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


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A Grand Tour with a Grand Ambition

One of my first jobs as CEO of The Mighty Creatives has been to tour the East Midlands’ arts and cultural organisations to find the inspiration to rise to The Mighty Creatives’ core challenge: how can we get better at providing cultural education for children and young people? This post is about the first month of the ‘Grand Tour’ and will be followed up with future posts in the months to come. You can follow my progress and challenges on Twitter using #NickOnTour.

What happens on tour, stays on tour” is what those wizened rock and rollers might have said back in the day when they were travelling around the music halls of Nottingham, Derby, Lincoln and Leicester. But for me, this blog is quite the opposite: “what happens on tour, leaves the tour” because there’s a lot going on out there that needs sharing.

To say that my ‘grand tour’ of the East Midlands’ arts and cultural organisations (#NickOnTour) has been inspirational would be an understatement. From the moments which bring you up short and sharp and disrupt your week (“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” thanks Nick at Corby Cube) to witnessing the work of those who proudly proclaim themselves as Community Arts organisations with no caveats, inverted commas or discomfort, and are able to show 40 years of achievement of building communities in Bolsover and beyond (thanks, Junction Arts): it’s been a two month tour of reminiscences, surprises and inspiring hopes for the future, the likes of which I never imagined when I started work on 4 July earlier this summer.

But this isn’t just a trip around the region for old time’s sake, fondly remembering rural touring shows, spotting old faces in new suits or dealing with the vagaries of the region’s transport infrastructure. There’s an urgent question driving these visits which we at The Mighty Creatives have a vital responsibility to address: how can we get better at providing cultural education for children and young people?

Because whatever the sector has collectively achieved in recent years, there is still a long way to go before we can claim to be improving the lot of children and young people in our region’s schools in any systematic manner. The unpleasant fact is that, according to OfSTED, the East Midlands is the worst performing region in the country on a range of key educational indicators. Couple this to the well documented fact that children’s and young people’s engagement in arts and culture is in crisis nationally; and you’re left with the cold hard reality that there’s still a long way to travel to a glorious land where arts and culture are everyone’s entitlement rather than a few people’s enrichment.

Because what we do isn’t just a matter of providing nice stuff for nice kids to do on wet Wednesday afternoons after school: it’s about improving every young person’s life chances – especially for those who already have had a tough enough start, whether this be due to poverty, discrimination or any of the other myriad of social ills which inflict themselves on young peoples’ lives every day.

It’s about knowing – and acting up on the knowledge – that too many children and young people live their lives without access to play, creativity and culture and that these inequalities affect other significant challenges in their lives: low educational achievement, poor health, engrained poverty, social exclusion or limited financial opportunities.

It’s about knowing – and acting upon the knowledge – that if we can radically improve, increase and invest in the engagement of children and young people to arts and cultural practice, we will dramatically contribute to school and educational improvement across the region and ultimately address the inequalities that poison too many people’s young lives.

So the place of arts and culture in education is not just timely, it’s urgent. It’s not just a desire, it’s an imperative. There’s no room to mess about in or time to mess about with.

The good news is there’s no messing about going on in the arts and cultural organisations of the East Midlands – from Skegenss to Corby, Northampton to Mansfeld . There’s work with national and international intent going on (thanks, Nottingham Contemporary,  Soft Touch Arts in Leicester,Royal and Derngate in Northampton and Derby’s Silk Mill Museum); and ground breaking work which is integrating professional and community practice (thanks to Derby Theatre;  Baby People in Derby, Viva SinfoniaRed Earth Theatre and Attenborough Arts Centre) – whose teams all reminded me that music, dance, theatre and design are all naturally Integrated by young people – and that it makes little sense to disaggregate them.

There’s some terrific developmental work going on in the heart of both our formal and informal classrooms (thanks to the teams at Ignite FuturesSpark ArtsLincolnshire Music Education HubNottingham Music Education Hub and Writing East Midlands) and a tremendous legacy around the region which continues to provide influential and transformative practice which participants have remembered many years after they were involved (thanks to NMPAT, the Music and Performing Arts Service in Northampton; SoundLincsartsNKLincolnshire One Venues and New Perspectives).

There’s some innovative and provocative work coming out of the digital domain (thanks to Threshold; artistry with ambition and aspiration, thanks to New Art Exchange and Leicester’s Curve) and a hugely healthy spirit of innovation and independence which permeates across age, art form and geographical area: (thanks toPhoenix CinemaMagna VitaePeople Dancing and East Midlands Jazz.)

It’s been a tour thinking about progression routes: not just how do I get from here to there with the minimum of train changes, but more importantly how do young people access an art form and then take it further with vocational or professional training? And then develop careers from something which was just a faint glimmer in their eye when they were 8 years old? And how does work start off in independent or community settings and then go on to the bigger stages, wider audiences and communicates with the wider world?

But the most important progression question of all remains: how can how can we improve our cultural education provision for children and young people, in both statutory and community based settings, in a way that opens up opportunities to them which lead to purposeful and productive lives?

Questions which no doubt will continue to inform #NickOnTour over the next 3 months as I begin my tour around schools, youth and other education agencies: watch this space for some answers but probably a lot more questions.


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Risk Change: culture, migration and 3 days in Maribor.

Day 1

I’ve never been a refugee or a migrant. Sure, I’ve travelled from city to city in the UK sometimes to find work, sometimes to relocate in order to work – but never with a gun to my head, my entire family trudging through mud beside me or as a result of persecution in a place I once considered my home.

But I’m here at Kibla in Maribor, Slovenia this week representing The Mighty Creatives along with partners from 9 other EU countries to examine the refugee experience, research how cultural activity can inform that experience and who knows in the long run, perhaps inform future international policy on how cultural practice can enhance meaningful relationships between the migrant and their host community.

We’re doing this through a programme called Risk Change: a 4 year programme supported by Creative Europe Co-operation funding.   Organisations from 10 partner countries in the EU aim to  interact with different audiences, using a range of cultural methodologies to build connectivity  between new coming migrants and settled inhabitants of multicultural communities across Europe.

It’s a tall order at the moment given what’s happening across the continent and the U.K. especially given our recent Brexit ‘decision’.

We’ve no idea what to expect this week. Of course, we have the paperwork and the schedules and all the requisites to ensure a constructive collaboration. But until we look at each other in the eyes and hear how we breathe and talk together, the documentation is just text.  It’s the subtext that’s going to count this week: the verbal, nonverbal and physical communications which are going to tell us whether or not we’re on a long productive road with our colleagues at our sides or on our backs.

Day 2

We kicked off our kick off meeting yesterday with an introduction to the research that all 10 partners need to do as the first stage of the project. There’s quite a bit of it too: a shed load of desk based research covering national policy and initiatives on migration; 60 participant interviews per partner and countless reports, ‘call-outs’ and actions. The list goes on and on and on and on….

It occurred to me mid-session that we could really add some value to the process by introducing colleagues to the methodologies involved in arts based educational research (ABER), a form of ethnographic research which involves using arts based processes as the means of undertaking research (not just communicating its results).

I was involved in a lot of ABER practice some years ago when I ran the Special Interest Group for the British Educational Research Association (or the ABER SIG for BERA as it was called in those acronym crazed days): so I drew on some of that work and presented it to colleagues.  If you’re interested in the field, the following practitioners are as a good a place to start as any:

ABBS, P. (2003). Against the Flow. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

BAGLEY, C. (2008). ‘Educational ethnography as performance art: towards a sensuous

feeling and knowing’, Qualitative Research, 8, 1, 53–72.

EISNER, E. (1993). ‘Forms of understanding and the future of educational research’,

Educational Researcher, 22, 7, 5–11.

LEITCH, R. (2006). ‘Limitations of language: developing arts-based creative narrative in stories of teachers’ identities’, Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, 12, 5, 549–69.

SAUNDERS, L. (2003). ‘On flying, writing poetry and doing educational research.’ British Educational Research Journal, 29, 2, 175–187.

Day 3

“I’ve never been a refugee or a migrant…” or so I thought at the start of this week. Yesterday we covered a lot of ground about the concept of who ‘counts’ as a migrant and why they ‘count’.

Fortunately, we were spared conversations about definitions of migrants which much like definitions of ‘creativity’ are interminable, exhausting and inconclusive. This is because someone at UNESCO had the good sense to conjure up some definitions of what counted as international migration which all the partners were happy enough to go along with. In summary, these were:

a) Temporary labour migrants: also known as guest workers or overseas contract workers: people who migrate for a limited period of time in order to take up employment and send money home;

b) Highly skilled and business migrants: people with qualifications as managers, executives, professionals, technicians or similar, who move within the internal labour markets of trans-national corporations and international organisations, or who seek employment through international labour markets for scarce skills;

c) Irregular migrants or undocumented / illegal migrants: people who enter a country, usually in search of employment, without the necessary documents and permits;

d) Forced migration: in a broader sense, this includes not only refugees and asylum seekers but also people forced to move due to external factors, such as environmental catastrophes or development projects. This form of migration has similar characteristics to displacement;

e) Family members: or family reunion / family reunification migrants: people sharing family ties joining people who have already entered an immigration country under one of the above mentioned categories;

f) Return migrants: people who return to their countries of origin after a period in another country.

The guys at UNESCO also make the useful point that:

“Migration is not a single act of crossing a border, but rather a lifelong process that affects all aspects of the lives of those involved.”

So in hindsight (always my best friend, Mr Hindsight), perhaps I am a migrant after all… perhaps we all are, one way or another… Something to consider over the weekend as I migrate from Maribor to Ljubljana and take on the role of being another form of transient: the tourist.


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Questions for educators: what’s your Galileo moment?

I led the  “Galileo – and still it moves” project back in the day when we thought Pluto was still a planet.  A small cluster of us – film makers Enormous Films, designer Cathy Cross and outdoor artist, Joe Smedley -worked with year 5 children at St. Gabriel’s Primary School in Knowsley to explore the planets and in doing so, develop their literacy and oracy skills.

We started off by researching Galileo and what he went through when he challenged the orthodoxy of the day ie that the sun revolves around the earth, rather than the other way around. We explained to the children about how badly he was treated and what a genius he was and how he suffered for his knowledge. All of which is no doubt true.

Although perhaps it’s not. One of interesting moments was when a young girl, when being told by one of us that Pluto was a planet, challenged us with the recent finding that Pluto was no longer deemed a planet but a dwarf planet, or a rock cluster of minor significance or just a large ice pack or something to that effect. Our colleague then responded to the challenge that as far as he was concerned, Pluto had been a planet when he was at school, still was a planet, and would be for the rest of his days.  Had Galileo been in the room at the time, he would have probably nodded sagely, shrugged his shoulders and motioned to the young girl to keep quiet as any further dispute would probably get her into trouble: and he should know, given the amount of trouble he had gotten into during his life time.

The irony of our colleague’s response was of course not lost on the Year 5 pupil who sat through the rest of the lesson with a slightly bemused look on her face. What we deem as knowledge is as uncertain and as flaky as it was in Galileo’s day.

So, what’s been your Galileo moment?


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Tips for Educators: it depends how you count ’em.

It depends how you count ’em…” has been a constant refrain through the cultural education exchange visit in Finland I made in March as part of the Culture for Cities and Regions project, funded by Eurocities.  Whether it’s golf courses in Espoo (7 or 8), municipalities in Helsinki (4 or 14) or lakes in Finland (187,888 plus or minus), it all depends on how you count them. For phenomena which you might think are pretty unequivocal (when is a golf course not a golf course?), it turns out that there is a lot more to a thing than meets the eye.

Walking along the coast line of the Tooivo Kuulas park one morning you could see why. One moment the lake looks like an impressively large pond; the next it stretches way off into the distance and conjures up memories of Balaton Lake in Hungary; yet soon enough you find out that it’s not a lake at all but just another link in the supply chain to the Baltic Sea.

It struck me that the same case could be said for student attainment. How can a country’s education system said to be performing well? Through its ratings on the PISA scale? Numbers of students who graduate into work on completion of their undergraduate study? Aggregated ratings on a mental health scale of well being? Like the lakes in Finland, it depends on how you count them. My top PISA rating may be nothing more than a drop in your Baltic Sea when it comes to evaluating the relevance those ratings have on learners’ lives.

Whilst it’s temporarily startling that Espoo has a disputed number of golf courses in its territory, it is comforting to think that if we can’t count golf courses with confidence, we can confidently be a little less confident about the value of numbers when it comes to understanding the effects of cultural education on our children.


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Track of the Ironmasters Connecting communities with the heritage of the Workington and Cleator railroads

ART GENE AND SUSTRANS PRESENT: Track of the Ironmasters

Track of the Ironmasters is a unique arts based project which aims to connect communities in West Cumbria to their rail and wider industrial heritage and the natural environment on Sustrans’ popular Sea-to-Sea routes Whitehaven to Rowrah and Lowca to Seaton and Siddick.

Using Art Gene’s innovative approach to community consultation, looking at the social natural and built environment, the project will identify and create a series of ‘Community Stations’ or community hubs areas of focussed interest and need along the rail track and will facilitate communities to reflect on their local stories, histories and wildlife around these ‘stations’.

Art Gene also aims to identify people to act as ‘Station Volunteers’ drawn from local communities and then work with them to help collect information, stories and histories about their history, environment, people and place.

Track of the Ironmasters aims to uncover the rich local stories, and meet the people that make this route a unique place.

This consultation project will inform the basis of future developments, installations and artworks along the Track of the Iron Masters routes. The project has already started with site visits to the tracks and to community groups and interested organisations around West Cumbria. As a result of this consultation we are delighted to announce that the formal launch of the project will take place as follows:

Tuesday 14 July          Launch in Workington at the Helena Thompson Museum
Wednesday 15 July     Launch in Whitehaven at the Haig Pit Colliery Museum

Both launches will take place between 6pm and 9pm: refreshments will be provided.

Following the launches, we will be providing free ‘Station Volunteer’ training at the same venues as follows:

Saturday 25 July  Training at in Workington at the Helena Thompson Museum
Sunday 26 July     Training in Whitehaven at the Haig Pit Colliery Museum

Both training days will run from 10am to 3pm and will be free to participants. Refreshments will be provided.

Background to Art Gene

Art Gene has developed an international reputation for creating acclaimed art works and project across the social, natural and built environment in partnership with some of the most socially and economically deprived areas of Cumbria and Lancashire over the past 12 years. Led by Maddi Nicholson and Stuart Bastik, co-founders of the company, Art Gene has developed a unique approach to engage with communities of interest to co-create artworks which build pride and revealing local heritage and is delighted to be working in partnership with sustrans to deliver this unique project in West Cumbria.

Art Gene have been working with Morecambe Bay Partnership, researching and engaging communities of the Morecambe Bay area for the past 2 years, building up an extensive resource of photographs, interviews, and data, and developing a deep understanding of the social and economic influences on the communities of the Bay.

Currently we are engaging with communities in four geographic areas, of Morecambe Bay: the Furness Peninsula, the Cartmel Peninsula, Arnside and Silverdale and Morecambe and Heysham. We have delivered a series of road shows, guided walks and training events all designed to facilitate the exchange of information and ideas and to capture local intelligence. This research underpins Art Gene’s new series of four “Seldom Seen” maps that we have been commissioned to print for the Places and Spaces strand of Morecambe Bay Partnership’s Headlands to Headspace programme. We have also been commissioned by Morecambe Bay Partnership to produce four smart phone apps to interpret the history and culture of the Bay and to complement the maps and the other projects in the H2H programme. Both the maps and the apps will be delivered in July 2015.

Further information and contact details:
Dr. Nick Owen MBE
Project Manager, Art Gene,
Mobile  077422 71570
Email     artgenenick@btconnect.com