Posted on:Monday 21st March, 2022
Pope’s Urn, Twickenham
The seventh in a series of essays reflecting on the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation’s experiences in the arts
The Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation (‘R&V’) was itself born out of the 10 years’ worth of experience which I gained at its sister organisation (Poet in the City). In both cases the organisation had to innovate from the start and to learn lessons. This was partly about finding a way to survive and grow but it was also about trying to find new and better ways for the arts to function and to thrive. It was about testing the existing assumptions about the arts and arts leadership and seeking ways to improve upon them. From quite early on ideas leadership therefore played an important part. This was designed both to share hard-won knowledge about what had worked and to encourage wider innovation in the arts sector. This essay will explore some of the key elements in this programme of advocacy.
In 2008 I was invited by Professor Catherine Morel (then at the Kingston University Business School) to speak at a conference about cultural entrepreneurship. I was joined on stage by representatives from a number of innovative arts brands including Rough Trade records. We were all rather surprised by the definition of the ‘cultural entrepreneur’ projected on the screen as a starting point for discussion. Drawn from French Deconstructionist theory this suggested in not quite so many words that the cultural entrepreneur is merely a reflection of the forces and relations of production, a figure who oils the wheels of capitalism but who otherwise appears rather passive, not to say complicit with the way things are. This definition was clearly at odds with the personalities on the platform, all of whom had challenged the status quo. And, despite the different arts businesses represented, I felt an immediate empathy with the other participants. All were led by a passionate desire to change the world (in my case to transform perceptions of poetry as an art form), by a determination to win hearts and minds, and to gather converts. Rather than victims of market forces, all were trying to move the market by creating new values, appetites, and patterns of consumption in the arts. I continue to regard this as the defining quality of cultural entrepreneurship.
Over the next decade I was invited on numerous occasions to give seminars to BA or MA students in the arts on how to be a cultural entrepreneur. These included seminars at University College London (2010, 2011, 2012, 2021), Kingston University Business School (2011), Birkbeck marketing MA course (2012), London Metropolitan University marketing MA course (2012), to MA students at Westminster University (2015) and at Royal Holloway (2021). These presentations were all intensely practical in nature. I spent time with them describing my own experiences of raising money, attracting sponsorships, building audiences and developing partnerships in the arts. I encouraged them to think practically about things they could do to establish a practice in the arts and then to monetise it. This practical focus was obviously appreciated, and was partly about empowering individuals to give practical form to their ambitions in the arts, plans that might otherwise go unrealised. However, it was also about encouraging a change of mindset. Like any entrepreneur the cultural entrepreneur is a starter-upper, who usually starts on a self-funded or unpaid basis, and who must work furiously in order to make headway in a difficult and competitive environment. Stepping out in this way requires passion and courage. In the meantime, I created my own personal network of ‘culturepreneurs’, bringing together talented up-and-coming practitioners, producers and ideas leaders from those working in the arts, and meeting with them occasionally to share best practice, connections and to seek advice. In this way ideas of cultural entrepreneurship have had an influence well beyond the regular activities of R&V.
In 2010, when I was running Poet in the City, I was elected along with about 20 other arts leaders to be part of a body called The Culture Forum. Responding to a suggestion by the then arts minister (Ed Vaizey) the idea was for practitioners in the arts to propose innovative ideas which might protect and even energise the arts sector during a period of austerity being imposed by the Coalition Government. It was refreshing to be able to work with professionals from many other parts of the arts world, including commercial theatre, and to be able to argue freely for bold and ambitious new approaches to the way in which the arts are funded. My role was perhaps enhanced because I was one of only a handful of representatives from SME arts organisations. One of the papers I presented to the Culture Forum based on my own research became the inspiration for the Arts Impact Fund, launched in 2014. Although I regard the way in which this was implemented as a missed opportunity for a new approach to arts investment, it is nevertheless a palpable demonstration of how it is possible for one person, working through voluntary association with others, to advocate successfully for change.
In the meantime, R&V has continued to champion the new approach to arts funding which I first proposed in 2010. In particular, over several years it has developed detailed proposals and business plans for a limited profit investment model for the arts, taking the argument to funders, other arts leaders, investment advisers, financiers and Family Office contacts in an attempt to encourage a more dynamic and fruitful approach to the creation of new arts content. The argument has not yet
been won, but R&V’s tireless advocacy has undoubtedly influenced the conversation. In my view the limited profit investment model remains the best available solution for arts funding, and perhaps the only one that is capable of both improving financial resilience and stimulating a genuine renaissance in the arts. So its day may yet come. In the meantime it shows how even an SME arts organisation can engage in a sustained campaign of ideas leadership in the arts. It is surely from such articulate advocacy that successful change with eventually come.
A sense of place
Another opportunity for public advocacy came in 2015 when I became involved in the work of the Farrell Review, another initiative designed to promote new and innovative approaches, in this case to the commissioning of public art. Once again, my role was greatly enhanced by the fact that I was almost the sole member of the panel who was not an architect, planner or public art consultant. My participation was based on the fact that I had delivered a number of public art projects for Richmond Council on behalf of Poet in the City through a specially established trading subsidiary. These included a design charette (a competition between teams of architects), a feasibility study for public art at over a dozen different locations in the borough, and the design and installation of Pope’s Urn, a permanent sculpture weighing 2.5 tons situated on the riverside in Twickenham, accompanied by benches into which were carved lines of Alexander Pope’s poetry. The latter remains a much-loved local destination overlooking the river Thames. On the strength of this experience I was asked to write an official essay based on the Farrell Review, a major piece of research that involved over 450 professionals, presided over by the acclaimed architect Terry Farrell.
The process of advocacy is itself interesting. The Farrell Review report was a rather dense corporate document running to over 80 pages. My job was to draw out some of the key ideas from the report and present them as a polemic or call to action. I was also asked to provide some philosophical context for the idea of ‘sense of place’. It was fascinating how ideas and proposals effectively hidden away in the report suddenly appeared far bolder and more radical when presented in a different and more vigorous way. The essay, entitled Putting Soul in the City, was published as a booklet and remains a powerful and influential call for new thinking about the role of public art. It is a call for action that has become even more pressing in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol in 2020 and the on-going debate about the way in which we should be projecting history and our democratic values into the public realm. It has led to a continuing involvment in public arts advocacy through the Arts and Place initiative and the Place Alliance, also outcomes from the Farrell Review. Amongst other things this has involved me in public advocacy for ambitious approaches to public art associated with new developments in London and York.
Thinking about the ways in which human beings use and experience their places and their buildings has also resulted in R&V exploring in detail the idea of a ‘poetry house’ and how such a venue can be used as a hub for the arts, education, and community. Inspired directly by some of the existing poetry houses, such as the Fernando Pessoa House in Lisbon, this involves the ways in which such a venue can operate as something much more than a small house museum, fulfilling a range of different cultural functions, projecting events and activities out into the community, and acting as the shop window for a much wider programme of digital engagement with the arts. R&V’s work has found expression in (amongst other things) a keynote address on the ‘poetry house’ which I delivered at the Kindred Spirits conference in Bucharest in 2015, and in the commissioning of a theatre show in 2016 exploring the ways in which poets and their stories relate to the houses where they have lived (Poetry House Live). Thus R&V has been committed to putting its ideas about the arts and place into action.
Like all SME arts organisations, R&V requires principled and consistent arts leadership. This can take many different forms, including good corporate governance (the subject of a separate essay), the management of staff, the facilitation of partnerships, the cultivation of funders, sponsors and donors, and the motivation of volunteers. When we launched R&V in 2014 I already had a decade’s worth of practical experience as an arts leader, and had already experienced many different challenges. So I was delighted when I was selected to be part of the first year’s intake for the Oxford Cultural Leadership programme (‘OCL’), run by Oxford University partners, and delivered for the first time in 2015. It was a great privilege to spend an intensive week with leaders from a wide variety of different arts organisations, with museums and galleries especially well-represented. It was a chance to take stock and to learn about best practice in the area of arts leadership. Almost every aspect of the course had a direct bearing on my day-to-day role as an arts leader, although once again I gained a special perspective from being one of the few representatives of an SME arts organisation. After the end of the course I volunteered to run the OCL Alumni network, and the very first event for the network was hosted by R&V at Blacks Club in Soho. After 7 years this has grown to be a group of over 170 arts leaders representing arts organisations from all over the world. Alumni include senior leaders from some of the most important institutions in the world including the Smithsonian, the British Museum, and the National Museum of Scotland. After 5 years management of the Alumni network was taken in-house, and it remains a great forum for ideas leadership, advocacy and influence in the arts.
The OCL Alumni network has opened many doors to innovative connections and stimulated many exciting conversations, and it continues to do so. It has also resulted in some important joint projects, most notably R&V’s delivery of a theatre show at the National Museum of Scotland as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019 (Before the Wall). This in turn demonstrated the great potential for museums to use the commissioning of artistic content to tell some of their most important stories and make them accessible to wider audiences. In an age of increasing anxiety about the provenance of looted artefacts and about links between museum collections and the legacies of slavery and colonialism, such commissions also provide a way of addressing these controversial and complicated legacies. In the meantime, R&V’s experience of the OCL Alumni network confirms the obvious value of networks as a means of advocating and influencing in the arts.
Re-framing the narrative about the arts
Like many arts organisations R&V has needed to push back against a narrative of the arts which sees them as being of little practical value, as a luxury or even as a strictly élite pastime. This same narrative suggests that the arts can only be ‘useful’ or ‘valuable’ when they are achieving some other social objectives, engaging with marginalised communities, rehabilitating offenders, or other strictly instrumentalist goals. This narrow (and limiting) perspective on the arts has a very negative effect on conversations about arts education, funding and infrastructure. How can spending on the arts be justified when it is in direct competition with a hospital, a rehabilitation clinic or a food bank? R&V has challenged this dominant narrative from the start, arguing instead that the arts and culture play an essential role in human creativity, innovation and social capital building. There is plenty of evidence to support this argument, including many examples of where the arts have led the way to dramatic social change, economic regeneration or even (more fundamentally) how we think about ourselves as members of society. However, when it comes to the mechanisms for funding and (crucially) for investing the arts, the old narrative re-asserts itself. Indeed, when money is spent it is invariably directed toward ‘bricks and mortar’ buildings rather than towards the creative arts organisations which are the true repositories of dynamism and delivery in the arts.
Arguably the real challenge needs to be philosophical. If one approaches the arts and culture as a philosophical materialist they are only ever going to appear as either a consumer luxury or as a mere tool for achieving more obviously remedial social objectives. R&V’s response has been to commission a translation of the work of Jan Patočka (1907-1977), a Czech philosopher and phenomenologist who (amongst other things) argued that the arts play a more important role in society, providing us with the stories by which we live and the tools with which we articulate our most important meanings (including our ideas about politics and economics). As a result a new Selected Edition of texts by Jan Patočka (Care for the Soul) is being published by Bloomsbury Publishers Ltd in April 2022. R&V has achieved this by means of a hybrid funding model. The significant costs of translating texts by the philosopher from Czech and German were funded by means of a series of grants, but the publishing contract with Bloomsbury at the back end is a straightforward commercial deal. R&V has thus used its charitable status and its artistic mission to de-risk the translation as a publishing proposition. Over the course of the last 4 years it has also held an academic conference and a series of arts events dedicated to Patočka and his ideas, and has published a booklet containing some of his essays about the arts. The book may be of most interest to students if philosophy and literature, but ensuring that this important work is available in English is also a great example of ideas leadership by an SME arts organisation and may in due course help to provide the intellectual basis for a transformation in the way we regard the arts in society.
Topicality and relevance in the age of COVID
If R&V has taken practical steps to change the way in which the arts are perceived and discussed it has also explored a whole world of ideas emerging from the world of Decadent studies, something that has both allowed it to develop its own content in exciting ways and to emphasise the topicality and contemporary relevance of many of the artists and artworks falling within the scope of that movement in the arts. As a founding partner in the Decadence and Translation network it has played an active role in a whole series of conferences and seminars and connected with academics and universities all over Europe (I have written about this in a separate essay). This engagement has led directly to a whole strand of ideas leadership running through the blogs on R&V’s website, bringing home the importance of Decadent ideas in addressing very modern concerns including climate change, sickness and disease, and gender fluidity. In turn this has resulted in some very practical outcomes, including a partnership with the Decadence Research Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London, and a creative challenge with students at the London College of Fashion. Both have served to spread the influence of R&V and the approach to the arts and creativity which it is championing. Never have the arts felt more relevant than in the face of the COVID pandemic and a period of moral and cultural anxiety.
Ideas leadership, advocacy and influence often work in a way that is gradual, accretive, and quietly persuasive. It may take a long time for their fruits to become apparent and their impact to be felt. But, if anything can change the way we think about and interact with the world it is the arts, and their powers of persuasion should not be underestimated.