Live streamed and taking place simultaneously in Bristol and Manchester via a near flawless live link up, the No Boundaries conference took an innovative approach that streamlined resources and increased accessibility, writes Julie McCalden, reporting from Watershed, Bristol.
If ticket prices were expensive, this was somewhat mitigated by 40 free places for artists and freelancers and the online availability of content. Appropriately, this model addressed some of the key issues arising: the sector’s need for diversity and the acknowledgment that radical institutional change is needed to achieve this.
Speaking on the question ‘Can we do things differently?’, Jo Verrent, senior producer for Unlimited, described the sector as made for and by the same people. She called for change to the way the sector makes, funds and delivers work: the people making and programming, the spaces themselves, as well as the discourses around the work. These sentiments were echoed time and time again.
The event kicked off with a provocative session that asked: ‘Can we exercise freedom of expression?’ Speakers explored areas such as the impact of our choice of language (‘dissident’ or ‘refugee?’) and the overt censorship of controversial works. Nadia Latif, co-director of the recently cancelled National Youth Theatre production, Homegrown, warned that we live in a political climate that shuts down certain forms of questioning.
Missing from the discussion was an artist’s perspective on how free they feel to express themselves within our insular and nepotistic arts ecology. How ready are artists to criticise the organisations and gatekeepers when it is they who provide the opportunities?
Pressure to conform
Organisations too are feeling the pressure to conform to funding criteria, or in our ‘mixed economy model’, a sponsor’s agenda or a philanthropist’s tastes. At No Boundaries a surprising openness emerged; Moira Sinclair, chief executive of the independent grant maker Paul Hamlyn Foundation questioned whether this position meant they were inappropriate gatekeepers.
David Lockwood from Bike Shed Theatre spoke of the pros and cons of becoming an Arts Council England NPO and the hoops they had to jump through to get there, while Natalia Kaliada, co-artistic director of Belarus Free Theatre equated securing public funding with playing it safe because funders are risk averse.
Perhaps most controversially, cultural policy analyst John Knell called on funders to stop investing in middle-scale gatekeepers, because the “uncomfortable truth” was that they had neither the skills nor the capacity to survive in our mixed economy model.
In a session that asked ‘Where does the money flow?’ Mary Lou Aleskie, executive director of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, Connecticut, questioned the value of data collection to measure and quantify; the danger of measuring value solely in economic terms is that it obscures their true human values.
“The arts enable us all to live better lives and allow young people to find themselves,” argued poet and novelist Jackie Kay, “and because identity is fluid we can reinvent ourselves.” Poet and arts practitioner Reece Williams spoke of how the arts enable young people to become leaders in their communities, while Basma El Husseiny from Action for Hope, Cairo, shared how they help refugees deal with displacement and marginalisation.
Where’s the diversity?
The lack of diversity in the sector was an issue that came up in every session. Black and ethnic minorities, women and those with disabilities are still underrepresented in both the workforce and audiences.
Director of Credibility, John Dyer, said that even with the inclusion initiatives of the past decade we are still in a diversity cul-de-sac; we have diversity without inclusion. “Diversity is asking someone to a party,” Dyer explained, “inclusion is asking them to dance.”
Sam Colt, head of arts, culture and heritage practice at executive headhunters Odgers Berndtson, spoke of how people recruit in their own image, leading to a self-replicating system where unconscious biases are reproduced. Colt recommended rewriting person specs to avoid too many essential criteria that narrow the field of applicants; people without experience need a chance and we need to attract those outside the arts.
Verrent described Unlimited’s unique approach to selection, where half the panel are artists and outside independents, funders donated their vote to disabled artists, and most radically, none of Unlimited’s staff are panellists.
Even a partial adoption of this approach by the sector would limit the power of gatekeepers, thereby minimising the tendency for narrow programming. Arts professionals should consider themselves ‘merely the custodians’ of their venues, echoed Kully Thiarai, executive director of Cast in Doncaster.
Other radical proposals from Colt included organisations having less ego and sharing resources, from city-wide ticketing systems and cross promotions to shared staff who represent the demographics of the communities they serve.
Reimagining the institution
Vasif Kortun, director of research and programs at SALT, Istanbul, called for a reimagining of the institution, “that is not in a place but in the psyche of the people it engages with. That kind of co-ownership is the ultimate goal,” he explained.
If some of these approaches were adopted things might begin to look different for artists, too. Reducing the money spent on management and capital projects alongside the pooling of organisational resources would free up funds. These could then be appropriately retargeted, in a more holistic approach to funding the ecology, going directly to artists’ projects and fees, improving conditions for the most neglected part of the ecology.
Paying Artists was the elephant in the room during ‘Where does the money flow?’. What is clear is that not enough of it is making its way to those at the bottom – the producers of the very work on which the entire sector relies.
More artists’ voices would have added further nuanced perspectives to the discussions. Artists are renowned for their critical thinking and problem solving capacities, so why don’t we involve them more, and more prominently, in high-level decision making and discussions about changing the sector?
It took Artes Mundi 6 winner Theaster Gates to reimagine the boundaries of his raw material as an artist, which he argued could broaden to include things like public policy. This is a proposition that tears down the boundaries of art, reconsidering what artists can do and who can consider themselves an artist. This is the scale of the vision we need.
About the writer: Julie McCalden is an artist based in Bristol, where she works from her studio at Spike Island. She joined a-n in 2014 and works across the organisation developing professional development provision for the membership and promoting the Paying Artists campaign.
Required by the arts sector: a little more discomfort, fewer boundaries
I admit, writes Mark Robinson, reporting from HOME, Manchester, to having been rather put-off by the title of this conference. It combines classic Blakean romanticism with the ‘digital frontier spirit’ tone that always makes me feel a bit square, somehow. It made me nervous, especially combined this year with a pre-conference website that was very late moving from teaser to detail.
(Imagine, by the way how, well William Blake would suit the era of the retweeted conference speech: ‘Bill Blake smashing it: the cistern contains, the fountain overflows. YES! But now put some clothes on please. #nb1790’)
Happily, the organisers proved themselves highly adept at knowing where and when to put boundaries and what to use them for.
There was helpful freedom in the event happening simultaneously over two venues and on the internet via live streaming. The technology that enabled this and the text captioning that formed part of an exemplary approach to access worked really well.
The braces were off too in terms of the generous amount of break times for people to meet each other or catch up, and in the social aspects of the programme. (‘RT: ‘Damn braces. Bless relaxes.’ Blake getting the party started now. Boy can MOVE.’)
There were, though, some boundaries. Speakers were given equal 10-minute slots to present in, and the hosts made them stick to it. Although there was no one I was not happy to listen to, there were some I would have liked to hear a lot more from. It might have been more productive to have longer talks from some speakers and more panel discussion in each session.
The short, sharp format makes ideas difficult to develop in their full complexity, with hard-won conclusions sometimes turning into snappy TED-style soundbites. The danger of this is that ideas can sound either more trite or more convincing than they actually are. This is where the Q&A or panel discussion can come in.
Someone would surely, for instance, have asked Maria Balshaw on what transport map Manchester “happens to be in the middle of the North of England”. There are good arguments for the investments into Manchester and Balshaw made them well, but that isn’t one of them. (Of course, you can be the centre without being in the middle…)
I would especially have welcomed the international speakers having more time. Why bring people like Mary Lou Aleskie or Seb Chan to England and then give them only 10 minutes to talk about fascinating but complex US stories of invention and reinvention, especially as too many arts folk here stereotype American practice as simply ruled by philistine philanthropists?
How boundaries work
The session themes were deliberately and successfully various, making a comprehensive summary impossible. How boundaries work became a unifying thread. What and who do our boundaries contain and what and who do they exclude? Which boundaries do we cling to during change, and which do we resent or wish to give up?
This leads me to draw a line between the arguments for ‘aggregation’ of one sort or another with those for a more courageous, less introverted, self-referential sector.
Aggregation and a related word, ‘scale’, came up in relation to activity and organisations, digital platforms and collaborative effort. It was also reflected, more controversially perhaps, in John Knell’s suggestion that some big cultural organisations and brands were not “too big to fail” but “too small to succeed”, and should be given “significantly” more of the available funding as part of a ‘whole ecology’ approach.
One can connect this ‘aggregation’ to freedom of expression via the talk by Vasif Kortun from Istanbul. He described a sense of discussions about no boundaries coming from within boundaries, suggesting an essentially introverted arts world that prefers to draw on its own subjectivity rather than external sources.
Jo Verrent began her powerful talk by naming some unconvenient truths: “The arts industry is in a loop making work that appeals only to itself. Work that is made for and by the same type of people, with the same kinds of tastes.” This was reflected to an extent in the programme.
A number of speakers said they had been urged to be provocative. But if the aim was to provoke this set of delegates, perhaps better to look further afield than leading figures in culture to do that.
What might the Taxpayers Alliance or a skeptical Local Economic Partnership have brought to the money session? And what might one of the protestors involved in shutting down Brett Bailey’s Exhib B (pictured above) have said about freedom of expression? As a sector, we are perhaps more introverted than we care to admit and I’d have liked a few more moments of discomfort in the room to live up to that ‘No Boundaries’ title.
On the margins
The speakers who spoke most about giving agency to a community came from some sort of currently ‘marginal’ position, such as Jo Verrent’s work with Unlimited or Kully Thiarai, director of Cast in Doncaster, or from beyond the UK. (I don’t mean to directly compare living in an economically difficult town to being disabled by society, or vice versa, but maybe there is some truth in that.)
I was interested that Mary Lou Aleskie of the Festival of Arts & Ideas talked passionately of ‘bridging communities’ in fiercely unequal New Haven, a term drawn from ideas around social capital I have heard a lot from US cultural leaders, but rarely in the UK. Here, we specialize in ‘bonding’, bringing similar kinds of people or families together – positive for some but also exclusionary to others.
Passion beyond simply the arts was most attractive at No Boundaries. Vasif Kortun suggested a shift in approach from the monastery to the square, a metaphor popular with delegates. Change was necessary, he argued, to avoid isolation and what he called “powerless socialisation”, by creating meaningful public spaces at a time when they are threatened by administrative, commercial and even surveillance cultures.
This last point was especially important to Natalia Kaliada of Belarus Free Theatre, now living in exile in London. However, she also posed questions about the self-censorship that can develop in ‘free’ markets and environments. She asked: “Do we need to go underground in London to be free from self-censorship?”
One answer was provided by Nadia Latif, co-director of the recently ‘cancelled’ National Youth Theatre project, Homegrown. She described this as direct censorship of ideas around radicalization of young Muslims and radical theatrical form. She made the point that censors, if not resisted, come next for others.
However, it seemed in the final session’s ‘reflections’ that people were more comfortable reflecting, with genuine emotion, on overseas experiences than growing threats at home, as not one of the 10 contributors especially noted Latif’s points.
The combined threat of the silencing censor and the silent, ignored communities was the dog that did not bark, or at best was heard only intermittently, faintly, as if from a distant boundary.
There is so much more to be discussed, which is testament to the conference and its organisers. But as Blake also said: “Enough! or Too much.”
About the writer: Mark Robinson runs the arts consultancy Thinking Practice, founded in 2010. He was executive director of Arts Council England, North East, from 2005-2010. www.thinkingpractice.co.uk
No Boundaries took place 29-30 September at HOME, Manchester and Watershed, Bristol. nb2015.org
CORRECTION: (6 October 2015) The report from Bristol originally referred to Homegrown as a National Theatre production whereas it was, in fact, a National Youth Theatre production.