I’m Toby Lowe, Chief Executive of Helix Arts. We help marginalised and disadvantaged people to explore, reflect on and share their stories by taking part in a wide range of artistic activities, including film-making, dance, music, photography, creative writing, design, animation (and much more). This blog is to share our ideas and practice about the arts, and the role of the arts in society, and provide us with a mechanism to get feedback about what we do. We hope you find it (by turns) interesting, irritating and thought-provoking. We’d very much like to hear what you think.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

We're all Liberal Democrats now...

The Voluntary Sector is being used to legitimise the privatisation of essential public services. There, I’ve said it.

From the Probation Service to helping people find work, provision of public service is being privatised. Why isn’t there more fuss about this?

We know that private sector provision of public services means lower wages and worse conditions, for example increased use of zero-hour contracts, for those delivering the service. And we know that private sector providers are prone to gaming the system in order to hit targets, rather than provide the service that clients need (such as A4E routinely faking employment results, and Serco and G4S charging to tag offenders who had died). So why aren’t we in the Voluntary Sector – whose job it often is to represent the needs of the most disadvantaged - screaming from the rooftops about the fact that we’re paying people less and getting worse service for those who need it most?

I think we’re not complaining because we’ve been bought off.  We’ve been promised the possibility that we might win some of these contracts. A carrot has been dangled: our values, our ability to innovate could provide the important services that people need, meeting the needs of the whole person, addressing problems from a bottom-up perspective.

And the real foolishness is that our silence has been bought without actually putting any substantial resources our way. Only 20% of Work Programme contracts are being delivered by Voluntary Sector organisations, and 70% of those are paying so poorly that charities are in danger of closing, with half having to cross subsidise activity from other funding sources. And the emerging discussions coming out of ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ don’t offer any better news, with “smaller organisations” being warned that they might not see any work for three years, even if they’re part of contract packages, and that the payment system means they might not see any work at all. 

So – this is my contention: Voluntary Sector organisations are just like the Liberal Democrats. The Private Sector are the Tories. We’re the minor partner in an unholy coalition. We think we’re helping to curtail the worst abuses of our partners. Actually, we’re just enabling the whole awful system to function and remain legitimate. 

Are we really happy to do that? And if we’re not happy, what might we do about it?

We could band together in consortia to win more contracts (like Voluntary Sector organisations in Sheffield are doing) and use the Social Value Act to demonstrate why we’re a better delivery option. Is this the way we stop privatisation, by turning it into voluntarisation?

Or do we need to stand against the out-sourcing tide and say that those we support, first and foremost, need ‘proper’ public services

Obviously, there’s complexity to this. Helix Arts always works in partnerships to offer creative opportunities to those most in need. For 30 years, we’ve worked alongside public and voluntary sector organisations and much of our best work has been delivered by building on public services, not by replacing them. Our experience is that vulnerable and marginalised people need infrastructure that they can rely on: support that isn’t here one year and gone the next, support that is focussed on understanding and meeting their needs, not on hitting targets.

So, how do we get more of that?

Friday, 24 May 2013

The role of the arts in supporting personal development and wellbeing

It’s pretty usual to hear people in the arts talk about wellbeing. (Generally, we talk about it whenever our funding is under threat. “No” we say. “You can’t possibly cut us. We contribute to people’s wellbeing.”
And it’s true, we do. But how many of us in the arts are engaged with the people who are thinking about wellbeing (and particularly the wellbeing of the most disadvantaged) week in, week out? When Newcastle’s arts sector was successfully fighting against the 100% cuts that were being suggested, the arts’ contribution to wellbeing was frequently mentioned. And yet when a seminar was organised by Newcastle Council two weeks ago to discuss Newcastle’s Wellbeing Strategy, there were only two arts organisations present.  All the senior people from the Council were there. All the city’s key voluntary sector organisations which promote wellbeing were there. Where was the arts sector?
We need to do better than this. If we say we make a contribution, then we need to be part of the conversations that make it real – that enable us to join up with others doing this work.
And the most important reason why we need to be part of these conversations is that we have something unique to offer.  Making art is a process of discovery. Of embarking on a journey in which the destination is uncertain: 

“Each picture as I finish it, seems like the best thing I have ever done…and yet after a while I am not so sure. It is like taking a train to Marseille. One knows where one wants to go. Each painting completed is like a station—just so much nearer the goal. The time comes when the painter is apt to feel he has at last arrived. Then, if he is honest, he realizes one of two things—either that he has not arrived after all, or that Marseille…is not where he wanted to go anyway, and he must push farther on.” Henri Matisse

This is especially true of Participatory Art. Participatory Art offers people the opportunity to explore their own personal and creative journeys. To explore who they are through creativity, to understand and share the story of themselves. It doesn't prescribe an outcome in advance. It doesn't say, "you must have a job at the end of this programme". It doesn't say, "you must achieve a 15% improvement on the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale". These things may well happen, but only if they're right for the people concerned, only if they're part of the journey that people have decided for themselves.

Much of the social policy world  (which is where these conversations about wellbeing mostly happen) has become victim to Outcomes-Based Performance Management (OBPM), which in its purest form exists as Payment by Results. This discourse tells people what they must achieve in advance (a job, a 15% improvement…) and anyone who fails to achieve this gets punished.

It doesn’t matter if having to take the first awful job that comes along is actually harmful for that person. It doesn’t matter if declining scores on the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale actually represent an improvement in people’s wellbeing because they now have a more realistic appraisal of their own lives (this is a relatively common story from participants on arts and mental health projects); unless you achieve pre-defined targets, you will be punished. The organisation which failed to deliver this target doesn’t get paid. The worker who has failed to make their client achieve gets fired. The service user who fails to make the grade gets their support withdrawn. (Work Programme clients who are judged less likely to get a job receive significantly less support).
When we do Participatory Arts well, our sector represents one of the remaining bastions of genuinely developmental activity to support people’s wellbeing. We achieve outcomes, but we don’t get trapped in the bureaucracy of telling people what those outcomes must be in adavance. We empower people to take the journeys that they want to go on, because that’s what right for them. We free people to start by thinking they want to go to Marseille, but then realise that their destination is in their own hands.

This is part of what the arts has to offer those who are thinking about wellbeing. Let’s engage.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Critical Conversation: A Case for the Arts

A conversation exploring the ways in which the arts can enhance and be embedded within wider service provision and non-arts disciplines. 
Critical Conversation: A Case for the Arts is an evening of presentations and discussion; open to all. Reflect on the tools and techniques required to deliver arts programmes in non-arts environments and hear about models of best practice that inspire and invigorate!

Audio from group discussion, chaired by Chris Ford, available to listen to here


Steven Rowntree
Steven has worked in a range of public health related fields over the last 10 years, employing the arts as a tool to engage with mental health issues

Nicola Maxwell
Nicola is a photographer and particiatory arts facilitator with extensive experience of working with young people and adults in challenging circumstances