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A little, extraordinary, heart-breaking thing that happened when I didn’t expect it

December 4, 2015

Advent Calendar Door 3

A little, powerful thing happened this evening that I’m thinking about when I should really be in bed asleep.

My colleagues and I at Hat Fair are currently producing, for the first time, a new winter festival (called, appropriately enough, Woolly Hat Fair…). It’s taking the form of a Live Advent Calendar which is happening all around our city of Winchester. For 24 days, from 1st – 24th December, a different (real) door will open somewhere in the city at 5pm. And behind that door, something fun, magical, quirky, and / or artsy will happen for 30 minutes or thereabouts. A different event every day for the 24 days of Advent.

It’s a new venture for Hat Fair and a fairly mammoth coordination-cum-jigsaw project for a small team, which comes in addition to a usually full workload of organising our major annual festival of outdoor arts each July. But it allows us to extend our reach, to offer a different kind of site-specific work to the city, to engage with broader audiences differently and our community more meaningfully, and to transform our place for more than just 3 days a year. The entire project is being delivered for just a few thousand pounds, which we’ve raised from partnership funds from local bodies and from 16 local business sponsors. Which is brilliant. But it does also mean that every single thing is being done on an absolute shoestring. (Although we’ve still managed to ensure that every professional artist involved gets a modest fee of some description). There are a team of 8 of us actively delivering the festival, 5.5 of whom are volunteers and 1.5 of whom are part-time.

Despite those rather modest parameters, lots of the 24 Live Advent Calendar events are ambitious – trying to open up hidden corners of the city in creative, surprising ways; trying to encourage new audiences to engage with the arts in ways they may not have previously thought to; trying to extend the usual character and reach of our activity. That includes creating an audio soundscape of World War II oral history interviews to be experienced in an underground air raid bunker never accessed by the public since the war; conjuring up a mini immersive promenade theatre piece around a private domestic house inspired by the poem ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas; and curating an alternative exhibition of art from local people’s living room walls for display in a disused retail unit, accompanied by a similarly alternative selection of ‘audio guides’ comprising interviews with the art-owners.

However, also given those modest parameters, some of the 24 events are deliberately designed to be more easily achievable by a small, overstretched team working on an almost infeasibly tight budget. They’re designed to be playful, sure, and fully aligned with the project’s ethos and the nature of invitation it makes to audiences. But they’re also designed strategically to buy us a couple of easier days in a rather intense month.

Today’s event was meant to be one of those days. The event was a simple but, we hoped, playful and inviting one, which – despite its simplicity – was full of heart. We thought it would represent the whole community coming together as the city prepared itself for Christmas; we thought it would be bonding and spark connections; and we hoped it would allow the very special kind of magic that happens when of people of all ages and types and characters share a space together for a short amount of time to participate in a shared purpose. But that purpose was nothing grander than collectively decorating a bare Christmas tree in the centre of an Assembly Room while a choir sang carols. It didn’t require any artistic commissioning or much advance planning; it was an easily graspable and deliverable concept; it didn’t give us great cause for concern as to whether we could pull it off well enough. (Plenty of the other events do…!).

I suppose I had therefore assumed that tonight’s event would feel lovely, sure; great fun, certainly; and perhaps pretty festive and heart-warming. But I didn’t expect a moment which caught me entirely off-guard and made me feel foolish for – still, even though I love it and believe in it and facilitate it and proselytise about it constantly – underestimating the power and impact of simple, shared activity.

At the end of the event as most people had left and those of us still lingering were feeling all aglow with Christmassy fervour, I caught sight of a particular bauble on the gloriously chaotic, liberally-and-riotously-decorated tree. A couple of my colleagues had hosted a decoration table during the event where, instead of just picking up a trinket to hang on the tree, people could write names or Christmas messages onto tags, attach those to a bauble and then hang them on the tree.

The bauble that had caught my eye had a message written on its tag, in pencil and in a child’s hand-writing. It read: “Dear mummy, merry christmas. I love you and hope you’re ok up there.”

Other than weep a few quiet tears there wasn’t anything to say or do.

But what a reminder of the fact that even in the froth and bubble gum, in the lightness and jollity, there’s also always the chance for something else to be given voice, to be given air; some context for self-expression which might run deeper than we realise.

For the rest of this month I want to remember the value in the simpler, more humble events.

Some things that I’ve learned and the people I’ve learned them from

October 19, 2013

I owed a favour to a production manager. As all producers do to all production managers almost all the time.

The production manager called the favour in. Or rather, she asked if her Dad could call it in instead. And so I find myself wondering what theatre producing nuggets of interest I might share with the local rotary club as their guest speaker this month – the production manager’s Dad being their newly elected president.

My train of thought has ended up dwelling on some of the most valuable things I’ve learned and the remarkable people I’ve learned them from. The things I try and put into action, the tenets I try and work by. The things which have resonated so deeply with me that I’ve clung on tight to them and never let them go. The things which I hope make me better at what I do.

Some of them are lessons I’ve learned of old; some of them are inspired by people I’ve only come to know recently. Some of them contradict each other. In the main they’re things I’ve learned through working with or alongside these good, good people at the coalface. Some for a short time only, others for longer. Or through experiencing them first-hand in some way. They’re not theories that have been spouted to me or things these people are maybe even aware that they’ve taught me. They are not quotations. They’re mostly things I’ve inferred from seeing a little of the way they forge their way through the world.

I’m going to take the plunge and credit all my unwitting gurus by name in the hope that they won’t mind their wisdom being shared that little bit more widely. Any errors of interpretation are of course entirely mine. If anyone feels misrepresented, I hope they’ll let me know.

Michelle Dickson, Director of Oxford Playhouse:

–          It’s all about audiences. As a theatre, as a presenter, and as a producer, that’s where our focus should begin and end. Which isn’t to say that artists aren’t an absolute priority, just that looking after the two are intrinsically interlinked: looking after artists is never divorced from looking after audiences. Helping an artist grow in the best possible way for them is, ultimately, about serving our audiences.

–          Pragmatism isn’t a dirty word. Knowing when it’s right to let your head rule your heart is an enormous source of strength. When it’s right to toughen up and make the responsible, practical choice. Because protecting your stability in the long-run is what allows you to keep taking risks now. Without the wisdom of the former, the excitement of the latter is impossible. Or redundant. Or reckless.

–          Take a breath. It’s not always best that it’s now.

The guy on the 2010 Common Purpose Meridian Leaders Course in Birmingham from The National Trust:

–          Having an eye on the long-term means having a 100-year plan for your organisation. Not a poxy 3-year plan. 3 years is a blink in a strategic eye. 100 years is where we should all be heading.

Emma Stenning, Executive Director of Bristol Old Vic:

–          Dream big. Be ambitious. Once you’ve chosen an exciting path for all the right reasons, don’t turn your back on it. Compromise the art and you’ll compromise your whole direction. Put the art first; the rest will follow.

–          Commit to and invest in place. If you can, move your life – lock, stock and barrel – to your place of theatre. Know it, enjoy it, love it from the inside. Be proud of it and celebrate it. Don’t wish it was somewhere else. Don’t pretend it’s as good as somewhere else. Know that it’s the best of itself and nowhere else is like it. Make the theatre of that place which speaks to and with that place in a way that theatre from elsewhere can’t. Court the greats of the big wide world in the hope that they’ll come to you, yes. But, more importantly, go and find the greats on your doorstep who are already there and nurture them.

My darling friends Naomi & Lisa:

–          Be full to the brim with ‘mitfreude’: a made-up German-esque word (literally ‘with’ & ‘joy’) which someone at the other end of a Google search has helpfully coined as the opposite to ‘schadenfreude’. Be generous, unconfined, and utterly without ego or credit-taking in your joy in others’ success, achievements and good fortune.

Mannie Manim, formerly Chief Executive of the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town:

–          Know when to walk away.

Vicky Graham of Vicky Graham Productions (with thanks to Nike):

–          Just Do It. Make it happen. Don’t let an idea stay just an idea. Get out there. Just bloody do it.

Ceri Gorton, Culture Manager for Oxford City Council:

–          Make a little do a lot. What’s the furthest you can make a small amount of money go? What’s the most exciting good you can do for the most people with what you’ve got?

–          Make the quick wins win quickly. Impact fuels momentum; it makes the next barrier easier to tear down.

Dame Vivien Duffield, Chair of the Clore Foundation:

–          Cut the strings to your generosity. When you’re in the wonderful position of being able to give, offer, enable, or invest, where you can, when you can, do it freely. Free up the offer, free up the agenda, don’t attach strings. Be generous about the how, not just the how much.

Tom Morris, Artistic Director, Bristol Old Vic:

–          Artists see round corners. They’re special and they’re brave. They let the light in. They help us see things about the world we wouldn’t otherwise see.

Brian Underwood, Violin Teacher at the Royal Academy of Music:

–          Don’t be afraid for something to get worse in order for it to get better.


–          Just sometimes, good enough is good enough. If good enough gets something done when holding out for perfect would have left you without anything at all, good enough can be the better achievement.

Anna Glynn & Robin Colyer, Flintlock Theatre:

–          Always be at the start of something. If you’re not, find something to start. Be at the most exciting stage of a new journey, at the inhalation of the deepest, bravest breath, at the coiling of the spring. Look for your next giant leap. That is where you’ll find your energy and how you’ll be most likely to live up to your promise.

Mission Impossible: On Alan Davey, Ambition, and Grammar

November 21, 2012

This morning, Arts Council England’s Chief Executive Alan Davey did a great disservice to his organisation – and to the arts sector at large – by admitting defeat at the hands of the Arts Council’s own mission statement. As part of a misleading and downright lazy article on elitism in the arts by the usually more nuanced Will Gompertz on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Alan Davey stumblingly pronounced on what he appeared to deem the futility of Arts Council England’s mantra: “Great Art for Everyone”. Gompertz’s article has been passionately and eloquently countered by many voices since it aired (most notably by Lyn Gardner and Charlotte Higgins of the Guardian), but Alan Davey, it seems to me, has escaped his share of the critical heat.

In pursuit of support for his misplaced contention that millions have been spent on the arts “to no great effect”, Gompertz asked Davey whether Arts Council England’s mantra of Great Art for Everyone was in fact “a politically expedient but unrealisable goal”, to which Davey replied:

“Of course great art for everybody is probably unachievable because you’ll never get everybody in the country wanting to encounter the arts and what it can offer [sic]”.

Probably unachievable.

This seems an alarmingly casual statement given that it features Arts Council England’s chief executive admitting his belief that the goal towards which he is leading his organisation is an unachievable one. (And that’s even before we note the irony of the 2010 ACE manifesto title: Achieving Great Art for Everyone… Maybe that document got a re-write at Great Peter Street today.)

 I suppose Mr Davey might be a shoot-for-the-moon-and-if-you-miss-you’ll-end-up-among-the-stars kind of a guy, but if so that demonstrates a random and wilfully lacklustre brand of optimism which isn’t going to help the arts very much in these particularly challenging times. I don’t want to believe that he would be so cavalier with the hopes, dreams and efforts of the sector for which he works.

When most of us acknowledge that the goal we are striving to achieve is, in fact, unachievable, we feel pretty defeated, demoralised, de-motivated; redundant even. Or, we reassess the goal, we redefine it; we find a new goal, a new mission, and a new energy with which to pursue it. It felt pretty hard not to feel defeated, demoralised, and de-motivated by Davey’s ‘unachievable’ admission this morning. If ACE doesn’t feel it can achieve its overriding mission for the arts, then…

But maybe, it’s a grammar problem. A mission statement is the expression of an organisation’s core ambition, and articulating it requires a long hard, self-reflective look in the mirror and a rigorous distillation process of interrogating what, fundamentally, it is trying to do. To Do. A mission statement answers the questions ‘What do we want to do?’, ‘What are we trying to achieve?’, ‘What’s our purpose?’ with a verb. With a word that says this is what we do.

‘Great Art for Everyone’ is missing its verb. What does the Arts Council want to do with ‘Great Art for Everyone’? Does it want to provide it, to offer it, to distribute it, to facilitate it, to enforce it, to share it, to prescribe it, to insist on it, to be it, to carpet-bomb it, to regulate it, to force-feed it, to dangle it, to spread it, to kindle it, to nurture it, to develop it, to buy it, to preserve it, to provoke it?

For me the best explanation for Alan Davey’s ‘unachievable gaffe’ (which frankly seemed not far short of a betrayal of the most honourable, respectable and laudable aims of Arts Council England), is that he simply doesn’t know what that invisible verb is which precedes his mission statement. He speaks as if that verb were a verb of universal conscription, of comprehensive and unyielding enforcement, implying that ACE will fail unless each and every person in the country encounters great art relentlessly and pervasively whether they like it or not.

Well, firstly, I don’t think that is so unachievable, especially if we’re all prepared to accept a more exciting and vital understanding of ‘art’ than Will Gompertz’s lamentably restrictive definition allows (which, as represented in his piece this morning, embraces opera, ballet and not a lot else). And I’m deeply saddened that the leader of the organisation responsible for husbanding the nation’s arts thinks that it is.

And secondly, I don’t think that is what Arts Council England’s mission is. It’s not about administering the arts with statutory ubiquitousness; it’s about making an invitation, and, in order to make that invitation with integrity and sincerity and diversity and relevance, it’s about furnishing every corner of the nation with the opportunity to discover and encounter great art.

It’s bloody difficult, yes. We’re not there yet, no. But probably unachievable?
No Alan, don’t you dare say that.

User-led innovation: A NESTA provocation

July 15, 2010

Sir John Tusa, Sarah Weir & John Holden

Yesterday I and 6 other Clore fellows took part in a symposium hosted by Nesta on the theme of leadership in times of uncertainy. Nesta and the Clore Leadership programme had commissioned each of us to write a provocation on an aspect of contemporary cultural leadership. My paper investigates the sector’s resistance to user-led innovation and attempts to offer some suggestions as to how the sector’s leaders might better embrace or apply some of the fundamental principles underlying this evolving form of activity.

I was particularly interested in how the practical application of values of openness, freedom and co-creation might question or challenge the concept of the role of the professional artist and the received notion of the safe space for creative risk and experientation, where ‘safe’ can often mean ‘closed’.

My article looks at three aspects of resistance:

– responsivity: how can our arts organisations be truly responsive without their artistic autonomy feeling under threat?;

– permission and permissive leadership: how do we create a culture within which we give permission to our users to transgress, to do what we don’t want them to do as much as what we do want them to do?;

– and messiness: innovation by definition is not the hand-maiden of best practice, and if most innovation stems from radicalism, how do we allow for that radicalism without sterilising it in the very process of permitting or legitimising  it?.

I end by looking at the role of institutions and producers in all of this – something I think will become ever more critical in offering a pivotal context for this kind of activity, which can on the one hand protect safe spaces for artistic experiment and on the other make work and creative processes porous for users to access and contribute to.

I gather that all the articles are due to be published on the Clore and Nesta websites, but having received a couple of requests, have decided to publish mine in full here also:

Final EDITED Nesta article M KNIGHT

Harare International Festival of the Arts 2010

May 12, 2010

A short video of some of the musical highlights of the 2010 HIFA festival in Zimbabwe which I was lucky enough to attend:

First twitterings

May 9, 2009

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