Monday, 8 June 2009

The Tyranny of Success

I once knew a brilliant headteacher in Leeds who suggested that the national curriculum should be designed by those who failed at school. Or, at the very least, the content of each subject should be decided by those who hated that subject, or found it very difficult. Getting a roomful of geographers to determine the geography curriculum just created overload from people who may love the subject, but were too precious and knowledgeable to make good choices.

I was reminded of this at last week's Clore Leadership conference ' Its the Arts, Stupid'. A panel of four artists spoke passionately about how the arts infrastructure, and we leaders, could better support artists. Kwane Kwei-Armah asked us what we were going to do to create environments for artists to fulfil their potential across different artforms. Siobhan Davies argued that Dance needed a formal 'warts and all' history to take the form forward. Grayson Perry railed against the cult of 'originality', the quest for which can devalue the search for quality. Louise Wilson talked about how collaboration can be nurtured.

Thoughtful stuff; one problem. Similar to most 'panels', these were four highly successful artists, whom the arts infrastructure has clearly worked for, in various ways. From the joy of arts school to public funding of buildings to the Turner Prize to close relationships with theatre directors, the usual cocktail or talent, effort and serendipity had brought them success.

But maybe our starting point needs to consider those for whom the infrastructure has failed. Those with unrecognised talent, whose creativity was never nurtured. We all know them. Some of you are them. It is easy to fault the education system, and wider societal barriers, and the concept of a meritocracy in the arts is as outlandish as in any other sphere. But what could the cultural sector do itself to make sure that success came more to those who deserved it?

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