Local Arts Officers: Helen Owen
As part of a series of interviews with local Arts Officers, Kate Brundrett asks Helen Owen how Gloucestershire as a County will respond in a climate of funding cuts and government Spending Review.
Helen Owen is the Arts Development Officer for Gloucestershire County Council.
The Arts Development Officer post is based within the Lifelong Learning Team in the Community and Adult Care Directorate. The Directorate hosts an arts education and a theatre development post part funded by (Arts Council England) ACE, all with a countywide remit. Gloucestershire is a two-tier county with six district councils, which vary enormously; Cheltenham Borough has a strong arts tradition and benefits from the presence of Cheltenham Arts Festivals and the Everyman Theatre, down to smaller very rural districts such as Tewkesbury and Forest of Dean. Only two out of the six districts have an arts post as a result of the cut backs over the last two or three years. The others have a Leisure Officer or cultural lead, who try to do a little on the arts. Gloucestershire has an Arts Advisory group with Local Authority representatives from each of the districts who meet four times a year and pool funding.
What are the key points in your arts strategy?
Up until now the strategy has been about improving access to arts and culture as a contribution to life long learning, economic regeneration, and health and well being. Because we are such a small team and the Council doesn’t own facilities, our strategy has been indirect, providing grants and funding to arts sector organisations. We support access to arts, geographically and by art form, by financially supporting the eleven RFO’s across the county to deliver arts education programmes in the community.
Quite a lot of my energy has been around working with the districts and developing joint programmes. Of course it’s all radically changing, so what I’m saying today could very soon be historic.
Do you see your arts strategy changing?
It’s going to change radically. The council has to make £120 million savings over the next three or four years. At present, nothing has been formally decided but the new Council’s vision for the future is about living within our means, not passing on debt to our children and providing the basics – and what the County Council sees as the basics are primarily roads, waste management, social care for the most vulnerable, and social care for the rising numbers of elderly. The vision does not include provision of life long learning services – it goes much wider than the arts. The Council sees itself as no longer able to provide such services directly, in the light of declining resources.
As I see it, we have two options: the first is that the Council chops the arts budget altogether and makes my post redundant as of next April. But I am currently working on an Option two, proposing an exit strategy that would pass the arts development budgets to the arts sector on a tapering basis over 3 years. It’s a more gradual strategy that mitigates the impact on the sector. To be honest I’ve no idea which way the Council will go, but if I could achieve the second option, I would be well pleased.
There may be some in the sector that say this is a defeatist attitude and we should all be lobbying and campaigning for continued Council support. But my personal judgement is that the time for this has gone, and what I can now do is focus my energy to manage the cuts in the best possible way.
I’ve been helped with this by the arts sector – the eleven RFO’s have responded very positively to this context. We, with ACE, gave them a modest amount of funding to work with a consultant on a sector change plan and that is what they have come up with – a plan that is focussed around reducing their costs, sharing their staff, sharing spaces and getting commission-ready. Despite the likelihood of the Council withdrawing its arts support service, in the future the Children and Young People’s Directorate, and the Adult Care Directorate will still have commissioning funds, and teams who are commissioning programmes of work. It’s my belief that the arts can deliver against their objectives. The sector change plan will address this by helping organisations to get commission-ready, such as having quality accreditation in place and management accreditation so they can win commissioning funds. It’s essentially about saving costs, becoming more entrepreneurial, coming up with a joint arts education offer for the county across a number of organisations which can be sold to schools – those sorts of themes. That is how I will try to secure County Council budgets going forward, to support the delivery of this plan, not to support individual organisations. It is for the consortium to make the changes work, for the Council to effectively outsource the art service. The sector consortium, Gloucestershire Arts Framework up until now has been no more than a loose networking forum and a talking shop, but the work they have been doing over the last six months has been a really serious attempt at partnership working. The plan is that they set up a new legally constituted body called Create Gloucestershire, as a portal for commissioning and other funds to the arts sector. It’s a strategic commissioning model.
What do you think the impact will be on individual artists?
I think artists will need to be increasingly proactive in raising their profile, getting out there and generating work. In terms of supporting artists, our support is indirect through the arts organisations, not directly running and managing programmes. There are exceptions, for example, in the area of arts in health. And last year I led on a major scale outdoor arts project themed around the River Severn, as part of the Cultural Olympiad.
Can you give me an idea of a project you have run?
One programme that we deliver is a three year arts and health programme called Art Lift, taking place in eight different surgeries across the county. We have a service level agreement with Gloucestershire NHS for £200,000. We manage and deliver a programme for referred NHS patients based who frequently visit their GP’s. Typically an Art Lift patient may suffer from anxiety, depression, and social isolation, those sorts of ‘low-level’ mental health problems. The project arose out of work that a local GP was doing, where instead of prescribing Prozac, the patients would be referred to an Art Lift group – a small supportive group, led by an artist with lots of people skills. The patients go once a week to do painting or pottery or singing in a safe and secure setting, in a small and supportive group. We are evaluating it very carefully and seeing significant improvements in patients’ wellbeing, and in the reduction of their visits to GP’s, so there is of course a cost saving.
What do you look for in artists you work with?
To run the Art Lift programme we recruited and trained a pool of twelve artists carefully selected from over eighty applications.
What was very very important to us was that they were mature and experienced, with great flexibility. They needed to have very good people skills, able to respond and deal with quite needy patients. These are very vulnerable people; there may be people that haven’t been out of the house for ten years or have a problem getting on the bus.
I would say as well that all the dozen artists we picked were good artists in their own right – we are strongly committed to quality in all of our programmes. Another essential is flexibility. We found that the artists that have delivered best in Art Lift have several strings to their bow so they can offer variety and respond to different interests.
The third and most important quality we want from our artists is to be reliable and to do the paperwork! Our time is too short to have artists that are time-intensive. We want people who will do the paperwork, fill out the monitoring forms, and get their invoices in, all of that jazz. ‘Low maintenance’ artists, that’s what we want!
In the past we’ve run training events called Hiring Now, with a regional arts training agency called Arts Matrix. They were popular and well attended. Essentially they were an opportunity for the Local Authority to highlight the funding opportunities and employment opportunities coming up, and to say what we were looking for as artist employers. The idea of low maintenance artists came out time and time again.
For Art Lift, a lot of training was tackling issues likely to arise when working in the health sector, and with vulnerable patients. We still have twice yearly artists days for the ArtLift artists to come together and share practice, issues, and find out how the other artists are working. We also have Arts Partners in each district, which are usually RFO’s, for the artists to pair up with and talk to about any arts issues that arise in delivering the programme.
What were the highs and lows of the Art Lift project?
It’s one of the areas of my work that I’m the most proud of, it’s definitely the most rewarding – the stories that the patients tell are so incredibly moving. It was also brilliant when we finished the pilot and were able to win a three year service level agreement over the whole county. Art Lift has also just been profiled on the NHS Live website as an innovative case study.
What are the key issues facing artists at the moment? Do you have any advice for practitioners?
Survival really in a very, very fast changing context. I think the skills that artists are going to need are being entrepreneurial and having good business skills, as well as good artistic skills.
This interview is Helen’s personal perspective, and does not represent an official Council view.
Links and resources:
Gloucestershire County Council Arts Dept: www.gloucestershire.gov.uk/arts
Gloucestershire Arts Forum: www.bigartweb.plus.com/gaf/
Art Lift project video: www.thisisvideo.co.uk/hostedvideo/artlift.wmv
Severn Project: www.severnproject.com/
Severn Project video: www.thisisvideo.co.uk/severn2009.htm
Kate Gilman Brundrett
First published: a-n.co.uk November 2010
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