Photo of crowd on a hilltop by David Steel
The Beacon

© David Steel


As I keep an eye out on new developments or seminars so my own professional development stays fresh, if I spot new thinking, trends or research that I think are worth passing on, I'll post my take on them in my blogspot blog. And if you have exciting news that you'd like to share, let me know and I'll pass on the highlights there too:

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Don't just do it!

Friday 14 August 2009

So many providers of activities for young people – whether that’s local councils, charity-led venues or museums – seem to think that just by running the activities, they people they hope to see will turn up. Here’s a news flash: you have to tell them about it first!

This is the ground-breaking conclusion from a piece of research by the DCFS, Positive Activities, which was announced a few days ago. In essence it suggests providers should put the young people’s hopes, aspirations, way of thinking and self-perception at the heart of how they communicate their young people’s activities (and indeed at the heart of how they design them, something that the Government-funded myplace youth centres seem to be effectively doing).

So go on, put some resources aside from your programming budget to make sure all your great ideas are effectively communicated!


Sunday 26 July 2009

By the end of the AMA conference this week none of us were in any doubt that ‘co-creation’ is the way to go. Inviting audience members and visitors to put forward their suggestions for programming, to join us in making art or simply to get behind the scenes of our world and help us spread the word. We heard from Innocent Smoothies about the customer who insisted in getting hats knitted for the bottles – and raised loads for Age Concern. You Tube took us through the highs and lows of getting the first internet symphony out into the world. The Watershed in Bristol showed some of the films their users made, spontaneously, that contributed to the complete change round of this very rooted organisation. And the Hallé told us how playing a very ‘difficult’ piece of music twice through, with the audience invited at the repeat to come up on stage to see how the musicians did it, has led to requests for many more ‘difficult’ concerts!

We came away from the conference amused, inspired, thoughtful, envious and with many germs of ideas for opening up our work to our audiences.

What does the client think?

Sunday 21 June 2009

The Trained Eye is a studio that provides professional courses for photographers. They have recently started ‘The Academy’, a year-long, part-time course for photographers who intend to make their living from their art. I was privileged to be asked to deliver the second day of the Academy, with a tailored version of my Introduction to Communications Skills workshop.

Privileged, because by working with the participants so early in the course, we were able to explore the way marketing research and decisions affect the very essence of how they will run their creative business and the style of services they will offer – and to do this before they have gone too far down inappropriate routes. All too frequently, entrepreneurs turn to marketing or communications as a small, add-on activity after everything else about their business has been established, with the result that their dream businesses fail to deliver the full satisfaction and potential revenue that they are aiming for.

'Without you I wouldn't be here!'

Friday 22 May 2009

This was the refrain heard over and again in a performance of ‘England’ at the Whitechapel gallery last Saturday. Tim Crouch’s piece is about art, about the value of art. The monetary value and the restorative, uplifting value. It was a stunning experience for those of us who were there, made more so by the closeness of actors and audience as we negotiated the artworks and spaces in the Isa Genzken exhibition. The actors stared into our eyes as they spoke and we couldn’t hide our reactions from them.
The repetition of such pat phrases to punctuate the unfolding was sometimes creepy, like a stalker; sometimes wholeheartedly joyful; sometimes ironic. Like the idea of the value of art itself, the piece both reaffirmed and debunked current government and media obsessions cultural purpose.

Does Culture Matter?

Friday 1 May 2009

That was my starting point for the week, at a debate organised by Queen Mary College in Mile End Road. The debate itself was self-contented and surface, despite some interesting expositions from Keith Khan , Cressida Hubbard of Artangel, Stella Hall and Stefano Harney. Brian McMaster had been touted but failed to appear.

But the question came home in chats over wine in myriad settings during the week, with people who feel swamped by their family, income and networking needs, to the point where their own creativity is quashed. It is proven – indeed we know it inside ourselves - that being able to exercise one’s own creativity promotes self-worth and fulfillment, quite apart from any question of fame and fortune. In times of recession, keeping channels to creative activity open and well plumped could be a lifeline for the Britain’s morale and ability to launch out of the hard times. To boost resistance to viruses, eat well and exercise; for resistance to the kind of low spirits that put off friends and employers alike, keep up your esteem and self-worth through creativity.

A quote from AS Byatt in an interview in the Guardian on Saturday puts this much better:  "I think of writing simply in terms of pleasure. It's the most important thing in my life, making things. Much as I love my husband and my children, I love them only because I am the person who makes these things ... who I am, is the person that has the project of making a thing ...  And because that person does that all the time, that person is able to love all these people."

The installation artist Rachel Howfield is exploring similar ideas in her blog as part of an ACE-supported period of re-focusing on her creative practice.

What's in a Board?

Friday 24 April 2009

At the sunny reception on the top floor of the Southbank Centre to launch GAIN this week, I was frequently asked why I was there. Not as a prelude to being shown the door, you understand, but as interest in why a marketing and communications specialist should be at an event concerned with Boards and governance of arts organisations.

Gain (Governance, Access, Inclusion and Networking) aims to enrich arts, sports and heritage organisations in London through enabling disabled people and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals with the opportunity and skills to serve on the boards of arts or sports organisations in London. Participants – whether the future Board members or the host organisations – receive training in the skills and knowledge required to effectively serve as trustees. The scheme is managed by The Independent Theatre Council on behalf of Arts Council England, Museums Libraries and Archives, Sporting Equals, the Greater London Authority and Arts & Business.

So the answer to that challenge to me was obvious and easy: with so much pressure on marketers and artistic directors to seek out and satisfy ever more diverse audiences, how will those audiences feel confidence in those gestures unless they see themselves reflected also in the staff and governing structures of the organisation? Gestures towards diversity need to be more than just gestures; they need to be embodied in the ethos of the organisation itself.

If anyone is interested in finding new members for their Boards, or in becoming a Board member for a cultural organisation, get in touch with GAIN.

Olympic opportunities

Sunday 19 April 2009

Two opportunities have recently been announced for artists and creative companies who want to get involved in the cultural side of the London Olympics. Here are pointers to them – click through to the relevant websites to get all the details and to judge if they’re relevant for you:

Inside/Out – the Olympic Delivery Authority, LDA and ACE want to hear from ‘experienced arts organisations or curator/producers’ to put together several strategic artist-led temporary commissions/ projects around the edges of the Olympic Park. See

Meanwhile, the Arts Council is calling for ‘original ideas for projects in any art form, led by artists (from individuals to collectives or organisations)’ that reflect and are inspired by the locations where they will take place. Check for full details at

Building relationships

Friday 3 April 2009

At the Venues and Touring Company Relations workshop I ran in Belfast last week, it became clear how much work needs to be done before each side of the marketing equation for tours genuinely see themselves as building a long-term partnership.

In fact, many of the participants last week reported they do have good, longstanding relations with venues, which is a great start. But until the idea of really understanding how your audiences and potential audiences work becomes embedded in your marketing approach, companies retain a narrow view of their roles and miss out on just how valuable an open, co-operative and sharing relationship could be.

The five rings

Thursday 19 March 2009

I’ve just attended a seminar that put the frighteners on everyone who was there. It was all about the Olympics, and what the creative sector can and can’t do to make the most of the huge opportunity we’ve all been told the Games will bring us. HOWEVER, at the same time that the phrase cultural Olympiad is being tossed gaily around, and arts organisations are being urged – nay ordered – to put on a good show with zero extra money, new intellectual property laws have been passed that lock down the use of a whole range of words, phrases, signs and symbols to do with the event. And the strong advice, given by leading intellectual property lawyers Marks & Clerk at the latest Own-It seminar, was to be very wary of risking a court case; to make sure you understand what is allowed and what isn’t; to get expert advice on proposals; and even perhaps to contact LOCOG for guidance!

There isn’t space to detail all the advice here, so if you’re at all thinking of taking advantage of ‘the big event that is coming to London in a few years’ time’, do get in touch for more information, or watch out for other information seminars in future.

An illustrator's take on empathy

Thursday 26 February 2009

I was invited to give a talk last night for students from across the University for the Arts, London who are preparing for their Degree Shows in a few months' time. It's great that arts courses are also thinking to prepare students for success in the 'real' world beyond their course, and the evening was organised by ECCA as part of a week-long series of events that will also have a web presence.

A fellow speaker was the illustrator Rachel Ortas who graduated a few years ago. She struck me as a great case study of an artist who naturally thinks of her audience in everything she does, seamlessly matching the meeting of their needs with her own creative inspiration. Rachel explained how, for her Degree Show, she realised that her most important target market were shops who might buy her cards, badges and other products exactly as she made them. So that was who she concentrated on inviting; researching appropriate shops and making sure they had personal invitations that reflected her work. And at the Show, there were plenty of little, witty things for people to take away and remember her by.

This awareness of how her 'audience' thinks has remained. Today Rachel is also Art Director for a new children's magazine OKIDO, supported by the Welcome Foundation. Their market research is intrinsic to their creative process: "We run workshops too, and that's how we can understand how a five-year-old sees things. So our designs and our ideas work for them. How can you design for a five-year-old unless you know five-year-olds?"

All that, and wonderful illustrations too!