Category Archives: Who Is Hilary?

Where Should We Put The ‘Evidence Base’ When We Make Policy?

desk and computer How do ‘evidence’ and ‘policy’ fit together? It’s one thing to hope the evidence will tell us what to do; it’s another to persuade everyone else that the logic of how to resolve a given situation is so compelling. Evidence-based policies are a great idea; but different people ask for different sorts of evidence. And policy makers can only deliver what electors will accept. There’s a dialogue challenge here somewhere.
Political Process & Democracy
We all know that public policies these days ‘should’ be based on evidence; but I’m not clear about when and how the full might of rational thought is best brought into the public policy arena. We seem sometimes to have mislaid the ‘politics’ part of ‘policy’, in our reliance on ‘the evidence’….
The logic of the evidence
Scientists and researchers in areas where policy is being developed frequently tell us all that their evidence points this way, or that way, and I have no doubt that in their minds this is so.
I don’t however recall, ever, hearing one of these very well-informed and rational observers reflect on whether the way forward they propose is actually understood or acceptable to the public who will be paying for the implementation of the policy.
The art of the possible
It’s a cliché, but true, that politics is the art of the possible; the evidence base may be pristinely rational and logical. People, on the other hand, are not.
If we really want to see decent and well-founded changes in policy, ‘the evidence’ has to lie alongside what we can reasonably expect our policy-makers to deliver, in the pragmatic contexts of public understanding and mood.
Communicating findings
Perhaps we should find routine ways to use ‘the evidence’ to inform real dialogue and debate, not to jump straight to policy.
This is likely to happen only when more scientists and researchers start to communicate on a human level, and not just as rational-legal beings. Maybe research has to become a communicated art, as well as a science, if it’s to be really, really useful where it matters.
Changing how we do things
Perhaps scientists need (in general) to learn more about the art of communicating.
Perhaps policy-makers need to learn more about how to explain that research must actively address what at any given time is possible, as well as what’s best in an ideal, rational world.
And perhaps the rest of us have to understand that sometimes we need to move from what ‘they’ should be doing on our behalf , to what we ourselves can do to help each other see where evidence best fits into the very human process of decision-making and change.
A version of this article was first published as a blog in New Start magazine on 14 July 2009.
Read more articles about Political Process & Democracy. and see Hilary’s Publications.

Hilary Burrage Ltd….

Hilary Burrage Ltd Well, I’ve taken the plunge. From today I’m no longer a Sole Trader, but, rather, a Private Limited Company. It’s a sensible move in business terms, but it’s also definitely a stepping stone towards a way of working which even three or four years ago I never thought would be for me. In part, this is because my circumstances have changed through happenstance, and in part it’s a changed mode of professional functioning which has developed its own logic over the past few years.
It may feel a bit daunting right now, but it’s also a very positive challenge…. so wish me luck!
See also HerStory (1950-)

1968 And All That: The Tale Of A Jobbing Sociologist

Salford MSc Sociology as a discipline in the UK was shaping up during the 1960s; but there was still an air of mystery about the whole thing when I chose to study it. There was no clear role model on which to base expectations. The discipline has however served me well ever since. For most of my working life I’ve been what might be called a Jobbing Sociologist. This is a version of the account I gave of my interwoven personal and professional experience, writing for the British Sociological Association’s ‘Sociologists Outside Academia’ newsletter, published today.
Pre-History / HerStory (1950-), Social Science and Gender & Women.
1968 remains an iconic year for many. For some it represents a time of dramatic change preceding one’s own individual history, for others it was the start of a new way for us all to see the world.
But for me, 1968 was the point where the personal really hit the political-professional – the year I finished being a teenager and abandoned plans to be a natural scientist or a coloratura soprano (I’d tried both), and the year I got married and then enrolled for a degree in the most daring and mysterious subject I could think of: Sociology.
Realities
Needless to say, people opined that it would never last; but truth to tell my heart has stayed on both counts where I put it so long ago, and on many levels the two have interwoven over and over again as time marches on. Allies older and new will confirm that I’ve never been less than a fully paid-up feminist, but hard realities can sometimes get in the way of the more seductive theories of autonomy and self-determination.
My personal journey from undergraduate social science in the Nissen huts of the then North East London Polytechnic, to a freelance career as a writer and regeneration / sustainable communities consultant, via research and teaching Sociology and Social Policy in various institutions of Further and Higher Education and a decade of temporary ill-health ‘retirement’ when community activism was the only way to mitigate the tedium of physical immobility, has been part-moulded by my life as a spouse, mother, daughter, citizen and wage-earner. And I regret not a minute of it.
Following careers
I started my career in Sociology in London, because the Royal Academy of Music is where putative violinists such as my other half studied; we moved to Liverpool when he was appointed a member – as he still is – of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; I undertook my Master’s (Sociology of Science and Technology, 1973; the first serious piece of research on women scientists in the UK) at Salford, because by a miracle the (then very unusual) exact course I wanted was accessible from our new home city; my PGCE was at Liverpool, so every morning before lectures I could take our baby daughter to nursery.
Having been forced (just pre-1975 and the Sex Discrimination Act) to leave my original FE teaching post when I started a family, I taught the new Open University distance courses at home whilst also sewing in pre-school name tapes, and then returned to teach ‘O’ and ‘A’-levels to many engaging young and older college students alongside checking juvenile homework. Later, I wrote the first-ever Sociology Access-to-HE modules, and academic papers and book chapters on aspects of Sociology. For some years I was (unpaid) commissioning editor for the journal Social Science Teacher, working from my prototype Amstrad computer.
Getting involved
I was also an active member of the British Sociological Association (BSA) Executive Committee, instigating the organisation, FACTASS (Forum of Academic and Teaching Associations in the Social Sciences), which eventually saw off the Margaret Thatcher-Keith Joseph proposal effectively to remove any notions of personal, health, social and civic education (PHSCE) from the school curriculum: ‘History finishes at 1945’ …. Oh no, it doesn’t, not if you’re teaching a decent school curriculum.
And as we all debated in those difficult times, I was learning for real how the prism of Sociology can offer a focus and analysis which rarely fails to stimulate or challenge.
Work experience
Early on, I was a social worker in Liverpool’s dire council estates, and briefly a youth worker; later I was Research Associate in teenage pregnancy at Liverpool Medical School, and then Head of Health and Social Care at a Merseyside FE college. And in the 1980s and ‘90s I had to take several years out of employment with severe arthritis; so I learnt first hand to cope with illness and disability (which much illuminated my later work as an NHS Trust Non-Executive Director and as a Lay Partner of the Health Professions Council) alongside how, as a volunteer and political activist, to lobby for arts and community organisations, so finding my way into the local and regional centres of decision-making.
Eventually from that arose the initiative to regenerate the area in Liverpool I designated as Hope Street Quarter – and thereby my re-involvement in the whole sustainable development agenda, on a very different basis from when my 1970s membership of Friends of the Earth and Scientists Against Nuclear Arms had been seen as almost subversive. Being Vice-Chair of the North West (region of England) Sustainable Development Group, and a Non-Executive Director and Equality and Diversity Champion of BURA, the British Urban Regeneration Association, are pretty respectable activities.
Widening the portfolio
And in the meantime I have undertaken independent consultancies on Sure Start and local authority Youth Services, helping to realign public service provision; I’m working with Muslim colleagues on a mosque project to engage disaffected young people, and to establish a Foundation for the inspiring black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. I’ve spent three fascinating years as Lay Member of the Defra Science Advisory Council (actually working in the corridors of power of which C.P. Snow wrote so compellingly, not long before I went to Salford all those years ago).
I’m currently teaching practitioners about sustainable communities online for the Homes and Communities Agency Academy; I’ve addressed conferences on my take on regional science and the new knowledge economy (‘Knowledge is like water – it flows where it can…’). I write and am a referee for regeneration journals; I have a very active website; plus I suspect I’m about to become the author of a book on communicating to achieve grounded sustainability.
The personal and the professional
So many hours on trains with the laptop, so much still to do; and now delightful Grandma duties too. My personal life trajectory has always and indelibly framed the professional one, but how else could it have been?
Free-lancing as a social scientist isn’t an easy way to earn a living, but I don’t think that’s the point. Knowledge may be like water, but sociological analysis is pure crystal. It sharpens perceptions and illuminates the social world. That’s invaluable in innumerable ways, not least as a consultant-practitioner and enabler of progressive social change.
This article was first published in the British Sociological Association‘s newsletter for its Sociologists Outside Academia group: Sociology for All, Issue No. 7 (Summer 2009).
Read more articles about Pre-History / HerStory (1950-), Social Science and Gender & Women, and see Hilary’s Publications, Lectures & Talks.

C. P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ Is Fifty Years Old Today

Science & Music books C.P. Snow introduced the idea of the Two Cultures in the annual Rede Lecture in Cambridge of 7 May 1959. Himself both an eminent scientist and contemporary historian of science, and a novelist, in that lecture he lamented the gulf between scientists and ‘literary intellectuals’, arguing that the quality of education in the world is on the decline. Now fifty years later (as on the fortieth anniversary) a range of commentators continues to debate this claim.
Science & Technology.
Some of us may feel that the great contribution to British culture of Charles Percy Snow (1905 – 1980) was in fact to write novels and commentaries about science which are still remembered for the light they shed on how science works in modern society.
For me that’s certainly true: the dozen novels of the Strangers and Brothers saga (1949 – 1970) and his non-fiction (if not undisputed) accounts of how science ‘works’ – especially Science and Government (The Godkin Lectures at Harvard University) (1961), The Two Cultures and a Second Look (1963) and The Physicists: A Generation that Changed the World (1982, republished 2008) – have helped to bridge that science – humanities chasm.
Focus on the Corridors of Power
These were the books which, as a post-grad student of the sociology of science, opened my eyes to a world I hadn’t even previously known existed: the world of high level science and policy, the world as Snow himself styled it, of The Corridors of Power.
But this focus has been largely lost in the debate about the Two Cultures and the heavyweight attack which the literary critic F.R. Leavis (1895 – 1978) made on C.P. Snow’s thesis a couple of years after the Rede Lecture, suggesting that Snow was a dreadful novelist and rejecting the validity of his concerns that the literary elite was not scientifically literate.
Not always incompatible
Isn’t it interesting in this context that quite a lot of excellent musicians are also good at maths and science; and probably just as many very good scientists are also decent musicians?
There remains as ever a cultural gap between the humanities and ‘science’, but they are both very complex enterprises, and it does not follow that all those in the arts are unaware of science, any more than the converse must always be true.
The nature of evidence
What is more worrying is that sometimes people don’t seem to understand the nature of evidence (not ‘science’) … that whenever possible it needs to be good enough to rely on, before conclusions are drawn.
Of course all evidence in the end is relative, but we have to start somewhere…. the important thing in a democratic society, is that the basis on which we as individuals, and those with influence, choose to decide actions and positions is open to scrutiny.
Moving towards rationality
Slowly, modern western society is becoming more rational and moving out of the mists of myth and cultural comfort zones. There is without doubt a limit to how much this can or should happen, but I think we’re nearer to a balance on this than we were even a few decades ago. Many scientific terms are commonplace in everyday debate.
When C.P. Snow wrote his Two Cultures lecture we as a society ‘knew’ less than we do now. It’s difficult to accept the claim that education for most people is ‘worse’ than it was in the 1950s and 60s – and I say that as the product of an inner-city grammar school of that era. Then we just didn’t perceive the awfulness of the education which most children received; this was still the post-war era when anything was better than nothing.
For most people, cultural memory is it seems very short. We can surely now, despite all the naysayers, learn more, quickly, about anything, than ever before.
The longer view
It’s said that 90% of the scientists who ever lived are here on this planet now. Possibly the same applies to artists, for what it’s worth. But what I’m sure of is that C.P. Snow has excited a lot of people – including me – over several decades, with the debate he sparked.
Snow’s perspective is of course now dated; but those who currently deny that things have got better have (potentially) the benefit of hindsight ,and they need to think quite carefully about whether they are using that very valuable vantage point properly. More people now know something about science and the arts, than ever before.
You don’t need to be able to describe the double helix and the works of great poets in detail to share some mutual understanding about our complex cultural underpinnings.
Evidence and ideas for sustainability
What you do need to be able to do is draw threads together to make sense of where you find yourself in the world… and never has that been more true than now, with the ‘one planet living’ challenges we all face.
Indeed, Lord Snow argued himself that the breakdown of communication between the “two cultures” of modern society — the sciences and the humanities — was a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems.
Bridging the gap
I’m not therefore sure that the most important debate around education can continue now be an arid discussion of so-called ‘standards’; surely it has to be about searching for common understandings? And in that debate C.P. Snow and those who followed have helped a lot.
If the musicians and their counterparts can sometimes bridge the gap, then maybe the rest of us should start to be more positive, and have a go too.
Read more about Science & Technology.
For more commentary on the fiftieth anniversary of the ‘Two Cultures’ Rede Lecture, see e.g. here and here.

Earth Day: The Green Generation Campaign

Earth Day, the annual event on 22 April, was devised in 1970 by a US Senator from Wisconsin. Today the Earth Day Network has a global reach. 2009 marks the start of The Green Generation Campaign, leading to 2010, the fortieth anniversary of this important day. A billion people already participate in Earth Day activities, now the largest secular civic event in the world. It’s time for us all to take the Green Generation route to the future.
Sustainability As If People Mattered.
We all have to ‘Go Green’…. and even back in 1970 many of us knew it.
Whilst we in the UK were busily promoting the then very new Friends of the Earth – at the time perceived by some as a dangerously radical organisation – our eco cousins in the USA were going about their business, it seems, in a rather more formal fashion, via a proposal by Gaylord Nelson, a then US Senator, that there be a national Earth Day.
Today (22 April 2009) sees the thirty ninth anniversary of what has evolved into International Earth Day, with a network of more than 17,000 partners and organizations in 174 countries looking forward the fortieth such event, to occur in 2010.
The Green Generation
Now, the focus is on the new-wave Green Generation, a cohort with unambiguously ambitious aims:
* A carbon-free future based on renewable energy that will end our common dependency on fossil fuels, including coal.
* An individual’s commitment to responsible, sustainable consumption.
* Creation of a new green economy that lifts people out of poverty by creating millions of quality green jobs and transforms the global education system into a green one.
Sharing responsibility for sustainability
People of every sort have begun to recognise their responsibility for sustaining the future of our shared environment. Those who have their own challenges, living in a complex multi-cultural society, work together sharing a common resolve to make things better, just as others also do.
But the further you are from where decisions are made, the harder it is to get the support you need to do your part. Sometimes it’s money and resources you require; other times it’s the encouragement of family, friends and neighbours who don’t always understand why wider environmental and community issues matter.
People at the grassroots can feel they have little power to change things.
Small actions are important
But every small effort is part of the greater scheme of things, with important ramifications.
Perhaps it’s ‘only’ planting some vegetables with the kids in an urban space, or explaining to our children why they need to respect their environment – or indeed digging up the White House lawn to plant organically produced vegetables, as Michelle Obama has just done – but from these acts the idea can grow. We’re all part of the same shared world.
The environmental movement is growing quite quickly now, even in inner cities. People undertake small projects – helping with a city farm, supporting older people who want to shop locally, or whatever – but over time the ripples of these activities will begin to overlap, as more and more people join in.
Individual initiatives become communal
You may start a small project almost alone but, as others start also do the same elsewhere, there is somehow a change in perceptions.
Through sharing ideas and action we begin to see why everyone must understand that there is only ‘one planet’ to live on, and that we all have to do our bit to save our environment. Big supermarkets or small traders, there is now an active acknowledgement green issues and eco-initiatives.
All together in common cause
But there’s another important thing here too: It doesn’t matter where you come from, or what your culture, gender or age is. We must all to ‘Go Green’, and quickly.
Different people from different places will start in different ways, but we all need to rely on each other. Nobody can ‘save the planet’ on their own: Environmental sustainability is quite a new idea, no-one rich and powerful ‘owns’ it.
The idea of sustainability belongs to us all. Here is something we can all contribute to.
A green leveller
The ‘green agenda’ is a great social leveller, because we are all part of the problem and likewise all part of the solution. Environmental actions, even tiny ones, are critical if we are to sustain our fragile planet; and, happily, sharing our concerns and our ideas for action can bring us together regardless of creed or nationality.
It’s not easy to work, often unpaid and in small ways, protecting the environment and looking after the people in local communities. You can feel alone and perhaps unappreciated. But that work is vital and slowly it is being recognised – which is the first step to the work being properly supported.
With luck the Green Generation Campaign and the run-up to Earth Day 2010 will help to make that happen.
Read more about Sustainability As If People Mattered.

Josephine Butler House: Liverpool’s Saga Of Civic Shame

Josephine Butler House Liverpool, ruined Josephine Butler House in Liverpool’s Hope Street Quarter is named for the famous social reformer, and the site of the first UK Radium Institute. Latterly an elegant adjunct to Myrtle Street’s The Symphony apartments, it sits opposite the Philharmonic Hall. But the intended ambiance has been ruined by a dismal failure and omission on the part of Liverpool City Council, who have permitted Josephine Butler House to be grimly defaced with little prospect of anything better, or even just intact, taking its place.

Read the rest of this entry

The Daily Miracle

It happens every day, and each time it is the greatest and most wonderful gift: the miracle of the birth of a baby. Nothing compares with the arrival of a new child, every one of them the most beautiful and precious blessing it’s possible to receive.

Here is the loveliness which the parents of this tiny, serene new miniature person will now awake to every morning.

Can Liverpool’s Arts And Culture Businesses Thrive Post-2008?

violin, amplifier & briefcase The Liverpool Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) represents all sectors of business in the city – including those who work in arts and culture. A current Chamber concern is therefore to maintain and promote the gains made in 2008 by Liverpool’s creative, arts and culture sectors. The recent momentum remains fragile, and for continued success it is essential that arts and ‘non-arts’ businesses across the city develop the synergies to be gained by working together in 2009 and beyond.
Enterprising Liverpool and The Future Of Liverpool
The Liverpool Chamber of Commerce and Industry has a Members’ Council which has an Arts and Culture Committee, of which I am chair*. This Committee seeks to help maintain the profile and business health of Liverpool’s creative sector; hence the following article, a version of which has just been published in the “Liverpool Chamber” magazine:
We sometimes forget that arts and culture, as much as any other formal activity, is Business. Artistic enterprise brightens our lives and captures our imaginations, and it’s done by people, often highly trained, who earn their living in that way.
It’s therefore important that Liverpool’s Capital of Culture Year 2008 momentum is maintained into 2009. Liverpool needs the arts to flourish because they enhance both our communities and our economy.
Momentum unsecure?
Some of Liverpool’s arts practitioners fear however that the momentum of 2008 is not yet secured. The Liverpool Culture Company expects the ’09 funding round to be ‘highly competitive’; and everyone anticipates that sponsorship will be difficult to come by in the current financial situation.
So it’s unsurprising that Liverpool’s arts practitioners are currently nervous, some of them already publicly predicting ’09 will be a tough call.
New but vulnerable synergies
Of course this scenario applies to other businesses as well; but the arts have developed new synergies and added value during 2008 which, once lost, it would be extraordinarily difficult to reinvent. The ‘08 cultural gains remain vulnerable, and need more time to embed if they are to bring maximum benefit.
This isn’t simply an academic concern. Liverpool’s established businesses are beginning to wake up to how they can work to mutual advantage with arts providers.
Live music brings in more customers; visual arts encourage customers to linger; drama can be an excellent training tool…. and it also all helps the economy to tick over because practitioners are earning and spending money locally.
A role for all Liverpool businesses
The LCCI Arts and Culture Committee is seeking to encourage this beneficial synergy, but there’s a role here too for companies across the city. We all need to say how important the ’08 cultural legacy is; and we need to think how to conduct real business with arts enterprises.
Hilary Burrage
Chair [* retired June 2008], LCCI Arts and Culture Committee
A version of this article was first published in the January / February 2009 edition (Issue 19) of “Liverpool Chamber”, the magazine of the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Read more articles about Enterprising Liverpool and The Future Of Liverpool, and see more of Hilary’s Publications, Lectures And Talks.

Was Liverpool A Truly Inclusive Capital Of Culture In 2008?

Liverpool Capital of Culture 2008 Liverpool has made much of its community engagement programme during the city’s European Capital of Culture year, in 2008. But when does engagement become genuine social inclusion? And does inclusion require empowerment as well as contact? Or is the underlying emphasis on increasing tourism to bolster the local economy enough? This is where opinion in the city divides.
Liverpool, European Capital Of Culture 2008 and The Future Of Liverpool
Great claims have been made for community inclusion during Liverpool’s European Capital of Culture year; indeed, it’s sometimes been hard to identify the ‘European’ element at all, in all the local leadership talk of community embedding and power to the people.
Not all of this is bluff. The Liverpool Culture Company has fielded a team of arts educators and animateurs who have worked hard to produce some imaginative and significant projects, and for that we must congratulate them. Likewise, another team has taken forward work on arts and health, for which substantial success is claimed.
Engagement, inclusion or empowerment?
But when does a degree of engagement become genuine social inclusion? Does inclusion require social empowerment as well as contact? This is where opinion diverges.
For our city leaders, the brightly coloured photographs of smiling children and milling crowds are enough. How much more evidence of ‘inclusion’ do you want?
Bottom up, or top down?
But for some of us, the evidence that real inclusion has been achieved remains patchy. No-one wants to decry some good work which Culture Company teams have delivered; but why wait for 2008 to develop a meaningful culture and health programme, in a city right at the bottom of the well-being league? And is ‘top down’ delivery, determined at high command, as inclusive as the more difficult ‘bottom up’ sort?
It is not Liverpool’s own community arts which received the biggest budgets in 2008. Vast ephemeral ‘events’ have scooped up massive sums, whilst many indigenous local artists outside the Culture Company have had to scramble between themselves, often to ridiculous and shifting deadlines, for a few thousand or even less here and there.
Tourism as the main rationale
Of course the Culture Company have their problems; but arts practitioners who were there before and must carry on afterwards arguably face greater challenges. Their work to be inclusive is geared to much more than large public ‘events’ which have – let us be honest – an increase in tourism as their main rationale.
It’s this which worries me. I’d like the city to treat me as a grown up. If they want to pursue hotel bed counts all out, could they please say so? Could they perhaps say, we know the public events we’re offering are not truly inclusive – you can come and have a bit of fun if you want, and that’s about it – but we need to do it this way, to improve Liverpool’s economic base for everyone’s future wellbeing….?
A focus on the bottom line
Spelling things out like this would emphasise how hard we must all work, to improve the local economy – more skills, no poor service, no attitude.
It would help community arts practitioners understand why their locally focused efforts currently feel less valued than the big event spectaculars.
Treating citizens as grown-ups
And it would say to local citizens, thanks for turning up, we hope you’ve enjoyed the big splashes, and, when all the tourist destination marketing has worked, we will indeed be able to support more genuinely embedded opportunities on your own terms for exciting, local, bottom-up creative and cultural activity.
Now, those messages really would demonstrate that the relationship between Liverpool’s decision-makers and its citizens has become adult and consciously inclusive.
A version of this article first appeared in New Start magazine, January 2009.
Read more articles about Liverpool, European Capital Of Culture 2008 and The Future Of Liverpool, and see more of Hilary’s Publications, Lectures And Talks.

‘La Princesse’: Arachnid ‘Art’, Big Toys And Cultural Communities In Liverpool

08.09.04 La Machine [The Liverpool Spider named La Princesse] La Princesse, a gigantic metal spider, came to Liverpool in early September 2008. This monster brought huge crowds to the city centre, as it enacted its story of ‘scientists’ and adventure. But the reasoning behind The Spider was no fairy tale. It was there to attract ‘cultural tourism’ business to the city. At almost two million pounds, one hopes this was a success. Whether the same can be said for the rational that it engaged people in ‘culture’ is less certain: at some point real cultural engagement surely also involves empowerment.
Few people will not know that Liverpool, in the early Autumn of its European Capital of Culture 2008 year, has been visited by a Big Spider.
This ‘creature’ (for some indiscernible reason named La Princesse) was constructed entirely of metal, wood and bits of hydraulic and was, it is said, fifty feet high. It paraded in the city centre over the first weekend of September 2008, ‘acting’ out a storyline involving ‘scientists’ who had to do ‘experiments’ to control the gigantic techno-insect.
A European connection
A direct descendant of the Sultan’s Elephant (which suddenly appeared in London in May 2006), another construction from the company La Machine, this creation cost even more – apparently something under £2 million. In both cases considerable sums will have gone into the coffers of the French business which built these monster artefacts…. which by their genesis at least bring a much-needed ‘European’ angle to our singularly Scouse Capital of Culture 2008 activities.
And it is worrying to learn from Artichoke, the UK company which brought the machines to Britain, that there was a serious shortfall in anticipated budget (the sum of £300k to £400K has been suggested). Indeed, a charitable appeal was put out to plug the gap.
Arts budget shortfalls and sensible audits?
What, I wonder, would happen if smaller, less publicly vaunted, arts organisations had proportionately similar shortfalls? And if they started from the premise that they could keep the arrangements to themselves, feeling no pressing need to be particularly transparent about anticipated ‘audience’ numbers, budgets, impacts or outcomes?
I ask this as a volunteer community arts promoter threatened last year with the withholding of one thousand pounds from the munificent five thousand promised (our total budget was around £18,000), simply because of a genuine mistake by a single supplier involving very considerably less than just one pound – and which it took many weeks of my (and others’) unpaid time, as well as hours of city employee activity, to resolve.
Proportionality
Which Council officials, I must enquire, have time and salaried capacity to pursue relentlessly a sum amounting to the cost of one postage stamp? (If nothing else, we can now see that corporately they really don’t understand proportionality in accounting.)
Are these the same people who seem happy to permit the continuation of their own projects when over-running by six figures (predictably, since some – how much? – of this was attributed to the fall of the pound against the Euro)? Perhaps La Princesse should be renamed La Suprise.
The rationale: cultural tourism
It might seem here as though I’ve lost the point of what La Machine’s creations are ‘for’. But I don’t think so. The Spider was and remains at its metal heart a vehicle for marketing and tourism; and perhaps also a justification for the self-laudatory outpourings by the powers-that-be which those of us who live in the city encounter on a daily basis from our local media.
But using ‘art’ promotionally is not an especially Liverpool activity. It happens everywhere, from Glasgow to Vienna to South America; just think of the previous UK European Capital of Culture, or the Vienna Philharmonic, or the Andean statue of Christ the Redeemer. Very different ‘arts’, but given in the modern world (if not in origin) the same message and intent.
Marketing becomes the meaning
What bothers me is when the one and only meaning of an art(efact) is the marketing message.
Our Austrian orchestra and South American statue began in very different ways – one started in 1842 as a celebration of the great tradition of European classical music, and the other as a celebration (in 1904) of a peace treaty between Argentina and Chile, bickering over their national boundaries. Only subsequently have these cultural icons become brilliant marketing tools.
Different ‘rules’ for different ventures?
So here’s the rub: whilst perforce relatively junior local government officers were (a) assiduously trying to delay – we can all guess why – the payment of the final grand of the magnificent ‘funding’ allotted to my hard-working on-the-ground arts charity and (b) ignoring equally assiduously (they had to) my remonstrations that this sort of behaviour is exactly why many ‘in the community’ give up and walk away from delivering grassroots community arts and cultural activities, other more senior officers were short-cutting to hugely expensive ‘projects’ which amount to a cross between the disneyesque and hard-sell…. which they then self-declare to have been a massive success even before it’s all finished. QED.
I don’t, as it happens, mind spectacle and fun; entertainment in the right places is great. But entertainment is just not the same as real engagement.
Community engagement
Community engagement in the arts doesn’t ‘hand down’ from on high, it nurtures reaching up and out. It is both responsive and self-determining, a laborious (but never boring) process, building slowly on trust and developing each individual’s confidence and skills, both as a performer / practitioner and as an appreciative perceiver of the art/s on offer.
You have to believe in people for the longer term to be a really good community arts practitioner. You have to understand the skills which other artists – not just in your own genre, but across the whole spectrum – and partners bring to whatever you’re doing. You have to be, quietly, really good yourself at what you’re hoping to engage others in also.
Challenge and aspiration
And, even more quietly, you have to be willing to challenge the people ‘in the community’ with whom you’re working; not in a know-it-all way, but in the sense that you are privileged to have seen in the wider world how well things can be done when real effort is made, and you would like that to be reflected in how those you are collaborating with approach their chosen tasks.
No genuine artist ever thinks (s)he couldn’t do even better. ‘The best’ is at the bottom of the rainbow. All any of us can do is aspire.
The Spider’s legacy
I’m not at all sure The Spider achieved much in these lights. Its impacts will (I hope) be revealed later. But did it challenge and focus anyone? Did it leave a message for the people of Liverpool? Will it somehow still do so, if plans for its return to the city are confirmed? Only, I think, if there’s a lot more debate between then and now about how to encourage local people, in ‘the community’, to see that as yet we all have plenty of scope for delivering even better what is good about our city.
And in the meantime, small arts enterprises such as my own try to stagger on, largely sidelined and called to account in really silly ways, far more often (however much some of them might like to) than we are actively helped, supported and appreciated by the powers-that-be.
To be truthful, I suspect both that most of those in charge (not of course all – there are some very decent and reality-based people too) have no experience of struggling at the grassroots, and that people who do work on the ground are simply not a part of the high level strategic landscape.
Pre-packaged for ‘the community’
The real decision makers often talk about ‘the community’, but this in their understanding is something to be done unto, to be delivered predetermined culture in predetermined ways.
Rarely is this ‘community’ seen as hugely complex and nuanced (infinitely more nuanced than the standard ‘community’ cultural stereotypes), encompassing many possible ways of contributing to, developing and appreciating arts and culture of all sorts. But it takes time, resources, effort, belief and courage on all sides to get there.
Engaging, or just entertaining?
How much easier – as those amongst cultural managers who are genuinely community-facing will confirm – to deliver a pre-packaged monster spider, than to work patiently for days, weeks or months with the people it has been decreed ultimately will pay for it, to produce something wondrous of their own. Too many of those at ‘the top’ would, if they gave it a thought, have no idea how they could actually help here, anyway.
For me personally that doesn’t matter. I have other quite different things to think about as well, and I didn’t go into this for the bouquets. But if recent experiences were my first or only way of engaging through culture with the city in which I have lived for many years, I would be thoroughly downhearted.
Imagination and vision
‘Real’ art and culture captures the imagination and, in so doing, enables people to see things which they didn’t perceive before. Maybe La Princesse fleetingly did the first; but I haven’t seen much evidence that it does the second. And for roughly the same amount of money as the cost of the European arachnid, we could undertake programmes the same size as my own charity’s single venture in every ward of the city, ‘engaging’ hundreds of people directly and truly meaningfully on each and every occasion.
To keep this member of the local ‘community’ happy, the hard-edged longer-term marketing outcomes for Liverpool from La Machine had better be pretty spectacular.
A version of this article first appeared in a-n magazine, December 2008.
Read more about Liverpool, European Capital Of Culture 2008 and see more of Hilary’s Publications, Lectures And Talks.

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