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Nick Malyan: Who has been heard and what action comes next?

Nick Malyan is an independent Project Manager and Co-Director of cultural regeneration organisation Empty Shop CIC. As part of Shifting Cultures, Nick participated as a panel member in the discussion on Leadership in the Independent Sector and has written his reflections on the day.

There’s been a lot of talk this year about the ways in which virtual conferences just don’t hit the same spot as an “IRL” meet up. So it’s saying something that the Annual Forum by the North East Cultural Partnership (NECP), felt like a rare exception, with some feeling of liveness to the occasion.

Smoothly facilitated by the Gateshead International Festival of Theatre (GIFT) team, a conscious effort had been made to create space for discussion, shared lunch breaks and the all-important end-of-day drink and natter.

Shifting Cultures brought together a cross-section of the region’s cultural sector. Combined authorities, local government, arts and heritage organisations, practitioners, producers, facilitators and lots of people wearing many hats and embodying multiples of the above list were all in attendance. The speakers for the day however were almost exclusively practitioners or leaders of small organisations, reflecting the theme of the day – the cultural sector’s independent workforce.

MC for the day musician, producer and NECP board member Dr Hannabiell Sanders, joined by Newcastle University’s NECP Co-Chair Jane Robinson, welcomed us to a day that challenged the sector to “shift our cultures, change our ways, expose inequalities and move forward together with renewed commitment.”

Image from GIFT & NECP. Hannabiell Sanders (top left), BSL interpreter top right and Jane Robinson (bottom centre).

The keynote for the day was entitled Adapt, Respond, Reach and Impact, taking the form of a conversation between Vici Wreford-Sinnott (Artistic Director, Little Cog) and actor Melissa Johns (LIFE & Coronation Street). Museums Northumberland Chief Executive and NECP board member Rowan Brown was in the chair, and also, for what it’s worth, the only heritage specialist to feature in the day’s programme.

The pre-recorded discussion was a positive but incisive exploration of the experience of actors and theatre-makers with disabilities during the pandemic. We’ve heard lots of talk of space for reflection and time to slow down this year. While this is true for some, the conversation revealed a very real fear for disabled artists that not “firing up like never before” was to run the risk of disappearing and becoming even less visible. As Vici noted, representation will matter for as long as disabled artists remain unequal.

After several years of the Creative Case for Diversity little has changed. As Melissa put it, representation should be a bi-product of amazing creativity – the chance to hear different stories and meet characters that have never been seen before. All that marginalised artists are asking for is equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. “Let us take care of the outcome because you will see richness and talent once you open that door.”

Disabled people have known all along that our institutions aren’t fit for purpose. What is clear from this conversation is that things are never going to be the same again. Organisations and institutions need to accept that marginalised practitioners refuse to be left behind in the rush back to ‘normal’. After all, as we would hear in the next session, “normal sucked”.

Left image: Equality of Opportunities, Not Outcomes. Right image: A Zoom split screen, Melissa Johns (top left), Vici Wreford-Sinnott (top right), Rowan Brown (bottom left) and BSL interpreter (bottom right).

Composer, turntablist and director of The Old Police House Collective, Mariam Rezaei chaired the second session; a conversation about the conditions that independent artists require to maintain their practice post-Covid. Panellists included spoken word artist Lisette Auton, dancer and choreographer Patrick Ziza, Me Lost Me electronic musician Jayne Dent and Company of Others Artistic Director Nadia Iftkhar.

Mariam welcomed us with a reflection on the adaptable and resilient nature of artists and invited panellists to offer examples of what adaptation has looked like for them during Covid. We heard about Lisette’s shift from a spoken word artist who writes on the bus and performs on the stage to a smaller writing practice brought to life through film making. Patrick talked about accessibility and visibility in the shift to sharing his work online – helping new audiences to “look past dance as a medium” and instead simply take the chance to try something new.

Jayne shared with us an old fear of tech, counterbalanced by the generosity of a DIY scene where musicians help one another navigate the sudden need to acquire new skills. While some of this is new Nadia Iftkhar reminded us that the core of the challenge remains the same: listening with kindness and responding with care.

In this spirit, the conversation swiftly turned to the practical ways in which organisations can support artists and improve the conditions in which work is made.

What is support?  Offering someone work is not supporting them. It’s a job. A fair exchange of money for services. Support is time, money, space – the things that buy artists the freedom to create. Or the freedom to think. Or even the freedom to rest, to repair and to grieve.

Support is about meeting needs and artists are individuals with different needs. The easiest way to get the support right is to ask – and make giving the answer as simple as possible. Proportionate application processes for the support on offer. No more essays when a phone call or video submission might do. If it’s good enough for a pandemic it’s good enough for the new normal. After all, as Lisette pointed out, the old normal sucked!

Image from Crystallised. Bright purple background with big white sliced letters that say: Normal Sucked.

Following this conversation, we took another short break before jumping into a lunchtime programme of long table discussions. I chose to attend the session on Survival, Stabilisation and Growth after all these have been the dominant themes of the past year.

Nine of us exchanged experiences, with the support of Hannah Matterson (CEO, Generator) and Vikas Kumar (Director, GemArts).

The stories in the room demonstrated the delicate ecosystem we operate within; freelancers’ ability to work determined by the fortunes of the organisations they work with. In turn, those organisations being dependent on the support of institutions and authorities. The pattern of these stories was all too familiar from before the pandemic, with the acuteness of the precarity being the new ingredient. In an industry where three years of NPO status passes for security stabilisation is a relative term.

Another quick tea break ahead and we were into the final panel of the day, the subject of leadership in the independent sector next under the microscope.

Chaired by Jill Cole of Northern Heartlands the session began with a lyrical provocation from Dance City’s new (ish) CEO Anand Bhatt. Anand described a first visit to the North East coast and how the rolling and shifting sand dunes reflect the makeup of our sector. “No sand, no dune. No sand, no sandcastle.”

From day-to-day we may not see the dunes move but rest assured they are slowly but surely being reshaped. The crushing waves of the last year – in particular Black Lives Matter – mean even the largest dunes have had their foundations rocked. Change is happening, slowly and near-invisibly.

Leadership is a collaborative and shared act, Andrea Carter

Anand also pointed to the opportunity to try something new and in particular diversify in our forms of leadership: co-leadership, spiritual leadership and leading by example. Co-leadership was a theme for the panel, in particular from Andrea Carter of D6: Culture in Transit. Andrea described the lessons we can take from working internationally and cross-sector – building new partnerships and collaborative leadership models that help to bridge perspectives. We must be proactive in building these bridges – talk is cheap, diversification is action.

Leila D’Aronville followed this with a packed five minutes describing the places we find leadership and how we define it – job titles and career paths being a poor metric for something that ebbs, flows and emerges where it’s needed.

Tyne & Wear Cultural Freelancers, (TWCF) the network Leila founded, brings together two thousand sector professionals from the region to drive the conversation about the independent sector. TWCF emerged from a need for solidarity, support and shared space and is a vital network for the region.

With networks come transparency and shared power, the number of new networks that have sprung up in the past 18 months was a theme for Martin Hilton of Gateway Studio Project. The interdependence of different people coming together in planned – and unplanned ways. Leaning on each other regardless of our differences, to understand, define and tackle the acute challenges we all face. When we amplify different voices new leaders emerge.

Our final panel member, Stella Hall, described a more literal form of new leadership as she begins power-sharing at the Festival of Thrift. Leadership is more than fancy titles, yes, but as Stella says, those of us with fancy titles need to be prepared to make way for those who are currently underrepresented.

Questions from the audience challenged us to think about equity. Equitable distribution of funds (should NPO’s cut their cloth to give independents a bigger slice or campaign for a bigger pie?) and equitable representation on boards (is proportional representation enough or does it leave minorities marginalised in new and lonely ways?).

With this still swimming in our minds, we moved to the plenary with Jane and Hannabiell – complete with impromptu trombone solo!. The next steps for NECP involve vital lobbying on covid recovery and renewing the Case for Culture. Climate change remains a key priority. We were also invited to consider applying to join the board, with applications opening soon and the chance for new voices to join the cause.

In the spirit of all good conferences, we were invited for a virtual drink and chance to socialise. With dozens of attendees staying on, a suite of new breakout rooms (the beach, the bar, a garden etc.) were opened up for us to wander freely. I spent time in the “bunker” with some other white blokes but the symbolism of that was a bit much so I made my way to the “hot air balloon” to join a light-hearted debrief. Within minutes our time was up and we were brought back together for thank yous and goodbyes. As with all good socials, it didn’t quite end there.

The conversation spilled from the “dance floor” into the lobby. The NECP had worked hard to make sure the day wasn’t just full of the usual suspects. The independent sector had been brought together and heard, new voices had been represented. The obvious question was: what next?

Do we have to wait for the same time next year to be heard again? What action is going to be taken after today or is this to be just another well-meaning set of conversations? How many more times must people with disabilities or those who experience racism perform traumatic, emotional labour for the benefit of the sector before changes are made?

I tried to write as many of the questions and observations down but literally, couldn’t keep up.

Who are the people we didn’t hear from?

Who didn’t even know this event was happening?

How much privilege do we possess just by having made it into the room?

Are leaders from marginalised groups always expected to be the pied piper?

Half an hour later the GIFT team, playing the role of the virtual barkeeper, brought the conversation to end. In any other circumstances, they could have deployed the classic ‘don’t you all have homes to get to?’ line but pandemics have their own cliches: interruptions from hungry pets and bored kids.

Sat in my spare room with a suddenly quiet laptop I tried to assemble my own list of questions.

If the board is at the top of the partnership who is at the bottom? Am I a member or a partner? A grain of sand or a dune? When did I join and what is expected of me? How can my willing but privileged hands help to effect change in a sector that moves at a glacial pace?

It is important to be realistic, we’re all building the bridge at the same time as we walk it. The NECP board is made up of people who are also giving up their own time to try and effect change for the benefit of the sector. Change that doesn’t come easily in a world of systems that aren’t built to listen.

The event was called Shifting Cultures in recognition of the need for change and the day itself was an act of commitment to platforming and listening to new voices. So, one last time to my list of questions for the NECP board:

Who has been heard and what action comes next?

Graphic representation of the day by Crayonce

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