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What does it mean to be resilient in the arts?

Moira Sinclair, Chief Executive

On 30 March Royal Opera House (ROH) Links programme participants met at Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF) to discuss resilience in the arts. PHF Chief Executive Moira Sinclair delivered the key note address.

I was delighted to welcome colleagues from the Royal Opera House Links programme to Paul Hamlyn Foundation last week to consider what it means to be resilient in the arts.

Resilience is a word that has got a lot of traction in arts policy and funding circles – partly because it’s a neat word to try to encompass quite a lot of complexity. In 2010, when I was at the Arts Council England, Mark Robinson’s research on adaptive resilience was very influential, helping us to think about how we responded to the financial crisis and what we knew would be a tough time for the cultural sector.

Arguably and worryingly, there are still tough times to come – with more cuts to local authority budgets and uncertainty about research and international partnership funding very current. So a conversation about what it means to be resilient feels as relevant today as it was back then.

At the time, Mark said: “Adaptive resilience is the capacity to remain productive and true to core purpose and identity whilst absorbing disturbance and adapting with integrity in response to changing circumstances” – and I would highlight that word ‘integrity’.

I thoroughly recommend that work to others who want to understand the theory that underpins the policy which I think still applies today. I’ll reflect on some of the areas that I and colleagues at Paul Hamlyn Foundation talk about in the context of resilience, perhaps bringing that work of 2010 into the present day.

What I’m sure about is that a resilient arts organisation doesn’t start with a robust business model – sure you can’t be productive without one, but the first thing I’d stress is the importance of a really clear sense of what you are there to do. It’s more than a mission statement – although I think a snappy articulation is a pretty good litmus test for what I’m talking about – it is a culture of shared purpose and value, the reason you come to work and feel passionate about what you do.

If my team were standing in the room now, there would probably be a lot of rolling of eyes because we’ve done a lot of work here on this. In writing a new strategy for PHF in 2015, I was very clear that I wanted everyone internally and externally to understand where we came from, what values underpinned us (which we’ve described as ‘how we work’,) and how we were responding to the now, the context in which we operate. We talked a lot about what our focus was to be and how much we might tolerate or expect drift from that in future years – and the decision making processes we might adopt if we were to do so.

This might sound like total common sense, but for those of you who’ve recently filled in Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) applications, you’ll know it can be harder than it sounds. And as a funder, I’d reflect that we are sometimes surprised by how woolly an organisation can be. And if this sense of purpose and value isn’t strong, in our experience very little else is.

If it is in place, you can mobilise effort around it – your partners and networks, potential funders – and when the world is particularly challenging, like a lodestone you return to the ‘why we are here’ and you make your decisions accordingly.

It isn’t about being static. The what we do might remain the same – an opera house is not likely to stop presenting opera – but the why, how and for whom needs shaping and sharing. Your sense of purpose and value should be informed by context and crucially the ‘who we are here for’ – artists, audiences, participants. I have seen time and time again how much more resilient an organisation is when it truly understands and welcomes in at all levels the communities it serves. Whether its Battersea Arts Centre’s audiences marching when the local authority threatened to withdraw funding, or fans of Islington Mill in Salford writing in support when its licence was being questioned, or learning from the Our Museum programme, which concluded that short term community projects do not result in genuine participation and leave organisations vulnerable to cuts in project funding – the need to connect and build networks that share your vision is not a ‘nice to have’.

And of course that shared sense of purpose should absolutely talk about the art. How can an arts organisation withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions if it forgets to pay attention to the quality of the art it produces? In this regard, I’d say organisations are different to individual artists – in that there is a compact here with our audiences that I’ve already mentioned.

Alongside that, I’d expect to see strong leadership, governance and management in a resilient arts organisation. Easy to say and much harder to measure. When I became Chair of East London Dance, I was struck by how much we demand of a very small staff team and what the potential for confusion might be. We’ve brought new skills onto the Board to complement the staff team, clarified accountability lines across the organisation and reaffirmed the contribution we expect from everyone. We are undoubtedly a stronger and more resilient organisation as a result – we understand the figures better, we’ve been able to manage a change in leadership as our Director goes on maternity leave and our ability to understand risk and opportunity is enormously improved (which is really important in itself in becoming more resilient).

The need for a robust business model, one that is really understood by everyone in the organisation is also part of what it takes to be resilient. In an ideal world, every arts organisation would be able to predict its entire income for the year in advance, but we, as funders, know that box office and fundraising and the like are all unpredictable. So we are looking for a range of income streams (to see the risks mitigated), and we are checking the assumptions that you are making very carefully. I’d say an enormous amount of progress has been made in the last 10 years and most cultural organisations have a much more balanced income line. And I’d emphasis that a resilient organisation is not about accepting funds indiscriminately to make the bottom line work. I’ll always argue you shouldn’t fit your organisation to a funder’s priorities – that way madness and a lack of resilience lies because you start to subvert your organisation’s purpose, you undermine the very reason why you exist.

I’d also argue that often we see resilience compromised because an organisation is unable to flex. It sets expenditure budgets, which remain untouchable regardless of the income being generated; people hold on to ‘their’ project funding rather than understanding how what they do contributes to the whole. I never thought I’d say it, but good management accounting is a boon and every budget holder should be part of a wider regular conversation about money.

I want to finish on two areas which are very dear to my heart and which are critical to the way in which the Paul Hamlyn Foundation wants to work.

Underpinning all our work is a commitment to evaluate and learn from the activities that we support and initiate. And we want to help our partners and grantees to understand what is effective and to learn from each other how to do things better. We believe this is how we will have the most impact as a funder with a mission to achieve change in the world. And we think reflective practice is important for the arts sector – and surprisingly underused and misunderstood. Artists are encouraged to reflect on their work, to innovate and experiment in their practice. But somehow once we become organisations, that spark is dimmed. A new version of a classic may be presented by a fresh young director, but what about the way in which we use our venues, our marketing, the routes to new audiences, the way we listen to what they want. We are asking that applications to us demonstrate the ways in which they will learn and importantly use that learning, not to comply with reporting requirements but because we see space to innovate, experiment and change as critical to resilience. And our commitment is to be flexible as a funder, to recognise that the work may change as it’s made and the outcomes might be very different – and to be content with that.

I’d like to finish with a focus on human assets, or people, for those of us not fully immersed in the world of management speak would say, and their importance in making an arts organisation resilient. It’s those people who will shape your vision, build your networks, deliver your work within budget and on time, lead, manage and govern. And yet we spend so little on them. I’d say it’s nigh on impossible to be resilient without some investment in our people, along the entire pipeline. I know it’s difficult when money is tight, but we are creative organisations and I am sure that some of the solutions are there, especially if we cluster together. Coaching, mentoring, shadowing cost very little and deliver a lot. Paid apprenticeships are possible and can add value to your core purpose. Bringing people together to learn and using the assets that we have at our disposal in new ways – for example, unused space in our buildings – seems like a win-win, and we are trialling such approaches at Paul Hamlyn Foundation. This network, convened by the Royal Opera House, is a really good example. I’m often surprised how little people in the arts talk to each other, and it’s an often at groupings like this that you can identify possible partnerships, ways in which to avoid duplication, shared projects.

In short then, what does it mean to be resilient in the arts? It means making the very best of what we do well and what we have at our fingertips; it means embracing change and being flexible; it means thinking hard about the relationship to audience; it means actively being part of networks; it means investing in people; it means leading with purpose.

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