Food-Writing-Workshop-at-Indy-Hall

SmacSocialMediaWorkshopDec091Last year, something seismic happened in the publishing world: self help books overtook the celebrity autobiography to become the world’s best selling genre. The irony, of course, is that we’re all as fucked up as ever. Self help, though, is helping a few publishers – and authors – to furrow a very lucrative new field.

Same goes with cookery programmes. The fatter the celebrity chefs get, the more nutritionally impoverished we become – we’re far too busy watching the Bake Off to have the time to prepare a meal ourselves.

In Liverpool, it’s workshops. For the chosen few workshops are the sure fire way to boost a flagging business, access a healthy funding pot, or prop up a flailing career.

And we know. Because we’ve witnessed plenty. And here’s what we’ve learned –

The most important thing you can ever do on a workshop? Sign your name on the form. From then on, your resident guru gets his gold, and the off-the-peg advice can be doled out while they mull over how to spend their fee.

Because if you go to any of these workshops, lesson one is clear: this cosy ecosystem couldn’t exist without us. We are the throughput. We are the raw materials that give these agencies, these preferred service providers (it’s always the same ones, who have the same friends at the same economic development qangos) and these arts organisations a reason to exist.

We don’t invite these people to come to our estates, to decamp in our community, or to ‘intervene’ amongst us. We don’t ask these new puritans to show us the best way to shop, to tweet or to write. Yet here they are. Keen to share. Here to help. Ready to engage for the betterment of our personal and social development. And their bottom line.

And we’re cajoled into thinking that the next creative business startup course, the next online writing, health and nutrition, self-improvement or spreadsheeting masterclass is all that stands between us and certain nirvana.

If workshops worked – really worked – Liverpool would be the most successful, most dynamic, most well-adjusted and productive city in Britain. So why are most of us all still fighting for our lives, while a precious few soak up all the cash?

Last month, we got invites to ‘Expert Workshops in Social Media Marketing’ – by a strategic marketing company with fewer twitter followers than our local pub. The same company that tweets “hey, we’re nearly at 4,000 followers. Please RT and help us get to 5k!”. Here’s a lesson from us for free – that’s not expert social media. That’s begging.

We were informed of ‘Creative Writing masterclasses’ hosted by people who’ve run a blog for ten minutes, a ‘How to raise your profile and develop networks’ event by a Liverpool company we’ve never heard of, and a ‘Creative Finance Workshop’ run by someone whose ‘creative business’ depends entirely on, er, running financial workshops. It’s all way too meta for us.

There’s something in all this that sits uneasily with us. This belief that we’re all in need of improvement. Like hapless Victorian social climbers – we’d be ever so grateful, thank you kindly sir, if you’d kindly shave off a morsel of your genius to nourish our worthless souls.

It’s the same reason we feel the need to fly in a Los Angeles eco-expert for the Biennial – to enlighten the poor folk of Everton in the art of weed growing. To parachute in nutrition experts to stage ‘interventions’ in Liverpool’s ‘economically challenged’ neighbourhoods. To be barked at when we dare shop in John Lewis.

We had an idea for a festival (we’re still mulling it over) – and we were thinking of holding it in Central Library. We had a chat with a nice lady at the Arts Council. We were told, with no shred of shame, that if we were to add ‘an educational element to improve the skills of the library staff’, we’d stand a much better chance of getting a grant.

Who decreed that the library staff needed enlightenment? And who the fuck considered SevenStreets to be their self-appointed saviours? Not us. We walked. But for some, that would have been all the the encouragement needed to retro-fit their event to scoop up the cash.

So the money stays with those who know how to fill in the forms, and those who have skills enough to collect them, once we’ve signed them of course.

The skills these people have are not in social media. Not in communication. Not even in well womanhood. They’re in sweet talking Liverpool Vision. Knowing the right person to air kiss at the Everyman opening party. Understanding the arcane symbolism of the Arts Council Heritage Lottery Regional Enterprise European grant.

And they’re sucking us dry. Go take a look.

And when the long knives do their thing at the Council, and the public sector-funded business courses dry up, we’ll be left with a workshop feeding frenzy, where the same old agencies and social enterprises will hoover up the cash. They’ll get the gig not because they’ve any form – and not because anyone’s read their stuff/ attended their intervention/ benefitted from a phoned-in Powerpoint session.

And the accountability? The measurable outcomes? The proof that any of this is any more beneficial than a chat with your mates, a cut and paste evening with Google, or – maybe, just maybe – diving in, doing it yourself, and realising that Tweeting/growing carrots/writing about a play is something you can probably figure out yourself, repeat, and get better at. Get that builder’s high of doing something yourself.

The thief sector. We can learn a lot from them.

But at what cost?

This city needs to do a lot more listening. Joe, The Echo, the Communications and Strategic Agencies, the Cultural mavens who sit on panels and are only too eager to expound on why culture’s going through a tough patch…

Listening is the vehicle for true connection. Listening is also a letting go of control. We can’t, truly, let each other reach our full potential when we’re always trying to control what the rest of us should think, do, tweet or eat. When we’re constantly trying to impress others with what we know, what we have to say.

If we lose our obsession with the experts’ panel, the workshops and the masterclasses and really start to listen to each other, hey, we really might learn something.

But, we guess, there’s no grant available for that.

  • Mary Millington

    I’m confused. Your link was to a list of people – most of them artists or arts organisations who make art with people. What’s wrong with that? That they are taking Arts Council Money? Is there something wrong with getting a grant to make your art happen? These aren’t the people who are offering workshops in how to use Facebook. And tbh I think you were daft not to apply for funding to do something good from someone in a position to fund it. Just saying.

  • Vinny

    Brilliant Dave. The thief sector – I love it. Unfortunately I know first hand that filling in funding forms can seriously challenge your integrity and ironically accountability relies again on them same form filling abilities.

  • ZhaZha

    The point is that you must pretend to be educating people in order to get money from funders, not that funding is the problem. They are saying that a lot of workshops are run by organisations who are charging people a fortune to tell them secrets or impart knowledge they don’t really have, and that you might be better off just learning it all yourself. Have to say I agree. I did project a little while ago during which I was supposed to run something like fourteen workshops. Why? For whom? It was such a waste of time, especially since they didn’t put any money or publicity behind it.

  • david_lloyd

    yeah, that list is a complete list of arts orgs – many good ones – but within there, if you look closely, are some (IMO) examples of what I’m saying. Cheers.

  • Christopher Beckett

    I agree with you ZhaZha, funding is now rapped up in so much bureaucratic and ‘outcomes’ nonsense that art and creativity have been lost to predefined ‘achievements’, rather than being an end in itself. The whole ’08 bid was built on the back of the instrumentalisation of culture, stripped of any humanist value and reduced to monetary outcomes.

    Got to say though that academics have been saying this for a long time.

  • Mary Millington

    That’s simply not true Zha Zha, although I do know that whole heap of stuff gets funded that simply isn’t that great because they know how to push funders buttons. BTW I’d hazard a guess that library workers – like pretty much anyone in the only-just-still-statutory sector- these days are not getting much in the way of professional development these days and many might really like to have the opportunity to engage with something interesting and fun.

    Its not what’s intended but the workshops David talks about here – baloney as many of them are – do sometimes have a value in bringing together likeminded people, from which other good stuff starts to generate. Even if they are money for old rope for the “experts”.

  • Andy

    I’ve attended a few of the workshops of the type you mention… I’m not inherently against them, but one thing I am against is what i’d call the bigger, richer organisations that snaffle up places. I went to one to help emerging creative businesses and attendees included people from FACT, The Bluecoat and the Philharmonic from memory – not sure those organisations would count as emerging, and I think they should be de-prioritised when giving out free spaces, when organisations with no money or people who haven’t even started trading want to attend the same event

  • Emma

    It’s not just about tagging a random educational workshop onto your artistic activity but about ensuring your work is going to engage with and reach as wide an audience as possible. If we don’t do that how can we ensure artistic work is reaching as many people as possible and not just the relatively small amount of people (and sometimes elite) who already engage with art and arts activities. I realise there are loads of people out there offering those ‘professional development’ type workshops that you are talking about and charging a fortune for them, but there are also quite a few organisations out there offering this kind of support for free, do a bit of searching to utilise these rather that being ripped off by the former. I really think the kind of educational/outreach activities that are attached to arts projects aren’t the same thing as the kind of workshops you’ve highlighted in your article. Don’t just paint it all with the same broad brush stroke – there’s some really good stuff out there that’s not trying to rip people off, just giving people an opportunity to engage with art, perhaps without having to go to a theatre or art gallery that lots of people might find intimidating. Maybe you need to try and make your glass half full as you definitely seem to be looking at it half empty to me…

  • Sarah

    I’m a fundraiser. There’s a common theme associated with these types of funding streams – they rarely fund organisations who are simply doing something really well and just want to continue doing that something really well. The starting point for making funding applications is very often, ‘what does the funder want and how can we meet THEIR criteria?’ It’s the smaller non profits who suffer from not having a fair distribution of these funds simply because they don’t/won’t approach it in the same manner. They don’t have the time, resource or energy to read through pages and pages of government led guidance on how dreadful the city is performing against the rest of the UK and then address it in a 48 page application. It’s a lengthy process to justify having – what amounts to – a few scraps thrown at them by the funding body. Liverpool saw the largest number of charities in the UK closing down following the start of the public sector cuts in 2010; charities providing essential services, like bereavement counselling, for free! To be in with a chance of receiving funding these charities would have needed to change the roles of staff members, satisfying the funder that the service was new, innovative, unique, blah, blah, blah. Fudging an organisations aims to meet the needs of a funder is commonplace and results in a project with less integrity than when it started, as a concept however you look at it. There’s many organisations out there who receive funding for projects which make a huge difference in the community, if there wasn’t I wouldn’t be able to do my job.

  • david_lloyd

    that’s more or less exactly what I was trying to (and not completely succeeding at) saying. IF you look at how funding is distributed – £50,000 for an artist’s personal development, for example – against some of the cuts we’re having to make in real, transformational change projects, there really is little you can say in the defence of the present system.

  • asenseofplace

    Well said Sarah ‘Fudging an organisation’s aims to meet the needs of the funder’ – seen it happen far too many times. Sort of encourages organisations not to have aims and behave opportunistically. Hence vacuous workshops.

  • Phil Charnock

    We recently applied for a digital arts project; not in Liverpool I hasten to add. It was totally up our street, the perfect fit for us, something we had done before. We got to the interview stage and they seemed mad keen. All was looking good.

    However, they wanted us to host 48 workshops! We actually stated that we couldn’t do that many. Quite frankly, I don’t know how we would have done more than a couple. We didn’t get the job.

  • http://www.christofhaberle.com/ Christof Häberle

    Spell them out. Post a few examples from that list alongside the link – it’ll make it clearer :).

  • david_lloyd

    oh god. It’s worse than I thought, then.