On development, dance, NPO things and... urgh.

I’m writing this on Wednesday 28 June 2017. Yesterday Arts Council England announced their National Portfolio of funded organisations for 2018 to 2022. The announcement saw 183 new organisations added to the portfolio – companies and organisations who have worked incredibly hard to achieve this. Some of them led by friends, some of them people I’ve worked with. And I’m really pleased for them and proud of them. But I’m not writing about them today.

I’m not writing about Arts Council England either. I’ve got many friends who work there too. All of them care passionately about the arts and the artforms and/or regions they work in. They’ve just been through a long and arduous process too and, whilst I have issues with the systems they work within and, in particular, one decision, I don’t have issues with any of them personally.

I’m not even writing about Greenwich Dance really, even though it is Arts Council England’s decision to not support the organisation’s work as part of the National Portfolio which has led to me typing these words.

What I want to write about is personal, and probably a bit self-indulgent. Sorry. It's about a sense of a disconnect between the values I hold dear in the world, both personally and professionally, and what is valued by the arts funding system. Or the arts system. Or the systems of society in general. 

I want to question whether there is still a place for my values. I want to ask how we got here.

*

I did a leadership course a while ago where we had to look at leadership styles and strengths. These styles were loosely grouped along a male to female spectrum and my strengths were clearly in areas categorised as female – nurturing, listening, facilitating (of course this gendered language is massively problematic but let’s go with it for now). My leadership style, I was told, was not suited to certain roles, where quick, clear decision making was needed. Where orders had to be given. No emergency services or military work for me. No working on the trading floor of a merchant bank (phew). But well suited to working in areas which focused on supporting others, responding to needs, strategic intervention, and working with communities in some way. I’m not sure how much I agree or not with this to be honest. It was a bit of a rubbish course. But I do like to be helpful and to listen, and a lot of what was being said sounded like the work I was doing in arts development.

Because we work in an industry which is based on people. People with stories they want to tell, or ideas they want to express with words, or bodies, or images. Those stories and ideas speak to other people who want to watch, or be a part of them. And in helping realise those stories or ideas, you want to work with other people, not systems. You want to be listened to and heard. You want to feel that the work you’re doing matters. You want the help of people who know about the things you’re trying to do, and can be generous in connecting you to the people, or resources, or references that can realise the stories and ideas even better than you thought possible. You need organisations that focus all their energies on doing this.

*

I tend to be the quiet one in meetings. I don’t particularly like public speaking or interviews. I feel happiest looking and listening, and can be reluctant to talk. I don’t like being the centre of attention. Friends have assumed I don’t have views on things, because I’ve chosen not to express them in conversations, or on social media.

And sometimes this is seen as weakness. That I am not confident in my views, or that I don’t believe in what I do. Which isn’t the case. I enjoy listening to other people’s opinions. I’m curious. I have lots of views on lots of things, but I’m willing to have them questioned and challenged and I’m willing to maybe change my mind. My view is not always necessary to move the conversation forward.

Also, most of my meetings are with artists. And I’m a total fan, which isn’t cool. I think most artists are super-heroes, and that I get to hang out with them is ridiculously brilliant. Of course I want to spend more time listening to them than hearing my own voice.

Conventional wisdom (and quiet a few interview panels!) have told me that these are not the qualities one should have in leading an organisation. I should be detached, clear and rational. I should have consistent, singular clarity of vision. I should be the smartest one in the room, with people looking to me to lead them.

Well, that’s probably not me. But I felt like I’d found my niche in development work. You get to support the really smart ones. You get to work with loads of different people, lots of them artists. You get to listen. You get to be helpful. You accumulate knowledge which you can share, or which can enable you to see ways of making strategic changes to help various people you work with. So, it’s the work I’ve done throughout my career – in my mid-20s on arts and regeneration projects, a few years later working for a hip-hop music company on artist and talent development and, in the last 10 years, in dance.

*

Dance has a particular history in development work. For a while there were National Dance Agencies (NDAs). This title was dropped as organisations changed, and we now have a complex landscape – some ex-NDAs who work in largely the same way, with a focus on artform and artist development; some ex-NDAs who created dance venues and now cross over both development and presentation; some other support and development organisations; the conservatoires and training institutions; a host of largely artist-led performance companies; and a few presentation-led organisations, who also deliver development work.

And, perhaps a bit like that spectrum they used on that course, they vary in their commitment to or belief in that responsive, facilitative, collaborative style of development work. For many the complexity of what they now do means that they have to work within more structured models. For many organisations the move away from the NDA model meant they were freed from having to have a more generalist development remit, and could specialise in areas of development, presentation or education work that suited or interested them. Outside London some organisations maintain a clear geographic identity. 

Like every other artform, it’s a complex picture of a huge range of different organisations, focuses and business models. Which is really exciting and important in creating a flourishing sector. But it’s also problematic in the context of a funding system that perpetuates the notion of organisations as competitors, and compares them, in capitalist notions of value, purely in terms of assets and outputs.

Funded organisations are drawn against each other, comparing audience numbers or artists ‘supported’ (meaning something very different to each organisation). They seek to justify their continued funding through public profile, acclaim, big audiences and lots of participants.

All of us want as many people as possible to care about our artform, come to shows or take a class. But for organisations concerned with artform development, it means there is less incentive to be generous – to encourage participation in high quality dance whether it’s with you, your neighbouring theatre or your local commercial dance school. It means they are seen as having less value if they provide ongoing, sustained support to a comparatively small number of artists. If they choose to support or present less people because they want to pay everyone appropriately.

It sees organisations badger artists to have ‘commissioned by’ credits when they are contributing 1% of the overall project cost, or ‘supported by’ credits when they have had a couple of meetings with the artist (invariably where all the organisation staff are being paid, and the artist is not) in order to publically demonstrate their value.

It sees artists become assets, with organisations referring to them as ‘our artists’.

It sees venues seeking to add to their stats by presenting performances they are not sufficiently invested in, offering too little resource (financial, marketing, operational) to make them successful and undermining the artist’s work.

And it sees organisations spending resources on ‘big splash’ projects, creating publicity and sometimes acclaim for that organisation, but often having limited strategic or sustainable benefit to the wider sector.

I’ve certainly fallen into this behaviour in jobs in the past. Everyone does. You’re encouraged to.

Some organisations have been able to manage this tension. With resource and status in their local area they've established the trust to be able to support artists whilst maintaining their visibility and status. But smaller organisations, especially in crowded markets have to specialise and focus. If they don't have a theatre, and the simple outputs of shows and audiences, it's more problematic. And, if they choose to focus on that far end of that spectrum - the supportive, listening, nurturing end (and especially if they're working with those independent artists invisible to ACE until they seek funding), they struggle to make their case. They're seen as not strategic. Or unfocused. Or maybe like me in those meetings, being quiet, listening and responsive, they’re seen as weak.

But what should a development organisation’s strategy be, if it is not to act in the way that artists have told you is most beneficial to them? 

Generous, artist-focused development organisations are also much more difficult for funders. Humans are messy and unpredictable, and if you are led by them, your work might have a different outcome than you expected. Sometimes that’s brilliant. Sometimes it’s not so brilliant. But it’s honest. If you’re a funder being judged by your own outputs though, it’s easier to give that money to someone to channel through a tried and tested scheme of development with nice predictable outcomes.

Arts Council England has had huge cuts to its own organisation in recent years, meaning they’re balancing a need to be accountable to the public money they distribute (in order to keep what they have) with supporting creative activity in all it’s messy human forms. That's hard. So naturally the more homogenised and structured an approach to artist support can be, the better.

But this same system of competition means that most of those schemes are generally not truly generous or artist-focused. Many of them are less about artist development, and more about product development. Ask yourself how many organisations have associate artists who they support to make work just because they think it’s great, and would  be happy for it to premiere in a venue other than their own, were that the right thing for the artist?

*

Greenwich Dance’s removal from the National Portfolio can only increase the levels of homogenisation in the artform. Not least in terms of the diversity of spaces for dance in the city.

There are a number of organisations doing great work for artists in London, but generally they’re in very similar looking buildings. White box studios. Black box theatres. There’s more on the way. They're brilliant spaces that serve a whole host of dance makers, but they're not for everyone.

Greenwich Dance is an alternative to this. A space which perhaps logic (and certainly one of the architects of all those other buildings) would tell you is not suitable for professional dance artists. It has no showers or changing rooms. It gets a bit cold in the winter. The two main spaces don’t have any windows. All the spaces are odd sizes, with wooden floors.

But artists love working there. The spaces have a warmth and friendliness to them, perhaps because of all the wood. Morning class in the Borough Hall with 40 other dancers is an experience unlike any other for professional dancers in the city. There are the ghosts in the walls of the tea dances that have happened there since the 30s. No-ones looking through the windows at you, because there aren’t any windows.

The space is cherished by dance artists, especially those in the independent sector. The dance artists who perhaps don’t want to follow the same path as others. Who might relish their independence. Or reject homogeneity. Sometimes they’re the ones who need and appreciate the listening and the nurturing the most. A diverse sector relies on diverse spaces for dance to be made or presented.

Whilst it’s been brilliant to see so many new artist-led companies becoming NPOs, there will always be an independent sector of artists and they will always be as important a part of the infrastructure as those receiving regular funding. All those new NPOs need independent freelance dancers to employ for a start. And where will the next generation of NPOs emerge from, if there are fewer spaces to support and develop their work?

Those independent artists, those individuals without a company ‘home’ have created a home at Greenwich Dance. The scale of the spaces and the classes, the formats of performance, the connections to the organisation’s work with local communities – there’s a sense that this is a place where people come together. Where there can be a collective sense of home. Of belonging.

*

It was always going to be a tougher process this time for London organisations, given the redistribution of funds in this NPO round to those based outside of the city. A change that, in general, I absolutely support.

I’ve spent nearly my entire career working outside of London. I worked in the West Midlands for 15 years (including my own stint at Arts Council England). I’ve worked in Yorkshire and the North West. I now live in the South East and do bits of work in the East Midlands. I’m on the board of a new NPO in the South West.

So I totally get the need for more support across the UK. But whether we like it or not, the vast majority of independent dance artists still live in London. There are still more potential employers there, more access to space to create there, more access to classes and workshops, more opportunity to see work.

None of ACE’s changes to the national of distribution of funds will change this, as none of the organisations which support these open access programmes of work outside of London (as opposed to artist-led performance companies) have received any more money or been added to the portfolio. In the North West, both development organisations were cut completely. So none of these changes have made it any more possible for an independent dance artist to sustain a career outside London, or even to attend a regular class.

*

I don’t really know why Greenwich Dance wasn’t funded this time around. I’ve read the assessment report. I know some parts of the future plans had limited details, and that will have looked like a risk. I know that there were a lot of really strong applications from artists and organisations with just as much right to that money as GD. And I absolutely believe that no organisation should keep getting money just because they’ve had it before.

The organisation will be resilient and creative and radical in finding new ways to keep going, I am sure. They care too much not to.

And maybe all of these thoughts are self-indulgent, naïve and idealistic. I’ve been called those things before.

But I am deeply saddened by what’s been lost to the portfolio. In fact I’m heartbroken. Partly because of the inevitable reduction in its work with artists and a whole host of other people across South East London. But more because it feels like all those qualities I value so deeply – listening, nurturing, responding to need, providing a home for those seeking one – were qualities I found at Greenwich Dance, more than any other organisation I have worked with. And it feels like those qualities that mean so much to me are not valued by the systems I work in anymore. Even though I know them to be deeply valued by the artists and others I work with every day.