I may edit this again in the near future when more things spring to mind (this is draft 6 I believe), but for now here it is!
No Boundaries 2014
Having never attended any of the State of the Arts events before I didn’t have any preconceptions about what this would be like. I wasn’t quite sure what the conference was going to be about or how it would work so I went into the experience with an open mind.
The title itself, “No Boundaries” is a very large ask of any conference. In fact by drawing attention to the word boundaries in the title it makes you acutely aware to look out for any boundaries that do arise – and they did. A few technological boundaries were broken but how much were the boundaries actually stretched when it comes to talking about arts and culture?
The Ticket Structure and Pricing
The idea behind the tiered ticket structure was to allow“a wide range of Arts and Cultural professionals” to attend the conference. The tickets were priced at different tiers depending on the size of the organisation, everything from £60 for independent artists up to £234 for large organisations. This, for me, created the first boundary of the conference. In trying to spread the tickets “evenly” it actually excluded a lot of people from attending. I would particularly have liked to see a ticket bracket for arts organisations that are not funded by public money, so for example the many profit share theatre companies in this area and also the voluntary organisations. And perhaps a tier for low-income individuals and practitioners. The conference was very much weighted from the top downwards with the preference seeming to be on getting the big names and “Cultural Leaders” there rather than those of us on the bottom rungs of the ladder. For a conference whose focus was on “doing not funding”, I think this needs to be addressed next time – just because we don’t have public funding does not mean we don’t have an opinion or anything valuable to bring to a discussion on the arts and culture.
Technology played a huge part in this conference – in fact you could not get away from it. It could have easily been mistaken for a digital conference rather than an arts and culture one. I’m sure some people will argue that this was the point – bringing the two things together in a more cohesive way. I’m not sure – the technology, as brilliant as it was, actually sometimes acted as more of a distraction. Now don’t get me wrong, I love technology and gadgets coming from a technical background but perhaps at times they were just trying to be too clever and showing us what they could do, rather than what they should do. The production and technical teams did an amazing job in keeping all of the technology involved with the conference working – and there was an awful lot of technology to maintain. The whole event was broadcast live over the internet between Bristol & York so that both cities could see and hear everything that happened. This was no mean feat and hats off to the production teams for making this work smoothly.
It was also brilliant to see that subtitles and a British Sign Language interpreter were used to make the content more accessible to all. This was a brilliant achievement and certainly broke boundaries. As one participant said – this has raised the bar and set a benchmark. There is no way back from this now. It can be done and should be done for all future events.
They produced a book, overnight (WOW!), which contained all of the keynote speeches from the first day, a breakdown of all the speeches for the second day and a whole host of responses from Twitter. These were distributed to every participant and will serve as a legacy of the conference and a useful resource for those of us who wished to revisit the speeches later. After the book went to print they were planning to keep updating the online version so that it included the second day of the event as well. I was amazed when they handed me the book – again another brilliant innovation that others should try and replicate in the future.
The online version of the finished book can be found online here:http://nb2014.bookkernel.com
The Conference Itself
Supported by the Arts Council England, British Council and the Local Authorities of Bristol & York you could not get away from the impressive scale of the conference. It was massive and must have cost many thousands of pounds to stage. I was assured by a few of the attendees that it was much better than the State of the Arts conferences that the Arts Council had run before. Having never attended one of those I cannot comment on that.
The organisers hoped that “By sharing provocative ideas from a diverse range of sources, new models, methods and collaborations will grow to shape the future of the arts.”
I would question part of this statement. What provocative ideas? The only time that anyone was even slightly challenged was by the brilliant and articulate Luke Wright who said he:
“Expected to be welcomed at the conference as an artist but felt like he’d wandered into the wrong office”.
A view that I very much empathise with – I didn’t tick any of the magic boxes of our “cultural elite” and floated around the fringe of conversations while our already established “cultural leaders” chatted amongst themselves. Me being me, I did try and break into a few conversations, hovering on the edges and slowly pushing in. This was met by the cold steely stares of the closed groups – who was this unrecognised young person trying to break into their elite circles of conversation. Needless to say I failed miserably.
The conference offered no ice-breakers or opportunities to be introduced into these elitist circles instead you were left wandering around craning your neck to try and read the tiny names printed on people’s shiny lanyards – this resulted in many of us walking around with tilted heads staring at each-other’s chests trying in vain to discover who was who. Another boundary! Thank goodness that there were some familiar faces there or it would have been very uncomfortable!
There was an underlying sense of panic and perhaps even desperation that I haven’t been aware of in the arts until this point. I think the realities of funding cuts and an uncertain future for many organisations was perhaps the cause of this. The fact that funding wasn’t anywhere on the agenda didn’t help matters much.
The argument I would make is – it’s great talking about new ways to work in the future but what point is there in discussing the future when many organisations live in fear that they won’t be there to see it? With more and more Local Authorities and the Arts Council tightening the purse strings and numerous cuts happening weekly, this is the real threat to organisations – not just that they aren’t adapting enough to meet the needs of modern audiences. How can a conference about the future of arts and culture that takes place in a time of austerity not mention funding? You may argue that it was actually refreshing not to hear people talking about money and I would agree if the conference had actually provided us with alternative ways of working that would prepare organisations for budget cuts – it offered us little in this respect.
It also struck me as weird that there was no mention of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). “LEPs are locally-owned partnerships between local authorities and businesses. They play a central role in determining local economic priorities and undertaking activities to drive economic growth and the creation of local jobs.”
See more at: http://www.lepnetwork.org.uk/the-lep-network.html#sthash.0rv0HfSO.dpuf
LEPs are looking more and more likely to be the key source of funding and support for Arts and Cultural organisations in the very near future. As continued evidence emerges about the benefits to the Economy that the arts and culture brings I believe that more and more investment will come through these partnerships and less from the Arts Council and Local Authorities on their own. LEPs are definitely worth keeping a close eye on over the next few years.
I throw the word around as though it is a dirty thing to be sneered at. Whether people like it or not there are quite obvious hierarchies at play within all cultural and arts organisations. I have no problem with people rising to the top of their profession but I do wish that some of them would re-engage with their roots and remember where they themselves came from.
And I would ask this: “If they cannot actively engage with other members of the creative community who are slightly lower down the pecking order than them, then how can they ever possibly hope to engage with their audiences and the people who support their work?”.
Whilst listening to the keynotes and conversations I was very aware that they are full of lingo, which, in itself can create a boundary to “normal” listeners. I’m by no means saying that these speeches should be “dumbed down” but I would merely like to make the point that the language we use is creating a barrier. I look at my journey up the elitist ladder over the last two-and-a-half years (whether I like it or not I have begun this ascent). I recognise the fact that when engaging with some of our cultural leaders my use of language changes, even in writing this report I begin to realise that I’m throwing in words which some people will not be able to relate to. Perhaps it is a camouflage mechanism to try and blend in with those that society tells us we are supposed to look up to? I’m not sure but I do realise that in order for me to speak to bigger organisations my vocabulary has had to grow in an attempt to converse and gain support from bigger, more established companies.
An eclectic mixture of speakers were on-hand throughout the two days to share their thoughts and experiences from a cross-section of cultural organisations. All of them were brilliant in their own way. Some were perhaps more relevant than others but it was a good diverse range of speakers.
The speakers I related to most included Sophie Setter Jerome, an amazing 17 year old who gave a talk about social media and how to use it to connect with young people. How viewers of her YouTube videos had become more than just an audience but as key contributors to her work. She finished by saying
“If you want to engage with young people online, you need to meet us where we’re at. Don’t expect us to come to you.”
One of the reoccurring themes in this conference was around the importance of the audience.
It reminded me of a lot of the things John McGrath discusses in A Good Night Out. McGrath says:
“It is next to impossible to take the existence of various different audiences into account, to codify their possible reactions to a piece of theatre, to evaluate a piece of theatre from within several frameworks. So what do we do? Well, I’ll tell you what most of us do – we take the point of view of a normal person – usually that of a well-fed, white, middle class, sensitive but sophisticated literary critic: and we universalise it as the response.”
Sophie Setter Jerome explained her views on her YouTube viewers:
“I’ve referred to these people who watch my videos as my audience, but in a lot of ways that does them a disservice, because they don”t just watch my videos, they actively engage with them, just as I engage with other people’s content. Their contributions to what you have made are every bit as important as your content itself, it’s a group project and that’s really important to remember.”
Lynsey Merrick from the Lowry explained how they are attempting to embed cultural activities back into the “mainstream” by working with vulnerable and at risk young people. The Lowry is now seen as a key organisation in making this happen.
Vicky Haywood stated,
“Artists need to engage more”
The brilliant Russell Willis Taylor commented,
“Audiences have an increasing appetite for participation, not just passive observation. People want to pay as well as pay… Collaboration is a muscle – the more you use it, the better you get.”
David Lockwood who runs the highly successful Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter reminds us to
“Be connected. To your audience. To your artists. And make sure you occasionally clean the toilets as well!”
Nicholas Lovell, author of the Curve talked about how to make money out of things that are given away for free. He relates this to fans and super-fans. A fan is someone who appreciates what you do, a super-fan is someone who loves what you do and wants to invest in you and your idea. He says,
“Let those who love what you do spend lots of money on things they truly value… Love your community. Love your free fans, they’re the heart of your community. Love you super-fans, they’re going to pay your bills.”
How much do we as artists actually think about our audience?
Do we consider what they expect from a production, what demands they may have?
Howard Barker in Arguments For A Theatre says:
“To take an audience seriously means making demands on it of a strenuous nature. There are people who wish to be stretched, challenged, even depressed by the work of art, and who will make considerable efforts to experience those things.”
John McGrath comments,
“I do believe that there is a working-class audience for theatre in Britain which makes demand, and which has values, which are different from those enshrined in our idealised middle-class audience.”
There was a lot of talk about audiences but it seems not a lot of talk to audiences.
Everyone who spoke identified that the audience are important but there were no real answers on how to directly connect with them. This is where being able to break into discussions would have been incredibly useful. To formalise ideas and an action plan to engage audiences across art forms would have been a brilliant use of this conference and seems like a obviously missed opportunity. Perhaps this is a gap that the My Theatre Matters Campaign can begin to fill?
Sure we all have equal opportunities policies but how many of us can honestly, hand on heart say that we are actively seeking out new ways to ensure that we are truly diverse and equal in what we do?
Nii Sackey from Bigga Fish reminded us how uncomfortable we still are with diversity. He challenges us to
“start to get comfortable our uncomfortable-ness”.
He also said that
“The arts should be less like Downton Abbey and more like the Closing Olympic Ceremony”.
Nothing can take away from the achievement of this conference. It was a massive feat and orchestrated brilliantly by those involved behind the scenes. The talks were interesting and a few good points came out of them. There was nowhere near enough discussion or the physically doing of anything productive though, which seemed a shame as this was a key opportunity having so many of our “cultural leaders” in one place at one time (or perhaps that should be two places?).
I have certainly learned a lot from attending the conference – more what not to do, which isn’t a bad thing. I will use the things I have learned to enrich Theatre Bath’s future events and projects.
It has made me reflect on Theatre Bath a lot more and I want to end with a few of those thoughts now…
The No Boundaries conference has reminded me of how far Theatre Bath has come in the last few years and actually I think we’re doing things right. Working from the bottom upwards has allowed us to engage with more people than it would have if we’d worked from the top down.
I hope that everyone who gets involved with Theatre Bath feels some sense of ownership of it. It has always been my vision that it works with and through the community it supports rather than dictates what that community should do or become.
We will continue to be open to anyone with an interest in theatre, at whatever level that may be – audience members, students, community theatre makers, professionals. Everyone is welcome to get involved and we will hear everyone’s views no matter what they might be.
At a time when funding is increasingly becoming less and less we hope that the Theatre Bath network and united voice we provide can help strengthen the case for theatre and the arts in Bath. As we discovered last October – Bath theatre really does matter and it matters because of those of you who are involved with it. As audience members, as participants, as the makers of magic. For anyone who has ever dared to dream and make that dream a reality by being brave enough to put your imaginations, your souls, out there to be seen by the world. You make Theatre Bath, and without you we would not exist. So keep dreaming, keep imagining, keep pushing boundaries, keep challenging and keep creating the amazing magic through your works of art and we’ll continue to champion and support your work as best as we can.
For more information on the conference and to watch all of the speeches visit:www.nb2014.org
The two books I’ve quoted from (and that I highly recommend you read) are:
A Good Night Out, Popular theatre: Audience, Class and Form by John McGrath – (1996) Nick Hern Books.
Arguments For A Theatre (Third Edition) by Howard Barker – (1999) Manchester University Press.