Cultural Playing Field

State of the Arts Conference 2012 by Robin Simpson
February 16, 2012, 7:44 am
Filed under: meetings | Tags: , , ,
The Lowry, Salford

The Lowry, Salford

On Tuesday I was at The Lowry in Salford for Arts Council England’s ‘State of the Arts’ Conference. I was fairly critical of last year’s ‘State of the Arts’ Conference, saying here that “the main conference sessions were disappointingly lacking in creativity in terms of their format”. So I was pleasantly surprised to see a much more creative approach this year, with the plenary sessions beautifully staged (and stage-managed) in The Lowry’s massive Lyric Theatre. I spent all day rather cheekily taking credit for this improvement which was clearly a response to my stinging criticism, only to find that when I bumped into ACE Chief Executive, Alan Davey, in the afternoon and congratulated him on the more theatrical style of the conference he said, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, “well you made such a fuss last year we had to do something!”.

One of the best things about the conference this year was that it was chaired by Kirsty Wark: she was a wonderful chair – listening carefully to the speakers, understanding the issues, keeping everyone to time and being incredibly fierce when necessary. She was part of a strong BBC presence, emphasising the developing partnership between ACE and the BBC and the proximity of Media City UK, just across the water from The Lowry. We were welcomed by Peter Salmon, Head of BBC North, and in the afternoon the BBC’s Arts Editor, Will Gompertz, interviewed the choreographer Arlene Phillips about whether TV does great art. This was a session that seemed to divide the audience – while many were impressed by Arlene Phillips’ passion and enthusiasm and welcomed this very different voice as a challenge to the usual suspects at an arts industry conference, there was also some very audible muttering about her views on the differences between the arts and entertainment and her sometimes self-contradictory statements about the need for a populist approach.

Opening the conference ACE Chair Liz Forgan suggested that this is “a golden age for the arts”, even if it is on the edge of the unknown. The Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey, said “the arts are more important than ever before” and “the arts are their own justification, in and of themselves”. He was clear that “we believe Government should provide the core funding for the arts”. He said “we support the mixed economy model for funding the arts – something that is almost unique to this country” and “we support, absolutely, the arm’s length principle”. As David Brownlee from the Theatrical Management Association (TMA) started to ask the Minister a question, Ed Vaizey interjected to ask when the TMA Awards were going to be held. He said he had tried to find this out on the TMA website but it wasn’t up to date and went on to criticise arts organisations that don’t keep their websites up to date. A little later in the session, Kirsty Wark read out a tweet that had appeared on the computer screen in front of her (from @MarcusRomer) which pointed out that Ed Vaizey’s own blog hasn’t been updated for nearly 2 years!

State of the Arts Conference delegates in the foyer of The Lowry, Salford

State of the Arts Conference delegates in the foyer of The Lowry, Salford

Away from the plenary sessions, I attended the two ‘Artists and Communities’ breakout sessions. Apart from the inevitable digression into terminological issues (what do we mean by ‘Artists’? what do we mean by ‘Communities’ why not ‘Artists in Communities’ or ‘Artists of Communities’? etc.) these were interesting discussions about participation, engagement and community arts. The four speakers, Dan Thompson, Rosie Kay, Peter Jenkinson and Ruth Little, were all entertaining and thought-provoking.

State of the Arts is a big conference, this year attracting around 500 people: the delegate list is more likely to be in the running for the Booker Prize than the BBC Short Story Award. Whatever you think of the conference sessions it’s a wonderful networking opportunity: I managed to talk to a host of old and new contacts – including Alan Davey, Jim Tough, Richard Russell and Cluny Macpherson from ACE and Nick Capaldi, Chief Executive of the Arts Council of Wales.

Robin Simpson.

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