Reflections on Six Years of New Stream
This commentary on aspects of the New Stream programme during the six-year period since its inception in 2009 is based upon analysis of this current review of Year Six of the programme and of its five antecedents. That there have been six successive years of New Stream, with each reviewed in a broadly similar fashion, is a significant accomplishment in a sector bedevilled by short-term initiatives, lapsed partnerships and a poor track-record in evaluation. There are further grounds for optimism in the fact that this is not a terminal review but rather a moment of reflection between the six-year phase supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch and the next phase of the programme currently part sustained by Accenture.
New Stream has been characterised by a consistency of focus and by a flexibility of approach born of responsiveness to the lived experience of the programme and its participants and to the learning gleaned from the annual reviews. This has resulted in the dominant gene of fundraising which characterised the early years of the programme being complemented in time by a wider set of values and skills so that New Stream’s aim might now be defined as supporting the resourcefulness of Irish arts organisations as cultural enterprises.
Though clear trends and consistent themes emerge from a ‘review of the reviews’ over six years, the adaptive nature of the programme has meant that strict comparative evaluation is not possible. One reason for this is that the cohort of New Stream organisations has not only increased but has changed in profile. For example, organisations designated as ‘Craft’ (which mostly operate in a different economic framework to that of the arts) had no presence in the first three years of New Stream and yet were the single largest grouping (48) in Year Six. A further reason is that over the course of the six years the programme strands have altered in nature and emphasis (some like the Strategy Fund introduced in Year Two disappear subsequently without explanation) requiring concomitant adjustments in measures and indicators.
These points are made not to undermine the evaluation methodologies but rather to underscore the complexity of the arts sector (‘cultural sector’ is perhaps the more appropriate term), the welcome flexibility of New Stream, and the importance of that programme’s commitment to resourcing the sector to better resource itself.
Standing back to review the arc of six years of New Stream, key challenges and opportunities reveal themselves. In supporting cultural organisations to bear additional weight, especially in the aftermathm of the recent economic crash and the subsequent realisation that the future might not lie in re-building old models, New Stream has now to consider its own weight-bearing capacity. New Stream and Business to Arts have good form in this regard.
From the start the programme sought strength from other sources most notably from DVIAM. That partnership widened New Stream’s lens from its initial fundraising setting and gave programme participants rigorous business intelligence and organisational development experience, always filtered through the prism of cultural organisations and their particular characteristics. Both the welcome for this strand and the caveats outlined in the ‘External Observations’ section of the Year Three Review are worth re-visiting. Particularly in relation to the makeup of Boards of Arts organisations. In the changing environment of corporate governance (in both company law and the regulation of charities) the role of boards in Irish arts organisations (including but not limited to the domain of fundraising) merits continued attention, as is clear from reviewing the six years of New Stream.
Public discourse and media attention in respect of the arts can mask the fact that the armature of public arts provision in Ireland is made up of small to medium scale organisations. Typically these are staffed by a few people often obliged to multi-task within and beyond their primary competencies. Much attention in recent years has been on the collapse in financial resources and the ‘loss’ of arts organisations, but even when organisations have survived, their human resources have been badly depleted and existing staff stretched to breaking point. This is especially true of the cultural SMEs.
There is need for the dominant policy focus on artists, on physical infrastructure and on funding to be complemented by attention to the health (performance, sustainability and capacity for renewal) of our arts organisations and in particular of those who staff them. The challenge inherent in this analysis may be addressed in part by Business to Arts in consort with others as suggested later.
In the fundraising field that is the particular focus of New Stream, any SWOT analysis by public policymakers and funders must attend not only to the ‘opportunity’ inherent in raising funds from the private sector but also to the ‘threat’ to the sustainability of such gains arising from the high turnover of fundraising personnel in the arts and culture field when compared with other domains. Fundraising is critically dependent on the building and sustaining of donor relationships and high levels of key staff turnover in cultural organisations are injurious to the cause of committed giving to the arts.
A notable strand of New Stream, characterised by the sector bearing some of its own weight through networking and collective professional development, is the Development Managers’ Forum (DMF). A narrative of increasing self-confidence, of openness to collaboration (with peers participating in the Arts Council’s RAISE programme), and of healthy self-analysis emerges in the excellent series of DMF Reviews in the annual reviews of Years Four, Five and Six. The clear focus on ‘Key Achievements’; ‘Areas for Improvement’; ‘Current Challenges’; and ‘Priorities’ is part of the harvest anticipated in the very first annual review when it stated: The developing network of arts fundraisers is the first of its kind in Ireland and the potential model for other sectors.
New Stream bears and needs analysis from both a cultural policy perspective and that of business and management. Consideration might be given to each future annual review having two external observations, one from each of the perspectives mentioned above. The value of the external observations offered in Year Three (by a business expert) should complement and not supplant the cultural policy observations which in all years but one have been a valuable element of the annual review of New Stream. In addition, the publication of the annual review might be the occasion for a seminar of stakeholders convened by Business to Arts to address the findings and implications of that year’s programme review. Such an event might in turn be a catalyst for collaboration across disciplines and sectors. In terms of an evolutionary, collaborative cultural strategy for Ireland this could be a key moment in the annual calendar. New Stream is emblematic of – and indeed contributor to – a noticeable current feature of the cultural sector: a desire to move beyond the attitudes and behaviours of ‘crisis management’ to those of ‘strategic management’.
There is opportunity now to leverage the demonstrable commitment and distinctive expertise of Business to Arts and its partners and more specifically the learning of the past six years by locating New Stream in this wider strategic context. A national cultural policy (‘Culture 2025’) is anticipated from the Department of Arts to provide a framework for the development of the sector for the next decade. That is likely to provide one or more gateways through which Business to Arts(on its own or with business, cultural or educational partners) could enter the developmental space and make a distinct set of offerings based in part on the New Stream experience.
In 2016 the Arts Council begins the process of implementing its new ten-year strategy which inter alia commits to making the professional development of the arts sector a focus of our investment and of our joint actions with partners and stakeholders. Objective 21 of that strategy includes detailed reference to succession planning; to the need for arts organisations to be innovative in their business and management practices; to building a broad base of income sources, public, private, and earned; and to working with others in and beyond the arts to create a professional development framework that includes training, mentoring, exchanges and placements. The Arts Council will need support to deliver this objective and its Mission Statement commits it to work in partnership… with agencies and organisations within and beyond the cultural sector. This suggests that there is fertile ground for Business to Arts, without any loss of autonomy or distinctive brief, to approach the Arts Council and other key stakeholders. The congruence with the former’s RAISE programme has already been remarked on and indeed acted on. The audience development agenda (see Objective 6 of the Arts Council’s strategy) and the need to build on the legacy of its Arts Audiences project may provide further fertile terrain, given the emphasis on marketing evident in several aspects of New Stream. There may be a particular opportunity in linking the resources and materials of Arts Audiences with those in the New Stream Knowledge Centre.
Every year for the six years of New Stream the cover page of the annual review includes the same sub-title: A project operated by Business to Arts. In an age of hyperbole no one could accuse the organisation of stealing too much oxygen. It is perhaps time now not so much to claim the credit as to own the interest, expertise and commitment to work with others in developing the capacity and resourcefulness of Ireland’s cultural enterprises.