Posts Tagged ‘clore’

Risky Business

November 29, 2009

My thinking about my Clore research paper has been developing over the last few weeks and I’m delighted that the wonderfully imaginative and clear-thinking John Holden has agreed to supervise my research.

Having settled on a draft wording for a stimulus question, I thought I would share my somewhat chaotic thoughts on the topic so far.

What is the leadership role in optimising risk taking in the UK’s subsidised performing arts sector?

I would like to investigate some of the complexities bubbling beneath the received narrative surrounding risk taking in the UK’s subsidised performing arts sector, as I’m not convinced we often talk about them entirely honestly. I’m interested in the complexity of the relationship between artistic risk taking and financial obligation. I’m interested in how the many areas of the sector that have an impact on this issue are intricately interconnected, how practice and process at an individual, organisational and strategic level influence our approach to risk. I’m interested in what scope there is in the sector for failure: it strikes me that if we’re really taking risks, some of the time they’ll fail, they won’t come off, and I’m interested in how much scope there really is for that failure to be seen as fuel to the creative process at large. I think we need failure, I think it feeds us artistically, so I think our attitude to risk taking is wrapped up in our attitude to failure too. I’m interested in the role of leadership in all of this – in where we need the leadership and what the role of the sector at large can or should be in enabling, encouraging and optimising risk taking.

My own experience of the touring theatre sector would suggest that it is becoming increasingly risk-averse as opposed to risk-taking and my interest in exploring the complexities at the heart of this topic stem from a concern that the iteration of a risk-averse approach may lead to a more stagnant sector in the future.

Some of the questions I am keen to explore include:

What potential is there for risk and failure within cultural leadership in the current climate? What is the leadership role in this? At what level? How can leadership allow for, encourage, and embrace failure brought about by risk? How much is leadership actually about being the one who takes the risk, who decides which risks to take and which ones not to take, about being the one who leads the failure? Can failing be leading? In fact, if an arts scene without failure is a stultified and stagnant one that only replicates former ‘success’, does the true and vitalising success of our arts sector depend upon its failures? Failure breeds success; it defines excellence through being a foil, through being a motivation to do better, to tell the truth more truthfully, to speak more powerfully, more honestly. Failure is our drinking water – what if there weren’t any?

How does the subsidised sector negotiate the dichotomous relationship of artistic risk and financial responsibility? How does it remain accountable to its taxpayer-provided income whilst continuing to push the boundaries, to play and experiment freely and with most potential for creativity? Does its sense of public accountability overwhelm its greater responsibility to take risks because of – not in spite of – its receipt of subsidy? Does it self-censor under the perceived weight of financial obligation?

What is the role of development in stimulating and encouraging artistic risk? What do we mean by artistic risk? Can we define it at all adequately? Is risk taking about the heart and risk management about the head? Can any risk assessment process be more than a procedural formality? Is risk taking about individuals, not about organisations or sector-wide approaches? Is it about brave and passionate champions of art, not about sector-wide facilitation? Is it easier or more difficult for long established, well regarded organisations?

How does the approach typical of, necessitated by or aspired to within the subsidised arts sector compare with the approach of the commercial arts sector? And, by extension, how does the approach of the arts sector at large compare to the approach of other sectors, for example the commercial and corporate sectors? Is there anything to learn from the financial sector’s attitude to risk? To its empire-building based upon risk? To successful companies built out of the ashes of failed companies? To insolvency practices and investment strategies based on concepts of varying and assessed risk?

I should add that for me there is also an individual interest at the heart of this research: as someone who has found themselves cast more often than they would wish in the risk averse role as the ‘nay-sayer’ who reigns in, controls, anticipates and problem solves, I want to take a sideways look through the process of this research at my own attitude to risk.

So, having arrived at this punishing and somewhat daunting series of questions, I am beginning at this point by simply reading, thinking, talking, and interviewing, so all contributions and thoughts are most welcome.


Anything of interest?

October 23, 2009

everything is interesting Postcard

The other day I picked up this Kelly Mark postcard from the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham – it caught my eye, it provoked a wry smile, it made me think. At first, I wasn’t sure I agreed with it. Some things I find utterly uninteresting: motor racing, accounts and conversations about walnut trees with my best friend’s ex-boyfriend among them. However, I do of course acknowledge that those same things are greatly interesting to others: my dad, chairmen of boards and the dreaded ex-boyfriend respectively. So in that sense I can accept the artist‘s proposition: one man’s tedium is another man’s thrill; interest is in the interestedness of the beholder, as it were.

This postcard seems particularly pertinent to me right now and its slogan serves as a cosy bedfellow to my Clore fellowship mantra: ‘Be brave. Stay open. Don’t stop learning.’ I have been really challenged over the last few weeks to examine my own learning process, my own surety or otherwise of judgement and my healthy (?) cynicism. When being repeatedly challenged in all sorts of ways, when being provoked as part of a process of encouraging my development, I am aware that my response to something needs to bear as much scrutiny as whatever I’m being asked to consider. So, in the spirit of being brave, open and keen to learn, when I encounter things I feel to be problematic, poorly done or simply missing the point, rather than feeling frustrated by and dismissive of them as I usually do, I’m enjoying calmly assessing my response to them and analysing why I feel that way. And sure enough, I’m learning as much from that self-interrogation as I would do from the more passive admiration of exemplary practices and inspirational experiences.

In place of my usual expressions of dissatisfaction, I’m trying to ask – and in fact finding it increasingly easy and instinctive to ask – questions such as: ‘Why am I disengaged / angered / frustrated / dissatisfied?’; ‘Why doesn’t this play / conference / event work?’; ‘Why am I bored by this format?’; ‘Why am I unable to engage with this speaker?’; ‘Why am I being resistant to this approach?’. All of which, after an appropriate amount of self-criticism-cum-soul-searching, leads to the reciting of a more positive catechism: ‘How might I approach this differently to feel more engaged / less frustrated?’; ‘How are others able to appreciate this and what am I missing to enable me to do so also?’; ‘How might I have organised this event / structured this format / contextualised this experience differently?’; ‘How might these pitfalls be avoided?’; ‘How can I ensure I am able to see the flaws in my own work as clearly?’; ‘How might I get more out of this?’.

Of course, what I am finding is that if I answer these questions honestly and with due pause for thought, once I have gone through the initial phase of frustration or disappointment with an experience, I then find I am able to learn more from it than had the experience been a success in the first place. I should stress that these experiences are in the minority: in the main I am finding inspiration, stimulation and delight all over the place. And while there is real value and joy in meeting and learning from experts and role models, and from engaging in intelligent conversation with stimulating peer groups and sophisticated thinkers, I am also learning that what I can learn from less satisfactory experiences can on occasion be more salient.

I cannot, for example, ever hope to emulate Tim Smit – I do not have his unorthodox combination of infectious passion and radicalism – or Michael Kaiser – I do not have his levels of self-discipline, blinkered determination and relentless single-mindedness. I have found listening to them both recently to be hugely memorable, utterly inspiring, refreshing and deeply significant experiences. But I know that I can never do what they do how they do it. So there is something reassuringly practical in the process of analysing less inspirational, less convincing, less good experiences and challenging myself to meet my own criticism square on and figure out how I might better it were I in a situation to do so.

I don’t of course always know the answers; on many occasions I only know that I don’t know. And even if I think I know, I don’t for one second presume I could execute the theory any better than others who I feel have failed. But what I do know is that I’m beginning to find it a very useful process of self-awareness and self-perception, and therein, I hope, it offers me some promise of self-improvement in the dim and distant future.

Beneath the labels

September 23, 2009

Today’s afternoon session on the Clore Leadership programme, led by Sandy Nairne and Gus Casely-Hayford, focussed on the issue of diversity in the arts. It’s a subject that I have thought on a lot over the last few years, having worked for companies whose work has stemmed from communities who often find themselves in a minority of one sort or another, but my response to the session was more complicated and more challenging than I had expected. So before my head hits the pillow for the night, I want to work through some of this complexity.

As expected, the discussion was relatively wide-ranging, although, as ever in time-limited conversations, only able to skim the surface of some intricate and deeply personal issues. Topics touched on included identity (both created by and in protest against imposed labels), concepts of the mainstream and the margins, of nationalism and interculturalism, and of reductiveness and homogeneity. Participants in the discussion included people of various nationalities, ethnicities, and sexualities.

Despite believing passionately in the importance and relevance of the conversation, I did not contribute, and felt increasingly uncomfortable about my inability to participate. I realised that, coming as I do from various communities which are all traditionally representative of the UK mainstream – white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class – I felt increasingly unable to enter the conversation, for fear of being seen to be an inappropriate spokesperson on the issue. I found myself very wary of errors of imposition, of assumption, of cultural ventriloquism: colonialism by another name. Whoever’s story it was to tell, or point to make, I certainly didn’t feel that it was mine.

And yet, through hesitancy on joining the discussion, I worried that I was guilty of the equal but opposite crime of appearing not to engage, not to acknowledge or admit the importance of the conversation. Something that couldn’t be further from the truth.

With my path through life having been inadvertently smoothed by belonging to multiple majorities, I now find it deeply difficult to know how to enter and support the conversation around diversity without, by default, reinforcing the voice of those already dominant majorities to the detriment of voices that have for too long gone unheard. I am rarely, if ever, referred to as white, heterosexual or able-bodied: they may be my labels, but they are ones that go largely unmentioned. My white, heterosexual, able-bodied experience is rarely remarked on in those terms. I pass under the radar, without having to live up to or shake off assumptions about or categorisations of my identity (/identities). Consequently, I do not want my voice in a conversation to strengthen a mainstream identity against which those who identify with minority indentities have to struggle to be heard in their own words.

In splendid isolation – Bore Place

September 15, 2009

So finally, after months of growing anticipation, my Clore Fellowship journey has officially begun, and I find myself at the fabled Bore Place – an organic farm cum retreat in the depths of Kent, where internet connection is gloriously temperamental and where mobile phone reception is non-existent. As the first chapter in our journey, all this year’s fellows – we are known as the Clore 6’s, being the sixth annual cohort – have gathered for a fortnight’s input, discussion, stimulation, debate, and, apparently, a lot of organic cake. It feels splendidly remote – our main connection with the outside world is the stack of newspapers on the breakfast table, although to be honest these in the main seem to be ignored in favour of unusually vivid and incisive morning conversation over toast and tea.
We are a group of 23 fellows, mostly strangers to each other – with the exception of the initial day conference in June – until 48 hours or so ago, but the combination of this provocative fortnight with the isolation of our temporary home is a heady one, and encourages boundaries to be broken down quicker than perhaps many of us would be used to. Something of a mantra for our experience was articulated by way of introduction on day one: “Be brave. Stay open. Don’t stop learning.” and already the conditions of our visit here certainly encourage, indeed almost necessitate, the first two of those. The sharing of ideas, abstracts, principles and aspirations with each other can feel surprisingly intimate and exposing, but since it is also clear that the rewards the programme has to offer are likely to be afforded in greatest abundance to those who give themselves to the experience entirely, it is also surprisingly easy to open yourself to the challenge of it in the safe space created amongst a group of formidably bright, interesting, sparky, like-minded colleagues.
Shortly before arriving here, all fellows were asked to submit – purely for the eyes of the rest of the cohort – a paragraph on what was most important to us. It dawned on me then that even a simple exercise like this could present a challenge of intimacy, of sharing, of exposure. It seemed to me that there was only really one way of answering this question: to answer it deeply, wholly, perhaps painfully, truthly; to give myself to the articulation of my most precious loves and trust in a group of near strangers to receive my answer openly, supportively, sensitively. It felt like a kind of nakedness.
I suspect this is only a gentle first exercise in a complex learning process that, in order to deliver its richest lessons, depends on my making myself vulnerable. But just now, with the first small hurdles behind me and an incipient trust in the community of my fellow fellows, that vulnerability doesn’t seem quite so challenging as it first did.

The Things That Matter To Me The Most
My husband, marriage, friends, family, and my home. Travelling, opening my eyes, learning, thinking. Memories, capturing and sharing them. Music. Doing my best, earning respect from those I respect. Being stimulated by what I do. Having the health and energy to live life to the full. The necklace my mum gave me on my wedding day. Old photos. Being able to believe that the future has exciting potential. Freedom and independence. Having the courage to be unconventional, but the integrity to be true and honest about it, not gratuitous. Having time to be frivolous. Sharing a bottle with old friends. Having private time and space to be myself. Tolerance, difference, fairness, intelligence. Books. Succeeding at challenges. Improving. Making the most of an opportunity. My violin. Perspective and passion, indulgence and discipline in equal measure.

Clore Fellowship research: from many acorns

July 31, 2009

A couple of days ago I arrived home from one of those wearisome days at work to be cheered by the post awaiting me on my doormat: for once there was no nuisance junk mail, no pesky bills even, just two delightful packages. One, a cd of the wonderful veteran Cuban guitarist / singer Eliades Ochoa – a present from my husband currently 8000 miles away on work – and the other, my contract for the Clore fellowship I’m about to embark on.

And the latter, of course, re-ignited my thinking about the Clore fellowship experience awaiting me just round the corner now. In a couple of weeks’ time, I have a meeting with the Clore staff to discuss ideas and plans for the year, and the combination of this appointment with a renewed awareness that the start of this journey is now very imminent has prompted me to turn my attention to articulating some of the rather vague thoughts that have been circling in my head for the last few months.

One of the elements of the fellowship I am particularly looking forward to is the research: fellows are asked to produce a 20,000 word paper on an aspect of cultural leadership that interests them in the course of their year, a process that is supervised by a university-based academic. I gather that mine might be a rather odd attraction to this part of the fellowship – I think it can be a daunting part of the programme, or for some people it can seem far too akin to ‘homework’ to be met with a groan. I, though, have to confess to missing the academic rigour and intellectual stimulant of that sort of process: I certainly feel my brain hasn’t worked in that way since university, and although my working life has most definitely not been short on challenges, they’ve been of a very different kind and haven’t stretched the old grey matter in anything like the same cerebral way. I am well aware that my brain doesn’t currently feel capable of the sorts of academic gymnastics it enjoyed in my precocious student years, so I am looking forward to once again grappling with thoughts, ideas, concepts, principles, abstracts and hypotheticals. Although, this time, with hopefully less precociousness and more professional experience to rough the neat abstract theories up a little, and bring a bit of realistic grit and profanity to the holiness of thinking.

I don’t feel anything like ready to settle on a particular topic to research as yet, but I have got as far as collating some half-articulated thoughts on various areas I’m interested in. My hope is that one or other of these little acorns might sprout some shoots which hold enough promise for developing into a full paper in due course. My embryonic subjects in need of much further thought are as follows:

1. Presenting international theatre
What is the role of the cultural leader in creating a context for international work? Whose story is it to tell? What foundations need to be laid – and how? – in order for it to communicate with an audience / reach its widest audience? What are the effects of globalisation on the creation and development of cultural voices? Does the international reach of these voices mean they are being diluted or strengthened? Does the internationalisation of theatre benefit audiences and what role needs playing in order to best serve audiences with this globalised cultural offer?

2. The non-creative creative
What is the role of a ‘non-creative’ cultural leader (i.e. someone not defined by that term ‘creative’, usually referring to directors, designers, choreographers, etc.)? How can a ‘non-creative’ leader be creative? Is there a place for ‘non-creative’ creativity in the cultural sector? How can they grow a creative space / organisation? What is the relationship between ‘creatives’ and ‘non-creatives’? Is there a creativity in the silent space between them, in the tension?

[And, by way of a sub-question: how can I be a ‘non-creative’ when my best thinking is done at 1am?]

3. Autocracy versus democracy in the arts sector
Leadership versus collaboration; hierarchy versus non-hierarchy; leadership versus democracy? Are these things in conflict with each other within arts organisations? Are they mutually exclusive, complementary, co-existential or symbiotic? Is there room for strength of artistic vision and principles of collaboration to co-exist? Is there a benefit to this? Where do autocratic and democratic models of cultural leadership serve the arts best?

4. Leadership and risk
What potential is there for risk and failure within cultural leadership in the current climate? How can leadership allow for, encourage, and embrace failure brought about by risk? How much is leadership actually about being the one who takes the risk, who leads the failure? Can failing be leading? In fact, if an arts scene without failure is a stultified and stagnant one, does the success of our arts sector depend upon its failures? Failure breeds success; it defines excellence through being a foil, through being a motivation to do better, to tell the truth more truthfully, to speak more powerfully, more honestly. Failure is our drinking water – what if there weren’t any?
[Some of these thoughts came to me during a Metapod Connect session this afternoon in which Pete Ashton mentioned the Failcamp scheduled to take place in Birmingham in October – a glorious celebration and sharing of spectacular failures and the lessons resulting from these experiences.]

5. Only Connect: touring companies and their audiences
How do non-building-based touring companies grow and maintain a relationship with a nationally disparate audience? Can a touring company lay claim to an audience as their own rather than borrowing them from a receiving house? What chance is there for cultural leadership to create the conditions for growing that audience from afar?

I think at the moment the ones that seem like the choicest pick of the bunch are the thoughts about presenting international work and about risk and failure. Two topics that perhaps are related, and perhaps they seem the most interesting because they raise the most – or the most difficult – questions.

I genuinely want to challenge myself to research questions I don’t already think I know how to approach, or about which I’ve already made up my mind. I want to scare myself. I want to open up a void and dive in to its surprises.