The Image is Something that is Earned. "Global Britain" and Cultural Leadership

24/10/2019
Provocation Papers

Clore 15 Fellow Andy Brydon set out to investigate the strong economic and social cases for arts and culture presented in the UK...then Boris happened.

Introduction

This paper set out to investigate the strong economic and social cases for arts and culture presented in the UK, reflecting on the lack of impact these arguments have at a policy, treasury and governmental level – particularly in the shadow of ever-decreasing funding, and ongoing aggressive cuts to arts education. It initially sought to provoke new approaches to addressing both the emerging financial and educational crisis in arts and culture through alternative models of income generation and collaboration without providing solutions that usher in a US style system that prioritises private philanthropy. It was going to do this by looking towards those arts organisations that had taken calculated risks in their business organisation as much as their creative approaches including the property portfolio of Live Theatre in Newcastle and the radical work/live model of Create London’s “A House for Artists” that tethers affordability to a contribution to the social infrastructure. The vision was to highlight alternative communication strategies and business models that enable arts organisations to consolidate their power and create value arguments beyond the sector whilst staying true to the inclusive values at the heart of the arts as well as using economic models of risk and return to fundamentally support communities whose use value isn’t always reducible to a financial return. It was going to argue that if we as a sector are to persuade the government and electorate to commit to supporting a resilient creative sector that continues to deliver on a world stage, we need to create an environment where investment in the experience and messaging of arts and culture from schooling onwards is valued as a broad foundation of skills that create a well-rounded society and one that makes returns in social, environmental and economic terms. This is a tricky shift in a sector that, outside of the entertainment and marketing end of things based in reproducibility (web, TV, gaming), has forged its value chain in the managing and officiating of scarcity. Leading a shift from exclusivity and personal power in the sector and impressing this as a model of best practice to the political realm was going to be at the core of my thinking informed by the experience of my Clore Fellowship and the message of authentic leadership. I was especially keen to address the contradictions within the upper echelons of the British arts sector that utterly capitalise on access to ‘their’ stars at one pole when courting sponsors and philanthropists whilst paradoxically professing openness and accessibility at the other. It is no wonder then that claims of becoming more representative as a sector fail to ring true in the populace at large… Then Boris happened.

As the UK continues to tread water in a quagmire of Brexit fatigue and vitriol the future of the arts and arts funding looks ever more uncertain and ever more low-priority. Given it is all too easy to succumb to the ennui and let the moment pass by without comment I felt it was important, given the opportunity, to make a case for maintaining a critical voice supporting international work from the sector as a small arts organisation rather than allowing the entire discussion around the future of arts and culture to always be subsumed within arguments of scale and national organisations or those cultural institutions that constitute UK PLC.

With just weeks to go until the (latest) date that the UK crashes out of the EU there is still zero clarity on what will happen should we leave without a deal. Therefore, I am taking license to speculate a scenario as likely as any other as my starting point - one where British air travel is grounded on the 1st November as UK carriers’ EU operating licenses are revoked but spun as a shrewd governmental response to the climate emergency, the newly appointed Minister for Culture, Nicky Morgan is vindicated for her comments in 2014 decrying young people who choose to study arts and humanities subjects, seeing personal investment in survival skills and hand-to-hand combat become the only sensible option to secure the basics on the increasingly under-resourced isolated island, and the anticipated ‘consumer panic’ predicted by the UK government’s own advisers clears the shelves within the first weeks of November leaving only surplus “No Deal” print available for wrapping presents by Christmas, all of which will be food parcels, having had £2.1bn “spaffed up the wall” on propaganda - to quote the Prime Minister’s financial shorthand.

I make no secret of the fact I’m supportive of the EU as a grand project and as a crucial contributor to the arts. In the last five years my organisastion Curated Place has benefitted hugely from the freedom of movement afforded by EU membership, allowing the entire team to work across multiple countries and enabling us to welcome dozens of overseas artists to the UK with no more stress than navigating the intricacies of booking outsized baggage. We have also been part of four Creative Europe funded projects (two that will continue beyond October 31st) that proved to be a game-changer in terms of what they delivered for our experience, visibility, and networks. This has allowed us to build a company that now creates and delivers major projects in Scotland, Ireland, England and Iceland with funded projects and partnership ongoing in Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Cyprus. It’s also probably important to note that we’re not an NPO (nor have we yet sought to be) and as such Creative Europe has been a critical organisational connection to a larger creative community over and above the finances it provides.

New director of Number 10’s Policy Unit Munira Mirza, is without doubt a seasoned and passionate advocate for the arts. However, her reduction of the support of Creative Europe to mere finances overlooks the role it plays in creating a bridge to international peers closest to us both physically and culturally. Both factors that are critical in developing the talent base to sustain “Global Britain’s” creative industries in the wider world providing an experience of working in non-British cultures that is an absolutely essential process of personal development to go through in order to have ambitions of working in even more unfamiliar cultures. When she states that “£10m a year from Creative Europe is a fraction of the £600m that Arts Council England spends” it completely disregards the value created in developing working relationships with organisations and individuals in different countries that is categorically different than working in across the UK. Even within English speaking countries in the EU it is essential to develop an understanding of the nuances of differences in cultural, professional and personal relationships in order to successfully develop partnerships, projects and businesses.

Long Distance Relationships

This financial reductionism ignores the fact that Creative Europe funding has been of direct strategic importance to the UK’s creative community as the only reliable option for British cultural organisations to fund overseas work and opportunities at a project and network level. The co-funded ACE/British Council Artist International Development Fund which ran from 2012-2019 (AIDF) was introduced to fill the recognised need within the sector by providing,

“early stage development opportunities for individual freelance and self-employed artists and/or creative practitioners … to spend time building links with artists, organisations and/or creative practitioners in another country”.

Sadly it didn’t structurally commit enough to the spirit of collaboration to achieve its aim. While the fund successfully enabled individuals to carry out research and meet-and-greet activities with overseas peers, there were no follow-up funds within England that allowed those relationships to be built upon in a more long-term manner. As a result many AIDF opportunities were limited in how far conversations could develop as the pathway to next steps was unclear and the onus for financially supporting UK artists ongoing work was tacitly put on the host partner. It was only when artists could access European collaboration funds recognising the symbiotic relationship between parties creating non-commercial work that the energy and enthusiasm developed during those visits could be converted into larger scale work and the people involved could invest in the critical time to developing working relationships that lasted beyond a convenient funding windfall.

Underlying this oversight was the purely transactional nature of the fund that echoed the current government’s ongoing rhetoric of British exceptionalism - “they need us more than we need them”. While British cultural exports have undoubtedly provided huge boosts to the economy the significant income has tended to come from the more mainstream, industrialised and reproducible elements of the cultural sector such as Music (Ed Sheeran and Adelle who together led a turnaround in the fortunes of the BPI from 2016) or Literature (JK Rowling’s Potter empire) where the behind the scenes players are purely market driven and able to invest heavily in promoting future stars from a historic power base that has raised the barriers to entry. For smaller creative organisations working in more experimental fields the nature of the work’s purpose, (often to spark debate or highlight issues that have been structurally silenced), and the relationships we have with partners is markedly different at a peer level. At this scale, where the players do not leverage their success on the industrialised Anglo-American dominance of music, film and literature the notion of the UK’s artists having a default upper-hand in a speculative negotiation is simply not true. If anything this attitude being implicit in the structure of the fund is potentially damaging, especially when the eligibility of the fund required applicants to submit an expression of interest from an overseas host who had to see benefit for their own organisation in supporting their guest artist at application but were increasingly erased from the equation as the timeline of the projects went on. At the start of each project there was parity in the position of the international collaborators, but by the close of each project the aim was for sole English benefit.

This double-think comes up again and again in the discussions of English culture on a world stage (and I’m sure many would argue in English culture as a whole). While the headline purpose of the fund spoke of “building links” other paragraphs of the AIDF’s stated intention read remarkably like an export fund. Here the bottom line seemed much more KPI’d rather than prioritising developing the relationships that allow long term business to be done

“Primarily designed to assist young artists and designers in developing … markets and audiences overseas for their work; acting as a springboard for artists across all disciplines to promote themselves on the international scene”

Suddenly the notion of a relationship was erased. Whilst on the surface the fund promoted a spirit of collaboration and equality there was no structural return benefit for the host in the agreement, establishing a one-way flow of goods and a one-way flow of revenue. In this context it seemed as though as a sector we were expected to deliver soft diplomacy on one hand, but direct economic returns on the other.

Across all aspects of business, the importance of relationship building is critical to securing financially beneficial work. Investors in original creative work, whether states, NGOs, private businesses or individuals are always entering into a transaction of risk and as such need to have trust in whoever they are dealing with. This takes time. Within our Clore Fellowship our cohort were introduced to leading Philanthropists, sometimes of overwhelming wealth, who stressed any major investment (or gift – the language very much depended on the individual) came from a lengthy process of reassurance and trust building, a feeling of being valued and a personal connection – not simply the scrutiny of a P&L sheet. Similarly, the types of  connections enabled through the AIDF introduced British artists to partners that required a relationship to be developed with overseas peers, not simply a sales opportunity. Sadly, the investment was usually not of a scale that enabled anything other than a brief amount of time to be spent on these fundamentals let alone supporting any significant activity beyond a single project.

In order to establish lasing and mutually beneficial relationships we should be looking towards our overseas peers not as our customers but as business partners who we can work with to develop audiences in a world where, counter to the narrative of our ongoing politics at home, geographic boundaries are being dissolved. We should be investing in strong relationships and ongoing partnerships that work both ways, not simply short-term exoticism or one-way benefits. Creative Europe offers a much more appropriate mechanism for developing the cultural reach and market of British artists long term as it removes the single-state-benefit priority from the equation and is far better at prioritising the partnership aspect of their funded projects. This emphasis on mutual benefit develops the connections that can then flourish into lasting commercial relationships. Rather than putting artists in a position of a travelling merchant (“I’m here, buy my stuff”), it fundamentally recognises that time and effort needs to be put into developing shared language, workflows and practice that has to be flexible enough to adapt to local politics, protocol and markets. This is achieved by enabling multiple cycles of production, regular unilateral travels for all partners involved, and ongoing support for all involved to learn the nuances of different markets and working realities.

Where are we now.

The AIDF came to a close this year alongside the Arts Council’s 10-year strategy “Achieving Great Art and Culture for Everyone”. Within that framework International exchange was vaguely highlighted as a target but clearly not at the heart of the strategy.

With the publication of the 2020-2030 draft strategy internationalisation appears in a little more detail promising to

“develop a cultural sector that is outward-looking and globally connected, and that is committed to working with and learning from international talent”

“learn from international best practice”

and

“support cities, towns and villages that use culture to connect internationally, and that reflect the diverse influences of their diaspora communities”

Within these statements there seems to be a commitment to developing relationships rather than framing benefits to the English sector as a simple export bottom line. Similarly, it is encouraging that the draft framework highlights

“the development of new international partnerships that build co-investment, trading opportunities and joint research on collections”

Creating an environment where both sides of a cultural relationship are valued is a crucial shift in the language of arts funding. Sadly, where the significant investment will come from to change tack and achieve this new outward looking, cooperative Britain is unclear. The pound has already plummeted in value across international markets making overseas work for UK creatives an increasingly expensive, and therefore risky, avenue to take, while the shadow of Brexit hangs heavily over every conversation with international peers - even those whom artists and organisations have long established relationships with.

Given the track record of the government over the last decade regarding arts and culture it seems unlikely that we as a sector can rely upon their filling in the gaps of medium to long term international projects left by an exit from the EU. Research by the Art Fund showed that public spending on museums and galleries in England has dropped from £829m a year in 2007 to £720m in 2017. While between 2010 and 2016, when the real damage of the financial crash began to bite the funded arts sector, local authority spending on museums and galleries in England fell by over a third.

On track record it would also be reasonable to assume that any claims of “developing better cultural links with Commonwealth nations and emerging economies” are merely vague placations and a fantasy suitable for publication on the side of a bus, used to quiet the objections from the sector. Under Conservative imposed austerity the UK’s local authority budget for culture has fallen to just over 1 per cent of total municipal spending. Our European peers are prepared to invest much more heavily in their local provision seeing over 4 per cent of local budgets going to culture in France and over 6 per cent in Latvia. As such the UK’s proportional spending on culture the lowest in Europe.[1] In order to truly support towns and villages to connect with their cultural diaspora even further afield than Europe would require a massive investment far in excess of the budgets needed to establish European partnerships to simply get the conversations and mutual understanding of a project moving. Given the additional time, effort and cultural differences to overcome when working further afield the barriers to transforming these early steps into a successful and sustainable relationship where the parties involved are regarded and regard themselves as equal partners are multiplied. This is before even considering that the neo-colonial imperialist language of this postulated “Global Britain” immediately raises a flag of distrust[2].

 

[1] https://www.apollo-magazine.com/local-authority-museums-cuts/

[2] http://theconversation.com/brexits-global-britain-uk-needs-a-clear-econo...

Alternative Perspectives

However, the game of Brexit chicken ends what the whole episode has highlighted is that Britain’s (particularly England’s) claims to leadership on the cultural stage have relied on anachronistic notions of what leadership is, the gung-ho lone pioneer, as writ large by the Brexit process as a whole. This notion of the strictly top-down or command and control style of leadership simply doesn’t reflect the realities of the sector working with international peers who have to be on par with their British counterparts to realise the most advantageous results, nor does it reflect changing notions of leadership across all other sectors that are embracing.

As business landscapes become increasingly networked and distributed, more companies are ditching hierarchical leadership in favor of a collaborative approach. 85% of respondents in a 2018 Deloitte survey[1] rated “C-suite collaboration” as important or very important - making it the most important issue in the survey - whilst 75% of millennials responding to an AmEx survey stated that they believe “a focus on team work and on democratic leadership styles…will promote a flatter structure in the organisations they lead”[2]. Across the board then there is a recognition that a networked society that is able to reach beyond the borders of populist politics needs to readjust to a networked leadership style – often reaching across national borders. Sadly, publicly funded Culture as knitted up with notions of the nation and identity at a policy level, is being held back from realising its full potential as a tool for international collaboration, production and trade whilst it structurally imposes an us-and-them mentality that answers to a government that has lost its way.

In order to lead on an international stage there is a different option, wielding power through confidence and generosity to empower others. There is without a doubt a concentration of creative leaders in the UK as reflected by the £10.8bn direct benefit to the UK economy in 2018 from the arts and cultural sector[3], and they do not operate in a vacuum from their international peers as the nationally focused structures of funding would suggest. Rather those that have attained success overseas are engaged in a network of symbiotic relationships that on occasion benefit from international opportunities offered for UK artists by their partners, but at other times offer opportunities for overseas peers to work and benefit from the UK. The one-way model of funding that sees all culture as export fails to acknowledge this common quid-pro-quo of international cultural relations at the level of SMEs and individual artists.

The potential loss of Creative Europe funding alongside the message Brexit sends condenses a message of individualism and exceptionalism that cuts off good will and trust in longevity of projects. Maintaining this stance risks erasing the increasingly crucial networks developed over two decades through Culture 2000, the Culture Programme and latterly Creative Europe in one swoop. The impacts are already being felt in term of the soft-power wielded by the sector coming under question from overseas think tanks[4], in terms of the funding opportunities under threat of being lost, and as reflected by the depleting energies of UK companies to chase international funds. Only about half as many UK-led projects sought Creative Europe funding for Cooperation Projects this year than in 2018 - no doubt many potential applicants were put off by the now boilerplate statement in all Creative Europe documentation warning about the unknown status of the UK amongst its programmes and the risks partners take in associating with our nebulous status as Europeans. At this point in time the United Kingdom is anything but United and is day  by day pushing any allies it had left away. This isolation is not the stance of a world leader in any sector, no matter how loudly we may claim to be.

My peers in the sector already understand this. Ironically on the ground the cultural sector has been ahead of broader business community in the realisation that sustainable leadership comes from collaboration not from hoarding control. However, the funding structures that rely on strictly defined local impacts for political purposes and immediate ROI for any overseas work mean we are answerable at home to a language, structure and timescales that prevent artists and smaller arts organisations from realising their true potential outside of the country. Only when they have the time to develop working relationships and trust, along with the luxury of being able to experience and weather important learning opportunities through failure, will this change. It will also be increasingly important to have long-term leverage to offer to overseas partners through regular funding streams or strategic programming that encourages the creation of these cultural pathways – funding like Creative Europe.

If “Global Britain” is to truly lead it is time the cultural sector made its own case for internationalisation that, like the business sector, recognises the future of leadership being more about empowering others than self-aggrandization. The one thing I can agree with coming from the ongoing fiasco that is Brexit is a call for a wholesale reconfiguring of where Britain conceives of itself in the increasingly complex world - not through embracing exceptionalism, but by embracing the opportunities of closer collaboration and a revaluing of our leadership potential in sharing, nurturing and developing with our international peers as a network that we are empowered by both funding and official support structures to invest in.

Part of my own journey into international cultural networks supported in large part by Creative Europe has brought me into contact with alternative approaches and value systems around international working and ways of being. A number of our projects have enabled me to work regularly in the Nordic Nations where a solid regional identity has created one of the strongest cultural brands in the world – albeit not one owned by a single nation. The co-produced “The Nordics” manifesto[5] was built around a common vision but a respect that all contributing countries played an essential role in its success – as such it reads in many aspects like an antidote to current British policy, particularly noting that

“neither a country nor a region, can dictate its own image, especially in today’s transparent, fast-moving and increasingly digital communication landscape. The image is something that is earned.”

As a starting point for whatever is coming down the track from our new “fuck business” Prime Minister in coming weeks I would suggest that all of us in the business of arts and culture start to listen to our international peers about how we position ourselves, before things get really uncomfortable, to re-earn our image as a world leader. As such I would call for peers working effectively through international collaboration whilst delivering on home turf to come together to write a new manifesto for the future of British culture abroad to manage what our image is rather than waiting to accept one from dubious political quarters.

 

[1] https://www2.deloitte.com/insights/us/en/focus/human-capital-trends/2018...

[2] https://www.americanexpress.com/content/dam/amex/uk/staticassets/pdf/Ame...

[3] https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/Economi...

[4] https://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/bitstream/handle/document/54767/ssoar-2017-...

[5] http://norden.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1279355/FULLTEXT01.pdf