Dr Nick Owen MBE PLUS

Working in and on the Business of Cultural Education


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A Day in a Year in a Day at The Mighty Creatives

I’ve worked in a fair few offices in my time, everything from the back seat of my car, to a stationery cupboard (with intermittent dial up internet access), through to an 11th floor palatial office suite in which full timers would glare from behind their desk dividers at us part timers. They’re funny spaces, offices; never to be viewed in the same light after the eponymous Ricky Gervais series, and for all the bland uniformity they present on the surface, underneath there’s a myriad of tensions, joys and exclamation marks.

Offices in the creative sector are particularly conflicted spaces; it’s expected that they should reflect the artistic, freewheeling creative spirit of the organisation, but on the other hand also have to accommodate people wrestling with spreadsheets, sensitive private conversations and long-term, life-changing budget decisions.

Open plan offices can be particularly fraught, holding multiple needs and conversations. It’s a bit like trying to play in a band: the lead guitarist is constantly inclined to rip into an extended guitar solo; the drummer’s constantly practicing his paradiddles, and the brass section – assuming they’ve got back from the pub in time – are always on the verge of walking out back to the pub. And then you’ve got your younger generation who take huge delight in sampling every possible sound, distorting it beyond recognition and playing it back in the least useful context imaginable. It’s potentially cacophonous, with very little musical enlightenment generated.

Stepping into the cacophony of silence of the TMC open plan office for the first time however, was a very pleasant surprise. We have a large open space, not particularly conducive to holding a jazz improvisation workshop, but it is very helpful if you need to concentrate and get some hard numbers sorted.

And sorting hard numbers and targets is something we’re pretty adept at.

In the last year alone, we’ve delivered:

  • 16 social action projects for 261 young people participating in 109 events through our Act4Change programme;
  • 8 Cultural Education Partnerships being established which has generated 7 partnership Investments (worth £564,580) and a return on investment of £1,259,818;
  • 7,312 moderations and 194,250 hours of quality provision through Arts Award;
  • 120 schools registered and 31,289 pupils reached through Artsmark;
  • 8 school Continual Professional Development networks established, with 58 new schools through our Children and Young People workforce programme;
  • activity in 4 locations, with 6 commissioned young artist artists, in 16 community labs with over 130 local young people who are working together to produce four Shakespeare inspired festivals on 23 April for the Emerge Youth Arts festival programme
  • and and and.. the outputs, outcomes and achievements are formidable.

What is key to the organisation’s effectiveness? Our ability to collaborate, to share and to come together as team as well as with our wider partnerships across the region.

As a team we meet regularly at our ‘huddles’ where we give colleagues five minutes to pitch, share and offer ideas in whatever medium they like and then watch how the ideas flow. It’s a place to playfully engage with the hot topics of the day and ask the questions which need answering. Everyone’s invited to pitch in, share or ask questions. It’s possibly the most generative space in the office environment, in as much it generates conversation, ideas, suggestions: not just within the work place agenda but it allows us to bounce into other ideas, suggestions and inspirations.

In addition to the forward-looking huddles, we also reflect on our work through our quarterly management review meetings, which enables us to track progress against the many programme lines of activity. Probably as complex as tracking train movements out of Crewe Junction, the quarterly reviews have enabled us to coordinate our programme progress. Progress that includes building a strong case to secure a new Arts Council Bridge contract, which could support us until the dizzy heights of 2022 if successful, also managing the intricacies of our Emerge youth arts festivals, happening again in April 2017 (spanning the East and West Midlands), responding to the complexities of the Act4Change programme, which is resulting in hundreds of young people across the East Midlands making real, sustainable differences to their local communities; and meeting the challenges of delivering a 10 partner European programme on migration and culture. Our programmes’ activity is intricate and varied, demonstrating great impact across the region. Then, of course, there’s all the associated communications, finance and office support that’s needed to keep those programmes moving and delivering on time and to budget.

It’s a year to the day that I went for my interview for the post of CEO at TMC and got my first sight and sound of the office in full attentive flow. It’s been an amazing experience from the onset and I’m thrilled to see how the next five years map out for us, our colleagues and our partners regionally, nationally and internationally.

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The good lies of stories: writers working with refugees

“Stories may well be lies, but they are good lies that say true things, and which can sometimes pay the rent” Neil Gaiman[1]

Working with refugees means that writers are faced with some provocative challenges about their practice. Are they there to interpret the history of the young refugee who who’s standing in front of them, bewildered and angry? Tell their truth for them? Help them write English? Help them find some accommodation? Or just get out of the way?

Or, given that we live in post-truth times of fake news, is the best that writers can do, to paraphrase Gaiman, is to entertain us with stories that are good lies which pay the rent?

At this year’s Writers Conference, produced by Writing East Midlands at The University of Nottingham, we were delighted to introduce the The Mighty Creatives’ Risk:Change programme to conference delegates; over 150 writers and storytellers from a diverse set of backgrounds and interests. Risk:Change is a four year programme, funded by Creative Europe, which aims to improve understanding of how cultural practice affects social change across 10 European partners; from the Balkans and South East Europe up to France, Holland and into the East Midlands of the UK.

Now an annual landmark in the region’s literary landscape, The Writers Conference provides workshops, panel discussions and debates designed to assist writers’ professional practices. This year’s conference interrogated the idea of ‘migration’, not by debating ‘rights and wrongs’ but by taking an inquisitive look at how ideas might move, as people do, and what this might mean for writers of all backgrounds.

Never mind the Alice in Wonderland world of Brexit promises, delusions and fear. The work that is being undertaken by partners, artists and migrants in the Risk:Change programme is all about engaging in the real world of the complex relationships between culture and migration in ways which aim to understand and give voice to the migrant and the new communities they find themselves within. Being able to introduce this work to writers, who are increasingly finding themselves invited to work with refugees, is a vital element of the Risk:Change programme.

By investigating the opportunities for sharing literary cultures, sparking creative processes, and embracing new ideas, stories and truths, we asked, through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s “Heroic Journey” why certain stories continued to appeal, what the commonalities were and whether the use of archetypes – hero, mentor, villain – were useful in creating narratives which helped the refugee voice to be created, platformed and heard.

Helping to challenge the theory and practice was Jacob Ross, Associate Editor for Fiction at Peepal Tree Press and author of The Bone Readers: Shonaleigh, a Drut’syla (storyteller) from the Yiddish oral tradition and the UK Deputy National Storytelling Laureate and Andrew Walsh, an award-winning writer/director with credits for more than 70 video games including Prince of Persia and Harry Potter.

The question of who is ultimately responsible for creating the refugee narratives – whether it’s the writer, the refugee and or a combination of the two – was also challenged many times. There were no simple answers to this question – but the fact that they are being asked and discussed by writers and refugees is a promising way forward.


[1] http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2004/11/politics-portugal-and-no-gumbo-limbo.asp