Is it too soon to book a summer holiday?

Gail Brown ponders what we have learned already this year regarding the future of arts and culture provision. The answer may well lie in a tin of Quality Street.

Local people will be setting arts targets under a new Arts Council scheme

So it is almost February, it is freezing in most places but, let’s be fair now, with some sunshine. Scotland is still somewhat snowy in places and only the horrible ones in the box of Roses or Quality Street is left. Pine needles lurk round every blinking corner and a faint tinsel sparkle reflects every now and then from the furthest point of the ceiling. You might have tried to quit any of the following: eating Roses or Quality Street, smoking, drinking, shopping, eating in general, watching rubbish TV or – the one thing that could probably do any of us any good – stopping reading the tabloids, broadsheets and the ones in between that say they are a glossy broad sheet but really just write gossip in a less colloquial manner than the papers aimed at those with a reading age of 7. Hellooo 2011!

It is a time of unrest, political madness and head burrowing. Arts Council England (ACE) are busy trying to yet again work out how to measure the success/value of culture. With the pipe bombing of the national indicator set, which are being replaced by a much smaller list of performance indicators, none of them include culture (for those of you that are in the sector this will come as no surprise). Apparently ACE have taken the view that, with the localism agenda in full swing, it will be the responsibility of local people to set the local authority indicator/target that is appropriate for the likes of non-statutory services, ie arts and culture. I’m sorry, what? You want people that don’t know (OK, not all people but still…), you want any person off the street to tell the experts how to measure value? Is it mad enough to make sense? Is it the most ridiculous idea ever or could it quite possibly work? What if an artist-led chat took place where man, woman, child and artist pondered what culture meant to them, how did they compare the value of art and participation within their lives, and then designed, courtesy of all those Disney (other providers are available) art boxes gifted at Christmas, a practical, useable anywhere, anytime, anyhow process that showed the world (we’ve got to think big here, people) what the purpose of art was? It may now be time for a cup of tea and Quality Street to ponder this.

To be honest, this conversation has happened so many times it may be possible to refer back to a June or July edition of this column and note very similar narratives (apologies readers). So the bigger question is WHY ARE WE STILL TALKING ABOUT IT? Is there an interesting debate to be had regarding how we work with the sector to provide leadership in this instance or/and indeed to inform the local authority/national agencies if and how they are or are not satisfied with the work that is being delivered and realised (if you see what I mean)?

Coincidently, Swindon Borough Council has been contacted by the Office for National Statistics (as Swindon is your average town) and the National Stats team are beavering away on building a case for wellbeing. So how does culture fit into wellbeing and happiness? Need you ask? It fits in perfectly and it makes total sense.

LGLD (previously IDEA) have written a paper called ‘5 Factors of Happiness”which is on their website and this equally could provide part of the answer of how culture measures itself as successful/valuable. As the cultural services improvement groupings are up in the air – and I quote an ACE spokes person who shall remain unnamed – “ACE won’t fund them, but if you [local authorities] think they work and want to put money in, then do.”

Add to this the application deadline for ACE’s national portfolio organisation status (replacing the regionally funded organisation strand of their work) is about to close and the cultural sector is slightly at odds. Mix in the work of the MLA that is coming into ACE (Renaissance, library development, museum development, cultural property; unlucky if you are an archive though, bye bye.) and you wonder if anybody can actually achieve their day job.

A local government head of cultural services was recently heard to say, “If you stop for too long and think about what is actually going on, the depression hits you like a sledge hammer.”  Possibly not the best start to this year. Some local authorities know their placenta position after the possibly demon birth of the coalition. It could be one of three things:

  1. You are all fired, thank you very much, now get that Da Vinci print off of your office wall and get out. Or, I’m sorry you’re not fired, you can go and play in your garden for a while, this is a local authority we don’t sack people.
  2. You have 30% less budget, twice as many staff, new performance indicators to design outcomes to that won’t mean anything as culture is immeasurable and you’ll also be bundled in with the customer care, which if course makes sense to such and such.
  3. Budget, what budget? Quality Street anyone?

So what to do? Think fast, learn quickly, reflect if you can and progress. Head up, chin up, tummy in, chocolates down, rinse and repeat. Actively listen to everything that you can to empower you, prepare, commit to action (planning) and buckle down. Get your Christmas art set out and start doodling how to make life better for you the individual and your family, whether that is the job, the people you love or the artists that changed your lives.

Oh, and one final new year resolution: if you work for an organisation that currently has been invoiced for subscriptions or memberships to lovely glossy magazines and communities that support you at work, as part of your CPD or otherwise, fight tooth and nail to keep them; at some point the written word may be the only thing that keeps you in full health, wellbeing and happiness, measurable or otherwise.

Gail Brown is chair of advocacy and research for the National Association of Local Government Arts Officers

For previous columns by Gail Brown visit the comment page


The Leisure Review, February 2011

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“So what to do? Think fast, learn quickly, reflect if you can and progress. Head up, chin up, tummy in, chocolates down, rinse and repeat.”

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