We love a celebratory list in the UK. From the Sunday Times Rich List and the Courvoisier 500 to Nesta’s New Radicals, every year brings a new hierarchy of brilliant, bright or affluent people for us to admire, envy or challenge.
However this year one list has certainly got everyone talking more than most. In February Radio 4 Woman’s Hour compiled their inaugural power list – a list of the 100 most powerful women operating in the UK today. It has not been uncontroversial. Eyebrows have raised at a number of issues – is the queen really the most powerful woman in Britain? Is the version of power depicted too traditional and narrow? Does this list show us how far women have come in equality? Or does it show us how little progress has been made?
The stats about women’s representation, everywhere from the boards of FTSE 100 companies (17.3%, and going down) to the democratic system (men outnumber women 4-1 in the UK Parliament) make for grim reading. The RSA Fellowship itself is more than two thirds male, so we’ve got a way to go to reach equality, something we’re working on. (One fact we are proud of however is that women have been Fellows since we were founded in 1754 – not true of most membership organisations.)
As often is the case with these lists we were happy to recognise several faces as RSA Fellows – one of whom was Rosemary Squire OBE. Rosemary is the founder, co-owner and joint chief executive of Ambassador Theatre group, the UK’s largest theatre owner/operator with 39 venues UK-wide, a major international producer, and a leader in theatre ticketing services through ATG tickets.
In the spirit of sharing the experiences of RSA Fellows, and (in the month of International Women’s Day) the experiences of strong women, I went to ask Rosemary about the career and life of Britain’s 16th most powerful woman.
You’ve been named as the 16th most powerful woman in the Women’s Hour top 100 in the UK. How do you feel?
Great! I’m particularly excited that theatre, the industry I’ve worked all my life in, is up there with all these “proper” businesses. Theatre is a real business in this country and it is important it is recognised. I’m also pleased for all the people who have supported me to get here.
What did you think of the list, and how important are lists like this?
I think it makes you think about what is influential. It is an interesting list. Many of the other women are in industries, like politics, where they’re still massively under represented.
I know quite a lot of the women on there, and I thought there were a couple of things I saw we all had in common:
The first, boring as it may seem, is education, education, education. All those years of training and university and post graduates – at the time you might think well why am I doing this? But actually it provides all kind of skills that everybody uses, whatever they do. Education gives you the skills to be able to use the opportunities when they come up in life.
The second is role models. There is nothing more powerful that someone you respect and can identify with to be able to say “you know what, you can really do it. I’ve done it, if I can do it you can do it.” I’ve had that in my life and it is really important.
Who were your role models?
My Mother and my Aunt – they were unusual in their generation. All my family were grammar school kids, my Mum and Dad both went on to university in the war, and my mum was somebody who had studied, come up the hard way with really tough challenges at the end of the war. They were desperate to get teachers out in classrooms so she went out to teach, aged twenty, sixty kids in the class. Those skills have stayed with her for life, she’s always been prepared to turn her hand to anything, and that was a great role model for me and my sister.
They were the first generation to go to university. For my sister and I it was an assumption – yes of course we would.
There are 30-40 million visits to the theatre each year in the UK. And we sell 10 million tickets. So that is powerful.
You run ATG with your husband and you have three children. How do you manage the work/life balance?
I don’t think I get it right all the time. Although I think my kids are great, so in that regard I may have done a bit of it right!
I’ve been very lucky to have my mother down the road; she has been a huge help to me. All of my kids have great relationships with her. It has been a great safety net – a lot of people don’t have that.
I’ve had other support, including great nannies. I’ve always tried to be fair about looking after people, the support staff who help you. People undervalue how important it is to look after them – pay them properly, treat them with respect as you would any other employee, and don’t take them for granted. It’s about building that safe and secure network of people around you. My nanny has worked for me for 12 years.
The thing I think I’ve had to sacrifice is friendships, and a social life. Particularly in the last three-four years we’ve been so busy, since we acquired our biggest competitor in the UK, I just don’t have time. It narrows down to what you can do, you have to distil and prioritise, and the family and kids are my priority. It does all come at a price.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Definitely. I remember the days of women’s groups and selling Spare Rib at university. Literally reading The Female Eunuch on the beach aged sixteen and thinking my god this has completely changed how I see the world. Things haven’t changed. Don’t lets kid ourselves that the glass ceiling isn’t there, it is.
You know, having a child is like having a love affair, you fall in love with that child, and that love stays with you forever. I have my children in my head at any one time, somehow they’re just there.
How did you deal with it?
I think you have to have confidence in yourself. And you need a role model. I’ve known Christina Smith since the early 80s and she was brilliant, I remember her distinctly saying “well if I can buy buildings and do property deals, so can you – it’s easy.” She gave me that positive confidence to realise things aren’t as complicated as they appear to be.
There’s an awful lot of mythology about lots of things. Being able to ask questions about something you don’t understand and not feeling an idiot, that’s something I’ve gained with more experience. I now know its not stupid to ask. Anything can be explained.
Is there anything in your life that has nearly blown you off course?
I think things would have been different for me if I hadn’t had Jenny (Rosemary’s first child Jenny has Down’s Syndrome).
I was in my 20s, and you do think you’ve got a charmed life. I got a first at university, I went off and did postgraduate scholarship, I got a nice job and a nice boyfriend and then we’re getting married and it’s all lovely. You assume, you take for granted, that your child is going to be healthy.
In a way it threw me back more into work, because I found it difficult at home. It wasn’t this experience I imagined. She used to wake up 8 and 10 times a night until she was 13, it was a nightmare in lots of ways.
So that could have easily thrown me off course. It made me ill in lots of ways, I had physical symptoms to deal with too. But then I had another child pretty quickly and I’ve been lucky enough to have another child in my 40s. It’s been fine long term. And in a way having a child with special needs does give you a perspective as well. A lot of the issues that are key are crucial for Jenny like money, housing, how to occupy yourself. It is very grounding.
You know, having a child is like having a love affair, you fall in love with that child, and that love stays with you forever. I have my children in my head at any one time, somehow they’re just there. I’m sure your mother does too. I’m sure I’m in my mother’s head.
It’s nice to be able to show others our work, especially my grand parents who live far away. Laura Warick-Student
As part of my role within the RSA I am lucky to be able to constantly see the creativity of students of our Family of Academies. On a recent visit to Arrow Vale and Ipsley I saw some highly original and thought provoking pieces; this is of course true across many of the nation’s schools, youth centres and community spaces. At Whitley Academy the same is true. They are especially passionate about student artwork and creative thinking.
Staff, students and parents are really proud of the original and inspiring student work. It is great to share! Lorraine Allen-Principal
Milliner to the stars, Stephen Jones, visited the school for a day in early November of 2011 to advise pupils doing A-level Art and BTEC Art on how to design a hat. They handed in their finished designs as course work to count towards their final marks. Mr Jones designs hats for celebrities as diverse as Marilyn Manson and Beyoncé Knowles at his studio in London’s Convent Garden.
The Principal Lorraine Allen has been considering her students exceptional artwork and felt that students work should not be kept behind Whitley Academies four walls. She has been working with staff to create a belief that students should be working to “be the best they can be”. From then on it became a case of how student art work was shown to a wider audience and not when. The school worked in partnership with students and agreed that Whitley Arts would be developed as an online portal to promote and inspire current and budding artists from Whitley Academy. There are separate pages to promote work created by students in Key Stages 3, 4 and 5 along with an e-commerce page which allows anybody to purchase works of art that students have created in a range of different medium from postcards to A2 canvas prints.
Whitley Arts will underpin learning and interest in the Creative Arts at Whitley Academy by using student artwork as a focal point, and by encouraging a culture of innovation, inspiration, and personal development. The RSA/RBS report Disrupt Inc. highlights the need to allow young entrepreneurs to develop in their own way. Hopefully Whitley Arts will help open students eyes to the possibility of creating work that is admired and coveted by the public in the future. Through negotiations with artists and the Academy it was agreed that artists would receive 25% of the sale price of each piece sold with the remainder used to support the arts, the students, and their learning at Whitley Academy. Please visit the site to see some of the creative work developed by students.
I am sure our students are as proud as I am, especially as it is now no longer just our community who gets to see our students talent, but also an international audience. Miss Riach-Creative Arts Teacher
The RSA’s Family of Academies are continually looking at ways to improve student learning and enhance their experiences. If you have any ways of supporting the Academies in the arts or any other field then please feel free to contact me via email at email@example.com or on twitter where I’m @pickfordrich
Next month on the 18th of April we will be hosting our second Fellowship Roadshow. RSA Academy in Tipton will be opening its doors to Fellows who feel they can support the work of staff and students. Please contact me for more details.
Kayte Judge FRSA ran ‘We Are Bedford’, a project supported by RSA Catalyst that used empty shops as creative spaces. In this guest blog she shares her experience of setting up pop-up shops.
The number of empty shops in our town centres continues to grow year on year. For many, this slow and steady emptying of our retail spaces is a creeping portend of doom. And while, no doubt, the changes to our high streets and town centres are inarguable, what we cannot say with any certainty is what will happen next. We simply do not know.
What is clear is that retail is changing, and both large and small retailers are leaving town. Those voids offer an opportunity for innovation and playful reinterpretation of our social spaces. Pop-up shopkeepers have emerged, seeing opportunity in the remains of the retail boom and bust, trying, failing, trying again. They have been leaving tracks. Lessons have been learnt and can be shared.
I have been involved in empty shop work since I was awarded RSA Catalyst support in 2010. I applied in order to explore the use of empty shops as arts venues. I knew exactly which shop I would use and what I would do in it. I imagined hot flasks of tea, blankets and incongruous deckchairs, fingerless gloves, hot breath billowing into the unheated shop air and a cellist playing on the raised lino clad flooring where the till used to be. It was going to be beautiful.
What I didn’t know was that the shop was owned by an offshore pension fund, an absentee landlord of the most inaccessible kind. It wasn’t to be. Instead, myself and another Bedfordian, Erica Roffe, were offered, in an almost spooky act of serendipity, seven empty shops in a new development. Seven. Seven unfinished, un-floored, un-heated, un-lit, shops in one area of town. We formed a nebulous ‘thing’ called ‘We Are Bedford’ and 20 cold weeks later the area was brought to life through just £1000 RSA Catalyst funding, an army of volunteers and an almost supernatural amount of willpower. Over 4000 people visited the arts galleries (there were three), audio art installation, burlesque life drawing classes, craft space, live music venues, tours, archaeological sites, buskers, junk modelling workshops and boutique, authors talks, and ticketed performances. It was March 2011. Before the year was out, and via a further Catalyst fund, we would open a Pop Up gallery, a ‘Monster Draw Big Draw’ event, and a six week Pop Up Emporium stocking only locally made or designed goods. We then decided to spend the money in the best possible way: to offer a bursary to others in grants of up to £500. By winter 2012 the money was spent, lessons were learnt and my pop up shop keeping days were over.
Throughout my work I had the support of Dan Thompson, the founder of the Empty Shops Network, author of the Empty Shop Toolkit and a leading light of empty shop work on a national scale. An RSA fellow, Dan, (based in the South East) has since authored Pop Up People, a report which gathers the data and examples of pop up and empty shop work throughout the country, and Pop Up Business for Dummies. Both of these documents feature the work of We Are Bedford as a case study among many and would be a vital first port of call for anyone thinking of treading this path. For me his support was vital and subtle. It wasn’t so much the practical support offered (although that was invaluable) it was the moral support. Pop Up shopkeepers exist in the margins and loopholes of a bureaucracy that is designed to squash innovation and it can be a scary ride at times. They are human, and vulnerable and responsible for everything that happens in those empty shops. Dan listened when I needed to rant about paperwork, or rates bills, or the madness of it all. He came to visit.
We Are Bedford was a temporary project, powerful, but of its time. It had to end. Others have had more staying power. Reading based RSA Fellow Suzanne Stallard is an artist and founder of Jelly, an energetic charity championing the creative arts. Jelly started in an empty shop space due for demolition under a compulsory purchase order in 1993 with a six month lease and, 20 years on, jelly has grown, emerged and changed shape dependent on it’s location and space, occupying and using over 50 properties. Currently they are using a nightclub (as a sound and performance art space), 3-storey office block (as a creative space and studios) and various empty shop fronts for pop-up shop window exhibitions. Since the beginning jelly has played a strategic role in Reading’s cultural life, enabling art to appear in unexpected places and creating opportunities for people to look on and join in. Much of their work now involves working in partnership with emerging art groups, local communities and they believe in the power of the arts to delight, intrigue, challenge and enrich. Jelly is committed to forming creative alliances and partnerships that encourage art and cultural life to flourish, responding to the opportunities with the changes in the High Street. This has been a long-term commitment to empty shop work and is undertaken voluntarily. You can find out more about how they continue to survive on their website.
There is plenty to be done in empty shops. Pop-up shops are a place for playful piloting, quick and dirty prototyping, fast failing, and, sometimes, soaring successes. The town centres of the UK need new ideas. If you have an idea, or have seen an empty shop opportunity there is information available, although beware: while empty shop problems seem universal, the solutions are often hyper-local.
Key points to consider if you want to set up your pop up shop
- Research your target property’s landlord
- Prepare to persuade your landlord to be amenable to pop up shops
- Surround yourself with helpful volunteers
- Be creative – and exciting – this will attract supporters
- Take advice from others with experience – with a mentor for the tough times
- Be flexible, and be resilient
Look for the long term – and remember, fail to plan, plan to fail.
To get you started visit the following sites and take a look at the documents below
- The Empty Shop Network
- The Pop Up People Report
- Pop Up Business for Dummies
- Meanwhile Space
- Meanwhile Project
Get in touch
For those of you in the South Central region Suzanne and myself are happy to help where we can. We are working women who juggle a number of things, children included, so please allow us up to five days to respond. You can contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
If you are located in the South East region, then Dan Thompson would be willing to help – again via email firstname.lastname@example.org
Good luck planning for your own pop up shops!
Kayte Judge and We Are Bedford also feature in the RSA Catalyst video
Every now and again I have a really inspiring meeting that draws together common threads from our work in Arts and Society with thinking from other people and the wider world. Yesterday was one such day. I was meeting the artist Lucy Steggals about the Creative Intersections project we are doing with King’s College London and our recent event showcasing the journey of this work with participating artists and academics – and recent learning and reflection from Arts and Social Change in Citizen Power Peterborough came flooding into the frame whilst hearing about Lucy’s experiences in Gravesend and the Isle of Sheppey.
We’ve just published a case study on the artist’s residencies. Called ‘Context Matters’ this is a reflective and observational document by Richard Ings about the experiences of the two residencies that I have curated for Arts and Social Change. Very much intended to be about sharing learning and experiences, this takes the first-hand views of the two artists, Joshua Sofaer and Simon Grennan along with the two community groups they worked with; Morland Court Residents’ Association and Peterborough Street Pastors respectively. This coupled with the Made in Peterborough commissions programme; the first with Encounters who devised the Take Me To project and the second with Joanna Rajkowska’s Peterborough Child sculpture – consolidated much of the fascinating consideration and challenge that needs to be borne out when working in ‘Any Place’ successfully where there are mutual outcomes needed for the many parties involved from the funder to the commissioner, from local residents to the artists themselves.
In embarking on the journey of working in communities with the arts, much of the consideration lies in where and how the artwork is conceived. Initially informed by the brief given to the artist and underpinned by the strength of support to the ideas within it from the local partnership, there needs to be a framework with which to engage at the beginning. This is then followed by flexibility so the ideas can be shaped and informed by local conversation and context. This need for flexibility and open acknowledgement across the stakeholders is crucial. We don’t know for sure how it is going to proceed until we’ve met the local people. If the first path chosen is not working then another needs to be taken and this takes time.
Establishing the trust for this to take place with the people you are working with is also paramount – and as an artist (and in our case, commissioner/producer) you give something of yourself to that. Friendships are established, mutual professional bonds develop, time (and sometimes budget) is spent way beyond the project brief to get the job done because you become invested in it and the people involved. You become part of the group.
Different artists work in different ways of course. For some, their approach means engagement locally begins once the work is installed and for others the work is informed entirely through local people making the decisions on the artwork. There exists in the middle and at the edges a process of co-design and co-creation. In introducing an artist to a place, much is led by the nature of the introduction to the local community. As an ‘outsider’ in many cases, whether it is as a facilitator, workshop leader or artist, this can play a significant role in the expectations and understanding of people locally – who if to be engaged need to have a sense of: Who are you? Why are you here? Who is the work for? Why should I bother to get involved?
All of which needs to be skilfully woven with the artist’s own integrity and practice. This is not about the artist dictating direction necessarily but about having a voice to shape and lead the project among all the parties involved.
In turn, this throws up the fascinating subject of where the art is created and where the real value of the work is held for the different people and stakeholders involved. In ‘socially engaged’ projects, sometimes it is necessary to pull back from the final product as being the end game (and therefore the sign of success) to instead consider the journey and process that has been crafted and experienced.
To quote Richard Ings in the case study “there is, in artist residencies generally, a creative tension between the artist’s prime function, which is to make art, and they social role they may be asked to play (or find themselves playing) – and about the role that the group or community they are working with should play in the realisation of this art”
If you are interested in these considerations and challenges, socially engaged artist Hannah Hull and ixia are exploring these ideas through the Critical Spaces network. Hannah is bringing together artists and conversations along this socially engaged arts/artists working with people theme to generate an artist-led critical voice and practice in the public realm.
There will also be more to follow from the RSA as the full suite of case studies and evaluation of Arts and Social Change, and Citizen Power more broadly are published online in the coming months.
Last night in the Great Room at the RSA, there was a wonderful magic show and it felt like the space had truly opened up, not only for flexible use but also for a different kind of interaction. I sat next to an architect for the event and we had a good conversation about how space itself shifts how we engage with each other. In the arts world, the shape of a working space is almost always in some form of circle in an environment where it is evident that you can also get up and move, and create different formations of seating arrangements. But also, there is often an attention to the space itself as one of invitation to engage without there being a set interpretation of what this might look like; in other words, flexible and inclusive – anyone can enter and participate. In this way, the arts are not only for those who know about the arts and the Great Room is not only for the great and the good.
This reminded me of the Creative Gatherings we have run in the Arts and Social Change programme in Citizen Power Peterborough which I have blogged about in the past. These gatherings are for anyone in the city who engages with the arts, whether this engagement lies in a professional or voluntary capacity and are held in a variety of settings (the idea of arts happening everywhere and belonging to everyone). So, we have held them in amongst other places, a railway museum, a community college, a pub, outside in a community allotment and this summer, as part of a walk across the city. As you will see from this last link to the Creative People’s Walk, they are about finding hidden resources in the city, creative gems that offer up a delight in being in this place. One of the guides for this walk was the Poet in Residence for the Broadway Cemetery – surely another unique aspect of Peterborough.
A key characteristic of these gatherings is that they are rooted in doing things together, a creative practice of one sort or another, and not simply a talking shop. They take as their prompt, the RSA theme of reflecting and doing, action and research, expressing something in new ways and then reflecting upon this with others. Without doubt, this has generated new networks, new friendships and new ways of thinking about the arts and the city itself. We have recently published a case study on this strand, More Purposeful Together.
But getting back to the magic show last night, it was a delight and it reminded me of our collective need to ring-fence a space for delight in our lives, not just because it is fun but because it offers a motivation to get together with others to experience a communal pleasure. An experience that militates against individualism and self-interest. Could this role of delight also contribute to Matthew Taylor’s notion of recasting individualism and paying attention to what motivates us to volunteer? Long may magic in the Great Room reign!
RSA Catalyst awarded a £2,000 grant to life Fellow William Makower to support his development of a national funding scheme for our arts and cultural institutions and venues. The Catalyst panel was impressed by the strategic idea of a national digitial solution, the work done to date and the level of commitment gained across the sector, such as Director of the National Portrait Gallery Sandy Nairne FRSA. The RSA grant was used to develop the graphics for the launch including a representative movie of the scheme in action. In this guest blog William sets out the thinking behind the idea, what’s happened to date and how Fellows can get involved.
Arts and cultural institutions are going through a critical shift. 30% cuts from the Arts Council due to a reduction in funding by £350m for the next three years, resulting in over a hundred organisations with their future threatened, coupled with reduction in spending by 24% by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, paints a bleak landscape.
But hope is budding despite the recent downpours; new figures from Arts and Business highlight a growth of 6.4% in individual giving to £382.2m last year.
The task for institutions now is to grab hold of this growth in individual giving and build its momentum. The key to doing this? Digital fundraising, utilising mobiles, tablets and new technological platforms.
The National Funding Scheme, available from March next year, will provide a means for visitors and supporters to use their mobiles and tablets to direct funds to the arts and cultural institutions they wish to support. The scheme’s aim is to raise new funds for the sector through mass giving.
The scheme will address the following issues:
- Introduces new donors to cultural institutions by providing a national, simple and accessible means
- Giving needs to tap into the point of high emotional impact (in the cafe after the exhibition, reading a plaque, at the encore etc.)
- Providing additional means for international tourists to give to our cultural institutions and organisations
- Providing a means to collect donor details and therefore begin a conversation with the donor
- The need to ‘change the language’ around giving – it is not just for the wealthy, but something all can participate in
The National Funding Scheme will provide a means for visitors and supporters to use their mobiles and tablets to direct funds to the arts and cultural institutions they wish to support
Findings to date
Panlogic, with grants from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Rothschild Foundation and others carried out over 85 face-face interviews with senior individuals across the cultural landscape and had nearly 950 responses to their online consultation. These findings, along with those identified by Ipsos Mori’s independent research found out:
- That for 48% of respondents something that shows what is being done with a donation will increase giving
- 73% of respondents want to allow donors to understand specific things that individual institutions want to raise money for
- 44% of respondents said a system with flexibility would encourage them to give more to arts and cultural institutions
- 31% of respondents said they had made a contribution to an arts or cultural institution in the last 12 months
On July 2nd 2012 Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Media, Olympics and Sport, Sandy Nairne FRSA, and I announced the scheme at a launch event hosted by the National Portrait Gallery.
The launch was attended by arts professionals, journalists and other industry observers. Sandy’s speech was followed by the Secretary of State giving a warm welcome to the initiative followed by me giving the details behind the scheme. The RSA grant paid for the graphics and illustrations of the product at the event.
We are looking for Fellows who can provide expertise with data, licence sales, mobile payments and marketing and communications. In addition we are looking for Trustees for the charity we are setting up to run the solution, who have the following experience/expertise:
- A senior figure with arts/cultural/heritage background that could possibly chair the trustees
- An ex-development director of a UK arts/cultural/heritage organisation
- Strong financial expertise and controls
we are looking for Fellows with expertise in data management, licence sales, mobile payments and marketing and communications
More information, including photos/transcripts/invite list and the full research can be seen at www.nationalfundingscheme.org
William Makower is founder of the National Funding Scheme and CEO of Panlogic. you can contact him via email@example.com
If you have an idea to tackle a social problem in a new way, visit www.thersa.org/catalyst
A while back, I wrote here about a workshop organised by London-based RSA Fellows looking at issues affecting young people. One of the projects discussed then was a collaboration between two RSA Fellows who have been working together to pool their very different skills.
Matthew Gansallo from the Natural History Museum runs the Young Graduates for Museums and Galleries (YGMG) programme, which aims to open up access to employment in the sector. He’s collaborated with Rob Reed, a talented freelance illustrator, to produce a guide to London’s free museums and galleries that features writing from young people who have participated in the programme.
You can leaf through the booklet online at your leisure to read the contributors’ descriptions and see Rob’s fantastic illustrations. Matthew and Rob are keen to find sponsors who can help them get the booklet into print, and hope to do this while the spotlight is on London this summer, so if you’re able to point them in the right direction then do get in touch with Matthew by email.
I’ll leave you with Gabriella Quartin (one of the contributors) describing a venerable institution just up the road from the RSA…
I love paintings, I love photographs, and I love portraiture. The National Portrait Gallery is the only place where I can honestly say that walking into a room and having a bunch of dead people looking at me, doesn’t fill me with absolute fear.
Sam Thomas is the RSA’s project engagement manager. Follow @iamsamthomas on Twitter.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to sit in on some of the Creative Intersections work that’s beginning here at the RSA, in collaboration with Kings College London. The last session I took part in involved artists forming self-selecting relationships with academic specialists, with a view to future collaboration. One thing was immediately obvious (and quite interesting): the overwhelming majority of academics who elected to take part were scientists – in popular imagination, virtually as remote a discipline from art as you could imagine. The call-out had crossed all academic disciplines, but it was clearly scientists who saw a strong benefit in taking part – and scientists of all kinds, from healthcare to physics.
Why would this happen? There’s an obvious answer: Scientists, who sometimes find it hard to reach beyond the academic environment, are excited about the idea of working with someone who seeks, above all, to communicate, and whose traditional audience can be radically different from their own. Parallel to that, many artists see a benefit in this radical difference in discipline – they’re fascinated by new ways to explore and find meaning in the world around them, and jump at the chance to spend time with people who are at the cutting-edge of knowledge about what that world actually is. The Wellcome Trust’s Arts Awards aim to capture these mutual benefits in the sphere of biomedical science, and Ignite! use creative practice to facilitate science education in much the same spirit.
What really fascinates me, though, is the idea that collaboration between artists and scientists might move to the level where it actually affects working practice. Scientific breakthroughs radically overhauling art are everywhere (the effect of photographic film on painting is a good example), but this relationship is largely seen as a one-way street. Imagine, instead, a scientific breakthrough that happened because of art. This might sound silly to some people, but I’d like to elaborate with a personal experience:
I was taught that science and religion were fundamentally at odds – that science was no more compatible with religion than it was with the idea that Uri Geller could bend spoons with the power of his mind, or a belief in flying spaghetti monsters. These were all just wacky ideas, and fundamentally incompatible with scientific reason. I don’t want to get into that debate (I’ve heard a rumour that discussing the benefits of science vs. religion on the internet is unwise) but it contains a (perhaps unexpected) hidden premise: that ‘wacky ideas’ have no place in science too.
This is plainly wrong. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been told by scientists, with a straight face, that “the universe is actually shaped like a huge doughnut”, or “all points in time co-exist” or “space is like a balloon where all surface points are in contact”, or something equally, to any sane person, ludicrous. This sort of creative thinking is essential, and not just in order to convey theories to non-scientists like myself. When faced with a seemingly intractable problem, and an impenetrable dataset, starting from any wacky premise is a reasonable problem-solving strategy. It’s also what’s commonly referred to as ‘thinking outside the box’ – strategies that mitigate the kind of epistemological path dependency that increasingly complex scientific fields suffer from. The scientist who told me that the universe was “sort of shaped like a doughnut” did so because a few years ago, faced with a complex space-time conundrum, a scientist thought “what if it was shaped… you know, like… a doughnut?”, modelled it, and realised it (sort of) worked. It was a case of creative experimentation, and fitting the figures to the model ex post.
Kuhn and Feyerabend both deal with this, in different ways. But whilst these creative paradigm shifts are easy to understand in hindsight, I for one know very little about how that sort of creative space might be carved out within a typical science environment. Standing in the RSA’s Romney Room and seeing some eminent leaders in their field explaining how their field of study was ‘sort of’ like an object they’d brought in from home, and then afterwards talking excitedly about how they ‘never get to think like that’, I felt like I was on the road to finding out.
There’s not much time for real, far-out, blue-skies creative thinking in science these days, partly because the benefits are so little understood, and partly because the costs (a day spent not doing ‘proper’ research, say) are significant. But if we can tie this sort of thinking up with some of the more tangible, easily-understood benefits of arts-science collaboration, and make space for a bit of research within that, then there’s a good chance we can make the case. The benefits seem almost impossible to measure (how can we show a breakthrough in ten years’ time began in a workshop now?), but they’re certainly felt by scientists. The difficulty isn’t showing that the arts can benefit science – the difficulty is showing how.
I’m in the middle of evaluating the Arts and Social Change strand of Citizen Power Peterborough. I don’t want to get into the details of the programme itself – read here if you’d like a primer – but rather, to talk about a few interesting problems that the evaluation has thrown up.
Evaluating something like Arts and Social Change isn’t about measuring ‘success vs. failure’ – if everything in the project was a ‘success’ in that narrow definition, then there would be no learning and the project as a whole would have failed. Citizen Power Peterborough has above all been an experiment – and nowhere more so than in Arts and Social Change. The goal is to find out what impact, if any, the arts can have on positive social change, and this has been pursued through a number of targeted arts-based interventions in Peterborough. Some projects have been hugely successful in terms of impact, others partly so (with important findings), and all have been able to adapt as they progressed, reflecting on-the-ground realities, new ideas and preliminary results.
The Arts and Social Change programme has run according to a set of principles; one of those principles is emergence. To paraphrase broadly, this is the idea that interventions in complex structures (like the communities of Peterborough) will lead to multiple, complex outcomes – the kind that can’t easily be predicted at the outset. These kinds of findings are extremely valuable, because they can only be brought to light through hands-on experimentation.
So, to recap: a huge experiment in a complex structure, where accurate prediction is all but impossible, where there are high levels of reflexivity, and where only the broadest of goals (increasing attachment, participation and innovation) were known at the start. How do you evaluate an experiment like the above?
One tactic is to do what many people would do when faced with a big problem: break it down into a series of smaller, more manageable problems. Arts and Social Change ran as a series of interconnected strands, linking with other parts of the Citizen Power programme: these strands were much smaller and more responsive, with fewer participants from all sides. They had more specific goals (such as ‘increasing community cohesion’) and tentative measures for their individual success or failure. Evaluating the strands themselves in this way will certainly be part of the final evaluation, and it’s incredibly exciting and positive to get to delve into the programme at that kind of level.
It would be missing a trick, though, to evaluate the whole programme by the success of its parts. Talking to people involved, one of the programme’s real (and if we’re not careful, hidden) successes has been its impact upon the ‘bigger picture’. To give an example: one of the first documents I came across whilst researching, was a letter to the Evening Telegraph (Peterborough’s local paper) from a resident, describing an intervention that had been quite strongly criticised by the paper: “…I found it one of the most enlightening and thought-provoking activities that I have ever taken part in. I still find it hard to believe that the city council had the courage to help fund this, but I am very glad that they did.” Read her words carefully once more, and try to recall the last time a Council-funded programme made you feel that way. How do you measure enlightenment? Was it ‘good value for money’? The author measures the cost favourably against some other council spending (and she makes a convincing case), but could you price the “most enlightening and thought-provoking” events in your life? I know I couldn’t. Impacts like this, if they can be nailed down and cogently articulated, give the lie to those who see the arts as an ‘optional extra’ – a luxury to be cut when money’s tight.
Consider this: I like knowing my neighbours, but I have enough social capital that I don’t rely on them – if I have personal or professional difficulties, I have plenty of places to turn to. I like where I live, but if I had to move, I’m pretty certain I’d be fine. It’s not like that for everyone. We’re talking about real interventions in places where community ties, family bonds and professional networks are all under incredible strain, and where without support, a space for dialogue and the ability to explore together, things are unlikely to improve. Art can make that happen, in a way that little else can, and Arts and Social Change is in a unique position to show how. I’ve heard neighbourhood managers talk about how an intervention has fundamentally altered how they see their work, civil society leaders tell of a re-invigorated sense of collective self-belief, and residents describe moving from isolation, to feeling that they are involved in a shared project – a shared life – with those around them.
But how to capture all that? We’re all going to face some extraordinary pressures over the next few months and years, and Peterborough will face as many of them as anywhere. If we can articulate the many things that have been learned by Peterborough’s residents, then we can share them, and play a part in handing powerful tools (for free!) to communities who need them most.
I write this with a nice glass of Pinot Noir next to me in hopes this will aid the creation of moments of insights, as suggested by Jonah Lehrer in his RSA talk on creativity last night. Indeed he speaks of the increase of alpha waves that lead to those ‘aha’ moments being induced by putting your mind at ease – hence the wine. Do I regard my glass of wine as leading to a wasting of time? Certainly hope so, but Lehrer spoke of how we have too narrow a view of what productive time looks like, critiquing our obsession with efficiency and lists. He quoted Einstein with ” Creativity is the residue of wasted time “ in making his point about wasted time leading to new discoveries.
Joe Hallgarten’s recent blog speaks of the value of cross disciplinary reflection and it is the potential for new insights unlocked through imaginative interplay between incongruous influences that drives a project we are doing with Kings College. In the Artist as Citizen and Cultural Intermediary , we are looking at the conditions that enable partnerships between artists and academics from very diverse areas of practice but also at what practical benefits might be realised from these differences.
The project was also inspired by Richard Sennet’s recent book Together which explores how we are losing the ‘cooperation skills needed to make a complex society work’ and of course these skills exercised through working with people who think and practice differently to ourselves. But I wanted this project to go further and consciously create an environment where curiosity about the ‘other’ and accessing new lenses to re-see one’s work was the driving force with a valuing of difference as the underpinning principle. The invitation for difference worked – the project attracted interest from across the College, mostly from science and medicine and we have attracted artists and small arts organisations, who for the most part, have no history of working with academics. The ‘with’ word is critical. We tend to settle in transactional partnerships,that can suffer from being utilitarian and miss the possibilities generated from real exchange. There can be a failure to grasp what the ‘other’ has to offer.
I’ve long been a believer in epiphanies being more likely in such places as the shower where, as Lehrer suggests, one has the space from incessant external voices such as mobile phones. Putting your mind at ease releases our alpha waves which in turn offers a chance for the inner quiet voice and those discoveries which can come out of the blue. As an actor, I always learned my lines while walking – the combination of activity, mild distraction of the senses and the rhythm of my steps worked for the most demanding of speeches. But how can you bring a metaphorical shower to a meeting of strangers that will lead to the formation of partnerships? Interestingly I found many of Lehrer’s prompts for the generation of creativity worked for us in practice this last Tuesday.
We began our first day together with metaphor, each of us sharing an object that would illustrate what excited us most about our work, in the hopes that this would create connections between us. Of course, this also required all our participants to be willing to take a risk, enter a world quite unfamiliar to their normal working lives and give time for partnerships characterised by difference. Dare I say it, the additional willingness to experiment was a crucial criteria and I think this involves an awareness of the wasting time principle that Lehrer speaks of – getting away from the focused rational and linear approach to problem solving and trying perhaps surprising and counter-intuitive approaches. Lehrer speaks of the brain being particularly good at metaphors helping us to bind things together. This technique of working through metaphor to describe what we are curious about can develop a collaborative language that helps to transcend the challenges of the differences in our working languages and our usual referential shortcuts. If we agree that we need a different kind of conversation to generate transformation, then a language rooted in metaphor is a good beginning.
Another challenge for this first meeting was how to get beyond politeness and the inevitable desire to please, natural to a meeting of strangers and move to a dynamic of critical friendship where each partner could assess the relevance of these particular strangers’ approaches to their own working practices. And this is where we applied the ‘shower principle’ with enforced moments of observation, reflection and prioritisation. Like many in the arts, I use a technique called the ‘silent gallery’ where participants can observe each others’ ideas in silence in order to conceive critical responses. Dissent and refinement of ideas is encouraged, but importantly within an environment of trust where each voice has an equal status, silence can have a distinct role in exchange.
Lehrer was very critical of the use of brainstorming techniques and quite right too in the regard that used unwisely, this provides fresh but superficial and ill expressed ideas without critique. However, as a technique to get everyone’s voice heard and to loosen rigid thinking, they can be helpful if used in conjunction with refining and critiquing the ideas expressed.
But for all this commitment to new ways of working, new perspectives and trying experimental approaches, it does also get down to the people themselves and the relationships formed. That’s another thing Lehrer spoke about - that it is still important to be there ‘in the flesh’ so to speak. The extraordinary value of just showing up. He spoke of a very revealing statistic; that in spite of the huge increase in skype as a remote communication tool, attendance at conferences has doubled. In spite of increasing demands on our time, people value being together. I’ll continue to blog about the development of this project and hope that some of our partners will be doing so as well, but for all of us it will be curiosity that sustains the exchange. And of course, a commitment to wasting time…