EUROPEAN LEAGUE OF INSTITUTES OF THE ARTS TEACHERS’ ACADEMY Institut del Teatre and Escola Massana, Barcelona 8 July, 2003 CONNECTING CONVERSATIONS: THE CHANGING VOICE OF THE ARTIST Peter Renshaw CONNECTING CONVERSATIONS: THE CHANGING VOICE OF THE ARTIST Connections, context and conversations In the current world crisis higher arts education institutions might well consider taking the three Cs – connections, context and conversations – as their mantra. No institution can remain isolated and disconnected from the rapidly changing social, economic and technological context that brings with it growing uncertainty, insecurity, anxiety and fear. The turbulent waves resulting from 9/11 and the forces of globalisation have helped to shape a revolution that is penetrating every aspect of our lives. At best, this revolution is blurring boundaries, challenging old assumptions, extending our horizons and providing new opportunities for innovation. But these new maps and pathways also constitute a threat to those individuals and institutions who remain resistant to change. Global forces must not be allowed to erode our sense of who we are through our connections with the past and our engagement with living traditions. On the other hand, in a vibrant cultural democracy every effort has to be made to promote and understand those new images, sounds, movements and languages that lie at the heart of a contemporary living culture.
Any deepening of this understanding within our present world of diversity andinequality, can only be realized through engaging in a ‘conversation’ that respectsdifferences, sees commonalities and crosses boundaries. Writing in a different context, butone which is equally relevant to artists and cultural institutions, Jonathan Sacks (2002)urges us to remember that :
Bad things happen when the pace of change exceeds our ability to change, andevents move faster than our understanding. It is then that we feel the loss ofcontrol over our lives. Anxiety creates fear, fear leads to anger, anger breedsviolence, and violence – when combined with weapons of mass destruction –becomes a deadly reality. The greatest single antidote to violence is conversation,speaking our fears, listening to the fears of others, and in that sharing ofvulnerabilities discovering a genesis of hope. I have tried to bring (my) voice towhat must surely become a global conversation, for we all have a stake in thefuture, and our futures have become inexorably intertwined (p.2).
The notion of conversation can act as a powerful metaphor in any institution committedto change and development, especially when its future direction envisages a dynamicrelationship with the local, national and global context. But the wider, externalconversation will only have legitimacy if mirrored by an institutional conversation thatembodies such qualities as trust, active listening, openness, humility, integrity andempathy.
In a cultural world of growing diversity, the ability to reach out, to respect and acceptdifferent points of view is critical to any personal or institutional conversation. All staff,students and young people in education need to be valued and feel that their voices areheard within an ethos of shared responsibility and mutual interdependence. This presentsa tremendous challenge to the leadership and culture of an institution. In many cases,critical dialogue fails to take place and a silo mentality prevents institutions fromrealigning their priorities. Yet in the current crisis it would seem imperative that higherarts education institutions really engage with changing cultural values and with thosedeeper concerns confronting people in their everyday life. Connecting to context becomesa fundamental principle in any institutional conversation.
The voice of the artist and our search for meaning Due to the destabilizing factors arising from the global revolution, many individuals and institutions are searching for an overarching sense of purpose that will provide a more coherent, sustained narrative in their lives (see Sennett, 2000, pp.175-190). People are looking for an overall context that will enable them to understand the complexities of a world in which it is increasingly difficult to find a shared sense of community.
One of the greatest strengths of the arts is that they can enhance the quality and meaningof people’s lives. They are a source of inspiration and celebrate the richness of the humanspirit. Engaging in the arts can strengthen our sense of identity by helping each one of usto find our unique voice. Given a context to which people can relate, artistic processes canalso be transformative. They can open new doors, extend personal boundaries, enable usto see past traditions in new ways and provide opportunities for us to redefine who weare in our current fractured world.
The question of identity and the place of the arts in helping us to find our unique voice isone of today’s defining issues. It is imperative that the whole arts community begins toengage in a local and global dialogue about who we are and what we can achieve together. (For further discussion see Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, 2000.) This inevitably meansreordering our priorities to the changing cultural landscape and acknowledging the growingschizophrenic divide between traditional arts practice and popular culture. Contemporaryculture is no longer limited to handing down a tradition. It constitutes a cultural meltingpot in which everyone has the right to roam. Cultural choice is now unprecedented and allarts institutions have to reflect these changing values and meanings otherwise they run therisk of becoming pickled in time.
Conversation, then, becomes the bedrock of any cultural engagement in which the artist’svoice resonates with the myriad of individual voices within the wider community. It isimperative that artists, creators, innovators, teachers and artistic leaders have the skills,confidence, imagination and vision to create live, shared experiences which have somethingto say and make sense to audiences in different contexts.
This point of view is argued cogently by Jon Hawkes (2001) in his perceptive paper, TheFourth Pillar of Sustainability, written for the Victoria-based Cultural DevelopmentNetwork in Australia. For Hawkes, practical engagement in the arts is fundamental to themeaning and vibrancy of cultural life. In his paper, he captures the heart of artisticexperience:
The arts are the creative imagination at work (and play). Its techniques involveimprovisation, intuition, spontaneity, lateral thought, imagination, co-operation,serendipity, trust, inclusion, openness, risk-taking, provocation, surprise,concentration, unorthodoxy, deconstruction, innovation, fortitude and an abilityand willingness to delve beneath the surface, beyond the present, above thepractical and around the fixed…. A society in which arts practice is not endemicrisks its future. The support of professional artists is a laudable policy but farmore important is offering all citizens, and their offspring, the opportunity toactively participate in arts practice – to make their own culture (p.24).
This perspective is reflected in Robert Putman’s powerful analysis of the decline ofAmerican community and the need to rebuild social capital in the United States. Putman(2000), who is Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, argues strongly foractive participation in cultural activities rather than merely consuming them as spectators(see pp.114-115, 411), a point also clearly articulated by François Matarasso (1997) inhis seminal work, Use or Ornament.
The greatest social impacts of participation in the arts … arise from their abilityto help people think critically about and question their experiences and those ofothers, not in a discussion group but with all the excitement, danger, magic, colour,symbolism, feeling, metaphor and creativity that the arts offer. It is in the act ofcreativity that empowerment lies, and through sharing creativity thatunderstanding and social inclusiveness are promoted (p.84). Realigning priorities in higher arts education institutions The dynamic and culturally responsive role of the artist in our seemingly interdependent, yet disconnected world, cannot help but invite higher arts education institutions to reappraise their priorities. This view has underpinned many of the international dialogues initiated by the European League of Institutes of the Arts (ELIA) in its conferences, symposia and publications. Fundamental changes have to grow out of the history and traditions of particular institutions, but changing expectations in the current social and cultural climate now challenge us to attach greater value to those artistic and educational developments that reflect the diversity of different contexts (for further discussion see Renshaw, 2001, pp.4-6). Examples might include:
• encouraging innovatory approaches to performance which open up access to
quality artistic experiences and engage audiences from broad, diversebackgrounds;
• developing new work, new art forms and artistic languages which have resonance
• exploring the value and contribution of the vernacular within contemporary
• using participatory processes to foster the development of creativity in different
• producing a common framework for evaluating and assessing quality across the
whole range of artistic activities in accordance with diversity of need andpurpose;
• providing opportunities that foster quality, accessibility, diversity and flexibility
• creating new performance environments and spaces which attract new audiences;
• extending artistic practice through exploring the interconnections between
different disciplines, technologies and art forms;
• positioning research and continuing professional development as the artistic and
educational motor that underpins the work of an institution;
• developing each training institution as a flexible resource for the professional arts
community, the education community and the wider community.
Such developments exist in embryo in some higher arts education institutions, butpriorities now need to shift significantly as artists and teachers begin to redefine theirroles and responsibilities.
This need was recognized in a recent research report, Creating a Land with Music, on thework, education and training of professional musicians in the 21st century, which wascommissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and managed byYouth Music (2002). In its investigation of how far the needs of the music industry arebeing met by the training sector, the enquiry points out that:
Musical practice is now embedded in, or being seen to have relevance and powerin, much wider social contexts than what is restricted to traditional music venues
and to recording studios. Being a musician today involves having the opportunityto take on a series of roles, different from and broader than the act of performingor composing (p.4, para.2.3).
The report demonstrates that most musicians now have a portfolio career that embracesthe four central roles of composer, performer, leader and teacher (p.3 para.2.12). Thisraises the fundamental question as to what extent training institutions are preparing theirmusicians to function effectively within a portfolio culture. There is no doubt that forsome musicians and other artists, the changing landscape is providing rich opportunitiesfor them to use their creative energies in a positive and fulfilling way. But many also feellost, undervalued and dysfunctional. Perhaps many higher arts education institutions would benefit from working in muchcloser partnership with those professional companies and ensembles who are radicallyredefining themselves. One powerful example can be found in the work of the LondonInternational Festival of Theatre (LIFT – of which I am a non-executive director), whichhas transformed its biennial festival into a five-year Enquiry examining the purpose andnature of theatre in today’s world (see LIFT, 2003, The LIFT Enquiry 2001-2006).
The Enquiry asks a series of questions that open up ideas on theatre as a space forpublic dialogue. What is theatre? Where does theatre take place? Who is making it?Over the course of five years the answers to these questions will accumulate toprovide a rich understanding of the role of theatre today. Involving artists andaudiences, the LIFT Enquiry will be activated by the growing circles ofconversations, evidence-gathering and research undertaken through threepathways: Performance, Learning and Evidence.
…. The LIFT programme is designed as a kind of laboratory in which differentaspects of contemporary performance can be explored in depth, challenging oldperceptions and testing out new ideas. Each performance or season of work willask a series of questions … Whose stories are ascribed value, and why? How doyou marry tradition with modernity? What is tragedy today? How do you findsanity in war?
…. In its journey to discover what is theatre? LIFT Learning asks: Who can bepart of making theatre? What can be learnt in the process?
…. Evidence at LIFT makes visible the Enquiry’s discoveries and makes publicsome answers. How do ideas leave their mark? How do we capture, hold and sharethe experience of theatre?
…. A LIFT evidencing team – artists, diarists, photographers, scientists,anthropologists, and other creative and academic recorders – bears witness to thephenomenon of theatre and traces the shifts of perception amongst artists and
audiences. The Evidence they accumulate will be presented publicly as the storyof the five-year Enquiry (pp.2-5).
It is clear that conversation lies at the heart of the LIFT Enquiry and as Peter Sellars, theopera and theatre director, points out – “the idea is that one person’s voice does notobliterate another voice”. Engagement in this kind of critical dialogue is the life-blood of acultural democracy and it should constitute the basis of any reordering of priorities inhigher arts education institutions. For such dialogues to have any resonance with thediversity of voices in the real world, these “growing circles of conversation” shouldinclude cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural and cross-sector perspectives. They should alsobe rooted in partnerships that bring together performers, composers, writers, directors,visual artists, business people, teachers, school children and young people. Each personhas a voice that needs to be heard and respected.
An example of where this kind of conversation is transforming practice at higher artseducation level lies in the recent creative partnership between LIFT, the Guildhall Schoolof Music & Drama and the Royal College of Art in London. Their collaborative work isresearch-based and grounded in both the community and cutting-edge professionalpractice. It is enabling the Guildhall to strengthen its contribution in those strategic areasconnected with access, social inclusion, cultural diversity and lifelong learning. At theheart of this work is the Guildhall Connect Project, launched in 2001 with generousfunding from Youth Music. Its programme is building on and extending the Guildhall’sexperience in the London Boroughs of Newham, Tower Hamlets and Lewisham. Theseare all priority areas and form part of the network of Youth Music Action Zones, whichare designed to strengthen local and regional collaborations that cut across all musicalgenres and educational sectors. This major initiative, directed by Sean Gregory (Head ofProfessional Development at the Guildhall), is one of a number of projects through whichthe Guildhall is building up new partnerships and developing new models of effectivepractice in the field of creative and participatory music-making. Magic, mystery and measurement – a conversation that matters A critical debate in education at the moment arises from the connections between the management of knowledge and the assessment of quality. Given the financial constraints confronting most educational sectors, higher arts education institutions are having to pay far more attention to how they define and manage their knowledge. Quality control systems, dominated by quantifiable performance indicators, are more often than not used to underpin higher education policies. No institution concerned with enhancing quality can fail to recognize the importance of public accountability and transparency, but the danger is that the present system can be too controlling and debilitating. Within this culture of compliance it is only too easy for arts organizations to become disconnected from the heart of their artistic life.
Knowledge, understanding, skills and professional attitudes form the bedrock of learningin higher education, but the ways in which they are defined and acquired can easily beundermined by the perceived expectations of Quality Assurance and performancemanagement. An organic approach to development that depends partly on the fostering ofan institutional conversation, does not fit comfortably within a mechanistic system ofcontrolling and managing knowledge.
It seems crucial that in the central areas of creating, performing, teaching, learning andassessing, higher arts education institutions understand and respect the fundamentaldistinction between explicit knowledge, in which targets can be measured in quantifiable,mechanistic terms, and tacit knowledge which is more intuitive, reflexive and learned invery particular situations. Explicit knowledge can be clearly articulated, codified,quantified, replicated and transferred from one context to another. Tacit knowledge, onthe other hand, is intangible, less observable, more complex and more difficult to detachfrom the person who created it or from the context in which it is located. The subtlenuances connected to tacit knowledge are more often caught and learned through a processof apprenticeship, through conversation, and are not readily transferable. Research in thisdomain is more likely to be qualitative in character, arising from reflective practice aimedat extending the boundaries of knowledge and experience.
In any arts institution there is an inevitable tension between tacit and explicit knowledge. For instance, the demands of Quality Assurance necessitate that knowledge andprocedures are formulated and conveyed explicitly in the public domain. Yet much of theenergy, immediacy, spontaneity and creativity central to artistic processes are rooted in aform of life in which knowledge and awareness are more implicit than explicit. Findingways of managing the apparent paradox between Quality and quality, and betweenexplicit and tacit knowledge, is critical to the future work of higher arts educationinstitutions. Conversations involving artists and teachers are absolutely essential if theintegrity of artistic engagement is not to be destroyed.
An illuminating example of the way in which the magic and mystery of creativeexperience can be damaged by crude measurement procedures was published recently inan article, All around you is silence, by Philip Pullman in The Guardian newspaper (5June, 2003). Responding to a Government policy statement on the importance ofcreativity, imagination and innovative thinking in schools, Philip Pullman, one of Britain’sleading writers for young people, urged us never to neglect those artistic experienceswhich are “private, secret, personal and which take time to reveal their effects. Theseforms of art are shadowed by mystery; their outcomes are unpredictable; they carry withthem the continual possibility of failure”.
Pullman went on to question how the Government could reconcile its renewedcommitment to creativity with its perceived obsession with instrumental targets. Hewrites:
How can you reconcile it with the task recently undertaken by 200,000 11-year-olds in their key stage 2 SATs (Standard Attainment Tests)? They wereconfronted with four crudely drawn pictures of a boy standing in a queue to buy atoy, and then had to write a story about them, taking exactly 45 minutes. It was atask of stupefying worthlessness and futility, something no one who was seriousabout the art of storytelling could regard with anything other than contempt. …We need to ensure that children are not forced to waste their time on (such) barrenrubbish.
Arts institutions and schools have to rise to this challenge and ensure that the intrinsicvalue of creative experience is not trivialised by simplistic forms of assessment. In Britainthe Government seems to be acknowledging that all is not well. At the conference alludedto by Philip Pullman, Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport,emphasised that creativity is rather like a “benign untidy virus” that adds value andcannot be quantified. Perhaps this is an invitation to open up a conversation that retrievesthe balance between the explicit and the implicit in artistic experience. Basically,creativity cannot exist without magic and mystery. These qualities are central to the innerlife of being an artist and they must be allowed and encouraged to grow. Leadership and connecting conversations In conclusion, I wish to stress that for artistic life to make sense today, it must be rooted in a contemporary world that only becomes intelligible through connecting conversations. This has major implications for leadership and cultural change within institutions. Emphasising the importance of cross-fertilisation and learning across boundaries, the Professor of Business Administration at Harvard, Rosabeth Moss Kanter (2000), urges modern leaders:
to imagine possibilities outside of conventional categories, to envision actions thatcross traditional boundaries, to anticipate repercussions and take advantage ofinter-dependencies, to make new connections or invent new combinations…. Thinking across boundaries and creating new categories is the ultimateentrepreneurial act….Blurring the boundaries and challenging the categoriespermits new possibilities to emerge, like twisting a kaleidoscope to see the endlesspatterns that can be created from the same set of fragments (p.250).
But how far are staff and students in higher arts education institutions viewing currentartistic, cultural and educational developments in a wider interconnected perspective? Towhat extent are cross-arts, cross-cultural and cross-sector connections happening inpractice?
In my view, this is one of the biggest challenges confronting leadership in arts institutionstoday, especially as many artists and organisations continue to suffer from a narrowtunnel vision that fails to embrace, challenge and extend audiences from the widestconstituency. Striving for excellence demands a sharp focus and discipline, but artists willnot develop any great depth of insight and understanding if they remain trapped in acultural bubble. Their artistic voice will only have resonance if it is felt to be connected toits creative source and to the wider context of its audience.
In music, for example, this is as true for soloists and orchestral players as it is for jazz,pop and world musicians. A recent EU-funded project on cultural diversity, Sound Links(Rotterdam Academy of Music and Dance, 2003), highlighted the danger of differentmusic genres becoming trapped within a silo mentality that effectively negates the openprinciples underpinning cultural diversity. One particular relevant statement stood out inthe Report:
Culturally diverse practices are often expected to break the rigidity of the 19thcentury model of teaching and learning in an institution. But especially in the caseof tradition specific teaching, the opposite can happen. Instead of the institutiondeveloping its flexibility and curiosity that would benefit all musical traditions, thenew musical tradition is fitted into the ‘strait-jacket’ of the institutional structure,or, alternatively, it isolates itself. In both cases, there is the risk of forming a new‘monoculture’.
By the very nature and history of conservatoires, this has happened to manyclassical music departments. But this tendency can also be observed in pop andparticularly jazz departments. In order to strengthen their position, musicians of acertain tradition take on a defensive role and concentrate exclusively on their ownfield. They close themselves off from the rest of the institution, rather thanlooking for connections and contacts. This may not be what an institution wantedto achieve by including cultural diversity in the first place, but treating a worldmusic tradition the same as western classical music or as an emphatically distincttradition, although valid in its own right, may lead to great opportunities for cross-fertilisation being lost (p.72).
This insularity is unhealthy both for the institution and for the development of the artform. Conversations that might take place within a particular domain have to form part ofan interconnected web of conversations that are rooted in our changing social, educationaland cultural world. As was intimated earlier, perhaps the overarching principle forreordering priorities in higher arts education institutions is that of ‘connecting to context’.
In those institutions that I know best, conservatoires, it is clear that at present they aredelicately poised between conserving ‘classical’ heritage and acting as a catalyst within aliving culture.
At first sight these may be seen as uneasy bedfellows, but in my view, both perspectivesare equally important and should command parity of recognition and resources. There islittle doubt that a belief in the integrity and transformative power of ‘classical’ traditionswill continue to be seen as central to the philosophy of a conservatoire, but changingcultural values now require them to shape a vision that is more inclusive and outward-looking.
No conservatoire can ignore the fact that ‘classical’ music is undergoing an immensetransition. Students and staff are having to reconsider the nature of performance and itsrelationship to composers and audiences. Collaborative forms of music-making areincreasingly seen as central to engaging with a vernacular culture. Growing interest in thecross-fertilisation of music, technology, other creative arts and cultural traditions isdeveloping an artistic language that has resonance with a wider public.
In such a fluid context, connecting conversations becomes fundamental to the process ofcultural change. Conservatoires, like any other higher arts education institution, have tofind ways of re-engaging the public’s imagination and commitment to ‘classical’ heritage,but they also have to re-focus their creative energy, artistic and educational vision if theyare to be a vital force in a living culture.
Leadership with a human face Transforming arts organisations into dynamic cultural institutions with a contemporary voice is a major challenge to leadership. This will only be achieved through ensuring that “growing circles of conversation” are fostered both throughout an institution and through partnerships with the outside world. Central to this view is that leadership should be practiced at all levels within an organisation. At present, too many higher arts education institutions continue to hide behind hierarchical management structures that rest on outmoded assumptions and fail to respond to change and innovation. Often dominated by inflexible forms of line-management, in which departmental tribalism and parochial power politics prevail, little attempt is made to create a trusting environment in which shared leadership and authority are encouraged throughout an institution (see Leadbeater, 1999, pp.152-168).
Ironically, the very skills and qualities often associated with creative arts practice aredenied the opportunity to flourish. For instance, such generic, transferable skills asleadership, project management, communication, creativity and the ability to work incollaborative teams can only be acquired in an environment committed to cross-tribalpractices and connecting conversations. This is as relevant to staff as it is to students. Inlearning-based organisations like higher arts education institutions, leading might becompared with parenting. It is there to enrich, to nurture, to release human possibilities,to inspire people to believe that they matter and that they have something of value tosay.
This ‘relational’ form of leadership (see Clore Leadership Programme, 2002, p.3) shouldbe given every opportunity to flourish, as it helps to provide a supporting climate forfacilitating dialogue between senior management, teachers and students. Each person’svoice has a right to be heard.
The case for a humanistic perspective on management was presented convincingly someyears ago by Peter Senge (1990), in his widely acclaimed book, The Fifth Discipline: theart and practice of the learning organisation. Subsequently he co-authored a field bookoutlining strategies and tools for building a learning organisation. In this, Senge (1994) andhis colleagues emphasise that cultural change within an organisation will only occur whenour deeply held beliefs and assumptions change through experience. As our individual andcollective stories evolve, we begin to see and experience the world in different ways. Wegradually grow in confidence as we find ourselves living in a professional community thatrespects “integrity, openness, commitment and collective intelligence – when contrastedto traditional organisational cultures based on fragmentation, compromise, defensiveness,and fear (p.21)”.
Perhaps the ultimate challenge to leadership is how best to enable an institution to adapteffectively to change – how to confront change and uncertainty with a shared vision of thefuture. Basically, cultural change cannot be forced on people. Conditions have to becreated which will enable new structures, new practices and new styles of management toevolve organically within newly aligned priorities.
At the heart of this process lies the critical role of ‘conversation’. In higher arts educationinstitutions, for example, a trusting environment has to be fostered that will positivelyenable an institutional conversation to take place. Focusing initially on certain key areas,like a Futures Strategy, a dialogue can be facilitated throughout the institution. In order tobuild up a measure of collective ownership, all staff, students, senior management and thegoverning body should be given every opportunity to engage in this conversation –sometimes at departmental level, but whenever possible, cross-departmentally. Thewhole process should also be informed by discussions with collaborative partners in thecultural industries, in the professional arts community, in education and in the widercommunity.
It is partly through this kind of sustained dialogue that cultural change evolves in aninstitution. Through respecting and listening to different points of view, people shouldgradually let go of cherished assumptions and begin to see themselves and their world in adifferent way. They might begin to tell a different story. For this process to work inpractice, there has to be a sensitive awareness of the different levels of language used bygroups when describing their experience and shaping their stories. Discussions also haveto be grounded in where people perceive themselves coming from.
The psychological climate in which these conversations take place is absolutely crucial toany likely shift in future action.
For example, most arts institutions are experiencing budgetary constraints, restructuring,reordering of priorities and changing patterns of work within an increasingly vulnerableindustry. This very easily creates an atmosphere of stress and uncertainty, which meansthat any discussion of fundamental issues has to openly acknowledge feelings of fear,anger, apprehension and doubts. Staff and students must be given the opportunity toshare their aspirations and any sense of vulnerability arising from possible changes. Thiswill not be achieved by limiting ‘conversation’ to formal committee meetings. Committeesperform a very different function from those informal processes that provideopportunities for more inclusive dialogue in an institution.
The key to ensuring that honest conversation takes place throughout any institution liesin adopting a style of leadership which is genuinely open and facilitatory. As intimated atthe beginning of this paper, this involves a broad range of skills and attitudes, such asactive listening, empathy, the ability to ask appropriate questions, the capacity to let goand most importantly, the ability to make connections. Such a collective approachinevitably invites an institution to reappraise its distribution of knowledge and power,shifting from mechanistic management structures to greater opportunities for sharedleadership and shared responsibility. Effectively, it makes the processes and proceduresin any institution more accountable and transparent, and it enables all staff and studentsto have a voice in shaping their own future. This can only be healthy for the life and workof an institution. REFERENCES
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