An Interview with Dorothy Wilson, CEO of mac birmingham

An Interview with Dorothy Wilson, CEO of mac birmingham

Rosy Ross Profile
Rosy Ross was Arts Fundraising Fellow for mac Birmingham until September 2016. Rosy supported the Box Office team to embed fundraising within their work.  Rosy also helped to refine the organisation’s case for support and strengthen their charitable communications.

Just before it was announced that Dorothy would step down as Artistic Director and CEO of mac birmingham, I spoke to her about the city-wide strategic partnerships the mac is involved with and how cultural organisations are stronger together.

Rosy Ross: I’d like to talk about the decline in public funding for arts organisations in Birmingham, which looks set to reduce dramatically in the not-so-distant future. mac has responded to this by diversifying income streams. In particular, mac is a member of the recently formed Culture Central – could you tell me a bit more about this?

Dorothy Wilson: Culture Central succeeds an organisation called Birmingham Arts Partnership (BAP), which comprised 14 of the larger organisations in the city that came together, probably about eight or nine years ago now – informally, initially – to create opportunities for working together for the common good. perhaps one of the first groupings of arts organisations in the country that did that.

What happened in Birmingham is that, increasingly, members felt it was no longer appropriate to only represent the largest, and best funded, of those organisations. In order to take culture and the agenda for culture forward in the city, we needed to create a body that could do a number of things - one of which was incorporate wider membership from across the cultural sector.

Dorothy Wilson. Credit: Hugo Glendinning

So Culture Central has been established, and it has a number of different types of membership. The founding members are the 14 organisations that were in BAP and one representative from each of eight of those organisations forms the initial board membership of Culture Central. Over the next few months company membership will extend to embrace smaller arts organisations, individual artists, cultural industry organisations creative organisations.

The Culture Central board structure allows a range of representation across the sector and amongst other agencies and organisations engaged in and supporting cultural enterprise, e.g. Universities, Arts Council England, Local Authorities, business bodies, etc. There is also the potential for Culture Central to consider expanding its geographical reach and partnerships, e.g. the LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership) or the West Midlands Combined Authority. So there’s potential to grow significantly.

What’s distinctive now is that nobody’s arguing as to whether Culture Central is a good idea, because everybody realises that it’s actually really important to bring lots of people together in order to achieve what we all hope to - plan to, aspire to - deliver in the context of declining public funding. And it’s the fact that it’s the sector itself that has come together to pay for and mobilise that advocacy that gives it a power that is different and distinct from the power it would have if it were paid for by the local authority or Arts Council England.

RR: Am I right in understanding that Culture Central can manage its funding collectively now?

DW: Well it’s a separate company, so in that sense Culture Central could be a number of things. (…) It has the ability to make applications to deliver programmes of work and ambitious activities in the city. The way I imagine it working, or some sort of variant of this, is that Culture Central could negotiate with a department of Local or Central Government (that’s not culture), to deliver a programme of activities around health, or around housing, etc. will then enter into an agreement with whoever is the sponsoring organisation or the funder, and it will then commission through a competitive tender to member organisations of Culture Central to deliver that programme of work.

The Black Country Living Museum
The Black Country Living Museum

It changes completely the notion of public investment away from being a grant to being payment for delivery of services. So Culture Central isn’t a funding body: it’s a commissioning body and development agency.

So Culture Central becomes an engine for developing shared artistic and cultural vision, and it brings partners together. And those partners aren’t just cultural organisations; they’re local authorities, they’re public health bodies, they’re housing associations, etc. Anybody that wants to use culture as an enabler of public services or public realm developments would see Culture Central as being the body that could advise them, help them develop their strategy and could also help source, through a competitive process, the artists or arts organisation to deliver an activity.

It changes the language from being one of being ‘grant aided’, with all of the unhelpful associations that has with subsidy – i.e. ‘failing’ organisations that need to be subsidised to survive – to a language which is about investment to achieve particular outcomes. And that’s a powerful thing.

Sadly it’s not happening as quickly in Birmingham as in some other places in the country - but if you watch Sir Peter Bazalgette’s announcement last week about local authorities and the Arts Council, he’s saying that Culture Central is a really welcome development and may be a trendsetter in the way to do business.

RR: According to that announcement, it looks like city councils around the country are similarly starting to explore new partnerships and new sources of local revenue - like the NCVO Cultural Commissioning Programme, for example. Do you think this repositioning of the function of arts and cultural organisations might put them in danger of losing their creative identities?

DW: Yes it does, if they are not fundamentally driven by their artistic mission. That’s why we talk here about money following creative ideas and not the other way round. Organisations that are not mission driven, that are essentially reactive to funding, will never be as strong. (…) If an organisation is mission driven, as we are - that is, ‘arts for everybody’ - and that means high quality arts for everybody – you measure every initiative or every funding opportunity against its potential to help you meet that mission.

I tend to think about the mission being like this : that’s the thing we’re aiming for and driving at. There are lots of ways of doing it, but you’ve got to create a triangle. If you create something that’s just moving outwards by diversifying without locating it back to the apex of your triangle, your mission, you weaken the organisation.

So yes, there is a risk, but being aware of that risk should be proof against being drawn in to purely funding led development.

RR: It’s a fine line then, I suppose.

mac outside 1 - Chris Keenan -
The mac birmingham. Credit: Chris Keenan

DW: It is, it’s a judgement call, sometimes, and that’s why I think it’s really important that an organisation – and the people who work within it – really understand what the organisation stands for.

If you read our artistic strategy, you’ll see that we put quite a lot of emphasis on the values, and sometimes those values appear to conflict with each other. So within our strategic statement, it says, “our ethos is based on a set of values”. If you like, these are fundamental guiding principles. Art is at the heart of it, but this is about our strategy. So our strategy is our mission: “to promote innovative and creative arts activities in ways which help establish them as an important part of people’s lives”.

Where do we start? We start from the point that’s critical to our success – that mac’s users reflect the population and character of the city and region. (…) This is the key bit:

"Our ethos is built upon a set of values that inform the whole of the activities. The tensions within the values help to shape the organisation’s work and add an extra creative spark to the activity."

So we value “artistically experimental activities” - i.e. innovative, risk-taking, out-on-the-edge activities – “and ones striving to engage with our audiences”. It’s no good creating wonderful, world-beating artistic content with nobody coming to see it. And, of course, we’re not just interested in audiences that are demographically the people you would expect to come.

Also: “celebrating diversity and strengthening social cohesion”. So lots of diverse communities and people, and lots of diverse artists – and, actually, we're as interested in their diversity and their distinctiveness as we are in them working together.

RR: All of the values are almost oxymoronic.

DW: They are – intentionally so. We spent a lot of time working on this, in order to capture the intrinsic tension and to celebrate the fact that there is a tension. (…) That's what I think helps to make an organisation mission-centred and to ensure that everybody understands why we do what we do in the ways that we do. (…) So when you're looking for funding, if you can't say that what you're looking for funding for is to do those things, then you're really at risk of 'mission drift'.

RR: Are there any other interesting models – of other city councils working with local arts organisations, for example – that you think people should know about?

The Sage Gateshead, a member of Newcastle Gateshead Initiative
The Sage Gateshead, a member of the NewcastleGateshead Initiative. Credit: barnyz

DW: There's LARC – Liverpool Arts Regeneration Consortium – which is worth looking at. There's NewcastleGateshead Initiative, which is interesting because they're two different local authority areas working together. That has a big focus on marketing and tourism and attracting inward investment. Sheffield has the Sheffield Culture Consortium: that was set up and became increasingly effective largely because of local funding challenges. So the Culture Consortium has become the advisor to all sorts of people, including the City Council, about creative ambitions and investment.

This interview took place on Tuesday 19th April 2016.