Dr Nick Owen MBE PLUS

Working in and on the Business of Cultural Education

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Day 39 .. the 26 … Big Shut Up: Reimaginings

On 26 October 2022, Arts Council England will announce the results of their long-awaited investment decisions into which arts and cultural organisations have been successful in their applications to become National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) or Investment Principles Support Organisations (IPSOs) between 2023 and 2026. The Mighty Creatives are in the same position as everyone else in the sector and are ready for the email on 26 October which will tell us about what our relationship with Arts Council England will be over the next 3 years.

So, in the meantime, in the spirit of hoping for the best but planning for the worst, here’s another reflection which highlights some of the amazing work the charity has done for, with and by children and young people in the East Midlands over the last ten years.

Today’s reflection: what is the point of school?

What with accelerating technological and social changes, children have become socialites at 7, adults by 12 and are doubting everything the teacher and the school stands for, within a few months of joining secondary school.  

 If you believe the crystal ball gazers of the media, the curriculum has become irrelevant and has been superseded by the Internet where children work out their own curriculum, perhaps blindly, perhaps intuitively, perhaps guided by who knows what – certainly things we parents and teachers know nothing or little about.

No matter where you look, the central questions are the same: how should schools respond to the rapidly changing nature of the world we live in? How can they prepare children for an uncertain today and a completely unknown tomorrow?

We at the Mighty Creatives firmly believe that this preparation for the future – the ability to future proof our children so to speak -lays fairly and squarely at the doorstep of arts and culture. 

It’s the power of arts and culture in the lives of children and young people which will affect their educational, their social and their economic futures.

I don’t just mean the ability to sit back and consume the latest musical X factor fad, but the ability for children to engage actively in the processes of understanding, creation and production of all forms of artistic activity.  

We – teachers, artists, policy makers – have known for decades the power the arts have in the education of young people. Many of us will have stories which bear testament to that fact of life and may also be able to point to the many research studies over the years which support what we know from our own hard-won experiences. 

This makes it essential that schools are at the heart of championing the arts and are given permission to create opportunities for the transformation that the arts can bring about.

This is why participating in the Arts Mark programme is so powerful for schools and the young people they serve – and why it’s such a thrill to be here this afternoon to see the effects that the Arts Mark programme is having on children across our region.

Since the relaunch of Artsmark in 2015 we have had over 250 schools register and join the Artsmark Community in the East Midlands.  They’ve joined the growing national community of over 2,800 schools across England as a whole. 

This commitment to arts and culture in our schools means that over 103,000 pupils in the region can be reached – and can have their lives transformed by the power of arts and culture. This level of transformation means that our children and young people are not only just finding the point of school, but are being prepared for a future which they can benefit from, rather than being frightened of and controlled by.

(Extract from welcome speech presented to Artsmark Schools at Nottingham Contemporary on 13 July 2017)

The Mighty Creatives staff team took part in the Mighty (UN)Mute, a day-long vow of silence, on 5th October 2022. You can check out the campaign here or donate your support to it here.

Or if neither of these is possible (and heaven knows we’re all in tough financial times right now), then anything you can do to share and shout about the campaign would be equally welcomed and appreciated.

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Day 33 of the 26 Day Big Shut Up: shout it loud and proud.  We made this.

It’s not long before we encounter the next globe sculpture on our journey of discovery:  the work by Hannaa Hamdache, Sarah Mensah & Gabrielle Ubakanma (theme: Ecology of Existance).

We’re especially enamoured with this globe as it’s particularly close to our heart. When we heard about The World Reimagined project being developed back in 2020, it became clear in those early days that no-where in the East Midlands was being ear marked to host a globe.  Bristol, yes; Manchester, yes; Liverpool, obviously.  But the East Midlands?  

As ever, it seemed that the region was being marginalised by some larger national interests so we thought, that in our role as Arts Council Bridge organisation for the East Midlands it was up to us to see if we could persuade some of the larger local authorities in the region to step up and support it.  So, although approaches to Nottingham, Derby, Northampton and Lincoln all came to nothing, Leicester City Council, God Bless It, stepped up and found the resources and political will to support the programme, underwrite the financial requirements and make it happen.

We played our part in this process too by sponsoring one of the globes (guess which?) and involving one of our team, Hannaa Hamdache to produce the globe together with local young artists.  Mission accomplished.  Nearly. 

Our sponsorship of the Globe has required us to underwrite its production using a combination of our own unrestricted reserves and public donations.  Our trustees promised that for every £ we could raise through our campaigning, they would match it, £ for £ until we reached the target of £10,000.

We’re not there yet but are heading in the right direction: so any help you can offer would be much appreciated. 

And even if you can’t donate your cash at this moment in time, please do come and visit all the globes (especially ours.  Which we really love. As if you couldn’t guess.) – they’ll provide a fascinating journey of discovery not only around Leicester but across the world.

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Boss Bike Rides: it’s all about the CRM (creativity, relationships and magic)

Our first ride in June 2021 saw us cycle off from the Beans café on Nottingham Embankment just shortly after sunrise (well, 8.30 to be precise), destination Leicester.

Before too long (just over 6km to be equally precise) we had shared thoughts about what creativity was all about and what role it had to play in innovating business.

Creativity: H, c or M?

We read in the literature of Historical  or ‘H’ Creativity in which creativity is solely the domain of ‘great’ individuals (John Gardner), or alternatively the writings  of  Anna Craft who refers to the notion of ‘little ‘c’ creativity in which creativity is demonstrated in the personal sphere of possibility thinking and problem solving for example. Might we now talk about M creativity (as in Mmmm? Creativity? ) – or molecular creativity, the phenomenon by which creativity is present in all aspects of human endeavour in all moments of the day – and means whatever we want it to mean?  Might magic be a better word?

Creative accounting, creative engineering, creative gun play. The word creative these days has ended up in so many odd phrases and at times that unconstructed old fashioned creatives who believed in the power of paint or performance despair at how promiscuous the word has become.

The Creative Process

Nevertheless, our discussion continued unabated and we discussed how difficult creativity can be to discuss, abated or unabated.  It just is, and no amount of discussion, reading or writing will ever satisfactorilty describe once and for all and finally what the damn thing is all about.

We did agree though that creativity wasn’t just about having a glorious generative good time.  It’s as much about convergent thinking as it is about divergent: it’s as much about ‘killing your darlings’ as it is raising them.  I’m not sure who the first creative was who coined this little motto, but it points to the uncomfortable fact that  creative act is as much about destruction as it was generation and that at the heart of the process, there is always a moment of supreme annihilation.

The important thing is to know where you are in the process.  If you’re converging when you need to diverge, diverging when you need to converge, then this just leads to a very unhappy time for every one around you.

Creative Relationships

Just outside Hathern on the A6,  we encountered the Old Curiosity Book Shop and this prompted some speculation on what role curiosity has in the creative process.  I was reminded of my days in Hull, studying the intricacies of creative relationships (funded by Creative Partnerships back in the day) and developed an understanding of the role of curiosity in these processes through what turned into be the ‘golden thread’ running through the thesis. The nub of this proposal was that the emergence of a creative relationship went through several phases:

Phase 1:          Non-alignment. The phase in which A and B are in no relationship with each other; are unaware of each others presence, needs, interests or desires.

Phase 2:          Alignment.   The phase in which A and B have been brought together by the presence of a third party – a catalyst (which may be a project, initiative or challenge) which acts to bind the responder and stimulus.

Phase 3           Curiosity. The phase in which either one of the two agents exhibit curiosity in the other; if both parties become mutually curious then the relationship response demonstrates a mutually reinforcing amplifying feedback loop, the response becomes more intense and the relationship shifts to the next phase.

Phase 4           Interest.  The phase in which curiosity has been superseded by a more intense attraction in each others presence, needs, interests or desires.  The two agents come closer together, whether this be either physically or emotionally. As with the phase before, if this interest is reciprocated then another mutually amplifying positive feedback loop is established and the relationship shifts to the next phase:

Phase 5           Intimacy          Where the relationship is marked by strong emotional, intellectual or physical connections and feelings relating to love (storge, philia, agape or eros) is demonstrated.  This may be the point at which the impact, or the results, of the relationship can be witnessed not only by the agents in the relationship but by the wider world in which those two agents are situated.

You could tell by this point that the unrelenting weather was turning us both a bit stir crazy so we thought it was about time to ride those final kilometers into central Leicester and complete the ride: which we did.  Not especially triumphantly  (we were too wet for that) but certainly relieved that our joint 106km could be notched up on the giant Boss Bike Ride Target Board.

If you’d like to join in a future Boss Bike Ride, you can do so here.

Or, if you’d like to support the campaign by donating and sharing it, you can do so here.

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No Room at the Inns (x8)

We’re waiting for the 43 bus to take us into Nottingham, on the look out for some timely retail opportunities when we become aware of a dishevelled elderly man muttering into a mobile firmly attached to his jaw courtesy of a scarf he has secured around his head.  His muttering continues with a range of expletive deleted’s and it becomes clear that he’s very confused and very distressed.  His challenging, cajoling, arguing of his phone companion means that he keeps repeating the same phrases again and again, sometimes loudly, sometimes softly to himself but all the while into the mobile and the invisible caller at the other end.

Thankfully, the bus arrives to carry us away to the land of retail interventions and away from the old man who has no idea where he is, where he’s going, or what day of the week it is.

When he tries getting on the bus, he can’t say where he wants to go, doesn’t know where he needs to be, and to cap it all, someone’s taken all his belongings and he has no idea what’s become of any of them.

He’s unsteady on his feet and the bus driver sympathetically asks him to sit down, otherwise he can’t let him on the bus.  The instruction eludes him and he continues to sway unsteadily, whilst a few passengers try to help him take some steps towards the seats so that the bus can continue its travels to the shopping nirvana to which we are all headed.

Physically unsteady he might be, but our neighbour has other ideas and is rock steady when deciding where he wants to stand on the bus:  not with the other passengers, some of whom are getting tetchy and cat calling him, but next to the driver, lurching to and fro as the bus tentatively negotiates the busy Nottingham city streets.

Our fellow passenger soon becomes so distressed, that we have to get off the bus with him in Hockley and try to find out where he’s going and what help he needs.

It turns out that his name is Robbie. But he can’t speak coherently about much else.  I suggest phoning the friend he has just been talking to so ferociously so he agrees and lends me his phone.  There are just five numbers on his phone contact list: two of which look like agencies who might be able to help. I phone the first, but there’s no answer.  They might be out at the sales too I reason, so I try the second number, Bentinck Road, and with some relief speak to someone who helpfully advises me to take him along to Sneinton Hermitage where he will be welcomed and given a cup of tea.  He’ll then be picked up by the local outreach team who would be heading down there later that afternoon.

So far so good.  It also turns out the 43 dropped us off near Emmanuel House, an agency which specialises in working with homeless and vulnerable people so my friend pops over to establish whether they are open and to fix him up with a meal.

So far so unfortunate.  We take Robbie into Emmanuel House only to be met with a firm rebuttal.  He can’t come here. He’s been banned before and there’s no room for him.  He has to go somewhere else.  This is a bit of a setback as we thought that the prime purpose of Emmanuel House was precisely to look after people like Robbie.  But ours is not to reason why, so a member of staff helpfully calls for a cab and we head down to Sneinton Hermitage where we expect to be met with open doors and a warm welcome.

So far so a bit worse.  We arrive at the Hermitage only to find it shut for Christmas and the opportunity to go shopping, and an apologetic caretaker who explains no-one will be there for several days.

This is a touch exasperating given Bentinck Road’s advice to take him there and meet the Outreach Team.  I phone Bentinck again who advise me this time that there was another house some doors away which would welcome Robbie.  This turns out to be a complete red herring.  The house a few doors away has one man who looks at us in complete incomprehension and then proceeds to slam the door shut and not open it again despite regular knockings and ringing of bells.

After some random searching of the local streets, we find another agency, Michael Varnam House, who were open – but not to Robbie, and not to people who were not referrals and certainly not to people who have issues.  And they don’t mean unreturned library books.

Another series of calls with Bentinck provides lots of other fruitless opportunities.  There was another agency – London Road Hostel – who might be able to take him.  No, they won’t take him either it turns out. He isn’t a referral, and in any case, he has a track record with them too so there’s no way he’s turning up on their doorstep for the night.

It also transpires that the Outreach Team can’t come and pick him up after all as they don’t work that way.  Robbie has to be out on the streets before they can do anything – and that was only if they bumped into him en passant, so to speak. There’s no way they could organise a later pick up. Clearly Uber technology has yet to inform Bentinck’s Outreach team’s modus operandi.  Given they were driving around the city later that night, and Robbie’s state of distress was increasing by the minute, the idea that he might be picked up at some point in a hypothetical future strikes me as ridiculous. He could well have died of hypothermia by then.

Bentinck then reveal that they expelled Robbie some 24 hours earlier and that there was no way that he would be allowed back on the premises given his track record. If he did turn up, then they would call the police.  My phone manner was becoming increasingly vocal at this point and when I echoed the word ‘police’, Robbie pricked up his ears and his distress rose visibly with them.  There was no way he was going to a police station.  They’d already beaten him up, already badly manhandled him, he said, showing us some bruising on his wrist.

So we have one more choice.  We debate about taking him home and soon knock that idea on its unsteady head.  We’re trying to help but we too have our limits and that there’s no room at our inn either. We realise too that we cannot spend the rest of the day driving Robbie around Nottingham in various Ubers or take him to the sales expecting him to help us spot a bargain in the haberdashery.

So there’s one final call to Bentinck.  We’re bringing him up to yours: you apparently still have all his belongings and if that means that you’re going to call the police then so be it.

We call the next Uber and before long, an incongruously large blue Uber Mercedes turns up, complete with DVD screens in the back seats, and we get in, and drive over to Bentinck Road.  On the way, we manage to speak to a friend of his, George, who’s one of the five numbers on Robbie’s phone.  He thankfully picks up the Robbie baton and says he’s making his way to Bentinck so that he can pick him up and find somewhere else where he can stay for the night.

We arrive at Bentinck to be met by a staff welcoming committee of three who are resolute in not letting him into the building.  Thankfully though they accept our off load and we scarper off back into town in the luxurious blue Merc, thankful at least that George will be turning up at some point.

On the way to the Victoria Centre I spot the poster from Nottingham City Council which states that ‘No-one need sleep rough in Nottingham this winter.  if you or someone you know needs help, contact local charity Framework…’

At this point, an abyss opens up for me when I realise that despite the Council’s claims, the reality is for some people like Robbie, the state has no capacity to help, the voluntary sector has had its patience exhausted and is up to its eyes in referrals and there is nothing left to do than rely on your own supply of dazed and confused resources.

For all our Christian shopping values and retail therapy opportunities, there will never be room at any inn – or in Robbie’s case, the eight combined inns of housing agencies, domestic homes or bus rides.  The image of just five contact numbers in his phone magnified the loneliness and loss he carried with him deep inside his threadbare duffle coat. It struck me afterwards that for all that earlier muttering into the phone which was locked to his jaw, it was more than likely that he wasn’t talking to anybody at all, but just maintaining a pretence of a connection with another human being.

Fortunately, later that day we hear that George has found room for Robbie in a Bed and Breakfast in Alfreton Road in Nottingham and that they’ll be going down to Housing Aid first thing in the morning which is a relief.  We just hope that he isn’t expelled from Alfreton Road in the meantime and that Housing Aid are able to open their doors to him and help settle his nerves, calm his distress and point him in the right direction.  God knows he needs it.

(First published in the Nottingham Post, 3 January 2018)