie Cancer care. One of his strategies was to get every donor to act as an advocate for the cause.

Baz also talked about the cuts which ACE itself had had to undertake – going from over 800 staff 18 months ago to 440 now. He talked about the Lottery income of the Arts Council, which sustains its Grants for the Arts programme, as being all about the “next generation of talent”, with Grant-in-Aid being about infrastructure. He also added that one of the roles of state funding is to take risks – something which philanthropy almost never does. He added: “You’ll read about the ones [risks] which don’t come off in the Daily Mal – we’ll take that on the chin.”

He said that politicians were openly talking to him about austerity continuing into 2016-17 and even 2017-18, so there would be further significant cuts to come. But he also seemed to acknowledge the futility of such cuts to arts and culture in actually reducing the deficit. He quoted one source as saying the entire DCMS budget was “a rounding error in the Ministry of Health”. So it doesn’t save much to cut it.

I put one suggestion and one question to him towards the end. The suggestion I made re-visited the ‘social value’ argument of the arts, which I was pleased he had mentioned. I asked whether ACE would consider ring-fencing a pot of discretionary Lottery funding to pay for artists’ community residencies, so that a poet, singer or writer could raise their own fee to become an artist-in-residence in a school, hospital or social services team.

Then I asked a more controversial question about whether he thought we could take Maria Miller’s recent request for more evidence of the arts’ economic impact in good faith. I have been doing my own research, I told him*, and there are economic reports about the arts’ value stretching back 25 years, with an average of one every two years (more if you count more localised economic impact studies commissioned by individual venues).

Was Miller genuinely overlooking this body of evidence? Or was her request perhaps more of a tactic, to keep us running around while the CSR is going on, in which the conclusion is a foregone one?

It was perhaps a silly question to ask, because what could he really say about this in public? But it’s something I wanted to bring up, because it’s a conversation I’ve been having behind the scenes with a number of colleagues (not least David Chadderton of the British Theatre guide in the recent podcast here.) It frustrates the hell out of me that we can’t have an honest conversation with politicians about this. We don’t mind if they hate us. We’d just rather know, and not have our time wasted. (Though I didn’t say that last bit.)

Baz looked a bit uncomfortable, and said that Miller was offering to “go in to bat” for us with the Treasury, and that we had to support her in that. 

I suppose in a way he’s right.

But the main effect of my question was to overshadow getting an answer to my suggestion about a Community Residencies fund, so that was a bit daft. I will just have to bring it up again.

Overall, I was left with the impression of someone who genuinely wanted to do a good job, in an area which was somewhat new – though he has sat on the boards of arts organisations before, which is encouraging. It was good that he made the time to be there, and engaged with everyone there, and all the points made, in a spirit of openness. I hope this is just the start of our conversation.

It will be if I’ve got anything to do with it.

* I have been collating the main studies, and might do a future blog post on this.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

British Theatre Guide 'In Battalions' podcast

I've done an audio podcast about In Battalions for the British Theatre Guide, care of David Chadderton, its editor. 

It was over the phone, so the line's not great, but you can listen to it here

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Supporting Creative Councils and Councillors

Although it might not seem so from this blog, I’ve got lots going on behind the scenes at the moment – hence the slight hiatus. Among other things I’ve got several industry meetings coming up at which I will be soliciting ideas for a response to Ed Vaizey’s letter to me about In Battalions. (Drop me a line if you’re a theatre professional interested in coming along.) 

In the meantime, here is a little thing which might be of interest. I recently had a great meeting with Claire Mansfield of the New Local Government Network, a think-tank coming up with new ideas for local authorities during challenging times. Claire had written a great article about the value of arts and culture during times of recession, and I got in touch to see if there were ways in which I might be able to support her work. 

That conversation is still ongoing, but in preparation for our meeting I put together a list of ideas for ways in which I thought local councils might be able to support arts organisations and artists in their area – none of which would cost very much. In a separate development, I was heartened to hear Labour shadow Culture Secretary Harriet Harman speak recently about the launch of the Creative Councillors' Network, to support those local councillors who do want to protect and support the arts in their area, despite the cuts. 

In the spirit of adding to that conversation, I thought I’d post some of my ideas up here. It’s slightly back-of-an-envelope stuff I admit, but I’d rather it was out there than sat in my notebook. Who knows where it might end up? And if it sparks off any ideas of your own, please do add them. 

So, in times of austerity, local councils can support and encourage arts and culture in their local area by:

  • Listing and describing disused buildings in their area which they are responsible for, and which they would be prepared to offer out for free or cheap to arts orgs, and get them to publish or circulate the list to the arts community – including amateur arts organisation, schools and colleges.

  • Donate some staff time to compiling a weekly or monthly 'What's On' list and circulate it via email to local Heads of Drama in schools via the Councils education department lists. The same list could also be sent to the local newspaper to supplement their own listings section. This could include less visible opportunities such as summer schools and youth theatres, as well as more public-facing work.

  • Do the same for small scale plays on tour which are available to ‘buy in’, and circulate to Heads of Social Services departments, children's homes and NHS children's or OAP wards.

  • Donate some office space or the town hall for regular round tables or social events for artists in their area to network and share skills and experience (e.g. fundraising). Guest speakers could be invited each time.

  • Do the same to broker connections between artists and local businesses seeking to sponsor arts work in their area.

  • Encourage local business tie-ins with evening arts activities to stimulate the night-time economy, e.g. 10% off your local cab firm or restaurant if customers show a ticket to a local play.

  • Invite big well-funded arts organisations from out of town to come and visit for a few nights (e.g. the RSC Newcastle season) and curate a local fringe festival surrounding the visit, in which local companies get to perform nearby and share the same promotional season brochure, with discounts if multiple tickets are booked.

  • Hold a public event in the town hall, a bit like the Fresher's Fair at universities, where local arts organisations are given a stall for the day and invited to man it with personnel and brochures - a 'one stop shop' for the pubic to see what's on and meet their local arts companies and artists, and leave with some literature, or having signed up to a mailing list. Amateur and professional arts could be given equal billing, as could opportunities for general interest classes for local residents to develop their own creative skills.

  • Ask the council press office to donate some time to promoting local arts events via their email mailing lists, or helping smaller companies by looking over and giving advice on their press releases.

  • Put a call out to local tradespeople who the council licenses (builders, carpenters etc) who might be prepared to donate some time to helping out a local community arts event, e.g. helping build a set for the local youth theatre.

  • Compiling and circulating a list of ‘invisible’ facilities at local schools, such as on-site theatres or school gallery spaces, and circulating it to local artists who might be interested in holding exhibitions or performances there, as a mutually beneficial arrangement - or indeed for local amateur groups (e.g. pensioners' art classes) who might be looking for spaces to perform or exhibit their work.

  • Promote local arts events internally to Council staff, via the Councils own intranet email system, with maybe 10% offers available to Council workers' friends and family.

  • More actively promoting work experience for local school and college students in arts organisations, perhaps via a networking event where everyone can meet beforehand and swap details. Once in post, work experience students and their families could be offered free or discounted tickets to events in the organisation in which they're working.

Got any ideas of your own? Post them below. Remember that where possible, they should be about utilising Council’s existing facilities and resources rather than creating extra costs or demands.