Photo #2

Flamborough Head

Flamborough Head (dog-walker and lighthouse). Flamborough Head is where you end up if you head east from Leeds and don’t stop until you run out of England. It’s a really weird place, full of old people wandering around aimlessley or sitting in their cars look at the (inevitable) rain, we clambered down the cliffs onto the beach (which is a complete moonscape) but I like this photo, I think it captures some of the drama vs mundanity of the place.

Mapping Leeds

I was reading this article about the 6 Days of Ghent over the weekend and something (other than all the cycling fun) jumped out at me. Namely, this: “The Ghent Free Map, produced by Use-It (use-it.be) and made up of tips by locals“.

Now I have always been of the opinion that you will inevitably end up seeing and doing much more interesting things when you visit places if you either a) just wander around and see what happens or b) tap into some local knowledge. Inevitably the ‘official’ tourist information (and most guidebooks) will push you towards the big, shiny obvious things to do/see which, in my experience, are usually never the best things to do/see. Even more so in my experience of Leeds.

I like the idea behind the “Ghent Free Map“, could something similar be achieved – online initially – for Leeds? The Leeds Free Map?

I do worry that this idea has a little bit of a ‘reinventing the wheel’ feel about it, I’m sure there are endless ‘undiscovered Leeds’ (or equivalent) guides and a crowd-sourced map seems to stray quite far onto territory already covered by Google Maps BUT my (admittedly brief and shallow) research seems to indicate that nothing really quite fits the description, there are numerous blogs which detail the delights of the lesser-known corners of Leeds and then the shopping/arena/sport-focussed (as you’d expect) “official channels” but nothing really seems to draw all of the insights of the former together in one place, in a way that easily shows you where everything is.

Anyway, I’d be interested to try and get a feel for whether this is an idea that’s worth pursuing (it feels like it might be).

Thoughts?

CulturalDigital

http://culturaldigital.com/

A new thing I’ve been involved in setting up, you can read a bit more about it here http://culturaldigital.com/t/welcome-to-culturaldigital/15

This is a place to discover and talk about the areas where digital technology and arts, culture and heritage overlap with each other.

It doesn’t aim to solve all of the problems at a stroke but it is a start, an attempt to provide one place where people can share and discuss with other, interested/relevant people.

Sometimes it’s best to start simple and small and then see what happens, so that’s what we’ve done.

In praise of Parkruns

At the beginning of November I did my first ever Parkrun (18:54 since you asked, not spectacular but not as bad as I feared), it was something I’d been meaning to do ever since 2007 when I first heard about the weekly, timed run that went around Hyde Park’s Woodhouse Moor (a quick glance at the website – http://www.parkrun.org.uk/leeds/ – indicates it has been going since October 2007 so I guess that’s about right).

In case you’ve no idea what a parkrun is here’s a description lifted from their site:

parkrun organise free, weekly, 5km timed runs around the world. They are open to everyone, free, and are safe and easy to take part in.

So basically, they’re organised runs, that are about running, and nothing else. There’s no entry fee, no minimum sponsorship level required, no goody bag. In short there’s none of the paraphernalia that is slowly but surely turning me off mass-participation runs.

I was talking to my brother the other day after we both entered a race, he was commenting on how he’d felt like “a complete bastard” when he didn’t choose to tell the organisers which charity he was raising money for, because…he wasn’t raising money for a charity, neither of us were, we were entering the race because…surprise surprise, we wanted to do a run.

Now I want to be clear, I have no problem with fundraisers, there are some incredible people, doing amazing things in order to raise money for a charity that they believe in, and that is completely brilliant. Fundraising is also a great way into running for a lot of people. My slight problem lies with the fact that it has now become an assumption that if you are doing a race then you must be raising money for charity, people seem unable to understand that maybe you are simply doing a run because you enjoy running.

And that is part of the reason why I love parkruns, there is none of that ‘other stuff’, it’s a straight-forward experience, that’s just about running. I also like the fact that it is staffed by volunteers (who are normally participants giving up the odd Saturday, the rest of the time they’re there taking part with everyone else) and that it is 5k – a distance that more or less everyone can complete. It is incredibly well-organised, and by 9.30 on a Saturday morning you’ve already done something constructive with your weekend.

Long live parkrun.

p.s. I have since done a second parkrun, got my time down to 18:49, aiming ultimately for sub-17.30 but…let’s see.

Leadership in the arts sector

I was reading Sunny Widmann’s piece on leadership in the arts sector (Getting Unstuck: Developing Skills to Climb the Leadership Ladder)

Marc Vogl, who works with arts and culture organizations in his role as Principal of Vogl Consulting, aptly describes the problem as a clogged and leaky pipeline. Basically, there are a small number of leadership positions at the top, often held for many years by the same people (that’s the clogged part) and therefore more junior employees are stuck at their current level, growing increasingly tired of waiting around for these positions to come available. Eventually, financial realities of working at a nonprofit and the monotony of a static career path push workers to leave the cultural sector (that’s the leaky part).

This rang pretty true, even just looking at the 10 organisations who receive the most cash from ACE you can see a pattern (FYI, never do this research, it is very very tedious):

  • Royal Opera House
    • CEO: Alex Beard, in post less than a year but previously in senior roles at The Tate for over a two decades
  • Southbank Centre
    • CEO: Alan Bishop, in post since 2009, previously the Central Office of Information and Saatchi & Saatchi. Artistic Director: Jude Kelly, in post since 2005, previously artistic directo at the West Yorkshire Playhouse 1990-2002
  • Royal National Theatre
    • Artistic Director: Nick Hytner, in post since 2003, previously – The National Theatre
  • English National Opera
    • CEO: Loretta Tomasi, in post since 2005, previously senior role at ENO, previously to that a senior role at Really Useful Theatres for 12 years. Artistic Director: John Berry, in post since 2005, previously senior roles at ENO
  • Royal Shakespeare Company
    • Executive Director: Catherine Mallyon, in post since 2012, previously senior role at the Southbank Centre. Artistic Director: Greg Doran, in post since 2012, previously various roles at the RSC and in theatreland (hopefully he’ll never read that summary)
  • Opera North
    • General Director: Richard Mantle, in post since 1994, previously General Director of Scottish Opera
  • Birmingham Royal Ballet
    • Director: David Bintley, in post since…can’t quite work out but it’d seem to be at least since the late 1990s/early 2000s. CEO: Christopher Barron, in post since 2005, previously CEO at Scottish Opera.
  • English National Ballet
    • Executive Director: Caroline Thomson, in post since 2013, previously senior roles at the BBC. Artistic Director: Tamara Rojo, in post since 2013, previously – ENB/Royal Ballet
  • Welsh National Opera
    • Chief Executive and Artistic Director: David Pountney, in post since 2011, previously Intendant of the Bregenz Festival from 2003.
  • North Music Trust (essentially: Sage Gateshead)
    • General Director, Sage Gateshead: Anthony Sargent, in post since 2000, previously senior role at the BBC.

Now don’t get me wrong, these are huge organisations that require stable leadership from people who have experience leading similar-sized organisations, that’s perfectly sensible. HOWEVER in relation to my thoughts earlier this week about the lack of understanding and ambition in relation to ‘digital stuff’ in the sector I think this is potentially a big problem.

The reality is that digital simply did not feature in the world all of these people ‘grew up’ in, you could argue that good leaders would draw on the experience(s) of those around them to assist them on issues they didn’t have a view on. However I really think that such a fundamental shift in understanding is required that is just not going to be forthcoming from people whose experience for the last 15-20 years (or longer) is in running medium/large arts organisations, in an environment in which digital has never figured. Now of course there are exceptions to this, I’m not going to go into them here.

This lack of input from people whose whole lives haven’t been spent within the sector strikes me as a real problem. I’m sure it isn’t unique to the arts sector but of all the people I’ve listed above I can only see 2 who genuinely have experience at a senior level working outside the sector; The Southbank’s Alan Murphy and ENB’s Caroline Thomson (maybe 3 if you count Anthony Sargent but his BBC experience was…a long time ago). That’s 2 (maybe 3) out of 15 which is…not very many. I’m fairly confident that this is replicated across most arts organisations, now of course you could argue that the arts require a particular set of skills and experience that you can only get by…running arts organisations (although I guess this is far more true for the role of Artistic Director or whatever). Equally I am not, by any stretch, saying that this is the one reason for the lack of urgency around this issue in the sector, there are far more issues at play and nothing is that simple. However I am fairly sure that this lack of external expertise cannot be helping anyone tackle this particular problem and I think it is becoming clearer by the day that the arts sector probably can’t tackle it on its own.

Am I being completely naïve? Are there, in fact, lots and lots of organisations who have convinced fantastic people from outside the sector into senior, permanent positions (I’m not talking ‘associate whatever’ because that can mean…absolutely anything – including precisely nothing)?

You would maybe expect ACE to set the agenda, or at least try to help guide, on such an important issue. However given what I have seen, read and heard over past few years ACE have just as much problem understanding it as anyone else hence their eagerness to try and adopt things like live broadcast into cinema on a sector-wide basis – equally does this new-found love of broadcast (albeit in a mildly different form) come from the fact that ‘Baz‘ comes from a broadcast background so this is simply a solution that he can get his head around? Which, in a way, I think comes back around to making my point for me, people’s solutions to problems are invariable based on their own experiences, if you have no experience of digital solutions, interesting digital projects and all the rest of it, and all your peers come from precisely the same background then, really, are you going to be able to understand this threat/opportunity and react accordingly? I’d argue you probably aren’t. And that’s a real shame.

What’s the solution (I’ve been told, rightly, that I can’t just moan, I have to suggest solutions too)? I see the main problem at the moment being one of a lack of understanding, a lack of skills and as a result of this, a lack of ambition.

  • Clearly the money available in the arts sector is never (or very rarely) going to be able to attract the top, top digital talent, quite simply they are always going to end up at the big tech and media companies. So why not try and forge links with those companies? A ‘geeks in residence’ (Scotland, Australia, England) -type programme at a far more senior level than has already taken place would be an interesting avenue to explore.
  • I also see increasing the digital capacity of the sector as a whole as an important step that is needed, and quickly (this is something I’ve talked about before), this will ultimately ‘filter up’ and eventually result in leaders who at least have some knowledge in, and understanding of, digital.
    • And by this I DO NOT mean anything like the ‘digital capacity in the arts’ programme that has been run over the last 18 months
  • Alongside all this is the wider need for the arts sector to start to have some proper career development/progression opportunities for people, I know the AMA are trying to set the agenda in this area in relation to marketing and comms and there seem to be similar moves in fundraising, I see a need for this in relation to digital as well. But I am not just talking about courses for people to learn how to send emails, I’m interested in the artistic implications/possibilities that digital presents, we can’t just focus on upskilling the ‘support/admin’ side of the sector and leave the artists behind, that would almost be worse than doing nothing.
  • Unrelated to leadership but: there needs to be more digital ‘messing about’ as a matter of course, I’m not convinced that as a sector we’re particularly good at trying things out and being happy if it doesn’t quite pan out as expected, and then learning from that. This sort of low-level, iterative play would then help to at least build some momentum around digital thinking and start to provide a foundation for people to start to understand the possibilities and what might, or might not work.
  • Also digital needs to stop being talked about as just a distribution channel. Yes, that is one of the potential applications but it is by no means the only one and it’d be short-sighted and narrow-minded to only pursue this.

So, what do you think? Does the arts sector have a problem with a lack of diversity in its leaders? Is this lack of diversity then having an effect on things like digital ambition across the sector? I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts.

important p.s. although this doesn’t relate to my point about digital, only 5 of those leaders (out of 15) are women. 1/3? That’s pretty disgraceful.

‘Digital’ in the arts

So, returning to an old subject, about which I’ve got very annoyed in the past.

Last week Arts Council England (ACE) published the second version of their 10-year strategic framework for 2010-2020 (you can read the whole thing here). Now they mention ‘digital stuff’ quite a lot (the always excellent Chris Unitt has done a good job of breaking this all down here). I use this by way of an introduction, not to explore the specifics of the ACE framework (Chris U does a much better job on that front than I could anyway – see previous link), but more to draw attention to the fact that, yet again, ‘digital’ is being put front and centre. My point of desperation and frustration comes from the fact that despite positive noises that have been fairly consistent (certainly in the 3 or so years I’ve been at Opera North and anecdotally for longer than that), there is very very little by way of actual, tangible signs that anyone in the arts sector really ‘gets’ digital in any meaningful way. By that I mean there still seems to be no understanding of, or desire to confront the reality that digital/technological development has brought about. I can sort of understand why this happens, arts organisations find themselves confronted with an uncomfortable reality, audiences are down, funding is reduced (and from certain sources, gone altogether), they’re expected to do more with less, people are accessing and experiencing the world in a ways that – for the most part – arts organisations are completely clueless how to engage with. I get that, it’s scary, it’s difficult, there isn’t really an obvious answer to whether or not it’ll pay for itself, ever, it’s easier to just do what they’ve always done, change just enough to tick a box on a funding form and hope that the situation will improve one day. Unfortunately I can see absolutely no way that that is going to happen.

I was following the tweets from a conference the other day (I forget which one, there are so many, how do people find the time?), and one of the speakers was quoted as saying “an industry has to nearly collapse (like media, TV, music) before it realises the power of digital“. That feels like the situation we’re currently in in the arts sector. Everyone sort of grudgingly accepts that ‘digital’ is something you need to at least pretend to be doing but the situation hasn’t quite reached the point where reality has caught up, we can still kid ourselves that having a website and ‘doing Twitter and Facebook’ is enough.

And this situation, in my view, fundamentally undermines all the worthy words that ACE come out with. The reality, at the moment, is that arts organisations can basically do the bare minimum in relation to digital/online and, at the moment, there are no consequences. The depressing thing is that this is simply storing up a whole world of woe for the medium term. The lack of ‘digital capacity’ in the arts sector is something I’ve bemoaned previously, the lack of impetus, the lack of ambition and the lack of understanding is exacerbating this situation horribly and nowhere, do I think, is this more painfully obvious than with the websites of most arts organisations.

What should the website of an arts organisation do? What should it look like? What function should it serve. I’d say that 90% of the sector couldn’t really answer these questions with any degree of confidence. Maybe they’ve never asked them, maybe there are too many conflicting agenda within the organisation for them to be able to have a clarity of purpose. But worryingly this seems to result in a lot of websites that seem to serve the purpose of being an online brochure. I’d argue that this does noone any favours, not only does it reduce the websites of arts organisation to the level of blandly ‘selling some products’ and presenting a load of tedious information that serves no purpose than to be some sort of odd, permanent funding application, but the lack of ambition that these sort of websites represent point to the fact that, for many organisations, digital is still something that ‘sits with marketing’. There is no desire for – say – the programming or education teams to embrace the possibilities of digital and use that to represent their activities online in any meaningful way.

Some examples: this is the website for the National Portrait Gallery http://www.npg.org.uk/. Boring, huh. Unengaging, flat, unexciting. Here is how they’re displaying some portraits from the Tudor period: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/explore/by-period/tudor.php (crikey that’s dull…so, so, so dull). Now, this is the website for the Google Art Project: http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/project/art-project. How is that a technology company can so comprehensively understand how to present artwork and a NATIONAL GALLERY can so comprehensively fail to? It’s so depressing. The NPG’s Tudor collection is presented like some sort of never-ending brochure of tedium. Google makes the art feel vivid and visceral and present (Google also provides far more information about each artwork but that’s by the by). NOW THEN, I’m probably being slightly unfair (in fact I almost certainly am), Google is a multi-billion dollar, global company who can afford to fritter away millions on ‘hobby projects’ like the cultural institute, the NPG is a gallery that receives almost 50% of its funding from government and a large proportion of the rest from donations. But to provide a bit of balance, here’s a website of an organisation (in a similar field) that I think really do seem to ‘get it': https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/ – exciting, dynamic, engaging. Everything that the NPG isn’t. Add in the fact that the basic, underlying design architecture of the NPG’s website is hopelessly outdated (try using it on a mobile…or any screen that isn’t 800×600) and I think it provides a fairly good example of the worrying situation I think we’re in. This is a bloody national gallery. A national gallery should surely be setting the tone for the rest of the galleries in the nation? Or at least be subjectively ‘good’. This, quite simply, doesn’t, and isn’t.

Think this is unique to galleries? Nope. Soz.

The National Theatre is widely acclaimed for their NT Live stuff, broadcasting (live) from the NT itself into cinemas around the world. This seems to be celebrated as a great example of ‘digital’ – I’d argue that it isn’t really, it’s just sort of doing broadcast in a slightly different way, this essentially could have been done in exactly the same way 30 years ago. Again, have you seen their website? http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/ – I mean it’s not terrible but it’s hardly interesting, or exciting, or engaging, or representative of theatre in any real way. Now I suspect they are in a slightly less bad situation compared to other organisations in that a) they’ve got fucking loads of money, b) they’ve got blimmin’ loads of content and c) I’m sure someone, somewhere is working on a new site for them so my opinion will shortly be out of date. But once again this, to me, feels, at best, like a catastrophic missed opportunity and at worse a clear sign that they don’t get digital at all. I don’t know the people at the NT, so I couldn’t say which of these views is more accurate. But surely as the NATIONAL Theatre, as well as championing new writing (which I’m told they do quite well), they should also be championing and exploring what theatre is, or could be, in the 21st century and the future. At the moment they really, really aren’t. And don’t tell me NT Live is them doing that because, it isn’t. Spending £150k a go to shoot and stream a play from a theatre into cinema isn’t innovative or exploratory, it’s a great exploitation of proven distribution techniques and a proven brand being used in a slightly new way and it is very successful on those (and commercial/profile) terms, but an example of theatre in a digital world? No. Someone who had never been to the NT, who knew nothing about what it was, would not get an accurate or interesting impression from visiting that website. Equally it’s not particularly great at selling you a ticket (but I’ve rarely found a theatre that does this well) which, I assume, is probably its primary purpose at the moment.

I know these are just two examples, and some would say the NT are doing just fine, ACE certainly seem to subscribe to this view seemingly ignoring the fairly substantial financial barriers to entry for this particular model of ‘doing digital’ (I don’t know about the NPG – I think they were advertising for a Director of Digital recently so maybe they’ll have their revolution soon), however these are two ‘national’ organisations, based in London, they are well-funded, they are in the capital surrounded by incredible digital talent and if THEY aren’t doing stuff that’s great then god help the rest of us.

I know it’s not easy to get websites built for arts organisations (I’ve been there, I’ve done it), a fundamental lack of understanding regarding the potential results in the organisational website being treated like a glorified brochure, the number of agendas which are suddenly ‘all equally important’ means that design by committee is, at present, an unfortunate reality in most situations. However I’d argue that arts organisations need a watershed, and soon, they need to grasp the nettle, and start getting their heads around what they can do with digital. Why is it that websites for theatres, galleries, dance companies, west end musicals and opera companies all, for the most part, look exactly the same (and uninspiringly so) when what these companies do is so different?

We need to move to a point where the websites of arts organisations are as exciting, inspirational and engaging as what the organisations do. Now don’t get me wrong, by that I do not mean that websites should be flashy and difficult to use and clever for the sake of it. They just need to be better and they need to be representative, this is the arts sector, not a bloody wallpaper shop. (wikipedia to the rescue here) ” Goethe defined art as an other resp. a second nature, according to his ideal of a style founded on the basic fundaments of insight and on the innermost character of things. Leo Tolstoy identified art as a use of indirect means to communicate from one person to another. Benedetto Croce and R.G. Collingwood advanced the idealist view that art expresses emotions, and that the work of art therefore essentially exists in the mind of the creator.” Do the websites of arts organisations, as they currently exist, even come close to achieving any of these things? Websites aren’t just catalogues, they can be, and should be, so much more than that. And the fact that they aren’t is deeply worrying.

To round this all off I want to credit a few places that I think are doing good things (although these are by no means flawless examples I think they’re worth a look). I’ve already mentioned the Rijksmuseum above but they deserve mentioning twice, not only do they look like they get it: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/ but they act like they get it too https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/rijksstudio-award. The Southbank Centre’s new site is a million times better than their old one, it actually looks vibrant and exciting and diverse (which, I think, is what they want) http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/ – not only does it give a sense of the place but the design would also seem to provide a fairly flexible platform for ‘messing about’ in the future. Important. Another decent effort is from National Theatre Wales (who genuinely are exploring what theatre might look like and be) http://nationaltheatrewales.org/.

Please feel more than free to disagree with me, or to point out other people who are doing ‘good stuff’ (they should be commended) via the comments below or on Twitter, I’m @biglittlethings.

p.s. I do worry sometimes that maybe I just misunderstand the entire situation and I should be more forgiving and patient and there are in fact lots and lots of completely great things happening that I’m simply unaware of. However the more I look, and the more I ask, the less convinced I am this is the case. I am aware there are some people doing good stuff, but I’d say they are very very much in the minority. Equally I am aware (as people have been quick to point out in the past) that this malaise is not unique to the arts sector, I know, but I work in the arts sector, I care about the arts sector and this post is about the arts sector.

Related:

Responses:

This seemed to strike a little bit of a nerve on Twitter n tha’, a few responses below…

Valid point about design vs function from @ammeveleigh

@etiennelefleur indicated that he thought my focus was too firmly on websites and digital at the expense of organisations’ core mission/purpose (which I disagreed with but it was an interesting discussion)

and then the always-excellent Chris Unitt wrote this very good response (far better researched and referenced than my original blog! I’ll write something properly considered in response to a couple of his points)

Some people definitely thought I’d over-exaggerated the importance of digital, although I’d argue this viewpoint is part of the problem that could land us all, as a sector, in trouble quite soon. And I am never arguing that digital is more important than ‘core’ activity, core activity/purpose/mission/whatever is the starting point for absolutely everything.

But it was also good to see that people seemed to agree (and yes this is bordering on the self-congratulatory but I don’t care)