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New Writing North: “I hope you are keeping well in these strange times.”

Claire Malcolm, Chief Executive of New Writing North and North East Culture Partnership board member talks with us about the impact of COVID-19 on their organisation and the thinking unfolding in their team at this extraordinary time.

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These are really tough times with rampant ambiguity and pressing critical issues about physical and economic survival for many. In this blog, I’m going to set some of those (massive) issues aside and instead share some of the thinking that is unfolding at New Writing North (NWN) in this extraordinary moment.

NWN operates a non-building-based programme encompassing a wide range of work from activities with young people in and out of schools, talent development, commissioning, awards management, festivals and events. We are an Arts Council England NPO and have a mixed economy of income from fundraising, consultancy contracts, service level agreements, partnerships and earned income. We receive around a third of our income from Arts Council England. Perhaps fortunately for us at this particular time, box office plays a very small part in it.

Our mixed economy model has held up during the crisis. We’ve made use of the Job Retention Scheme for around a third of our team, and with the support of trusts and foundations and the goodwill of existing funders (letting us repurpose grants), we forecast we will come through this year in reasonable shape.

We suspect the greater problems for us in relation to fundraising and income will impact later in 2021, but I am an optimist and we’re an optimistic, ‘can-do’ style of organisation. Our organisational style has always been flexible, responsive and brave. In many ways, we are shaped to respond to shocks and in chaos, it turns out we hold together pretty well. That has been good to find out.

So, for the moment we are calm enough to give some thought to what might happen next?

Challenging working practices

We are a well-established workforce with a high level of organisational understanding and knowledge and a flexible non-siloed approach to collaboration and we are adapting well to working remotely. We have built a team that knows and trusts one another but while we will do more remote working, build on our flexible working policy and question the need to travel so much in future, I am not sure I’d choose to run an organisation this way forever!

So, we are doing ok but what about the writers and freelancers that we’re here to support? Our business is built on the networks of creative people that we work with and we pride ourselves on being here for writers in the long term. We’ve sustained payments to our freelance workers and honoured contracts where we could, we’ve redeployed practitioners and continued with programmes that fund and support writers – awards, commissions and residencies to ensure that money keeps flowing to them.

We want to do more and are challenging ourselves to think about our relationships and how can we offer even more robust support to freelance writers and practitioners in the future. When the pandemic started, we were in the early stages of a major commissioning project with the North East Culture Partnership and the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, New Narratives for the North East, that is now underway and providing work for 15 writers. During lockdown, we’ve also completed a newly commissioned podcast and have a number of newly commissioned projects underway that respond in a thoughtful and fun way to the moment, including what we hope will be a major public poetry event.

Being relevant

Our organisation has built our business resilience and reach through partnerships and relationships. The longevity and trust that we have built up through our partnerships with universities, local authorities and funders have been key to negotiating this crisis but we recognise that the direction and priorities for our partners are shifting – alongside our own –  and we will need to adapt our ways of working: if our university partners need more online content for students learning from a distance, we’ll revamp projects to do that and if our festival commissioners need us to contribute to specific communities who have suffered, we’ll re-programme to do so.

We all believe that arts and culture are at the heart of society, but this moment is going to test that proposition. More than ever, we need to listen to the communities we serve in order to ensure we remain relevant, vital and useful. It is up to us to play a major role in helping our towns, cities and communities recover.

Our new hybrid lives

NWN has a good track record of publishing books, producing podcasts and films and capturing content. Now, crucially, we need to harness those skills and move them into a more interactive space, where we can serve our existing audiences with the kind of delivery they can access and potentially develop new engagement. We are fortunate that literature adapts well to this context. We need to take risks and experiment but we also need to listen to what audiences want. By the end of this, many more people will be living hybrid lives, more reliant on tech for their leisure and learning experiences and used to enjoying high-quality cultural experiences in their living rooms. Our content has to hold its own.

Testing and course-correcting

However, giving content away for free is not a sustainable business model and flooding the market with digital content dilutes experiences as many other sectors have found.

We need to develop new models of subscription and membership to enhance what we can offer in the long term. At NWN, we’re beginning to survey our users and audiences to see how in future they might like to experience our work and activities. We will need to keep testing new models of donations, subscriptions, ticketed live/not live events and through little tests and pilots begin to course correct to find a viable economic model.

The next ten months are going to be very interesting in this regard and the arts sector needs to emerge with some dynamic new ideas in place.

Planning for the future?

Our output is likely to become a more blended programme of live and online events in the medium term, supporting our core mission, which is to provide opportunities for talent development and involve communities in reading, but in new ways.

Enhanced digital delivery and the development of new products and services in the digital space will take a shift in our priorities and resources to achieve. With these new ways of working, we hope to be able to widen our reach, in the knowledge that carefully created content will connect us to new audiences including outside of the region where our work is focused.

But our communities are at the heart of what we do and we have exciting plans for the future that include opening a centre for writing and publishing in Newcastle. We announced our vision for this in 2019 and now we see this as the best way to advance our work and for us to contribute significantly to rebuilding the economy and activity of the city and region.

It’s really about the climate, isn’t it?

Yes, it is. Changing behaviour seemed an almost impossible task before this crisis but then look at what we’ve been able to achieve since then.

Think how much more cultural organisations will be able to achieve now (this is the optimistic me speaking now, but come on let’s imagine…). NWN appointed a Climate Emergency Writer in Residence in January and her work seems more pertinent and fundamental every day. We are launching a new project, Murmurations, next month (June) that will call to the public to engage with ideas about the future of the natural world.

At the North East Culture Partnership’s Forum event in January 2020, the arts and culture sector expressed a new intention for working together to communicate the climate crisis to their audiences and to improve their own impact.

Now it’s time for us to lead the public discourse on this topic. It’s time to get seriously creative in our contribution to advocacy for a greener region and world.

We can’t get through this and continue to think that our old ways of working were enough. There is never going to be an opportunity like this in our lifetime to re-set for much better outcomes locally, nationally and internationally and for all of our futures.

Claire Malcolm is the Chief Executive of New Writing North, the regional development agency for reading and writing. New Writing North is funded by Arts Council England and works across the North of England from a base in Newcastle upon Tyne. Find Claire on Twitter at @nwnclaire.

New Writing North website: www.newwritingnorth.com    

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