An interview with associate John Holden

Could I begin with asking you to talk a little about your background; how you came to the Associates; what drew you to working with them?

Okay, there are a few different strands to this. My first degree was in Law, and then I became a banker. I travelled quite a lot and set up a small business, but by the age of 40 I decided I’d really had enough of banking, so I quit, not really know what to do. I’d always been really interested in the arts, so I went to the Winchester School of Art and did an MA in History of Art. I also started running a little charity called Business in the Arts South, which got business assistance for a very wide range of arts companies; museums; individual practitioners. So I came at it from a really different direction.

I then basically went freelance. People started asking me for advice on various kinds of things and I started doing some training work, using painting for team-building, that kind of thing. I started working at Demos in 2000, and I basically joined it to run it as a business, not as an arts person. Tom Bentley, who was the director at that point, wanted to bring it back to the straight and narrow on financial and business terms, the organisation started growing, and I started to fold my freelance work into Demos projects. Around that time I also worked with Robert Hewison, a great cultural critic and commentator, on some stuff for the Clore Duffield Foundation, and we wrote a history of the Gulbenkian Foundation in the UK, which was really fun.

Then something happened that was quite significant. Through Robert, I got invited to the office of Charles Saumarez-Smith at the National Gallery — he was the director at the time. And Nick Starr, one of the co-directors of the National Theatre was there, and Adrian Ellis, a very eminent arts consultant. We were having a discussion about how government policy had been instrumentalising the arts more and more, how the arts were only valued for their economic outcomes or social outcomes. And there was a feeling among people there that we had to drag it back to a recognition that there had to be a better balance struck; that government, policy and funders should take more account of the fact that art has intrinsic worth, by which I mean that art has an irreducible core and that these things are worth supporting in themselves, regardless of any spin-off benefits they might generate.

We decided to put on a Demos event, and brought together a really interesting bunch of people. Tessa Jowell came, who was Secretary of State at the time, and Estelle Morris, on her first day as Minister for the Arts. Tessa basically said, “you’re right, we do have a problem. But you tell us, how do we sell the arts to the rest of the government? How do we argue for funding?” And she went off and wrote a pamphlet — an essay called ‘Government and the Value of Culture’. There was a sentence in there that said: “How, in going beyond targets, can we best capture the value of culture?” I thought that was such an interesting question, and threw myself into writing something about it. Of course, it was such an interesting question that it was impossible to fund! In my evenings and weekends I wrote, and it ended up as a whole series of pamphlets all of which are free on the Demos website. What I did in that was try to explain the value of culture through a framework, or a set of frameworks, firstly, talking about what culture means today — which I think has changed hugely over the past 15 or 20 years, through social change, financial ups and downs, and particularly through technology — and secondly, the question of how we account for its value.

I came up with a very simple triangular diagram. On one corner, we’ve got something called ‘Intrinsic Value’ —meaning first, how artforms are an essential and irreducible way in which we express our humanity. But intrinsic value is also a term that was becoming a proxy for the way that culture moves people emotionally and intellectually. These are things that we find difficult to articulate and find a language for; and because policy is concerned with mass outcomes and how to change society, it’s not particularly interested in whether you or I have a great emotional experience at the theatre. Politicians want ‘outcomes’, whereas, as I put it later: no audience member sits in a darkened auditorium thinking “I’m so glad the cost of my ticket has contributed to business prosperity in the South East.”

On another corner of the triangle we’ve got ‘instrumental value,’ which I would rather call instrumental benefit, because that is measurable: you have a start point, an end point, and you can track changes. Of course it’s very difficult because it’s highly problematic to do a lot of that stuff in practice, but nevertheless you should be able to get a handle on what change has occurred and whether the art intervention has contributed to that. Regeneration, for instance, or exam results.

And then I thought actually there’s another bit to this: the fact that culture is one of the very few places where people come together of their own volition to engage with something that is publicly funded. Most publicly funded things, like the judicial system, the educational system and the health system, you are obliged to engage with. People go to concerts; the theatre; exhibitions, because they want to. That makes it a rather special place. It’s a place where you can either create or destroy social capital and community feeling. So I called this ‘institutional value’, and it was very akin to an idea that was fashionable at the time which was taken up by the BBC but which people don’t talk about much now, which is ‘public value’, the idea of creation of public good from public service. So I triangulated that.

That really took off, and I then did another triangle which said well, members of the public are mostly interested in the intrinsic stuff, politicians and funders are mostly interested in the instrumental stuff, and the people running, leading, arts organisations are interested in all three of those values. There was a disconnect between the arts professionals who care about the whole lot, and are really dedicated to the intrinsic stuff, but they were having to spend an awful lot of time talking to funders and politicians in instrumental terms, which they found difficult to understand, and antithetical to what they were all about. This was creating a really fractious and unhappy sector, and a way to tackle that was to foster a better engagement between the arts professionals and the public. If the arts have public support, it’s that that will ultimately put pressure on politicians and funders to fund the arts, rather than some specious argument about economic multipliers and regeneration. So that was the endpoint of this exploration, saying to the cultural sector: look you’ve really got to improve your institutional value and improve the way that you interact with your public.

That lead to lots of interesting strands of work in theatres and museums, programming, curation and so on, I think. And still to this day I get calls about that.

They love the triangles! So you identified these disparities, but do you think there have been successful attempts at connecting up the points?

A lot of people within the sector read them; or at least, there were lots of downloads. I know some people changed the way that they did things. They started to think about the public more, and their ways of doing stuff in public spaces. I think it helped some of the policy people and political people to understand where the arts sector was coming from and I think it helped the arts sector to articulate what it does better. At least that’s my hope!

So what, from there, was your journey to the Associates?

With three other Associates, Shelagh Wright, John Newbigin and John Kieffer, we formed a company called Three Johns and Shelagh, and we did a number of projects together, and I’ve known them for ages. I knew Charlie Timms, too, from Demos, and Lois I came across as a Clore fellow. And then just last year I got approached by Eastbourne council about doing a piece of work: they were putting out a tender and asked if I would be interested, and I  asked Lois and Shelagh if we could put in a bid as Create Associates. We won that, and did some work there. Good work actually, I think.

Online, I saw a lecture that you gave on networks a few years ago, and I was wondering how the Associates distill some of that thinking about networks as an interesting way to work; a way of working through collaboration and collective creative energy.

I think networks are increasingly the way we get stuff done. I said in that lecture that companies are even called limited companies because they are very limited in many ways. They have lots of real advantages like structure, and the fact that they’re such a familiar form. They tend to be really good at doing one thing for a limited time, but they’re not great at innovation; at expanding rapidly or contracting rapidly, whereas networks of course are much more fluid than that. In an organisation you have to pay people to turn up in the morning, whilst with a network, people bring their own resources, intelligence and time to the party because it’s something they want to be involved with.

I think there’s a lot of really false networks around, of course. A real one is one where you voluntarily turn up, where it’s not compulsory. You’re in it partly to help the network but mainly through self-interest, and that’s why things prosper. Another point I made is that networks are not always benign. They can be really malign and vicious, but they’re very flexible.

It’s interesting because I’ve been thinking a lot about how you can work collaboratively and through modes of care and friendship, and how that might be an alternative to very rigid organisational standards. Of course then the flip-side of that is that friendship and networking can quickly turn into nepotism.

Absolutely. There’s a lot of nepotism in the arts. I used to do conferences when I was talking about networks, and I probably asked about 5,000 people overall: “how many of you have got a job through your network; through a family member or a friend?” I was always astonished in the arts, where everybody is, on paper, so punctilious about equal opportunities, and yet about 50% of the room, every single time, put their hands up.

Thinking about networks made me think about looking for alternative ways of instituting. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about whether the institution can be cured or healed of all of its deep set, often historical issues, and whether, perhaps, collaboration and participation can play a serious role in that curing.

I did do one bit of research with Robert Hewison and Sam Jones, who now works at Tate, with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and it’s called ‘All Together’. It was such an interesting, really long-term project – about two years – interviewing people at the RSC, creating network maps of who spoke to who. They were working with this idea of the ensemble; that everyone was part of the ensemble. Lots of things came up, and one was that people had often spoken in the past about the RSC being a family, and the people then running the RSC said: “no we don’t want it to be a family, because a family implies that we’re not all grown up! That we have mummy and daddy at the top of it!” An organisation should be full of fully empowered individuals able to make decisions for themselves, and not working within a hierarchy where they think it’s someone else’s responsibility to sort out all the problems.

Where somebody else has to do the washing up!

Yeah exactly! That was a fascinating thing because there were all sorts of small ways in which they changed the organisation so that people encountered each other more often in more diverse ways. Lots of clubs and choirs and social things went on, lots of show and tell; job swaps; changing the physical way that the office was configured so that people would at least have a coffee together. It was infuriating because I was interviewed about it three times on the radio and every single interviewer said, “so what’s the one big thing organisations can do to change the way they work?” And I’d have to say well there is no one big thing. If there was, everybody would have done it already. It’s difficult; it’s slow; it takes many many different steps and they’re not all the same in all places but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. That pamphlet – ‘All Together’, is also free on the Demos website.

Do you think this mode of ensemble can be translated outwards into, say, participatory practice, beyond a single institution?

Yes I do, very much so. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation had a very interesting project called ‘Our Museum’ going on, bringing community more into museums in terms of decision-making and having a two-way street. It’s about listening and talking and learning from each other about what the community needs and wants are, and what the capacity of museums is to fulfil those wants, needs and desires. So yeah, going back to the RSC, Michael [Boyd], the then-director, said that at one point he sensed a change in the theatre, and that the audience were becoming part of the ensemble, which I thought was a lovely phrase. Ensemble is maybe a very particular word for the theatre, but he also said it has a useful ambiguity — it’s to do with having a structure which, whilst being more collaborative, more open, and more democratic, nevertheless has the rigour of producing great work, and the ability to take decisions.

Something else that I saw you’d said before is something about rather than just being consumers of culture, now, everyone is a co-producer. How the public should be shapers of the cultural ecology. I was wondering if there are any successful examples of modes of co-production that have stuck with you? Or if institutions are truly taking this on board?

In a sort of theoretical sense it’s always co-production. Going back to Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author, the idea that the reader, viewer or listener is always bringing something to it. So you and I sitting in adjacent seats at the theatre will not be having the same experience. I think galleries have opened themselves up more to people commenting on work; being more interested in what people think about the work; exploring programming; looking at what issues the public want to see represented and addressing that; working in more community settings. There’s a really good paper by Charles Leadbeater, that I wish I’d written, called The Art of With, which is very good on this subject.

In terms of alternative ways of working, I wanted to ask you about the rural and the urban. All over at the moment I’m seeing stuff about ‘Is the rural the new urban?’ I guess this comes from an ecological, environmental concern, but I also feel like it’s linked to this gentrification problem where it’s becoming increasingly untenable to live in the city, and maybe rather than living on the fringes, people are saying ‘why not just abandon the urban?’ I’m interested in what you think the rural and the urban can learn from each other.

I think the urban has done a good job of learning from the rural about such things as growing food; farmers markets; making your own bread; self-sufficiency; having a lighter environmental impact. The rural, mainly because of issues of sparseness of population and problems with transport, finds it very difficult to have some of the virtues of urban spaces in cultural terms — they don’t have that density of cultural spaces. The cultural has always tended to aggregate in cities, and I feel that with technology and the diminution of travel times and all these kinds of things we should be getting better at integrating the two. In a certain sense we are — there’s NT live, for example, there are some shifts going on. But it’s nothing major. I’d like to see some rural pop-ups of things going on in urban centres. There’s a bit of touring but it’s really old fashioned. Why can’t we have Jack White playing in the village hall?!

In terms of what the urban can learn from the rural, I think authenticity is a big thing. It could really learn about social structures, too. I think in places that are still rural you do get this wonderful mix of old and young and rich and poor (of course there are other issues of hierarchy, too), whereas in cities you tend to get much more of people choosing their own peer group and only mixing with people of the same age, same class, same background, etc. Paradoxically, whereas you’d think in the city there’s so much diversity and variety, people tend to have fewer relationships with a range of ages and income groups. I’d like to see that fluidity.

I also just want to talk a little about the ecology of culture, and this idea of thinking about culture as an ecology — as a system — using ecological and environmental language, because I think it brings some useful concepts to the discussion. Things like inter-generational equity, handing on a stronger culture than we inherited, and so on. The idea of equality of species, too, because we tend to concentrate on the very large institutions and talk about the big things, when a child having a piano lesson is as important in ecological terms as the Royal Opera House. They all have to exist; they’re all in the same cultural space, and the one will not exist for very long without the other. I wrote about this for the Arts and Humanities Research Council and that pamphlet is free online. I came up with some models about how cultural ecology works and what elements you need to have in order for culture to function and thrive. So I’d like to point people in the direction of that!

This interview was conducted by Chloe Carroll, a writer and curator based in London. She is currently on the Curating Contemporary Art MA at the Royal College of Art, and is undertaking a research project with the Associates centring around participatory arts practice and urban regeneration.