I love Start The Week on Radio 4. Essentially eavesdropping on four renowned brainboxes discuss four fairly related topics is a pretty good way to start the week in my opinion. Today they had a writer called Amanda Goodall (who incidentally looks a bit like the missing link between Marylin Monroe and Cruella De Ville) on talking about her book Socrates in the Boardroom. Her argument, essentially, and I am paraphrasing and simplifying here, is that institutions and companies need to return to a time when experts ran them. For example universities should be run by scholars, not managers, and she highlighted that all the top research universities, such as Rockerfella and MIT have this arrangements. She went on to say that if the CEOs of the failing banks had been financial experts, and not ‘managers’ often recruited from other parts of the business world, perhaps the recent problems wouldn’t have been so bad.
What really struck me was her assertion that there is a myth in the business world that experts and scholars don’t make good leaders/managers, whilst it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, she argued that many infact do, even in the creative industries. This got me thinking about our humble world of live literature.
In recent years live literature has become a buzz phrase for the Arts Council. There has been a lot more money pumped into the industry, with initiatives like Lit up, Shot from the Lip and the live literature programme that I ran at Writers’ Centre Norwich. It’s a small, relatively new and specialised industry, for years it’s been run by enthusiastic part-timers, and the rare few talented individuals (such as Melanie Abrahams) who were able to make a full time living from being a producer. Now there’s more money about (though not for long with the recession looming) the powers that be have had two main options on how to grow the industry: a) use the exisiting artists and producers who know the scene and have creative vision; b) bring in proven arts managers from other industries to apply their knowledge of fund raising and management to live literature.
At Writers’ Centre Norwich I job shared with Laura Stimson, she brought experienced arts administration to the table and I brought sector knowledge, a team we felt it worked well. I found that at Writers’ Centre Norwich I learned a lot, especially from the dynamic leadership of Chris Gribble. But it was learnable and achievable in the office environment. The knowledge I had of the sector, and essentially an evolved sense of taste for live poetry, was something that took a lot longer to hone.
For that reason I have always approved of Apples & Snakes, the largest live literature organisation, appointing artists as their regional co-ordinators. These artists were able to use their extensive contacts and sector knowledge to programme club nights and offer support for emerging talent. Obviously some artists are utterly unsuited to such a post, but many are excellent organisers and administrators as well, their talents developed over years of organising their own gigs, club nights and tours.
Apples & Snakes have recently appointed a new CEO and it seems they have chosen not to go with the ‘Socrates in the Boardroom’ approach. In this case I don’t think an artist (or ex-artist as this more than full time post) would have been appropriate, but there were excellent candidates of a producing background within the sector that were passed over. The new CEO Lucy Compton-Reid used to head up Public Engagement at The House of Lords and perviously she was at Creative Partnerships. In the Apples & Snakes press release, she flags this up: “Whilst at Creative Partnerships, performance poetry became a major feature of the programme. I had the pleasure of working with Joseph Coelho, Charlie Dark, Stella Duffy, Kat Francois, Paul Lyalls, Nick Makoha and Roger Robinson.” Obviously this statement was designed to head off the expected criticism that she wasn’t in anyway experienced in the field of live literature, or “performance poetry” as Apples & Snakes defines itself as being an agency of (though many of their self-produced live shows are closer to spoken word or monologue than performance poetry).
I find the Creative Partnerships thing a bit weak. I have done loads of work with other disciplines for Creative Partnerships but it in no way qualifies me to work in their sectors. It doesn’t matter anyway, Compton-Reid’s appointment would not have hinged on that at all. She’s not Socrates in the the Boardroom (Byron in the Boardroom?); she’s not been brought in for her expertise in the field of performance poetry. The move, rather seems to be a very defensive one by the Apples & Snakes board in times of financial crisis. They obviously felt they needed someone who could be fund raiser, someone who had experience of the arts as an industry and not someone who was an expert in their field (ie the rarified field of performance poetry). Their reasons for doing this are perfectly rational and you can see why they did it. Apples & Snakes gets a lot of money and the board have a duty to keep it that way.
I don’t want to criticise Compton-Reid before has even started her job, her creative vision and her understanding of performance poetry may well be excellent, but I thought it an interesting enough point to bring up on the blog, the recession does not just mean less money if means a different way of doing things. In this case business, or management has triumphed over experts in the field.