Having been slightly negative in my preview of the conference, I’m going to start with some positives about it. Firstly it was a national event – if selectively attended – with genuine digital reach via streaming and the flash conference. The flash conference was an innovation allowing for a wider range of voices – in particular artists – to be given a platform. Unfortunately it was squeezed into a corner of the coffee break room and the live artists were compelled to shout over the background noise. Assuming a sota12, integrating it into the main conference would give a genuine addition to the debate.
Secondly, Ed Vaizey was present for a sizeable chunk of the morning, and he heard some very well-made and pointed comments about the environment for the arts, and serious concerns about the future, particularly for arts education and exposure to the arts for young people. Mr Vaizey revealed a worrying attitude that surprisingly, he wasn’t challenged on. Repeating the policy that the DCMS will not intervene in Local Authority decision-making, he suggested that if a Local Authority didn’t fund an arts organisation it was due to “a breakdown in communication” and “a long-term lack of engagement between them”. To say this is not an accurate assessment of the situation is a significant understatement. Memorably, Sandy Nairne made a gentlemanly request for “an elegant u-turn” on funding.
Thirdly, there were some genuinely innovative ideas around funding and developing the culture for arts; notably Peter Bazalgette’s idea for artist-and-arts-organisation generated content for an internet arts channel available via TV screens – and Jonathan Mill’s idea for a “One More Night for Culture” campaign to coincide with the 2012 Olympics. Ed Whiting was inspiring about his new crowdfunding website, http://wedidthis.org.uk/ launched just three weeks ago “dedicated to strengthening the UK arts sector through rewarding its funders. Art for everyone, funded by everyone.”
As a former ACE employee the fighting quote of the day for me was from Dame Liz Forgan, Chair of Arts Council England (ACE), who said: “Our staff are entrepreneurs, impresarios, coaches, investigators and marriage brokers. They are counsellors, experts and advice services. They are not all perfect but I will fight anyone who talks about them as if they were simply ATM machines for doling out dosh.”
But overall the event – which was well organised and clearly the product of a huge amount of work – didn’t quite gel. There were a lot of impressive, knowledgeable and experienced arts professionals present, (and even a few artists) but this collective expertise wasn’t mobilised. It was a day of listening to many very interesting panelists but it lacked enough opportunities for participation and delegate responsibility and empowerment. Somehow the day failed to move our collective thinking and action forward. Was I the only person who felt I was being lectured to?
The drum was repeatedly banged for more collaboration and greater use of digital technologies. Unfortunately, no real-life examples were given that might explain what this meant or contribute to a shared understanding. Many delegates made the point that their organisations already undertake collaborative practice and I sensed a general puzzlement about what greater collaboration or better use of digital technologies might look like in reality. The issue isn’t that greater collaborative practice and use of digital technologies isn’t possible, or indeed, are not positive ideas, but that the big picture nature of references to them wasn’t helpful in communicating how, what or why.
Ed Vaizey’s speech first pressed these buttons and mindful of his remit for digital – which would have been particularly high on the agenda when he worked cross-departmentally with BIS – I hoped he would expand on what he expects from the sector. He didn’t specify however, and I wonder whether there is a hidden agenda here, one that will not become clear until a later policy announcement. Alan Davey, Chief Exec of ACE and co-host, and other ACE delegates, were also low-key, listening rather than expounding. As a delivery-partner for DCMS and a high-level policy-maker in its own right, it would have been helpful to hear more on current ACE thinking on both these areas.
I would echo many of the points made by Lynn Gardner on her Guardian blog, which analyses why the day was important and how it might work better. From my perspective, it was stimulating and enjoyable, but has vastly more potential than was realised. A more democratic participatory structure, more artists and more artists’ practice might help develop its potential.
Back in the old days, conferences were about discussing issues in real depth and coming to conclusions that were expressed in collective resolutions to follow particular policy and actions. Passion, emotion and even tempers would fly as different viewpoints were expressed. This doesn’t happen much anymore, but sometimes I long for conferences to be about more than the intake of information, networking and a day out of the office.