CEO Weekly Blog – w/c 30 Sept

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The last fortnight has involved a mix of action and reflection, a balance I haven’t always been very good at achieving. Here’s a run-down …

It started with an evaluation session for ARC’s work with children and young people in care. Delivered in partnership with Stockton Borough Council and Blue Cabin CIC, we are nearing the end of the initial two-year programme and starting to plan the next steps. It was fantastic to look back and see the impact we have made together, not just on children and young people, but also on foster carers, residential workers, social workers, artists and arts managers. Inevitably though, I found myself frustrated in the session, wanting to focus on what comes next, so it was good to be forced into reflection mode.

Reflection continued the next day, as our quarterly Board meeting focussed on the organisational development aspects of our Business Plan. We considered some data and other hard evidence of our progress to date, but also took in a series of short stories captured from internal and external stakeholders using the Most Significant Change evaluation methodology. This is something we are trialling at ARC with the help of Thinking Practice. I will write more about this soon, but it’s proving very effective so far in demonstrating the impact of our work.

We looked back and forward in ARC’s twice-yearly Arts Council meeting. I’m very pleased to share that ARC’s work around diversity has been marked as ‘Outstanding’ in our annual Arts Council review. Many thanks to all the staff, Board members, artists and other partners who have helped us embed diversity throughout the organisation.

To Manchester on Thursday 19th to host a Venues North meeting at the lovely Z-arts. It always feels very special to gather 35+ programmers in one room, and we had the pleasure of meeting seven amazing artists who talked to us about their work. We then had a robust conversation about artist/venue relationships, and how we could be better at managing these -sparked by some fantastic provocations provided by Gillie Kleiman. Thanks to Gillie for taking the time to pose these so thoughtfully.

Friday was a day for making new friends, as I met the Director of Commissioning Strategy and Delivery for the NHS Hartlepool & Stockton and Darlington Clinical Commissioning Groups. Their willingness to meet very much demonstrates the CCG’s desire to remain focussed on local needs and understand the community it is serving. The meeting helped me better understand the priorities for our local health sector, as well as how it operates and where responsibilities lie between CCGs and Public Health.

The new week started with a very early trip to London for some work on our Future Arts Centres National Lottery 25th Anniversary project. We met with the National Lottery Promotions Unit, National Lottery Communities Fund, Arts Council England and our PR partner, 89up, to discuss communications, and also interviewed for a producer to work with us on the project.

Back to ARC on Tuesday 24th for catch-up meetings with staff, and t I squeezed in a bit of reflection via a conference call to evaluate the recent North East Culture Partnership’s Shifting the Power event. This had been organised by the NECP’s Participation & Reach working group (which I chair) in association with the North East’s three Creative People and Places projects: bait Museums Northumberland, East Durham Creates and The Cultural Spring. In a triumph of event planning and management, it was all arranged without a single meeting! As we are spread right across the region, we held regular conference calls over the last year which saved hours of travelling time, so it was fitting that the evaluation conversation should be held this way too.

On Wednesday, Lynne Snowball, chair of ARC’s Board, and I met with Councillor Jim Beall, deputy leader of Stockton Borough Council and the new portfolio holder for culture and leisure, and also for health. It was fantastic to talk through some of the Council’s priorities and draw out the contribution arts and culture is making to local health and wellbeing. We are very pleased that the portfolios have been brought together and hope other local authorities will consider this too.

I first met Umar Butt, a theatre-maker and director based in Stockton, in April 2017 – we were sat in the back row of ARC’s Theatre watching a family show one Saturday morning. Umar was introduced to me by the director of the show, and since then we have supported Umar to develop and present his own work, as well as to work with us to better understand and engage our local Asian communities.

Two and a half years on, I sat in ARC’s Theatre on Thursday evening watching Umar’s latest show, Alex and Eliza, amongst a diverse audience of 160+. It’s a beautiful – equally, harrowing, tragic and joyful – story of Umar’s grandmother, and how she lived through the 1947 partition between India and Pakistan, both a personal and epic story. We are very proud to have played a part in making it happen, and to be supporting Umar to tour the show across the UK.

The week ended with a challenging meeting with local authority and culture colleagues from across the Tees Valley. Collaboration is difficult when so many agendas are at play but I was heartened by the energy and commitment to moving forwards that was present in the room.

So, the last two weeks has allowed for plenty of reflection and lots of looking ahead too. My favourite moments? Walking through the building on Thursday, seeing groups of older people, learning disabled adults, students and young people all engaged in creative activity, and then watching the audience, and their reaction to Alex and Eliza that evening. That’s when you know what you’re doing is actually working…