Trust the Process: New Approaches to Artistic Development

The Long Read

I’ve been interested in the question of the commissioning process since my early-career days at the Manchester Jazz Festival, where I developed, with my good friend Steve Mead, a framework for selection and production, mjf originals, which is still going strong and has produced outstanding works. They’ve now gone one step further by creating a new artistic development scheme, hothouse, “that gets rid of the traditional written application forms and long-winded grant funding processes that artists frequently endure”. Artists are selected on the basis of a short video and get mentoring, guidance, paid rehearsal time and a paid work-in-progress showcase. I’m looking forward to discover the exciting new music that will come out of this, and in the meantime, I’ve rounded up a few other commissioning / development schemes that I like the sound of, beyond music (admittedly with a view to borrow and steal ideas for future projects). 

Citizen-led: Les Nouveaux commanditaires


Les Nouveaux commanditaires (The New Patrons) is a public art “protocol” developed in 1991 by visual artist François Hers, with the support of the Fondation de France, in response to what he perceived as the disconnection of art and life: the culmination of a triple logic of the artist as genius, the art object as a market commodity and the public as passive and unconcerned.

This Protocol is about injecting and redefining value at all levels of the creation and reception / interaction process. Crucially, it’s the public – playing their full role as citizens – who take responsibility to commission an artwork from an artist.

As Patron (commissioner), they therefore have to understand and express the reasons why an artwork should exist and be invested in.

The artist’s role is to invent new forms that respond (or reflect, subvert, question…) to the evolving needs and realities of contemporary society. Within the Protocol, the responsibility for artistic creation is a shared, collective one, not just a private initiative.

The third key piece of this creative equation is the mediator, an experienced arts professional, part facilitator, part producer, part fundraiser, selected by peers to act as an go-between, stewarding the process, navigating all interests and accompanying the commissioning individual or group until and beyond the realisation of the work.

Philanthropists, political representatives and academics are also actors in the Protocol, each bringing their influence, expertise and self-interest to the process, making the resulting work more grounded in society, but also more tricky to produce – hence the importance of the sustained, long-term mediator’s work, “organising the cooperation” of all parties.

Extract from the Protocol (in the current English translation provided on the New Patrons website – it needs a rework!):

In committing to an equal sharing of responsibilities, all players agree to manage through negotiation the tensions and conflicts inherent in public life within a democracy.

The work of art, having become an actor of public life, thus ceases to be merely the emblematic expression of someone’s individuality to become the expression of autonomous persons who have decided to form a community in order to invent new ways of relating to the world and to give a shared meaning to contemporary creative activity.

Financed by private and public subventions, the artwork becomes the property of a collectivity and its value is no longer a market value, but the value of the usage this collectivity makes of it and the symbolic importance conferred upon it.

The “mediator” role is of course what makes me really tick in this process, as I’ve been exploring how to be a better Creative Producer for a while. In his 2016 short book Letter to a Friend about the New Patrons, François Hers expands on his motivations and journey to create the Protocol, and reflects on the rise of this go between figure, which has since flourished in all sectors and situations, especially under the title of facilitator.

Two mediators discuss here how the phrase (and concept) Les Nouveaux commanditaires has been translated outside France 

There were 334 works listed on the website as of December 2017, which is a lot of citizen-led public art, so I could only pick a tiny sample below to illustrate the wide range of impulses and intentions behind these works:  

  • A New Product: A consulting firm specialised in office organisation commissioned an artist to accompany and make sense of their own relocation process. 
    A New Product Harun Farocki
  • Qu’est ce qui nous rassemble ? (What Brings us Together?): An ad-hoc group of citizens (ccc) in the South West of France interested in the history and identity of their city engaged an artist to find the most relevant way to represent, in the public space, a contemporary vision of their city.

Touches-y si tu l'oses, Delphine Balley 2013
Touches-y si tu l’oses, Delphine Balley, 2013 (part of a photography exhibition)
  • The Ever Blossoming Garden: Parents and friends of a young woman murdered in 2007, after 5 years of organising silent marches in her memory, worked with an artist to create a peace sanctuary where violence could also be questioned.

  • mario-airo-the-ever-blossoming-garden-diest-september-2016-©-drawing-mario-airo
    The Ever Blossoming Garden, Mario Airó, 2016 (drawing)
  • Et pluie le soleil: the staff of a children’s home wanted to bring beauty, colour and harmony inside the institution, but also change its perception and reputation in the village. The artist worked with the children in care to transform their place of residence and created a children’s book in place of a catalogue. 
    Et pluie le soleil Cécile Bart - 3
  • Sharawaggi: A group of students commissioned a set of new bell sounds for their school. 

  • Itinerant: TRIDANSE

    I came across Tridanse when researching examples of art and mental health institutions, which led me straight to the extraordinary 3bisf, a contemporary art centre located within the 19th century wing of a psychiatric hospital in Aix-en-Provence. Until 1982, it was a closed environment, a “pavillon de force” for women only. Since 1983, it’s a centre that both presents performances and exhibitions and hosts visual and performing arts residencies. Artists can develop not only new works but also new processes to involve and meet audiences.

    le 3bisf à Aix-en-Provence, lieu d’arts contemporains

    Tridanse is a networked residency created in 2005 specifically for dance artists, who get access to 4 different arts centres in the course of their selection timeframe as well as a €18,000 fee. As the name suggests, the programme started with 3 venues, all dotted around the South East of France, and a 4th one was added on the way:

    • Le 3bisf, contemporary arts centre, Aix-en-Provence
    • Le Vélo Théâtre, “Maison d’artistes pour le théâtre d’objet, le compagnonnage et le croisement des arts” (I love this description, which I’d very roughly translate by “Artists’ Home for Object Theatre, Companionship (traditional network of knowledge transmission) and Hybridization of Arts), Apt
    • Le Citron Jaune, National Centre for Public Space Arts, Port-Saint-Louis du Rhône (also home to the fantastic water-based arts company Ilotopie), Port-Saint-Louis du Rhône (in the beautiful Camargue)  
    • Le Théâtre Durance, theatre, Château Arnoux

    Quoting from the Call for Proposals 2019, Tridanse has three joint objectives:

    • To support the emergence of new forms of choreographic creation that weave danse into other artistic practices: visual arts, circus, theatre, philosophy, architecture, cinema, landscape…
    • To enable reflection, action and experimentation on new relationships between artists, audiences and venue staff
    • To outline new modes of supporting artistic projects

    The process is also firmly based on sharing the different steps of the creative process with the team, audiences and other people involved in each venue (for example, the patients and hospital staff at the 3 bis f).

    In 2018, the selected artist was Marta Izquierdo Muñoz, a choreographer from Catalonia based in Perpignan, who explored the figure of the majorette in her new piece Imago-Go during 4 residencies taking place between March and September, each lasting about a week and comprising a public showcase and/or workshop.  

    Marta Izquierdo Muñoz, Imago Go, photo © Nicolas Cadet
    Imago Go, Marta Izquierdo Muñoz, photo © Nicolas Cadet

    In 2017, Gaëtan Bulourde explored the notion of landscape through a performative installation bringing together video, movement and sound, also offering workshops and participatory events at each stage of the creative process.

    Gaëtan Bulourde, Dans la profondeur du champ, atelier de création au 3bisf, Tridanse 2017

    In 2016, le collectif Etat d’urgence created Dites à ma mère que je suis là, now touring, based on ethnographic research in Calais and exploring the notions of borders, exclusion and policy.

    Incubator: Battersea Arts Centre


    Battersea Arts Centre is an arts centre housed in an old town hall in South West London. It’s a well-loved, well-used community resource, producing, presenting and touring innovative theatre as well as providing a welcoming environment for local residents of all ages for a variety of programmes and workshops.

    In 2015, a fire destroyed the Great Hall, BAC’s main performing space, and the immediate and incredibly positive community response is a testament to how valued they are, both by theatre-goers and locals.

    Since 2000, BAC’s philosophy has been based on Scratch, a creative principle that puts forward sharing, continuous learning and giving and receiving feedback.   

    Scratch is about sharing an idea with the public at an early stage of its development. When you Scratch an idea, you can ask people questions and consider their feedback. This helps you work out how to take your idea on to the next stage. It’s an iterative process that can be used again and again. Over time, ideas become stronger because they are informed by a wide-range of responses.

    The feedback is an important part of the process but Scratch is not about doing everything that people’s feedback suggests; it is about using the responses to help you understand how people currently receive it and to help you shape your idea. The feedback doesn’t have to be a Q&A, you can simply share your idea ‘live’ and, by doing this, you can often tell what works and what doesn’t. Scratch recognizes that when an idea does not fully succeed, or even when it crashes and burns, that there is great learning to be gathered.

    For the full lowdown, this 2015 story on the Google Arts & Culture platform retraces the 15 years of Scratch (officially launched in 2000). The Scratch legacy is huge: more than a more theatre, BAC now acts as an incubator of people and projects, using the creative principles of Scratch to work with artists, teachers, young entrepreneurs, spaces, museums


    There’s lots going on at Battersea Arts Centre, so I’ll just list here a few initiatives that use the Scratch principles in various contexts:

    • Create Course, a weekly meet-up, where participants (16+) can explore new ways to be creative in their own life, coming together around good food, guest leaders, a lively discussion and creative tasks. Session guest leaders have included poet Deanna Rodger, garden designer Nina Leatherdale, chef Veronica Lopes da Sliva, producer Roisin Feeny, artist Conrad Murray, broadcaster Byron Vincent and spoken-word artist Polarbear… and BAC provides free creche on request.
    • Collaborative Touring Network: a collaboration between BAC and 8 other producing partners in the UK formed in 2013 to produce, present and promote diverse events “to feed an appetite for culture in communities across the country” and realise the vision of “a nation where everyone has inspiring art and culture on their doorstep”. To date, the network has presented work in over 170 different spaces including parks, community centres, boxing gyms and nightclubs, imagining “new contexts for performances that inspire audiences and artists alike”.
    • Agents of Creative Change, a free annual professional development programme for artists, public and third sector professionals who have a challenge to tackle in their professional environment, in their community, or both. The programme pairs practitioners with artists and offers a series of workshops to share practice, ideas and trial solutions to the presented challenges. In between meet-ups, participants realise test projects within the community. Previous participants have included those working in the police, local government, health services, employment and offender management. Artists have come from a wide variety of backgrounds including music & beatbox, design, writing, photography, performance work, digital and community theatre.
    • Scratch Hub, opening in Autumn 2018, will be a creative co-working space based on the Scratch principles, offering members quite a few perks on top of a deskspace, from a time-banking scheme to exchange expertise and skills to talks and scratch nights  “to foster collaborations, co-learning and creative conversations”, “opportunities for member-led programming and event hosting” and discounts on shows and food & drink (in the aptly named lovely Scratch Bar).
    • BAC is also in the process of launching Co-Creating Change, an international network “to explore the role which producers, cultural organisations and artists can play to co-create change with community partners”, starting with the question: How can cultural centres also be community centres?

    Fitter, Happier, More Productive

    Tools of the Trade

    Imagine a workplace where people are energised and motivated by being in control of the work they do. Imagine they are trusted and given freedom, within clear guidelines, to decide how to achieve their results. Imagine they get the work/life balance they want. Imagine they are valued according to the work they do, rather than the number of hours they spend at their desk.

    Introduction to The Happy Manifesto by Henry Stewart, CEO, Happy Ltd.


    Work Better: The Happy Manifesto

    What makes a workplace a happy one? Is there a recipe that can help to get it right? That’s what Henry Stewart set out to uncover in the Happy Manifesto, a workplace management handbook largely based on his experience developing his own company. Happy Ltd. started in 1998 as an IT training provider and now also provides individual and organisational development.

    The 2013 book (available for free as a pdf) is full of tips on change management backed up by examples from Happy and other companies, ranging from hiring and firing to corporate volunteering, giving feedback, coaching and internal communications. It’s not just about flexible hours or more office parties: it’s about creating and maintaining an organisational culture where people are put first, hierarchical assumptions challenged and decision-making processes revisited.

    The foundational value is trust: this implies expecting the best out of people, creating a no-blame culture that celebrates mistakes as steps in the learning process and hiring for attitude and potential (not solely on the basis of qualifications). Openness of information, transparency in the decision-making process, freedom to find the best way to achieve goals are other great principles to ensure that work is a fair and enjoyable environment.

    Outside the workplace, opportunities to create a social impact – for example through corporate volunteering – are mutually beneficial to the community and the company, as staff get to learn new skills through giving time to their chosen projects. Long hours should not be seen as a sign of commitment but rather a symptom of poor time management; this shift in attitude can help both achieve a healthy work/life balance and improve productivity.

    Stewart’s final tip is to select managers who are actually good at managing other people, and to create other rewarding senior positions for people who are good at their job, but not so with people. Happy Ltd. employees get to elect their department heads and can also choose themselves their direct line manager.


    Business Innovation in the Arts

    Transforming the structure and culture of an existing organisation can be a long, introspective and experimental process that requires a strong leadership drive. Mission Models Money’s 2010 report, Capital Matters, which investigates the future of funding and financing in the arts, links successful business models to creative, flexible and entrepreneurial organisational mindsets.

    One of the key case studies presented in the report, Battersea Arts Centre, is a performing arts venue that has set itself the mission of “inventing the future of theatre” – which also implies reinventing the way they operate as an organisation. BAC’s radical structural transformation is driven by a mission-led and project-based approach, with constant prototyping and evaluation – what they call ‘scratch’ – as their underlying philosophy. For example, the production, technical and operational management teams are now joined up to form a “strategic programming team” that bypasses departmental divisions and can be reconfigured flexibly to respond to project needs. Budget management is everyone’s business and income generation is seen as a creative endeavour, on the model of a social enterprise. Their innovations are detailed on their website, from restoring the building – a Grade II*-listed Victorian former Town Hall – to presenting work-in-progress, supporting young producers, developing a collaborative touring network across the UK and empowering young people to turn their ideas into reality.

    MMM describes BAC as “a living experiment in business innovation”, and the factors and values that enabled the organisation to transition to a new model resonate with the Happy principles: shared ownership, continuous learning, personal growth and collective innovation. One of the objectives of the process was to “reduce high levels of overworking among current staff”, and two other examples in the case point towards innovative people management and staff satisfaction:

    • Interns are being replaced by Apprentices who rotate through different activities within the organisation as a way of building capacity and matching aspirations and opportunity;
    • All staff are responsible for customer care no matter where they are in the building or the hierarchy and the front of house welcome is valued very highly.


    Resources for Change  

    Funding cuts, digital developments, changing audiences: there are many reasons for arts organisations to try not just to stay in the game, but to be truly innovative in the way they operate. As noted in the Capital Matters case study,Battersea Arts Centre changed their operational mode without using external consultants: staff and board members were committed to finding and implementing answers themselves. There’s plenty of self-help available out there, and I’ve listed a few resources below to learn, plan and implement.

    Background Learning and Happiness Survey

    Happiness is high on the agenda of the new economics foundation: they have developed the Happy Planet Index as one of the first global measures of sustainable well-being, to supplement traditional rankings by GDP with data on life expectancy, experienced well-being and Ecological Footprint. They’re also conducting research on well-being at work and its correlation with efficiency. They have produced an online Happiness at Work Survey that can be tried out for free (and starts at £6 per licence for business use), as well as an accompanying literature review report that informed the survey and provides the theoretical and statistical background on well-being at work.

    Peer Organisational Development Network

    Mission Models Money is currently running re.volution, “a peer learning network which aims to radically reconfigure business & organisational development support for cultural and creative practice in the UK”. While staff well-being is not an explicit goal of the network, innovative thinking in organisational culture, governance and business model is: a different angle for the same outcome. Peers are expected to offer up to three days of their time per year to share their expertise and assist fellow peers across four key themes: renewing the mission;reconfiguring the business model;revising the approach to money; and developing leadership, culture and values – a cross cutting theme that supports all the others.

    Leadership Training for the Arts

    To respond to this last need, the Clore Leadership Programme has been running since 2004, offering subsided short residential courses to develop leadership skills as well as year-long fellowships for about 25 individuals a year. The sought-after fellowship includes residential courses, mentoring and a 3-month placement in an organisation very different from the Fellow’s usual working environment. As Clore programmes aim at developing leaders, selection is based on attitude and abilities, rather than proven experience.