Last week the Arts Council announced that “relevance” was replacing “excellence” as the central plank of their strategy for the coming years.
Except that isn’t quite what they announced at all, is it?
As far as I can tell from the various garbled versions of the speech that I’ve managed to cobble together into something meaningful, what was actually announced was that art would be prioritised when it represented a meaningful intervention in people’s lives. This is either a small shift of emphasis or business as usual, depending on your perspective.
In the latter years of the Labour government concerns were consistently raised that an instrumentalist approach to art deprioritised the quality of that art. This rests on the assumption that art which has an impact on peoples’ lives can’t actually be any good, which is obviously nonsense, but nonetheless, as a result of these arguments, the pendulum swung towards excellence as the key priority. Except it didn’t really. It was either a small shift of emphasis or business as usual, depending on your perspective. Because alongside that shift came the slogan “great art for everyone”, and throughout the last decade the “everyone” has been at least as important” as the great”. There's a nuanced blog post to be written about why I think this is a good thing, but there isn't time for that today. Let me just say that ACE haven’t so much changed their strategy as tried to draw more attention to what it's always been. I’m with them.
Next, an announcement.
Many of you will be aware that in a moment of madness last month, I decided to raise money for an emerging artist by running a 44-mile mountain race. The background to this is on the fundraiser page here, but the short version is that it’s getting harder and harder to start a career in this industry and I wanted to do a small thing to help someone.
I’m thoroughly delighted to tell you that that someone is Caitlin Gleeson and the project is POUR AND SERVE. I got an astonishing number of brilliant applications and I really wanted to be able to support far more of them. So in the end the thing that made the difference was that this is more than just a show.
It's a show first, though. Pour and Serve is set in a working bar and uses free drinks and audience interaction to explore how the language of sexual harassment perpetuates a culture of violence against women. Just on the level of the show, you’ll understand straight away why it’s up my street: it’s engaging, it's interactive; it reels the audience in with humour and uses that heightened level of engagement to get deep into something that really fucking matters.
I know Caitlin a little. She was in my R&D room at Theatre in the Mill in Bradford, an experience she wrote about here. What knowing her a little means is that I know a little about how brilliant, thoughtful and sharp she is. It wasn’t a criterion in discussion of the applications, but I’m very happy to be able to offer a bit of continuity of support.
And it’s more than a show. It’ll be accompanied by a series of workshops that use the show as a starting point for a discussion of sexual harassment and consent. The workshops will help participants develop strategies for intervening in situations before they snowball. And they’re run by Hebe Reilly, whose expertise comes from work with Manchester Rape Crisis, Fearless Futures, and others, and is developing the workshops with Caitlin.
So when it comes to thinking about the best use for this money, it was hard not to give it to a project that’s not just a show, but also uses the platform of a show to make some targeted interventions into the culture that might make a real difference.
If that’s not relevance, I don’t know what is.
In the stooshie about Simon Mellor’s speech there’s been a rehash of a lot of arguments about ACE’s use of quality metrics. Here I agree with most of ACE’s critics. It would be ridiculous to say that they’ve abandoned “quality” because of difficulty with its measurement (not least because I don’t believe they’ve abandoned quality), but I do hope they move on from some of the experiments of the past few years. About a decade ago they introduced “peer assessment” to try to make more transparent the process of evaluating the quality of a piece of work. The trouble is that those doing the assessing are very rarely the artists’ peers. Too often they're written by theatre critics There are some brilliant theatre critics out there, but peer assessment was sold as bringing the specific perspective and experience of a working artist. Whether or not you think that's a valuable part of the ACE process, not many people are getting it. Ten years on, maybe there's an argument for it as the only way we can possibly create a sustainable future for theatre criticism. But it isn't peer assessment and we shouldn't call it that. When I want peer assessment, I ask my peers; I don't commission an essay from them but engage them in conversation. In future, though, I think I'll commission a couple of essays, too.
Running forty-four miles up and down mountains sounds like quite a lot but in reality it's a drop in the ocean. There's a systemic problem here that this doesn't even begin to address. Whether it even succeeds in drawing attention is debatable. I just want to draw attention, though, to the fact that in the past couple of months, since writing those original posts about this, I've had some excellent conversations about more strategic approaches to addressing the systemic problem. We're not going to fix the fact that there's less and less money and support, but we might be able to address some of the skew in who manages to access it. Watch this space.
When agreeing to raise money by running up and down mountains for ten or eleven hours, I should have given some thought to what happens if I’m injured and can’t run. I obviously want Pour and Serve to have the money, but equally, the sponsors have paid for me to suffer: what if I can’t?
I ask this, of course, because I’m injured. Being an injured runner is like being a writer whose computer is installing updates. THIRTY FOUR MINUTES?
I’ve been training incredibly well; on the form of my life. As many of you know I’m gunning for a sub-3 marathon in Edinburgh on May 26th. Two weeks ago I raced a 10K and ran 37:57, which is the fastest I’ve gone over that distance since I was 24: if you put that time into this widget, it predicts a marathon time of 2:58:03. It’s on. It is fucking on. Not much room for manoeuvre, but this is a lifetime goal, and it’s on.
The day after the 10K I went for a long fell run and didn’t even feel that achy from the race. I ran the Helvellyn leg of the Bob Graham Round, I made two really stupid navigational errors (have a look at the GPS on that Strava link and see if you can tell me where), and I still got round really comfortably on a fast schedule. The rest of the week training continued well and on the Saturday, with a trip to the gym still knotting my hamstrings, I did ten miles with three sets of two at half marathon pace.
Later that day, my leg started to hurt.
That was over a week ago.
I’ve had one aborted run since and no more on the horizon. It turns out I’ve inflamed my posterior tibial tendon, which is the one that connects the ankle to the calf. This sort of thing usually heals in about six weeks. Edinburgh marathon is in six weeks.
It’s not completely unimaginable that I’m recovered enough to run. It is almost impossible to imagine recovering sufficiently to run sub-3. It is unbelievably frustrating. Building up to a marathon takes time and I’m going to have to do it all over again.
I feel like Sisyphus watching the rock roll downhill.
I’m sure I’ll be fit by the end of August, but whether I’m 44 miles of mountains fit is another matter. Please hold my posterior tibial tendon in your thoughts, and please sponsor me as further motivation to do all my rehab.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will